Besetting Sins of Lay Elders
The biblical qualifications for an elder don’t require an elder to be sinless (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-10). Otherwise, we wouldn’t have elders! Rather, an elder must be marked by the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy and Titus. They must characterize his life as a whole.
But elders do sin, and sometimes an elder can be tempted towards certain sins because of the position he holds. So what might those sins be for lay elders, men who shepherd the church while supporting their families through another full-time vocation? (Some of this will also apply to bi-vocational pastors—men who preach every week while holding down another job.)
DON’T BE A DEMAS
A lay elder typically works in a secular environment. He’s not on church staff, so he will daily interact with many people who don’t hold to a Christian worldview. And of course a lay elder’s non-Christian colleagues will not do much to hold him directly accountable to live consistently as a Christian. Therefore, while working full-time in a secular context provides great opportunities to share the gospel, it’s also an environment that is comfortable and inviting to our sinful flesh.
Battling each day against the world’s temptations makes us weary, and Satan loves nothing better than to see a leader in the church enticed and led away into sin. Take Demas, for example. Demas was a fellow worker of Paul’s listed among the likes of Luke and Mark (Phm. 24), but in the end he deserted Paul because he “loved this world” (2 Tim. 4:10).
We’re not sure what Demas loved about this world that made him leave Paul, but we can all identify with the pressure to conform to the world’s evil desires. Our sinful flesh craves leisurely pursuits, lusts, wealth, power, and acceptance, and so we can be tempted to check our Christianity at the door on Monday morning.
Therefore, it’s essential that a lay elder heed Paul’s words to Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely for the sake of his own salvation (1 Tim. 4:16). He must daily put his hope in God and not in wealth or the things of this world, which are passing away (1 Tim. 6:17). He must look to his Savior Jesus Christ who suffered in his body and arm himself with the same attitude and be done with sin (1 Pet. 4:1).
If you’re a lay elder, are you watching your life closely as you go about your day? In what areas have you, or could you, become too friendly with the world’s enticements? What can you do to protect yourself against them?
Don’t be a Demas by loving the world.
DON’T BE A PHARISEE
But don’t be a Pharisee, either.
One night I met with a younger brother who humbly confessed his sin to me. As we discussed the matter, he shared with me his reservation in confessing because he didn’t want me to think less of him. His statement hit me like a ton of bricks.
I understand that this brother was rightfully shamed by his sin and that he also had a fear-of-man issue going on, but I kept turning the question over in my mind, “Why did he think I would think less of him?” After all, we are both sinners saved by grace. What gives?
As I reflected more on our relationship, I realized that although we were good friends and had good spiritual conversations, I rarely shared with him my own battle against sin and how I was doing in fighting for repentance and faith in the gospel. And what’s worse is that by my silence I was unwittingly teaching him to do the same!
Lay elders are generally not in front of the congregation as frequently as the senior pastor or other full-time elders. Yet, as leaders in the church, our flesh wants to be out in front, also. We want to be well-regarded and noticed, and so we’re tempted to show the church our good deeds without showing our failures and struggles with sin. In short, we’re tempted to be Pharisees.
In doing this, we end up leaving others with a high view of ourselves instead of a high view of God. We fail to model before the church how to live a Christian life by humbly admitting our failures and boasting only in our Lord Jesus Christ for saving us (Gal. 6:14). After all, that’s the message our church needs to hear most.
So do you confess your sins to others? Is it easy for others to confess their sins to you? In what ways have you stolen the glory of God’s work in your life?
DON’T BE A JUDAS
There is another “church leader” we can learn from: Judas.
Certain privileges come with the responsibility of serving as a lay elder. I remember being given a key to the church building years ago. Cool, right? In laboring to give oversight to the church, a lay elder begins to utilize these privileges, such as access to staff and resources—privileges usually supervised by church staff.
Unfortunately, in a fallen world, privileges can sometimes lead to arrogance and selfish ambition, and lay elders can be tempted to control these privileges and overstep their bounds of authority. Of course, all elders are charged with oversight of the church, but each elder governs alongside others and doesn’t need to exercise authority in every sphere in the same way. So where the plurality has delegated specific responsibilities to staff elders, such as often is the case with church staff and resources, a lay elder ought to take the posture of yielding to the staff elders’ decisions in these matters.
Judas Iscariot misused privileges given to him. As one of Jesus’ disciples, he was responsible for handling the moneybag, but he didn’t like how Jesus used their resources. In John 12, Judas objected to Jesus allowing expensive perfume to be poured on him. Then in John 13, after Jesus washed his disciples feet and commanded them to do the same, you could see that Judas had had enough. This wasn’t his kind of Messiah, so he betrayed him.
Every elder is going to lead somewhat differently, and that’s okay. But lay elders must be careful not to usurp authority or privileges granted to staff elders. This includes decisions from how church staff should spend or prioritize their time to who can borrow the church van next weekend. These are decisions usually delegated to staff elders to oversee. Such usurping only creates tension, bitterness, and resentment.
It would be better to trust and respect those placed in the position to make these decisions, whether it’s the senior pastor or church administrator, knowing that you both serve a sovereign, faithful God who has given each of you his Spirit. Lay elders can exercise their authority best by leading in humility.
So how do you handle the privileges you have or have not been given as a lay elder? How are your relationships with church staff? Do you interfere with decisions entrusted to staff elders?
DON’T BE A SAUL
Finally, we can learn from King Saul. Don’t be a Saul.
The lay elder usually has two large spheres of work: his paying job and pastoring the church. Throw in family, exercise, eating, and sleep, and the lay elder is a busy man. Sometimes a lay elder can feel like he comes home from his day job only to go to his church job, trying to faithfully lead his family amidst both.
Unfortunately, a common misconception is that staff elders have it easy since they work for the church and don’t have to work in the “real” world. But these brothers do the lion’s share of the pastoral work in the church and are also regularly called on to serve after hours.
Given the demands of working and eldering, a temptation for the lay elder is to abdicate his pastoral responsibility, leaving staff elders to do all the work. This may look like foregoing teaching duties, urgent pastoral matters, hospital visitation, pastoral decision-making, and more.
Reasons for abdicating are many. King Saul abdicated his leadership responsibility when be failed to fight Goliath because of fear (1 Sam. 17). A lay elder may abdicate because of laziness, or selfishness, or envy—because the staff elders are getting paid for their work and he’s not.
Whatever the reason, both lay elders and staff elders have the same biblical job description, and both must imitate our Lord Jesus who gave himself up for the church. Self-sacrifice is necessary for shepherding Christ’s church. A lay elder must remember that he should serve because he’s willing, not because he is obligated (1 Pet. 5:2). It comes down to his love for Christ and his church. When we’re motivated by love for Christ’s church, it’s amazing how such sacrificial service becomes our desire and joy (1 Thess. 2:19).
So how is your love for the church? What areas of pastoral oversight do you abdicate to the staff elders? How can you help fellow elders more in caring for the church?