Disagreements and Differences Among Elders
Matt Schmucker answers more practical questions about elder life, particularly about disputes and differences with other elders, and yellow flags about finding elders.
ON DISPUTES WITH OTHER ELDERS
9M: What do you do when you struggle to get along with a fellow elder?
MS: First you have to distinguish whether these struggles are doctrinal or personal. Assuming the question is related to personal, I would pursue God in prayer to ward off Satan in the relationship. Insofar as Satan loves to divide, he often does it between two leaders. And he’ll use whatever he can, even simple issues of personality.
Next, pursue the brother to build the relationship. Often, irritation arises out of ignorance. Work to know the brother, and remember that you often don’t have all the facts.
Finally, be humble. Even if, in the end, you don’t understand why a person is the way he is, God has tolerated far more from you. Also, you can trust that God has given that man to the body, with his particular combination of strengths and weaknesses, to build up the body in ways that you cannot. Study the body passages in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and elsewhere, and know that God intends good through such differences, even though, in our fallen state, those differences may involve a lack of camaraderie.
9M: Have you ever struggled to get along with another elder?
9M: Umm, anything else on that?
MS: Over the years, I’ve had to practice the very things I listed above. Far more is at stake than my own personal likes, dislikes, and unsanctified turf-wars. The health of the church is at stake, which means that the glory of God itself is at stake (from a human responsibility standpoint).
Often, the personal struggle with another elder can arise as a result of an elder rejecting your ideas at the table. So it’s been important for me to separate my ideas from my identity (which is justified in Christ!). Thus a rejection of my ideas is not a rejection of me. Along these lines, developing personal relationships outside of the elders meetings makes the work of eldering easier to do.
9M: With thirteen elders at your church, how do you find time to care for these particular relationships?
MS: It’s difficult to do in a growing church and a busy city. Yet at the beginning of every meeting we shepherd each other before we shepherd the church. We do this by sharing concerns, confessing, praising, and then praying for one another. Basically, we let one another know what’s going on in our lives. We can take up to an hour of the elder’s meeting to do this. Beyond this, we try to meet together individually for lunches and dinners from time to time.
ON DIFFERENCES WITH OTHER ELDERS
9M: Let’s move to differences of principles. How do you as an elder know when to back off from pressing your conviction and when to hold your ground?
MS: The clearer it is in Scripture, the firmer you hold your ground. On the one hand, I’m not going to yield on the deity of Christ, even if the other twelve elders do. On the other hand, I personally have strong convictions about birth control that are not obvious and clear in Scripture; and these convictions are not shared by all of my fellow elders. On this issue, therefore, I tread more lightly. A situation involving the question of birth control actually came up a while back. I vigorously argued my position biblically and practically. Yet then I had to submit—joyfully!—to the other elders who may have been sympathetic to my position but finally voted otherwise.
Recently, I returned to the elders from a sabbatical and was asked what I learned during the break. I realized that the church continued to prosper without my active involvement and opinions as an elder. This caused in me a healthy realization that I should hold my opinions more lightly.
UNITY AND MATURITY
9M: Given the importance of unity and maturity among the elders, what are some traits or characteristics of potential elders that ought to raise yellow flags?
MS: I think there are a bunch of obvious ones: volatility, instability, bad reputation in the community, unruly children, and so on.
So let me point to several less obvious yellow flags. One less obvious one would be that of a contrarian spirit. You know the sort of guy I mean. If you say “black,” he’ll say “dark grey.” No matter what you say, that’s what you get. The spirit that is perpetually looking for the “on the other hand” or waiting for “the other shoe to drop” is not helpful in building up the church. In Acts 6, for instance, Paul instructs the church to appoint deacons not only for their proficiencies, but because these men will bring unity between the Greek-speaking and the Hebrew-speaking widows. How much more should an elder be someone who builds unity and works to resolve rather than to merely offer up an opposing opinion?!
Another yellow flag that is commonly overlooked is the question of a man’s spiritual fruit in the lives of those around him. To put it positively, this is what drew our attention in 1998, for instance, to a church member named Andy Johnson. He had been quietly discipling other single men on a consistent basis, resulting in real spiritual progress in their lives. To put it negatively, then, no spiritual fruit is a yellow flag, even if the world would recognize the man as being “successful.”
Finally, an unsupportive wife is a yellow flag. Eldering done right is a demanding task. It takes time to pray. It takes time to prepare to teach. It takes time to disciple. It takes time to give hospitality. All of these impact the home, and places certain demands on a wife. How does she feel about doing hospitality? How does she feel about losing her husband every other Thursday night to an elders meeting? Does she welcome the unexpected visitor at the door who’s in need?
9M: What positive qualities would you want to emphasize in looking for elders?
MS: Too often we look toward worldly success to measure a man. We must teach our churches to look for men of the Word—to measure men based on their knowledge of, their submission to, and their ability to proclaim God’s Word. I like what Mark Dever says: an elder’s “ability to teach” means that when wolves come near the flock, the sheep know that they can trust this shepherd to expose the wolf and, in turn, to protect them. That’s the elder’s great calling.