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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Should Elders Ever Walk Away?



A pastor friend recently emailed me with the following question:

In a pastoral counseling or shepherding situation, when do you say, “I have nothing else to give,” and move on?

My elders are working very hard on a seemingly endless list of hard cases. Sometimes I wonder if a few of them do too much. It is very likely I am just less of a pastor than some of my elders, but I fear that they throw themselves into hard cases and never get out. They will in deep on a case and then get texts and emails and calls throughout the day. And when cases drag on they never feel like they can leave.

Where does “shake the dust off your feet” come into play? What does it mean for elders to be diligent but not try to be the Holy Spirit? We don’t want to give up on people, but it is hard to help people who don’t want to change. Our elders are feeling like fire fighters—putting out people fires all the time—and I’m afraid they’re getting burned out!

Good question. So I emailed a few brothers to see what they thought. Here are a couple of replies:

Jeramie Rinne (South Shore Baptist, Hingham, MA)

Elders minister in order to "present everyone mature in Christ" (Colossians 1:28).  But could there be rare occasions when an elder needs to back off from shepherding a member for the sake of that member's maturity?  What if a member develops a heavy dependence on an elder, flooding him with emails, voicemails and texts and turning to him with every latest development in his struggles? Though well-intentioned, an elder's continued attentive care can subtly encourage a member to lean on the elder and dwell on the struggles rather learn to stand firm in Jesus and focus on his glory. 

Maturity in Christ also includes participating in the mutual care of Christ's body.  A deeply involved elder might inadvertently keep the needy member from experiencing the love and gifts of the broader congregation.  An elder might even model a kind of maturity by pulling back in order to protect himself and his family from ministry burnout.

Just as parents must sometime say a painful "no" for the sake of shaping a child's character, so elders must wisely discern when a "no" might be just what a member needs to hear.

Mike McKinley (Guilford Baptist, Sterling, VA):

I think the right impulse is to be patient with someone. Sanctification can take a long time and progress can be difficult to discern.

But if someone is stubbornly unrepentant, won't take or implement any of my counsel, or seems to be uninterested in growing and changing, then I will move on to sheep that really want my help. I will continue to call that person to repentance and change, but I won't invest a lot of my (limited) time in them anymore.

I also think that it's wise to put limits on how much time you spend on any one person or situation. While there are certainly exceptional cases, I find it helpful to let people know at the outset that my goal is to wean them off regular meetings with me.

So, for example, if a couple comes to me with an acute marriage situation I will meet with them frequently for a month, then maybe once every two weeks for the next couple of months, and then (hopefully) they won't need to meet at all.

I think Jeramie and Mike are right on. Proverbs talks about not responding to a fool in his folly (Prov. 26:4), and Jesus talks about not throwing your pearls to pigs (Matt. 7:6). I certainly don’t think we should ever use the word “fool” casually, yet nor do I think we should be unwilling to ever use it. One of the purposes of Proverbs, as I understand it, is to help us know how to recognize a fool when we see one.

In my own experience, there have been times when, in the course of a counseling relationship, it has become increasingly clear to me that I was interacting with—I hate to say it—a fool.

Yes, yes, I can be foolish, too! In all seriousness, ask my wife. But that’s just the point: God has given her to me, in part, to help me learn how to recognize my folly, so that I can repent and be wise. I pray that I would have ears to hear.

A fool, according to Proverbs, is unwilling to recognize his or her folly. Or, even if he or she verbally acknowledges it, he/she is unwilling to change: “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool” (Prov. 17:10).

It would be worthwhile to read through Proverbs and come up with “a pastor’s guide for how to spot a fool.” But let me sum up some of what I’ve seen in my own words:

  • Either: The person loves to talk about all their grievances or hurts and will talk to anyone and everyone about it. Or: the person will only talk to one specific person because no one else “can be trusted.” (At the same time, this latter person quickly finds reasons not to trust the latest advisor, and quickly adds people to the black list.)
  • The person never takes the counsel given. He/she might outwardly affirm the counsel when we’re together. But nothing changes back in real life: “You say you want to stop getting drunk, so why do you keep going into the bar?”
  • The pattern of bad decision-making not only continues, it sometimes gets worse.
  • The person is selective about what information to share, because, ultimately, he or she is unwilling to come fully into the light or risk losing the ability to do exactly what he/she wants to do.
  • The person is unwilling to inconvenience him or herself in anyway, or to make any changes to his or her lifestyle.
  • The person shows a pattern of continually prioritizing something besides repentance (e.g. the addiction, not looking bad in front of others, etc.).

What’s more, the characteristics described here occur over a prolonged period.

Sometimes fools are outwardly successful, and their worldly success keeps them from seeing their folly. But often, they are outwardly miserable. They complain and lament and even weep with grandiloquence. They talk about “how awful” they are, “how unhappy” the world is, “how unfair” circumstances seem. And often they are right. There are awful and unhappy. And life has been unfair to them.

Still, quietly hiding beneath the surface is a granite-hard bedrock layer of pride. At the end of the day, they refuse to trust. To believe. To surrender control. They’ve made their lives an absolute mess, but they still insist on being king. It’s almost unbelievable to behold.

And somewhere along the way, maybe after two counseling sessions, maybe after twenty, you figure this out. They are not going to listen. You are banging your head against the wall. And you do better to stop spending time with them. You do better for the sake of those who are teachable and would be better served by your time (there are only so many hours in a day). And you do better to move on, frankly, for the sake of the fool. Your present system of letting them air their grievances, receive counsel, and then do nothing, very well could be strengthening their ability to ignore wisdom.

Am I saying that pastors/elders should not be long suffering with fools? No, I am not saying that. I am saying that pastors/elders (and Christians) need to realize that this is one of their options. It’s one possible tool. Once again, listen to Proverbs 26:

  • Verse 4: Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. 
  • Verse 5: Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Sometimes you need to be long-suffering; sometimes you need to walk away.

Ultimately, humility recognizes that people are not ours to fix, which in turn means that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. There is nothing we can do to guarantee a certain outcome. Instead, we need the wisdom to know when to stay, when to move on. 


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Many of these cases today are addressing one of the most challenging of all issues: divorce.

In a previous small conservative church, the elders were embroiled with five simultaneous cases of adultery and divorce. If the average divorce impacts an average of 28 family and friends, most of whom need counseling and support form the pastor and elders, if you do the math, there's not much time left for pro-active ministry.

Well, according to Jonathan the elders are only responsible for formal church members. So, if they stick to the church directory, this should minimize these kind of predicaments. Also, they will know whom they can discipline if and when the divorces occur.

This is how the world knows who represents Jesus.

Meanwhile, the unrepentant non-members are running amuck within the assembly, because no one knows how , or has the authority, to discipline them.


You have to stop thinking of Christians in terms of members/non-members. All Christians are "members" of the Body of Christ (although not all Christians are formal members of a particular local church).

If they say they're believers and unrepentant, discipline would ensue. There is no reason no one would know how to discipline them as the way to do so is in the Scriptures. Also, the leadership has the authority.

You're posing a pseudo-problem.

Sorry, I should've typed tat I was being sarcastic.


No problem. Since that is a common objection, I missed the sarcasm......but you did a good impression of John Carpenter, et al....

Yes, feels like a long way from the riots, no?But I've also been revisiting my old London hatuns, and reading The Guardian, which warns that Cameron's new cuts are likely to impoverish the UK's poorest so they are even poorer. One can never forget that while in England, there are very much Haves and Have-nots, and that the lives of the Have-nots are nowhere near as pretty .

I agree. I think they'd wonder why we don;t sell all our stuff grow colser to each other and teach people that they are the church and that worship should be a way of life not a couple hours of our week.Good post.

But what if you are an elder in a church that does not have a formal church membership? Where do you draw the line in that situation?

Do you mean where do you draw the line with regard to counseling someone who isn't implementing what they are being counseled to do? You draw it the same place you do with anyone else?

To only offer full pastoral attention to formal church members is failing to fulfill the ministry that Christ has called his undershepherds to. It's essentially saying, "If you become a formal member of my church, then I will invest my heart and soul into your spiritual well-being. Otherwise, you're a second class citizen around here." That's a form of spiritual abuse. Do not hold at arms length whom Christ has accepted.

The 2nd sentence in the first paragraph should not have ended with a question mark as it is a statement. Sorry.

member OAC:1. Your friend did not say to have faith you must see Jesus.John 20:29 Jesus said to him, Have you beeveild because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have beeveild. 2. The Bible says to be an apostle you must have seen Jesus and been appointed by Him. Of course not everyone who saw Jesus became an apostle because He didn't appoint them as one. We know that Jesus appointed the 12 as well as Matthias and Paul. Where is the proof that any apostle today was chosen by Jesus?1 Corinthians 9:1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.3. On Rom 10:14-15, if you read the Bible out loud you would be hearing the word of God, would you not? But even if you don't read out loud you are still in a sence hearing the word of God because your mind comprehends what is being read. Those verses mean preaching to those who have not even heard about Jesus. Which is right but after you have heard and accepted the Gospel by believing,repenting,confessing and baptism by immersion you need to learn and the Bible teaches you how to live a Godly life.2 Timothy 3:15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.4. I agree that you have to go preach the Gospel but you don't need an apostle to do that. Any believer can study the Bible and teach someone else. How did Jesus stand up against satan when tempted? He said each time It is written .2 Timothy 2:15(King James Version)Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.Psalm 138:2 I bow down toward Your holy temple and give thanks to Your name for Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness, for You have exaltedabove all things Your name and Your word.Question: What is the word of God?Question: How are apostles chosen in the OAC? or Where in the Bible does it state the process of selecting and apostle?

Intersted Reader:Surley you are not imlying that your uresndtanding of the bible is superior to everyone elses on this forum?If thats the case then you are know better off than what you supposedly make the Apostles of the OAC out to be.We respect other peoples beliefs and other churches beliefs (including you). The last time I checked the title of this blog it said The History Behind The Old Apostolic Church. We always welcome questions and are alwys willing to answer them but are answers will always be in a spiritual context.Unless somebody can provide me with a natural meaning as opposed to a spiritual meaning for the following text versus then I will always continue to see the scriptures spiritually.Joh 4:24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.Joh 3:2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.Joh 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.Joh 3:4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?Joh 3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.Joh 3:6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.Joh 3:7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.1Co 2:10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.1Co 2:11 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.1Co 2:12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.1Co 2:13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.1Co 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.1Co 2:15 But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.1Co 2:16 For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.Regards,Steadfast OAC Member

And sometimes, it's wise to refer people to a professional counselor - not only because we're not always qualified to deal with every issue that arises, but also because there they will be paying for their counseling, and with a person who is not serious about changing, investing something in the process can be a motivator.

I've had the privilege, and it is indeed a privilege, of counseling a few women over the past year. In each situation I've gone in to it guarding against dependency: I am not their Savior, mother, or best friend. But dependency can go both ways: if a minister is investing too much, as in the question in this article, it might be wise to make sure there isn't a "need to be needed" or trying to find personal worth through caring for others. Healthy boundaries are important: and while the people we counsel might not have them, it is imperative that we, the ministers, do.

I am not sure that what you are describing is walking away as much as it is standing still and pointing them away from you and to the Word and obedience. I have found that if I view biblical counseling less as putting out a fire, and more as an investment in discipleship which needs to be paced and laced with learning and applying the Word, I am more able to help them see God as sufficient and sovereign in their suffering.

This article is a good start but you need a followup article that draws it to a resolution.

On which points does an elder say that "I have done all I can. I am not going to meet with them much more. But t'hey will continue on as members in good standing."

On what other points does an elder say "I have done all that I can and this needs to lead to some sort of larger church discipline?"

Too much emphasis on the first position and bad situations are left in a holding state. Too much emphasis on the second position and smaller issues are too quickly made too big of a deal.


Good thoughts Hal. It's a good reminder that shepherding is an art. It takes prudence and prayerfulness to avoid the pair of extremes you highlighted: excessive passivity or aggressiveness.

I have found though that sometimes the Lord brings shepherding situations to a place where you have to back off and leaving things in a "holding state" and that sometimes it's when we have no other solutions that we wait upon him and he sovereignly and mysteriously works!

I'm not arguing for cowardly passivity in shepherding that is cloaked in faith language. Rather, I'm suggesting a level of humility in shepherding, recognizing that ultimately people are out of our hands and the Lord's, even as we exercise our calling to keep watch over souls.

Non members are messy.
Church members who are in Christ are messy too. Church membership by no means assures us that the people who are members will have less complex circumstances to deal with, or , sadly, that they will respond beautifully on cue to a cal to repentance.
If it's not our personal sin that entangles, it's another's sin towards us.
In deeply trouble marriages, it's not always clear who needs church discipline, especially where blatant adultery is not involved.

I think it's rather obvious there are times that elders should remove themselves from toxic situations.

What seems less obvious is recognizing when you are no longer being helpful, and what the steps of "backing off" look like.

Sarah is right, often very well intentioned elders find themselves plunged headlong into a ministry that they feel called by God to pursue, out of love for God, or misplaced compassion, they pursue those people to the harm of their own families and souls. They "need to be needed."

Elders can struggle with feeling personally responsible that they "didn't save" a marriage.
In fear they believe the lie, "What will happen to my sheep if I don't personally intervene?"

It's a very complex question and I'd enjoy reading some follow up articles in regards to how to recognize when you are ministering out of your own need and not the person you seek to help, and what backing off in particular looks like- For instance, what is the larger responsibility of the full board of elders, and the pastors when cases an elder is confronted with seem to consume him?
To say nothing of what the wife of an elder ought to do when she finds her man pulled into something unhealthy.

Rescue of the one who is drowning ought not put the rescuer or his family at risk, but often it does.

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