Church Members Must Watch Their Elders’ Life & Doctrine
Church members are called to honor, love, and respect their elders (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13; 1 Timothy 5:1). The Scriptures even call members to obey and submit to elders’ teaching and leadership (Hebrews 13:17).
In this post, I want to consider a church member’s responsibility to hold elders accountable. The first area concerns what they teach, and the second area involves how they live (and lead). Paul’s exhortation to Timothy comes to mind: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Finally, I’ll conclude by remembering the precious commodity of trust in a healthy congregation.
WATCH THEIR LIFE
When considering elders’ qualifications, we notice how surprisingly ordinary they are. (1 Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; 1 Peter 5:1–4). In fact, apart from the stipulation that elders are “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), they’re largely made up of what’s expected of all mature Christians.
Simply put, an elder’s life should be characterized by maturity. Being “above reproach” (v.2) communicates not the need for perfection, but rather a mature progress in godliness that’s free from ongoing sins that would undermine his ministry.
But what do we mean by “watch”? It would be unhealthy if church members functioned as investigators, deputized to walk behind their elders and look for potential reasons to remove them. This is not the type of watching the Bible commands. Instead, the context for watching is built into the church so that members learn and are instructed by their elders’ manner of life.
Consider the author of Hebrews: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)
There are many other examples where the leader’s life is to serve as an example for the rest of the church (1 Peter 5:3 especially; but also: 1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7,9). This is why church members ought to spend time with their shepherds so they can watch, learn, and emulate.
I’ve written before about what to do if an elder isn’t meeting biblical qualifications. But for now, it’s important to have this category in place and its corresponding biblical emphasis. Keep an eye on your elders’ lives. It’s a tool for your own growth.
WATCH THEIR DOCTRINE
Members must also watch the elders’ doctrine, their teaching. At first, this might seem overwhelming, How can I be in a position to evaluate an elder’s teaching?
This doesn’t mean we have to know as much about the Bible and theology as our elders. Rather, we must evaluate their faithfulness to teach the truth that binds you together as a church. Historically, this category of accountability means members ought to ensure pastors teach according to a church’s mutually agreed upon statement of faith. In most churches, whenever someone joins, they’re asked to read, consider, and ultimately agree with this document. It’s a confessional document that articulates key truths we put forward as binding us together as a church.
Church members should regularly evaluate their church’s teaching ministry to ensure it’s maintaining the biblical standards.
For example, the noble Bereans examined the Scriptures to ensure the things spoken by Paul were accurate: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
The Philippian church was commended along with their elders and deacons to strive together to guard and defend the gospel: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” (Philippians 1:27)
Conversely, Paul admonished the Galatian congregation for failing to defend the gospel. He reminds them of their need to examine and evaluate the content of the teaching, especially as it pertains to the gospel. Notice the strong language Paul used:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6–9)
These are just a few examples that show how the apostles reminded congregations to ensure they were doing their part to ensure the purity of doctrine and the preservation of the gospel in the church.
Much like evaluating elders’ lives, watching doctrine isn’t so much the work of a private investigator but of an invested and engaged member who loves the truth of Scripture and labors for it to be faithfully heralded.
AGENDA OF CHRIST
In a healthy church, the relationship between elders and church members will be characterized by trust. Both members and elders extend trust to one another knowing full well they are fallen sinners who need grace. Members should love God and his Word so much that they love, respect, and honor those who faithfully teach it to them (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:7). In this healthy relationship, there’s a willingness to obey and submit to the elders’ teaching and leadership (Hebrews 13:17).
A healthy church will also realize there’s another leader above local church elders: the Lord Jesus Christ (Col. 1:18). Therefore, members along with elders, labor under his gaze, longing for his approval. We all do our part to pay attention to what’s being taught and how we’re all living. This loving intimacy can only be achieved when we set aside ourselves, and put forward the agenda of Christ and his church.
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on Erik’s TGC blog.