Mailbag #8: Confidentiality among Elders; Meaningful Membership; Can an Elder Be Single?; and Young Earth Creationism

Mailbag
05.04.2015

Confidentiality in Elder Meetings »
Meaningful Membership »
Can an Elder Be Single? »
Young Earth Creationism »

Dear 9Marks,

Among our elders, we have found there are different views about how much “confidential information” should be shared or withheld among the board as a whole. Are there any documents or suggestions regarding a biblical stance on confidentiality in regards to elder board meetings? Thanks so much.

—Craig, California

Craig,

I think one of the principles we can discern from Matthew 18:15-20 is that it is good to keep sensitive information in as few hands as possible, but there should be a willingness to move outward as occasion requires.

So I will not share information with the other elders in a meeting if there is no clear reason for them to know it. Now, if I need counsel, I might ask one or two of them outside the meeting. Or, if the elders as a whole need to make a decision, then, yes, I have to share it.

For instance, a young man shares an episode of sexual sin with me. Assuming he’s repentant, I most likely won’t share that with the whole board. Suppose however his sin involves a woman who is being discipled by the wife of another elder. Well, I might discuss the matter with this other elder in order to figure out how to together care for this couple. But now suppose it’s a pattern and this young man is unrepentant. Well, at some point I need to take it to the whole board, first for wisdom and potentially for a decision regarding discipline. So notice, I keep the sensitive information in as few hands as possible, and push outward only as it becomes necessary either for counsel or because a decision has to be made by the elders as a whole.

Now, obviously, you could drive a truck through that phrase “need for counsel.” I will say, it’s a rare case where someone will consult the whole board just for counsel. Usually it’s going to be something like a marriage that’s falling apart, and the elder who has been shepherding the couple knows that other elders know that couple, and there’s a good chance he’ll find useful help from several of the elders if he brings it up to the board as a whole.

As a whole board, we will often discuss matters where there’s disunity at play between two or more parties, as in struggling marriages. We are less likely to discuss the details of specific individuals struggling with some sin pattern so long as one or two elders are on the case. Honestly, there’s a lot of trust among the brothers for one another. And so I don’t think any of us feel, “Hey, I’m an elder, so I have a right to know everything.” So if I know one of my fellow elders is “on the case,” I feel able to trust him to deal with his situation, and he’ll let us know only what we need to know.

When we’re talking about a prospective elder, if somebody knows something disqualifying, he might sometimes share what that thing is with all of us. Or he may simply encourage all of us to speak with the prospective elder himself, and simply ask the question, “Is there anything that disqualifies you from being an elder?”

Finally, we all know that what’s in the elders meeting remains in the elders meeting. Beyond this, Craig, we’d really need to get into the specifics of what you’re talking about.

Dear 9Marks,

Our church has church membership, but doesn’t clearly communicate our expectations regarding it. If you stick around, get involved, and seem to be fairly orthodox you end up becoming a “functional” church member. Out of 100 families, about half that are official church members; another fourth would become members if we asked them to; and the remaining fourth are actually against church membership as a doctrine, saying typical things like, “It’s not biblical.”

What would you do with those who are functional members but reject the doctrine and would thus refuse to officially join? Many thanks, in advance, for your reply.

—Doug, Washington

Doug,

I know what I would do, but I don’t know what your fellow church leaders are capable of doing, which would moderate whatever I have to say. If your fellow leaders don’t agree with you on a course of action, you’re not going to get anywhere. Lesson 1: work first at coming to a common mind among your fellow leaders.

Okay, but assuming that I could secure the agreement of my fellow leaders, there are three things I would start doing:

1) Ask the fourth of the congregation who you say would join to actually join.

2) Practice meaningful membership. By this I mean: Make sure you’re being careful about the processes of people joining your church and leaving your church. And restrict certain activities to just members. In my church, for instance, you cannot participate in most ministries, attend members meetings, or join a small group unless you’re a member. Plus you won’t receive the same level of pastor care. In other words, if non-members are treated just like members, why should they join? That’s kind your fault then, not theirs. Make sense? You might also do things like having all the members stand up for different occasions. We do this when taking the Lord’s Supper and reciting the church covenant or when installing an elder and committing to pray for him and support him. In general, you want to do everything you can, over several years or more, to cultivate a culture of membership—where it becomes increasingly clear that to really be a part of your church, you have to be a member. Meanwhile . . .

3) You let this last quarter of people get on board or fall behind. I mean, you can talk with them once or twice, and I would try to persuade them. But I wouldn’t spend a lot of time banging my head against the wall with them. I’d rather “move on” and let them fall behind as the culture of the church slowly changes. Love them. Be friendly. But don’t build anything in the church on them. Don’t let them teach Sunday School, lead a small group, or volunteer in nursery. (Besides, you should have a child protection policy that only allows members who have gone through screening to work in child care!) Eventually, these individuals will get the point and join or find another church, even if that takes 5 years for your church culture to shift in this direction. But again, I can’t emphasize enough how important point 2 is for this.

Hope this is helpful.

Dear 9Marks,

I am trying to find solid reasoning to help me understand if an elder can be single or if he must be married based on Paul’s qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Verse 2 says he must the husband of one wife. Verse 4 says he must manage his family well. Verse 5 reiterates the point. If a man can demonstrate that he has been faithful to his wife and if his children demonstrate that they have been raised properly (not perfectly) then that would be a really good resumé for being an elder candidate.  How does a single man build that kind of resumé without a wife or children? It’s impossible. To say that Jesus and Paul were single and then applying that to the discussion of eldership seems to be a bit of a stretch. Paul was an apostle. Thanks in advance

—John, Wisconsin

John,

I’m of the opinion that an elder can be single. To explain why, let me simply quote Ben Merkle from 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons:

(1) The focus [of verse 2] on the Greek text is not that a man is married but that he is faithful to his ‘one’ wife; (2) Paul clearly teaches that singleness has many advantages over being married (1 Cor. 7:32-35); (3) Paul could have written than an elder must be a man who has a wife (which is different from saying he must be a ‘one-woman man’); (4) this qualification would eliminate Paul, Timothy, and the Lord Jesus Himself from being eligible to serve as elders; (5) it was simply the norm that men married, and there was no need to highlight the exception.

Merkle goes on to critique this as a wooden interpretation that, strictly speaking, would rule out men with only one child instead of “children.” We could also insist that he had young children at home with him, and not grown children outside of the home. So no retirees as elders.

The only thing I’d add is, when our elders are examining a single man, we do ask whether he “manages his household well” in terms of his finances, his relationships, his pattern of dating, his parents, any roommates, and so forth. Now certainly this young man cannot set a pattern for what it looks like to be a godly father for the fathers in the church. You’re right: he does not have that on his resume. But he can set the pattern for the half of our church which is single what it looks like to live a godly life in his home as a single man.

Dear 9Marks,

Hi, The Bible does not teach young earth creationism. Period. Therefore, I find the dogmatism with which Young Earth Creationism is promulgated to be unsupportable. The way it is used as a litmus test for true belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture is unnecessarily divisive. And I suspect that those who are vulnerable in their faith may be put off from the faith because they’ve been told that to believe the Bible one must believe in YEC and they know the science will not allow that.

My question: should I, as a pastor, confront YEC or simply allow those who have been taught that it’s a test of biblical orthodoxy to remain as they are?

—John

John,

The question of what to treat as a test of orthodoxy has always been a tough one for Christians. I think Al Mohler’s article on theological triage is helpful here. And I suspect in coming years with the growing cultural pressure against the faith and the possible rise of persecution, Christians will be tempted to raise more and more “tests of orthodoxy” on one another, some legitimate, some not legitimate. The media is presenting the Republican candidates for president with their own orthodoxy test right now, aren’t they? For example: “Would you attend a same-sex wedding?”

In my personal view, young earth creationism is not a test of orthodoxy. (And here I’m restricting young earth creationism entirely to the question of whether the earth was created in 6 twenty-four periods. I’m not including this discussion questions about the historical Adam, etc.) Plus, it is not in my church’s statement of faith. By that latter reason alone, any elder in my church who taught that YEC was a test of orthodoxy would be imposing something on our members that our statement of faith doesn’t impose. Therefore, I would encourage him to stop. I’d be happy for him, however, to argue for or against YEC, so long as he makes it clear that it’s not the position of our church as a whole but represents his own views.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.