Mailbag #36: When Nominating Elders May Cause Disunity; Your 9 Marks Aren’t Enough; A Difficult Pastoral Situation


Should I move forward with installing a plurality of elders, even if the decision causes disunity in the church? »
I agree with your nine marks—but seriously, where are the marks of love and prayer and missions? »
The grandmother of an unwed and pregnant teenager wants to have her granddaughter’s baby shower at the church. How should I think through this? »

Dear 9Marks,

My question involves transitioning from deacons to elders. I serve at a small Southern Baptist church that, for centuries, has followed a single-elder model with deacons. There is probably not a person in my church who doesn’t agree that a plurality of elders is biblical. That’s not an argument at all since I have been able to show them it’s clearly in the Bible.

Our problem is this: how do you transition to plural elders when, out of 15 long-time deacons, there are only two or three who would be qualified elders, and two or three who would want to serve but either aren’t qualified or are unsupported by the church?

Here is how I started the transition process. After everyone became comfortable with transitioning to this new structure, we asked the congregation to submit elder nominations. Out of these nominations I had two men who were on virtually every nomination ballot and also a couple of men who had a majority, but nowhere near the other two. My problem is that I believe the two who only got around 50 percent will want to serve as elders (which is a great thing!), but I don’t believe they would get over the 75 percent threshold necessary if we took a church wide vote.

How do you transition to that without offending some? I spoke with one of the men who I believe should serve as an elder. He said, “I know it’s biblical, and I can see all of the benefits, but I don’t know how you make the transition without disrupting the unity of the church.” I agree with him, and at this time I’m not moving forward with elders. Although I see it in Scripture, I can’t find a practical way to accomplish it without disrupting unity, and currently I’m choosing the biblical mandate to maintain unity over the supposed mandate to have plural elders if there are qualified men willing to serve.

Any counsel?

—Anonymous, Texas

Brother pastor,

No doubt about it. This is a tough situation. A few thoughts:

1) Your concern for unity is legitimate and may be a good reason to pause briefly in the push toward plurality. The New Testament presents a uniform pattern of plural elder leadership, but nowhere does it command it. Thinking hermeneutically, I balance the uniform precedent with the lack of an explicit command like this: pastors should always aspire to raise up more pastors as a matter of discipleship, but I don’t think a pastor is sinning if he remains the only pastor for a season. A man might not have any qualified candidates to nominate. Or, perhaps, nominating the right men will divide the church. So, yes, I think you may be justified in waiting for at least a season.

How long should you wait? I think you know: until you can be reasonably sure that any men you formally nominate will receive the necessary 75 percent, and that not nominating the two other popular men won’t cause half the church to walk out the door.

(By the way: we use the language “recommend” for what the congregation does privately; “nominate” for what the elders do publicly by putting a name before the congregation; and “affirm/deny” for what the congregation does in response to the elders’ nominations.)

2) But you should continue to aspire toward nominating qualified men. The biblical precedent places this burden on you. And it will serve you and the church in so many ways, as you know.

The hard question is how. How do you deal with the two men whom you don’t think are qualified? And how do you promote the two men whom you think are qualified? A few ideas:

First, Spend some time teaching the whole church through the qualifications of an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Maybe have outside speakers come and teach on this. Hand out copies of Thabiti Anyabwile’s Finding Faithful Elders and DeaconsYour goal is not to get the right guys right now. Your goal is to help the whole church mature to the point where they insist on what’s biblical, not on what’s sentimental.

Second, Spend one-on-one time with your two 95%-ers reading through Thabiti’s book. Or, if you don’t think they’ll do a one-on-one book study, have lunch with them, open the Bible, and walk through each qualification. Ask them how they think they are doing every step of the way. Maybe you can do this in a small group study.

If you are convinced that each of these men fails to meet certain criteria, or that they aren’t qualified for some other reason, you need to be honest with them. Ideally, you will help the men draw these conclusions for themselves so that you don’t have to say it.

Suppose you’re looking at the criteria, “Manages his household well,” and you’re not convinced one of them does. Ask him what the phrase means. Maybe have a book on hand that you can read out loud which describes the qualification. Ask him who in the church he thinks fulfills the qualification in exemplary fashion, using it as an opportunity to praise God for his work in another’s life. Ask him whether he thinks he fulfills it, or whether his example of leading his family sets a good example for other Christians in the church. You may not get the answer you are looking for at this point, but you might.

Suppose he’s blind to his shortcoming in this area. Depending on the man’s overall teachability and maturity, and depending on how long you think you should pause in the overall elder-nomination process, you might or might not disagree with him outloud at this moment. Some men I can be very frank with. Some men I have to encourage the good and just pray about the bad because they seem incapable of receiving correction. The point is, work to disciple these two men into being qualified, or at least to seeing for themselves that they are not qualified.

The point may come when you have to move forward with other nominations, in spite of their objections and sense of entitlement. I saw Mark Dever not nominate certain men who were convinced they were qualified in his first round of elder nominations. They were offended (as were their closest friends), and eventually they left the church. In the end, brother, you have to be willing for this to happen. It might be inevitable. And that’s okay. As I’ve heard Mark say, if you are never willing to make decisions that will cause people to leave your church, you should not be a pastor.

Third, look for ways to promote informally the two men you believe are qualified. Have them teach Sunday School or preach on Sunday nights or pray on Sunday mornings. Send them on tough pastoral-care cases. Find opportunities to raise their visibility, especially in ways that will commend their particular strengths.

If this is difficult to do, you might ask if they are the right guys. Honestly, if you are telling me that only 50 percent of the church would presently affirm them, I can’t help but wonder why. Are you sure they’re already eldering the church? That’s who you want to nominate: men who are already eldering.

In the final analysis, you need to be willing for some people to get upset about who is and is not nominated, including any men who think they deserve to be nominated. Any man who thinks he deserves to be nominated as an elder proves by that very opinion that he doesn’t. No, you don’t want half your church walking out. But a few might, and, again, that’s okay.

A lot more could be said, but hopefully this is a start.

Dear 9Marks,

I certainly agree with your nine marks, but my question concerns possibly the two greatest marks of a healthy church: the greatest mark is love, without which these nine are a “noisy gong”; and the second is prayer, since Jesus said, “My house will be a house of prayer”

Why were these two left off the list?

Thanks in advance,


Dear Scott,

We are always careful to say “nine marks of a healthy church” and not “the nine marks.” There are a lot of things Mark Dever, in his original book by the title, could have included, some of which may be more important than what was included—like love! And what about missions? Or the ordinances? Or all the fruits of the Spirit?

These nine were chosen, in part, because each one is contested by Christians today. Expositional preaching is contested, as is biblical theology, as is the gospel, as is . . . you get the point. No Christian church contests love or prayer. (That said, I did write a long book on love at Mark’s suggestion because people do misunderstand it.)

Further, the nine marks tend to focus on the structural matters of a church’s life. Remember the two “marks” which the Reformers used to define a local church? They said a church exists wherever you have the right preaching of the Bible and the right administration of the ordinances. Dever’s first three marks fill out “the right preaching of the Word,” while marks four to nine fill out “the right administration of the ordinances.”

This explanation may not be satisfying to you, but it’s the only explanation I got!

Last thought: there has been some discussion lately of adding prayer and missions to the list. But we’re, uh, praying about it.


Dear 9Marks,

Last week, a church member put in a request to use the church’s fellowship hall to conduct a baby shower for her unwed teenage granddaughter. The young lady is a church member, but only because she was born into membership. She rarely attends and appears unrepentant of her sin. However, the grandmother is very faithful and influential in our congregation. I want to show grace by providing for this young mother, and I am very happy that she has chosen to keep the baby. But I also do not want to condone sexual sin in our church (especially other young girls) and the community. Thanks!

—Charles, Arkansas

Dear Charles,

Your task, I think, is to do two things at once: you should look for ways to support and affirm this woman as a mother, and you should help both this woman and the whole church understand that, if she is living in unrepentant sin, you cannot as a church continue to grant her assurance through her membership that she will be standing with Jesus on the Last Day. Worldly wisdom will regard these two things as contradictions. Biblical wisdom understands that both are required by love.

There is a time and a season for everything. Sometimes love requires an open door, sometimes a closed door. And right now you’re to do both.

How you do that depends on (i) whether you sense any spiritual softness in the woman herself, (ii) the maturity of the grandmother who put in the request, and (iii) the maturity of your congregation, particularly in terms of their readiness for church discipline.

  • If you can shepherd the woman toward repentance, I think it’s okay for the shower to occur in the church building. If you don’t sense she is willing to repent, I think you’re right to be cautious about the lessons you are teaching by letting her use it.
  • If the grandmother submitting the request is mature, you have more flexibility in trying to delay an answer, or to find an alternative venue, or something else. Assuming grandmother is mature, you can enlist her as an ally in your pastoral project. Explain how you want to love her granddaughter in both ways described above, but that you need her help.
  • If the church is fairly mature, you may need to move toward discipline. If they are not, you probably shouldn’t, but you should quietly look for ways to find an alternative venue for the shower, while also looking for ways to show pastoral support, perhaps to the point of buying the pregnant woman a gift.

What should be clear from that jumble of a paragraph is that this is a multi-variable problem, and you’re deep into the “matters of judgment” zone and not the “Bible explicitly says” zone. You might decide that, given the woman and the congregation’s profound immaturity, you’ll let her party use the building (it’s just a building, after all, not the sacred geography of Israel’s temple), but you will look for other ways to teach the lessons that need to be taught. Assuming the church is somewhat mature, however, I probably wouldn’t let them use the building.

(A general lesson: Christian maturity is often demonstrated in the ability to say or hear the word “no.”)

In the final analysis, brother, don’t just think in terms of rules and regulations. Think in terms of a young woman who, as far as you know, is going to spend eternity under God’s wrath. The question you want to answer is, how can you leverage whatever tools you have to help her face that question with an open heart? And how can you help the congregation to recognize their complicity in her damnation if they say or do nothing except quietly reassure her of her salvation by maintaining her as a member in the midst of unrepentant sin? The building and its uses are just a couple of the tools you have to help everyone measure their decisions now in light of the day to come. I’m less concerned about what you do with those tools; I’m more concerned about doing everything you can to love her by saying “yes” to her as a mother who needs support and “no” to her as a member if she insists on following the world instead of Jesus.

I pray this is helpful, even if it’s unspecific.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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