Mailbag #39: Turning Elder Training into a Program; Divorced, Repentant, but Not Seeking Reconciliation?


Is it wise to turn elder training into a program?»
Can a divorced member of the church be repentant without seeking reconciliation with their spouse?»

Dear 9Marks,

I was in a meeting with two other elders this morning in order to brainstorm how we can better train future elders. For example, when a faithful layman tells one of us that he aspires to eldership, we’d like a more systematic way of sharing what the next steps are. For example: talks to these guys; do a directed study of these books; fill out an application, etc. I was wondering if your church has some sort of system you generally follow that you could share with me, and that I could in turn share with our elders.

—David, Minnesota

Dear David,

No, we have nothing formal like that. The four cautions I’d give to a programmatic training or application process are these:

1) An elder is not a separate “class” of person or Christian (commoner/nobility; clergy/laity). Rather, he’s of the same class (member/member), but he’s an exemplary version of that class, one who can be held up as an example because he’s above approach and he can rightly divide the Word. What that means is, elder “training” consists of being an exemplary member. You want to be able to look out at the congregation and ask yourself, “Okay, who is living with integrity? Who is setting an example? Who do the people already turn to when they have tough life situations, or Bible questions?” Now, if your church is living as a family, you’ll be able to spot the men who are living that way. If your church is not living as a family, those men will be much harder to detect. In short, our elders and our church is looking to affirm men who are already living and functioning as elders—the men who have grown into that status through the ordinary means of grace.

2) Related to that last point is this: you want to guard against teaching your congregation that there are two tracks for following Jesus: the serious track and the non-serious track, as in, “Hey, if you’re really serious about pursuing Christ, why don’t you join us for this elder training course?” Rather, there’s a sense in which I want all the men in my church to aspire to the qualities of an elder. D. A. Carson puts it well: what’s extraordinary about the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is how ordinary they are. With the exception of “not a recent convert” and “able to teach,” every quality listed is relevant for all Christians. In my one-on-one time with other men, therefore, I will often ask a question like, “Do you aspire to be an elder?” or “What’s the difference between the present version of you and the elder version of you?” And, yes, I’ll say this to young immature men who are years away from being an elder. (Admittedly, I don’t say this to every man I meet with. There are some who, for various reasons, you know will probably never be an elder.)

3) Being an elder is about your life as much as it’s about your doctrine. The challenge with most training programs is that, generally, they can focus on doctrine more than life. So if you start some sort of training program, you’ll need to work against sending the message that it’s having the right doctrine which really counts. Related to that…

4) If you do start something, you need to guard against the expectations guys will have, as in, “If I go through this study/program/course, then I’ll be an elder on the other side.” No, no, no. This course—at most—is like finishing school. It might help you round out some doctrinal details. What makes an elder is years’ worth of living the Christian life, being fashioned by the Spirit through the challenges and toils of sanctification, being immersed in the Word, being shepherded by other men, being broken of one’s pride, struggling to understand what it means to manage one’s family well, discipling younger saints, and rejoicing/grieving with other members of the body. So, again, if you decide to do something programmatic, make sure you communicate to guys at the front end they should have no expectations about what happens at the conclusion of the course.

Now, amidst my pooh-poohing of the programmatic, I’m making some assumptions: I’m assuming that you have a culture of discipling in place, which further means I’m assuming that your members are learning to live together as a family throughout the week. Developing this kind of culture is long-term work. It takes years. Programs are quick and easy. So if you do the programmatic route, fine, but make sure you keep your pedal on the gas of cultivating this kind of culture more broadly. You don’t want to fool yourself into thinking you’re raising up leaders because you’re scraping the cream off the top. You want the whole cake to rise.

One book I read with guys who I’m trying to encourage toward eldering: Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons by Thabiti. Further to point 3 above, it gives a guy the chance to meditate on different areas of his life.

I hope this helps, brother.

Dear 9Marks,

We have a couple in our church that divorced this past year. The separation and divorce process moved very quickly without the elders of the church having knowledge of it happening. There was no time for counsel or rebuke before the divorce took place. Now there is no movement toward reconciliation and no desire to seek it in the future. Can a member of the church be repentant without seeking reconciliation? Can they remain in good standing as a member if they are still seeking the Lord without seeking reconciliation with their spouse? Also, how do you counsel the person who pursued the divorce in the first place if they are now willing to talk and their ex-wife is not willing?

—Lance, Kentucky

Dear Lance,

I’ll answer your three questions with “No,” “No,” and “With understanding, encouragement, and clarity.”

So, no, you cannot be repentant without seeking reconciliation. There is a difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow (see 2 Cor. 7:10). One is willing to cut off the hand or gouge out the eye; one just uses words. The parable of the two sons is helpful here (Matt. 21:28–32).

And “no,” I would not keep this person as a member. Unbiblical divorce is ordinarily grounds for excommunication. (I do think there is such a thing as biblical divorce.) So I would begin moving in that direction, assuming your congregation is ready for it. You cannot “seek the Lord” while flagrantly disobeying his Word.

But a person can only be responsible for his or her own part. So, each party is responsible to seek reconciliation with the other, but neither is responsible if the other refuses. So if I’m working with the husband, I would strongly encourage him to reconcile with his wife. And if he demonstrated that he was earnestly doing so, I would not move toward discipline with him, regardless of how she responded. The same would be true the other way around.

I pray this is useful, brother.

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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