A Healthy Church Member Is a Humble Follower
The health of a local church may ride exclusively on the membership’s response to the church’s leadership. How the congregation receives or rejects its leaders has a direct effect on the possibilities of faithful ministry and church health. Does a congregation appreciate and accept sound preaching? Will they trust and follow a leader in difficult or unclear situations? Do they rally behind or tear apart the leadership when plans and ideas fail?
In the final analysis, church members are the people who generally make or break a local church. And making or breaking a church has a lot to do with the membership’s attitudes and actions toward its leaders.
So no serious attempt to define a healthy church member can neglect reflecting on the interaction between church members and church leaders. And not surprisingly, the inspired Word of God provides ample instruction regarding the attitudes and actions of church members who wish to contribute to the health of their local congregations by following the leadership of the church.
A HEALTHY CHRUCH MEMBER’S ATTITUDE TOWARD LEADERSHIP
At least three attitudes characterize healthy church members when it comes to following a local church’s leaders.
1. Honors the elders.
Several passages of Scripture instruct church members to honor the elders and leaders of the congregation. For example, 1 Timothy 5:17 tells us, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching." What does such double honor include? The apostle Paul brings attention to two things in the following verses. In verse 18, honoring the elders includes caring for their financial and physical needs. A congregation and a member that honor its leadership provide appropriate and sufficient wages for its leaders, particularly those whose full-time labor is ministry to the body.
In verse 19, the apostle indicates that honoring our leaders includes protecting their reputations. We are not to "admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses." The apostle understands better than anyone how the ministry is open to charges, criticisms, and complaints from outside and inside the church. A healthy church member will help to shelter the shepherd from unwarranted slings and arrows. Rumors and backbitings die at the ears of a healthy church member who refuses to give consideration to unedifying and uncorroborated tales.
A healthy church member honors the elder’s office. He or she esteems it highly, is thankful for it, and respects those who serve the Lord’s people as elders. We honor our pastors because on the day of the Lord they shall be our boast (2 Cor. 1:14).
2. "Opens heart" to the leaders.
The honor and respect a church member gives an elder is not the distant and official honor a soldier gives a commanding officer. Coupled with the honor due a shepherd is an open hearted love. Repeatedly, Paul called the Corinthian church to open their hearts to him as one who cared for them spiritually:
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also (2 Cor. 6:11-13).
There should be a sweet exchange of affection between pastor and congregation. As they live, grow, and labor together, their hearts are to open increasingly wide to each other. A healthy church member does not "withhold" his affection from the pastor; rather, he gives it freely and liberally.
A healthy church member doesn’t want to hear his or her faithful pastor plead like the apostle did with the Corinthians,
Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to love together (2 Cor. 7:2-3).
A healthy member first gives himself to the Lord and then to the minister of the Lord, knowing that this is God’s will (2 Cor. 8:5). Such a member sees how the faithful pastor will spend himself for the body in love. And he would be ashamed to hear the pastor ask, "If I love you more, will you love me less?" (2 Cor. 12:15). Unrequited love is fit for Shakespearean tragedy, not the local church. Our rejoicing in and love for our pastors should "refresh their hearts in the Lord" (Philemon 20).
3. Is teachable.
A healthy church member should also have a teachable spirit. A teachable spirit evidences humility of heart and a desire to grow in Christ. Without it, a people grow stiff-necked and incorrigible.
The leader’s job may be boiled down to one task: teaching. If a member or any significant portion of the membership proves unteachable, the shepherd’s task becomes a burden, even undoable, since it’s opposing him at this most essential point. Writing to Timothy, Paul provides wonderful instruction for pastors which contains within it good instruction for members as well. Speaking of the elder, Paul writes,
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Tim. 2:24-26).
Several things from this passage are useful for church members to observe. First, the pastor’s instruction is meant to be gentle, kind, and for our good. We should not take sinful advantage of that God-ordained disposition. Rather, we should accept that kind instruction as a rebuke and a call to repentance. A healthy church member doesn’t mistake godly kindness for weakness in a pastor, but uses the occasion to examine his or her own heart for areas needing repentance. Second, we should recognize how easy it is to "oppose" the pastor as he instructs us. As a regular part of our spiritual life, we should ask ourselves, "Am I in any way opposing the teaching of the pastor?" Third, we should pray for knowledge of the truth, clear-mindedness, and protection from the devil’s schemes whenever we discover even a kernel of opposition to pastoral instruction. The pastor watches over our soul as a man who must give an account to God; we should then trust and accept his leadership joyfully as a gift from God for our everlasting benefit. Be teachable.
A HEALTHY CHURCH MEMBER’S ACTIONS TOWARD LEADERSHIP
In addition to these basic attitudes or dispositions, there are some specific actions a healthy church member will take in order to effectively follow the leadership of a local church.
1. Patiently participates in the selection of leaders.
Perhaps the most important decision a congregation makes—assuming a congregational polity—is the selection of its leaders. By choosing leaders, a congregation sets the spiritual tone and direction of the church, sometimes for generations. Perhaps this is why the apostles instructed the early church to look for spiritual qualities and maturity in its leaders (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3). Selecting a leader is to be done with patience and prayerful deliberation. "Lay hands on no man hastily" is the apostle’s instruction to Timothy (1 Tim. 5:22a). The first deacons were to be "full of the Spirit and wisdom" (Acts 6:3). Discerning these qualities requires prayer, observation, and patience. And if the Lord’s church is to be healthy, church members must call and ordain leaders who are spiritually minded and mature in Christ.
Healthy church members do not overlook the importance of this essential task. They may invite the prospective leader and his family to lunch or dinner in order to know him better. They will want to hear more about the man’s testimony, about his desire to serve in a leadership capacity, and about his previous ministry in churches. Some churches allow two months between a man’s nomination for leadership and the actual vote in order for members to participate in precisely this way.
2. Obeys and submits to leaders.
Here’s a good reason to prayerfully and patiently participate in the recognition of church leaders: a healthy church member must obey and submit to her or his leaders. "Obey" and "submit" are not only “bad words" at weddings, they’re "bad words" to many church members. Yet the Bible couldn’t be clearer: "Obey your leaders and submit to them" (Heb. 13:17). Our obedience is to make their work "a joy, not a burden." And our obedience redounds to our benefit, since it would "be of no advantage" for us to call men as leaders and then disobey them. A healthy church member orders himself under the leaders of the congregation as a soldier orders himself in the rank and file beneath a military general. We are to joyfully, eagerly, and completely submit to our leaders for our good, their good, and the good of the entire body.
3. Follows the leaders’ example.
One reason the Lord appoints men to leadership in the church is to provide a flesh and blood example of faithful, godly living to the congregation. Our leaders are the "motion picture" of following Jesus. They are called to be an example in everything (1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:3). That’s why the apostle Paul says, "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us" (Phil. 3:17). A healthy church member patterns his or her life after the godly lifestyle of the elders of the church. We are to follow our leaders’ example with the expectation of conformity to Christ.
For many in our day, this very idea of imitation sounds cultish. There are too many personality cults where people parrot all that the celebrity pastor says or does. We’re correct to be concerned with such an unbiblical notion of example setting and mentorship. Yet the Bible’s picture of following the pastor’s example points to genuine godliness in "speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12) by doing what is good (Titus 2:7). Pastors are called to be such models, and healthy church members wisely follow their pattern of holiness.
4. Prays for leaders.
Given all that church leaders must do and contend with, can you think of a more important thing to do than to pray for them? Even the apostle Paul understood his need for the saints’ faithful prayer:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak (Col. 4:2-4; see also Eph. 6:19-20).
We should pray for our leaders’ boldness, clarity, and consistency with the gospel message, and opportunity for them to proclaim Christ. Healthy church members are devoted to prayer on behalf of their leaders. They heed Jesus’ exhortation to pray and not give up (Luke 18:1), and they do that on behalf of their shepherds.
In our local church, a faithful band of members meets every Tuesday night for the purpose of praying for leadership. Weekly they solicit prayer requests and updates on previous requests. When they meet, they lift up all kinds of prayers for the personal, public, and ministry lives of the elders. God has produced great fruit in our body through their prayers.
5. Supports outside ministry and interaction of leaders.
This is perhaps the least obvious of the actions that a healthy church member takes in following leadership. There is a great tendency among church members to be fairly possessive of their pastors—"he’s our pastor." There are positive aspects to this possessiveness. It shows, for example, an open hearted attachment to the shepherds.
However, this possessiveness can become selfishness if the congregation refuses to support a pastor’s involvement in ministry outside the local congregation. The persons most often hurt in such selfishness is the pastor himself, who, without outside stimulation and refreshment from fellow pastors and leaders, tends to dry and shrivel on the vine. A healthy church member contributes to the leaders’ ongoing health and vigor in the ministry by encouraging participation in outside conferences, speaking opportunities, and fellowship with other church leaders.
The Bible provides ample illustration of one congregation’s support of another. A local church’s generosity to other churches is commended in 2 Corinthians 9:13. And such generosity, when it takes the form of "loaning" a shepherd in ministry to others, hopefully expands the regions in which the gospel is proclaimed (2 Cor. 10:15-16). A healthy church member wants to see the gospel advanced and wants to contribute to the health of other congregations if possible. Supporting a leader’s outside ministry is one way to fulfill this desire.
Leadership in the local church is established by God for the blessing of his people. However, for leadership to be effective, it needs to be encouraged and supported by the members of the church. Many faithful men have shipwrecked on the rocky shoals of incorrigible and resistant members. It ought not to be so among God’s people. Rather, healthy members of a local church should strive and encourage others to strive to follow their leaders with wide open hearts, eager obedience, and joyful submission.
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Editor's note: This is an adpated excerpt from Thabiti Anyabwile's book What Is a Healthy Church Member? (Crossway, 2008). Reprinted by permission.