Mailbag #70: Should Our Congregation Appoint Temporary Elders from Outside Churches? . . . What Should Be the Goal of a Small-Group Bible Study?

Mailbag
02.02.2018

Our church believes in elders, but currently no men are qualified. Should we recognize some outside pastors as “temporary elders”? »
How should a small-group Bible study balance sound teaching with a desire for discussion? »

Dear 9Marks,

I’m a deacon, and currently our church follows a solo-pastor-with-deacon-board model of church governance. Yet all of us leaders want to change our constitution to the biblical elder/deacon model. We also believe the congregation would support such a change.

But what should we do if there aren’t any men ready to be elders? I aspire to be an elder someday, but I don’t presume I’m ready for that yet. Our pastor has presented the idea of recognizing some pastors from like-minded churches to serve as temporary elders until we can raise up some from inside. But something doesn’t feel right about non-members serving as our elders. Does the lack of prepared men mean we should tap the brakes on changing our constitution?

—Zak

Dear Zak,

My first thought is, praise God for all the unity the leadership and congregation already share about moving in a more biblical direction.

Second, no, I would not bring in outside elders. What makes an elder an elder is that his life and teaching make him a worthy example to follow for the Christian life. That presumes the congregation knows him, and that he lives among them. When you bring in men from the outside and plop them down as elders, you turn their “authority” into something that it isn’t—authority by fiat. Eighty percent of a good elder’s authority is informal—it works through trust.

Third, pray for elders. Jesus loves to give good gifts to his church.

Fourth, it’s worth thinking about your standards of what an elder is. Are they higher than Paul’s? Sometimes churches have an overly exalted view of what an elder is. Notice that everything Paul asks elders to be is pretty ordinary: husband of one wife, temperate, not a lover of money, and so forth. He’s not looking for “Super Christians!” whatever that might be. So look around your church. Is no one above reproach, able to teach, and already gives himself to helping others follow Jesus? That’s who you’re looking for.

If there’s genuinely no one like that already, get to work discipling one another. Jesus will provide. Would I pause on the changing the constitution in the meantime? I might slow down a little bit, yes. It puts the pastor in an awkward situation to have a constitution that calls for elders, but then he has to effectively say to all the men in the church, “None of you are mature enough,” simply by his act of not nominating anyone.

But really? Is there no one?

So disciple, disciple, disciple, and probably keep the conversation about a constitutional change alive, but move slowly. That’s my two cents, not knowing your church at all.

Dear 9Marks,

What should the normative premise of a group Bible study be? How should we balance the desire to receive sound and accurate teaching while also encouraging others to engage in discussion? Is it pharisaical of me to strive that the group should arrive at the biblical author’s main point? What would be some unrealistic goals for a group Bible study?

—Matthew, Austria

Dear Matthew,

I can think of three goals in a group Bible study: to teach the Bible, to teach people to read the Bible, and to teach people how to apply the Bible to their lives.

For the life of me I cannot imagine why you would wonder if it’s “pharisaical” to work toward the author’s main point. Just the opposite, in fact. Pharisees twisted the purpose of the Scriptures (e.g. John 5:39). Your goal is to help people read Scripture rightly, which means teaching them to pay attention to a text’s immediate context and its canonical (in relation to Christ) context.

Now, suppose you want to camp out in one particular Bible study on an implication of the text, or a particular tangent from the text. That’s fine. But doing this responsibly means telling the people that that’s what you’re doing. Show them how they can arrive at the main point of the text, and then demonstrate what responsible application looks like, even on a tangent.

There is no sacrosanct way to lead a Bible study. You might lecture. You might do it inductively through question and answer. Ordinarily, I like that route. But what you do will depend on how big of passages you’re trying to cover, and whether or not there’s an expectation of “homework.”

I am a big fan of the inductive Bible study in which you begin with really basic textual questions and then you broaden it to larger theological or application questions. For instance, I taught an inductive study through 2 John over a couple of months. Here’s a snippet from my lesson when I taught on verse 7: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.” The parentheses show you the answer I was looking for.

  • Who is John talking about in the beginning of verse 7? (Deceivers.)
  • What are these deceivers doing? (Going out into the world, as missionaries for their brand of Christianity.)
    • What does this tell us about missionaries and pastors? (They are not always good. Some are actually deceivers.)
    • Does this mean we should be continually paranoid? (No, but we should be aware of what they teach. Being a missionary does not automatically mean they’re one of the good guys on a white horse!)
  • What’s a deceiver? (A liar. A false teacher.)
    • Do they know they are lying? (Maybe, maybe not.)
    • What is their deception? (It’s a false confession. A false faith.)
  • What’s the false faith described in this passage? (That Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh.)
    • What’s meant by that (see 1 John 4:2–3)? If we take this in light of what John writes both here and in his first letter, we would say that John means that these teachers are denying that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who has come to bring atonement for sin.” In various statements, he refers to different aspects of this to refer to the whole confession. So see passages on who Jesus is (1 John 2:22; 4:2–3; 4:15; 5:1) and what Jesus did (1 John 1:7; 2:2; 3:5)
    • How do we as a church affirm these truths? (Preaching. Teaching. Confession of faith.)
    • What should a church do if a pastor or elder or missionary it supports begins to depart from these truths? (Private confrontation; eventually public; even firing—see Gal. 1:6–9)
    • Who are some prominent deceivers today? (Mormons, JWs, prosperity gospel teachers)
    • Can someone explain the prosperity gospel?…
    • What might tempt you to follow after a false teacher?

So, Matt, there’s a sample. Perhaps not a terribly good one, but that’s how I try to involve the group in a conversation and help them to see the point of the text, to learn how to read the text, and to apply the text individually and corporately (though the individual application is pretty light here, actually).

For softball questions (“Who is the subject of the sentence?”), I’ll take one answer and move to the next question. For harder questions, and especially application questions (“What does this mean for us?”), I’ll camp out for a while. Ideally, in fact, you use the last ten to fifteen minutes of a sixty-minute study reflecting together on areas of application.

I hope all this helps.