Class VIII: Church Leadership


Hebrews 13:17 is a hard word for Christians today. “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” it says, “for they keep watch over your souls, as men who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Obey. Submit. Those are strong words, particularly in our egalitarian, individualistic culture.

Yet the Bible’s call to obey and submit to our leaders in the church is to our advantage, the verse also says. Did you catch that? Through submission we model the godly humility that should characterize us as a church, and through submission we maintain our Christian unity in the midst of disagreement. Thus we demonstrate that our shared faith in Christ is more important than any differences of opinion over matters that aren’t central to the gospel.

Ultimately, our trust in church leaders involves more than trusting men. It’s finally a confidence in Christ, who gives leaders to his church and works through them for blessing. That said, we’re not to become unthinking “yes men,” either. The New Testament actually holds the congregation as a wholenot just the leaders—accountable for unbiblical teaching in the church. Trusting our leaders does not mean that we accept their every opinion without question.

As with so many things, we must maintain a careful balance between fulfilling our responsibilities as church members and obeying our leaders. In this class, we’ll think about how we can maintain that balance—how we can encourage the leaders of our church, and what we should do when we disagree with them.

I. Make their Work a Joy, not a Burden

One of the best things we can do to promote unity in the church is to help make our leaders’ work a joy and a delight. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that both we and they are sinners. Even so, our calling, says the author of Hebrews, is to “obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden.”

There is a tight connection between a congregation’s attitude and their leaders’ ability to lead them well. Put simply, our leaders will lead us better if we behave in a way that makes us easy to lead. So many unhappy church situations could be resolved if congregations saw their leaders as partners in the church’s great calling, rather than as adversaries to be overcome.

Remember that you are the ones your leaders are watching over. “They are keeping watch over your souls,” says Hebrews. God values our souls highly, and therefore he appoints leaders to keep watch over us and to protect us. Thus it is important to make the work of our leaders a joy, not a burden.

How do we do that? Let’s think through a few ideas.

1. Believe in Jesus Christ, and Walk in Obedience

First and foremost, we can encourage our leaders by believing the gospel and by walking in obedience to God’s Word. Think of John’s statement in 3 John 4: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”

Church leaders take great joy in seeing God work in their people’s lives—

  • watching as God conforms them more closely to the image of Christ;
  • seeing them use their gifts for the edification of the body;
  • knowing that they are loving one another and persevering in the faith through the hard times of life.

Of course, no one can be encouraged in that way if we keep our delight and growth in Christ to ourselves. So don’t be afraid to let your leaders know how God is working in your life. Tell them how the Holy Spirit is convicting you and maturing you; tell them about areas of your life in which you need prayer. To see the work of God in a church member’s life is a wonderfully encouraging thing for a church leader.

2. Cultivate and Preserve Unity in the Body.

Paul said in Philippians 2:1-2:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

Paul wanted the Christians in Philippi to be like-minded, one in spirit and purpose. That’s not something that just happens in a church. It requires work. It requires members to deliberately aim at being “shock absorbers”—people who are able to bring calm and clarity to touchy situations. As James wrote, “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). That kind of a congregation is a great encouragement to its leaders.

So how can we be “shock absorbers” in the church? Here are a few suggestions:

  • First, act toward others in love. Remember what Peter writes: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
  • Second, remember that while our disagreements are temporary, the people with whom we disagree are eternal. We must never become so jealous of the rightness of our views that we hurt and damage the people with whom we disagree.
  • Third, encourage others to trust our leaders. Remind them that while no leaders are perfect, we should err in the direction of trust, not cynicism.

3. Pray for Your Leaders.

In 2 Corinthians 1:10-11, Paul writes,

On him [Christ] we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

This passage gives us two reasons for why we should pray for our church leaders.

  • First, they have been given a task that is formidable and beyond human strength—to shepherd a congregation of sinful people. Therefore we should pray that God will grant them gracious favor.
  • Second, we should pray for church leaders so that we may rejoice and thank God when our prayers are answered.

4. Express Your Love for Your Leaders.

It is good for us to remind our leaders constantly of our love for them. In 2 Corinthians 7:5-7, Paul describes his experience of this in moving terms.

For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.

What an amazing turnaround Paul describes here—from “this body of ours had no rest” to “my joy was greater than ever!” Consider this: your encouragement might be how God chooses to comfort a leader who is struggling.

5. Seek Your Leaders’ Counsel, and Graciously Accept Their Reproof

We should take the advice of our church leaders very seriously. After all, part of their calling as shepherds is to identify and address problems in our lives before they become damaging.

There are two things we must remember here:

  • First, if we want our leaders to give us specific and well-conceived advice, they’ll have to know what is going on in our lives. It’s a good habit to make sure that one or even several church leaders are aware of your present joys, struggles, and difficulties.
  • Second, treat godly rebuke as precious and worthy of careful consideration. As we read in Proverbs 9:8, “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.”

Pray that God would mature you in Christ so that you would react positively to reproof, rather than with defensiveness or denial.

6. Believe the Best About Your Leaders’ Character and Decisions

Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13—

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.

Wayne Mack and David Swavely make the point well in their book, Life In the Father’s House:

Though we are always prone to give ourselves ‘the benefit of the doubt,’ our sinful flesh has a strong tendency to be suspicious, skeptical, and even cynical toward others. This is especially true of church leaders. Many members make a regular habit of enjoying ‘roast preacher’ at their Sunday meal, and labels like ‘power trip’ are often carelessly tossed around when difficult decisions are made by leadership. But biblical love, according to 1 Corinthians 13:7, ‘believes all things, hopes all things.’ A loving member will assume the best about his leaders and trust them until some clear words or actions cause him legitimate concern about their wisdom or motives.

As fallen creatures, we are naturally suspicious of authority, and often we are far too ready to think or even say, “Aha! You did this! And for this reason!”

When we are tempted to be cynical about our leaders’ motives and decisions, we must discipline ourselves to trust them in the absence of clear reasons to the contrary. And we must discipline ourselves not to assume bad motives unless there is some objective basis for doing so.

The fact is, our leaders must make many decisions concerning which we, as members, will have incomplete knowledge. We’ll seldom be able to look at all the facts that they will have looked at in making their decision. Therefore, it’s potentially foolish in those situations to assume that we know better. More than that, it’s downright judgmental and arrogant to assume the leaders had sinful motives for their decision. Again, we’re seldom able to look at all the fact that they had to look at in making the decision. Only God knows the heart of a man; we may evaluate a man’s actions, but we should never presume that we understand his motives.

Those are six ways in which we as a congregation can obey the Bible’s command to respect those who serve us as leaders, and to make their work a joy and not a burden:

(1) Walk in obedience to Christ.
(2) Cultivate and preserve unity.
(3) Pray for church leaders.
(4) Express your love for them.
(5) Seek their counsel and accept their reproof. And
(6) Trust their character and decisions.

III. What should we do when we disagree?

Of course there will be times when we disagree with our leaders and when we should tell them so. Maybe it’s an isolated decision; maybe it’s a cluster of decisions that are setting a new direction for the church. Yet how we respond to such decisions, and how we may express our disagreement, can either promote unity or fostering dissent.

Below is a diagram that will help us to think about how we should respond in various situations. Every question that faces us has a certain degree of clarity and a certain degree of seriousness. How clear and how serious a certain matter is will determine how we should respond to leaders with whom we disagree.

Clear But Not Serious

In the upper left section are those matters that are clear to almost everyone, but not particularly serious. For example, there may be a question over whether we should paint our church building a bright shade of purple. On that question, like others in this category, there will usually be little disagreement because it’s clear; but when there is disagreement, it should never be rancorous.

Neither Serious Nor Clear

In the lower left section are matters that are neither serious nor clear—matters which aren’t particularly important, but concerning which there will probably be several different opinions. Which brand of photocopier should we purchase? How many songs should we sing in the morning service?

While there may be times to have spirited discussions on these issues, a church will do well to submit without hesitation to the decisions of its leaders, and leaders should be happy to submit to one another according to their areas of responsibility (so the preaching pastor might happily submit to an administrator concerning which copier to purchase). If you have an opinion about an issue like this, speak up—but never in a way that is strident, disruptive, or that risks undermining the individual who is taking the lead on the relevant issue.

Now, these two “not serious” quadrants on the left are comparatively easy to think about compared to the two quadrants on the right, which we’ll address in a moment. But consider how many controversies occur in churches over matters that aren’t serious. People often object to the idea of submitting to our leaders by point to issues that would fall into the “serious quadrants.” But it’s worth asking ourselves, “Am I even willing to submit in these first two quadrants, or am I that convinced of my own opinions?” Think about what great strides toward unity a church would take simply by attending carefully to these first two boxes!

Serious But Not Clear

Now, admittedly, things get more challenging when we get to the “serious, but not clear” quadrant in the lower right. What do we do here? This might include questions like, “Should we recognize Joe as an elder?” or “Should we purchase this large piece of property that will stretch our budget?”

On these kinds of questions especially, a congregation should listen carefully to their elders and give them the benefit of the doubt. These are the issues that require the most thought, the most investigation, and the most detailed judgment. And God has given us leaders to do that kind of detailed thinking and recommend a course of action to us.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all their recommendations will be easy for us to accept. So how do we disagree in a godly way about things when the answer is far from clear, but the implications for us as a church are serious? Here are a few suggestions:

  • First, we can help the elders by bringing them relevant information. The elders will not always be aware of every need in the church, nor will they always have all the information necessary for making a particular decision. You can play a helpful role by bringing information to the elders that they might not have.
  • Second, if you disagree with a decision that the elders have made, sit down and talk with them. Try to understand their reasoning. Of course that means that elders must not be far removed or aloof from the congregation. They see their spiritual care for the congregation as their highest duty in the church. So give yourself a full opportunity to be persuaded, and approach the matter with a teachable spirit.

If you still disagree with the elders even after talking with them, that’s okay. Every Christian is not going to agree on everything all the time. You can trust the elders and disagree with them about a certain question all at the same time. This is where the rubber hits the road with regard to obeying Hebrews 13:17. It’s one thing to obey leaders when you think they have a great idea. It’s another thing to submit when you disagree with their decision. In those times, we submit because we are acting in faith, trusting Christ to rule over us through the leaders he has placed over us.

In fact, this is what the elders themselves must do when they disagree with each other. They submit to the majority of the other elders. At some point or another, every elder will be in the minority on an issue. When that happens, that elder is called to submit to the majority, trusting that God is working through the elders as a whole. When the matter is decided, the minority should not continue to lobby support or hold a grudge. In that way, our elders try to model for all of us how to graciously submit when things don’t go our way.

  • Third, be careful how you discuss issues with others. Don’t go behind the elders’ backs, lobbying support in the congregation and trying to overturn their decision. Don’t deride the elders’ decision in your conversation with others, and so risk undermining their trust in the elders. If you speak about your view at a members’ meeting, do so with grace, kindness, and humility. How many times have we heard about members’ meetings boiling over into shouting matches? That’s something we desperately want to avoid.

Finally, when others begin to deride the leadership in conversations with you, explain to them that they should talk directly to the elders if they have a concern. Tell them kindly but firmly that deriding the leadership to other members is sinful and divisive.

Clear and Serious

The last category includes issues that are clear and also serious. This is where the congregation becomes the final emergency brake against poor decisions by the elders.

It is on issues like these—issues of discipline and doctrine—where the apostles appeal to the church as a whole. Would the church at Corinth continue to fellowship with a man in serious and unrepentant sin? Would the churches of Galatia add to the requirements of the gospel? Here the congregation must act.

But how would this kind of “emergency brake” action take place? Most likely, it would mean that the congregation would vote down the elders’ motion and refuse their recommendation. In some extreme situations, they might also call for the resignation of the elders. Throughout this whole process, a church must keep several things in mind:

  • First, there should never be any secret campaigning or canvassing in the church. If a member thinks the elders are crossing a line, he should be clear with them about his opinion. Even in the worst situations, opposition to the elders should not be first sprung on them at a public meeting. If you plan to vote or speak out against the elder or elders, you should most likely explain this to them privately beforehand.
  • Second, in a situation like this, the members should seek the counsel of godly leaders from other churches, preferably those who know this church and its elders well. Other leaders can provide wisdom and perhaps even prevail upon the elders to repent of their error and reverse course.
  • Third, we must take great care to protect the name of Christ in the midst of what may well be a heartbreaking disagreement. Sometimes we’ll read stories in the papers about church members who have told outside media about a disagreement in their church, presumably trying to rally support and place pressure on their opponents. How appalling! How worldly! Are they not bringing shame on the name of Christ in order to get their way? The apostle Paul lambasted the church at Corinth for taking disagreements between church members to civil court (1 Cor. 6). Imagine how he would have reacted to the trumpeting of the church’s disagreement to the world at large!

Even more importantly, think about how God views such tactics. Amidst any disagreement, the reputation of Christ must be paramount in our minds. We must take no action and speak no word, regardless of the circumstances, that would ever defame Christ’s name in the eyes of the world around us.

All of us should pray that our church never has to experience a situation like this. But should that day come, let us take hope in the amazing way that God has preserved us through the years, and let us rejoice that his purposes will triumph regardless of our behavior.

IV. Conclusion

In the nineteenth century, an elderly pastor, Edward Griffin, spoke to his church one final time before he retired. We would do well to heed his words in regard to all those whom God has given us as leaders:

For your own sake, and your children’s sake, cherish and revere him whom you have chosen to be your pastor. Already he loves you; and he will soon love you as ‘bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.’ It will be equally your duty and your interest to make his labors as pleasant to him as possible. Do not demand too much. Do not require visits too frequent. Should he spend, in this way, half of the time which some demand, he must wholly neglect his studies, if not sink early under the burden. Do not report to him all the unkind things which may be said against him; nor frequently, in his presence, allude to opposition, if opposition should arise. Though he is a minister of Christ, consider that he has the feelings of a man.

May we too glorify Christ by so caring for our leaders.

These ideas based on Wayne Mack and David Swavely, Life in the Father’s House: A Member’s Guide to the Local Church.

Edward Griffin, “A Tearful Farewell from a Faithful Pastor,” 1809

Jamie Dunlop

Jamie Dunlop is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC.

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