February 18, 2013

The Rod and the Staff Meeting

by Clint Archer

Potholes in the parking lot, the size of the font in the bulletin, decisions about the price to be charged for the coffee—these are just a few of the topics which can devour hours of elders’ meetings. When elders occupy themselves with the work that should be done by deacons and lay servants or staff members employed for this purpose, it is the shepherding of souls that goes unattended. Elders’ meetings should focus on, or at least include, discussion of where people are spiritually and what steps can be taken to shepherd them in their knowledge, living, repentance, whether encouraging them, warning them, or teaching them (1 Thess 5:14).

shepherdOne pastor I know sarcastically commented that what our elders do at meetings (discussing the spiritual progress and needs of our people) is little more than gossip sessions, and that discipline is just an invitation for a libel suit. But the elders meeting is a sacred event. We have a “soul mandate.” We are God’s under-shepherds gathering to do exactly what Jesus told Peter to do before he ascended into heaven: “Tend my sheep,” and what Peter told all elders to do “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,” (1 Pet 5:2).

The elders pray, discuss, and make decision about how to confront people on their sin, encourage them in their walk. The elders educate the flock in their quest for truth, or lead them on their path to Christlikeness. The meetings are confidential, on a need to know basis, and limited to spiritual ministry. Why? Because we will give an account for their souls.

When someone does not want to apply for membership, we still encourage them to attend the church, but we make it clear to them that we believe there is something wrong with someone who does not want to commit to serving the saints, and to receiving spiritual accountability and guidance.

When Paul called the elders of the Ephesian church together as he was about to depart, he left them with this sobering farewell speech,

Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.  Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears (Acts 20:26 – 31, emphasis added).

Church discipline cases may be rare, but they are some of the most important moments in the shepherding process. The elders are to guard the flock from “fierce wolves” who will not spare the flock from their deadly error. They will draw people away, splitting the church with destructive divisions. According to Titus 3:10 divisive people accelerate the need to deal swiftly with discipline. Paul gave Titus a severe three strikes and you’re out rule to implement only for this sin of division.

rodHow can an elder be expected to “Pay careful attention to…all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” without a thorough church membership process? Farmers tag their sheep to keep make sure none is lost. Should pastors not do the same?

Tagging your sheep means you are paying careful attention to those in your flock. You know them by name and pray for them. You know how they are doing physically, emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps financially if they are in need. As our church has grown larger we have had to come up with creative ways of knowing our sheep by name. We have a picture book that is updated regularly so when we mention someone, we all know who they are. When one of us meets a visitor, we send an e-mail to the other elders with introductory notes about the person. We also have someone do a head count each service and keep track of various factors that may influence attendance (rain, sports games, who the preacher is, etc.) We want to know our flock and know what their strengths and weaknesses. Is this hard work? Yes. Our meetings often go on until midnight. But if you tell us, through membership, that you want us to be your elders, we take that to mean your name will be brought up in a conversation with Jesus at his Bēma Seat. We take it seriously.

I’ve heard the objection that it seems too controlling. This is a matter of perspective. In 1983 Sting and the Police released the smash hit song, “Every Breath You Take.” It immediately became a success and was interpreted by the masses as a comforting love song. Ironically, this is not how the song writer had intended it. In his perspective the song was a creepy, controlling image of surveillance. When asked in a BBC Radio 2 interview why he appears angry in the music video Sting replied, “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have misinterpreted it as being a gentle, little love song.” I guess listeners found the idea of a partner watching them to be comforting. Sting thought of it as controlling. A believer who is committed to pleasing Jesus (is there another kind?) should invite an eldership who cares enough to pray for him or her, enquire how they are doing spiritually, bring them back in line when they stray, and encourage them when I fall.

If a person says they do not want to become a member of church, my response is to ask why not? A Christian who will gladly commit to a gym membership, a video club, or a social network but refuses to join a church, has issues to be concerned about. Why would you not want your spiritual leaders to hold you accountable to living the Christian life? The elders of your church will only call you to the standard that you have committed to strive for when you became a Christian. If you don’t want that, your perspective needs to be adjusted by Scripture. If all that reasoning fails, I simply tell folk in our church that their leaders are asking them nicely to apply for membership and the Scripture commands them to “Obey your leaders and submit to them for they watch over your souls as those who will give and account.”

[This excerpt from Clint’s book, The Preacher’s Payday, is a follow-up to last week’s post, Tag Your Sheep]

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Mike Halpin

    Clint, thanks for a great reminder. We installed two new elders in the Church this last Sunday, referencing Acts 20 and Hebrews 13:17. To shepherd the souls of those whose redemption required the blood of Christ is a calling so high that we must be desperate in humbly seeking God for his help. God help us.

    • It’s encouraging to hear of churches that take the mandate seriously. Thanks for sharing brother.

  • Pauline

    What a wonderful mandate to follow and I wish that I could belong to a church like the one you talk about here. It would be a pleasure and a privilege to belong to such a Church. But what would you say if the church is not following the true Biblical guidelines of Scripture. What does one do about that situation?

    • The answer to your question deserves far more thorough knowledge of the current situation than what a blog’s comment thread can accommodate. If you need counsel on how to handle that type of situation, I suggest you meet with an elder of a church where they are doing eldership biblically, and ask him for advice about your particular situation. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help; this isn’t a cop-out, it really is too complicated to tackle in this forum. Thanks for sharing your heart.

      • Pauline

        Thanks Clint for responding to my message. You paint a picture of the ideal church situation. This is what you said.
        If a person says they do not want to become a member of church, my response is to ask why not? A Christian who will gladly commit to a gym membership, a video club, or a social network but refuses to join a church, has issues to be concerned about. Why would you not want your spiritual leaders to hold you accountable to living the Christian life? The elders of your church will only call you to the standard that you have committed to strive for when you became a Christian. If you don’t want that, your perspective needs to be adjusted by Scripture. If all that reasoning fails, I simply tell folk in our church that their leaders are asking them nicely to apply for membership and the Scripture commands them to “Obey your leaders and submit to them for they watch over your souls as those who will give and account.” You just need to be aware of the situation many of us find ourselves in , where there are NO Solid Bible preaching churches for us to attend. You say go and find an Elder to talk with about this. I would if I could find one who is like the picture you paint above. I find these articles sometimes insensitive and brings condemnation . Should we join a church just for the sake of belonging or should you not point out that we need to make sure their teachings and leadership are in accordance withe the Scripture.

        • Hey Pauline, thanks for clarifying. I absolutely agree that joining a church must be done carefully and prayerfully and should involve close scrutiny of the church’s doctrine, the leaders’ lives, and the holiness of the members. And I have tremendous sympathy for people who do not have Bible teaching churches available. I certainly did not mean to be insensitive. (Please remember that exceprt is part of a larger chapter and book, which makes more disclaimers and qualifications). In my travels abroad I have seen firsthand that it is very possible to not be able to find a solid church in the entire country! (especially in persecuted areas where the church does exist, but is hard to find, for obvious reasons). BUT, that said, I believe that being part of a healthy, solid, Bible-teaching church should be a higher priority to Christians than the enjoyment of their job, kids’ schools, and other factors why people choose to stay where they are. If there were no solid church within driving distance (and I know people who drive hours to get to church) I would either plant one, or move to where one is.
          The other tack is to find the best of the bad ones around, and commit to them.
          Beggars can’t be choosers. If you are a spriritual beggar looking for Bible food, then either settle for what’s there or move. People do that for work and education, why not church?
          Hope this helps.

    • Judy Parker

      Pauline….it really is an amazing privilege to belong to such a church and the spiritual blessings are great….and worth seeking out if you can……may I suggest (very very humbly as Clint did not suggest this :)) that you consider prayerfully and gently sharing some of these verses with your leadership, or perhaps even encouraging them to read “The Preacher’s Payday”, sometimes people read verses but miss their real meaning until it is pointed out to them…..and pray that the Spirit will convict and stir up a desire in them for godly leadership, and then just keep praying….God bless….

  • Jeff

    There are issues but they have to do with Biblically unwritten procedures rather than an individual who refuses to participate in unwritten procedures. Elders have every right to hold accountable those who are believers based on their membership through salvation in the universal church. They don’t need to shore up their position and gain more backbone through additional obligation requirements. Also secular commitments aren’t a comparison for spiritual ones. There are too many false teachers and compromising assemblies to obligate oneself beyond what is written. Local church membership processes are extra-biblical and unnecessary if the church community is Biblically established and maintained. Just shepherd people. Don’t have them sign documents and take classes. One promotes spiritual growth in those that really believe but the latter is of the flesh.

    • Hey Jeff, as long as you allow that the elders of a particular flock reserve the prerogative to institute whatever they feel will genuinely help them shepherd people. E.g. can a visitor start serving on communion table in their third week? If not, why not? How can the elders be reasonably certain they are shepherding a flock of believers or at least professing believers, without asking people to formally agree to certain basic doctrinal truths. It is also a major issue these days, legally speaking. Who can vote on what issues and why? Wh can be disciplined out of a church and why? I think it is niaive to say “Just shepherd people dont make them sign a form.” How about shepherding them by asking them to sign said form, if said form is a commitment to actually live out what the member says they believe? That’s my 2c, but thanks for sharing your views brother.