I begin with a true story (though names have been changed)… from the side of the somewhat absurd through the lens of history. But, alas, it's a true and story–and one that has occurred in some variation numerous places:
Hillside Church of Christ had been in decline for years. They knew they needed to turn things around so they hired a new preacher named Eric. Eric and his family arrived with Kingdom dreams and robust enthusiasm for where God could take Hillside in the years to come.
Hillside had two elders: Bill and Phil. They almost never saw eye-to-eye on anything. So, as new ideas were proposed by Eric, the two elders, Bill and Phil nearly always voted in opposite fashion–thus creating constant gridlock. Virtually every vote ended in a 1-1 tie. Eventually, Eric mustered up the courage to ask if he could break the tie so the church could move forward on some things. The response, "No, because you're not an elder."
Eric eventually suggested the church consider adding more elders. You guessed it…Bill was for it, Phil was against it. So, the church remained inflexible and immovable to the point that Hillside's ministry eventually atrophied completely. The church's ministry continued to decline to the point the elders reached agreement on firing Eric because he "wasn't effective." But, as you might expect, the next preacher fared no better. The decline continued until the last one out turned off the lights at Hillside. The building was liquidated, people went away hurt and discouraged, and the community lost what could have been a vibrant outpost of the Kingdom.
In a post-mortem conversation with Phil (one of the two elders at the end), he said he wished things could have turned out differently. When asked if he thought they could have if leadership had made different decisions or altered it's paradigm, he said he knew they could have done some things differently…but couldn't name one specifically. When asked about whether a paradigm shift might have helped, he said, "Absolutely not. At least I can say Hillside always had biblical leadership."
It seems to me the "weightier matter of the law" here is the good of the church, not the preservation of what some believe to be the only biblical form of leadership. The first church in Acts had no elders initially, nor did any of the churches Paul planted at first–as far as we know. Elders were appointed as a blessing from God to the Church–apparently to address the need for ongoing, godly spiritual leadership. What I'm saying here isn't that churches shouldn't have elders…but rather that elders serve Christ and the Church, not vice-versa. Elders are an instrument in God's hand to do His work in the Body. All authority belongs to Christ. We serve He and His Church when we lead.
In the case above, the proverbial tail had come to wag the dog. The elders were no longer serving the Body well. In an ideal world they would have seen this and stepped down themselves or sought change themselves. However, as is sometimes the case, humbling through self-examination and what was best for the Body didn't win the day. In such a circumstance, they should have been dealt with by the congregation–and/or, I would even argue, by the preacher. The preacher is typically the only one who is privy not only to the decision elders make…but how they reach those decisions. Without a minister willing and able to challenge the elders, the church is left with only a partial view of reality. More on that in a future post.
To illustrate the leadership eclipse: Some people believe the most important thing about taking Communion is making sure to do it every week. To them (though they wouldn't say so), one's heart, one's behavior and even the spirit in which they do it is less relevant than making sure Communion is observed on the first day of the week. Hogwash! The weight of the New Testament teaching on Communion is clearly on honoring Christ and secondarily, loving His people. When we taking it unworthily we eat and drink judgment on ourselves. The answer isn't to say Communion is bad and we should cease sharing it because when abused it puts us in the position of eating and drinking judgment on ourselves. The answer is to take Communion in such a way that we honor Christ, love His people, and don't eat and drink judgment on ourselves.
The point here is similar to the point I'm making about elders. Elders are not the problem. It's the Lordship of preserving the form of elders over all else that simply has to change. That is an eclipse of real biblical leadership. Elders who "eld" the way the Chief Shepherd desires are priceless to the Body. However, they aren't so because of the "office." They are so because the Chief Shepherd is shepherding His people through them. Biblical leadership is biblical when it's biblical not simply in form, but in substance. When it's biblical in form and not substance, it isn't biblical.