Six months ago I was ordained as an elder at Grace Bible Fellowship in Sunnyvale, CA. Prior to my ordination I was required complete an oral examination. This two-hour, 70-question theological interview and was the final step in a multi-step ordination process that was designed to revere Paul’s admonishment to Timothy: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5:22). These elders were not hasty, and I am grateful for their patience and care.
Prior to my examination I was required to complete a questionnaire of theological and practical ministry questions. One question under the “Miscellaneous” section required me to reflect on how I will seek to preserve unity among the elders. The rigor of the theological questions indicates that doctrinal unity among this elder team is of supreme importance. Unless the elders unite around truth, our efforts for unity will prove superficial and vain.
Nevertheless, the apostle Paul, in writing to the doctrinally-sound Philippians, didn’t, in light of their theological unity, refuse to admonish these believers to pursue relational unity. Rather, it was for the very reason they were united around the truths of the gospel that Paul instructed these Christians to pursue relational unity and like-mindedness (see Phil 1:27-2:11). To be sure, doctrinal unity is prior to and provides the grounds for genuine relational unity. But it is never enough for a church to exist with corporate commitment to specific theological truths without a hearty commitment to inter-personal unity.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest seven practices that will promote and protect unity among the elder team.
(1) Pray regularly for the spiritual good and joy of each of the elders. Regular prayer for the other members of the elder team is essential to forging a unity that endures. The primary culprits to unity–bitterness, suspicion, anger, pride, selfish ambition–grow quickly and pervasively in prayerless hearts. But if we commit ourselves to intercede regularly for the spiritual prosperity and joy of each of the elders on the team, we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to nurse sins of bitterness and pride toward our brothers.
(2) Conduct discussions concerning practical and doctrinal disagreements with other members of the team with respect, straightforwardness, a willingness to hear their side, and a willingness to admit if and when you’ve been wrong. Even with a commitment to pray regularly for the other elders, we may find that disagreement, misunderstanding, and a myriad of other problems will, at times, find their way into the strongest of elder teams. How we deal with these troubles is what will make the difference between enduring or short-lived unity. When disagreements concerning doctrinal or practical issues arise, we can mitigate trouble by discussing these disagreements with:
Respect. If you have gathered a large amount of information on a given topic or, over the years, garnered much experience in the area around which the disagreement is centered, you may find it difficult to believe that the other elders with whom you disagree can have a substantiated opinion on the issue in question. They may not. But they may, and air of disrespect between two men will quickly upend thoughtful dialog. Each of you is on the elder team because you are biblically qualified to be there (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Respect for each elder, therefore, is necessitated by the office they occupy.
A willingness to hear the other side. Mortimer Adler’s statement, “Before you can say, ‘I disagree,’ you must be willing to say, ‘I understand'” is a useful principle for any situation that requires the rigorous exchange of ideas. If we are unwilling to hear the other side of an argument, it demonstrates that we (1) may not be able to articulate our view with clarity and substance; or (2) do not respect our fellow elders enough to hear their case. Scripture says this is foolishness. Wisdom listens carefully to the other person in order to get the facts straight and to truly grow in understanding, even if it is about a position with which one disagrees (see Prov 18:2; 18:13).
Straightforwardness. In dialog with other elders, we cannot mistake the fear of man for humility. We must be ready to present our ideas and concerns honestly and clearly, regardless of what other elders may think of us. If we don’t speak up in the elder meeting but seethe afterwards and speak ill of our fellow elders in the days following the discussion, we’ve demonstrated that we are probably in the grip of cowardice. Why? Because by our silence we’ve shown that we are not courageous enough to offer our thoughts during the allotted time for fear of ridicule or opposition.
A willingness to admit if and when you’ve been wrong. A man characterized by humility won’t refuse to speak straightforwardly and truthfully, but he will admit when he has been wrong. This kind of humility is essential for unity among the elders. It can be embarrassing to admit that we’ve been wrong, and pride will tempt us to guard ourselves from the vulnerability of confession. But our refusal to concede when we’ve been wrong will not strengthen our reputation among the elders. Just the opposite: our stubbornness will erode the elder team’s confidence in our ability to lead and drive them away from us.
(3) Seek reconciliation quickly after a fracture occurs in your relationship with any of the elders. Despite your commitment to Christ, to the good of the church, to theological and relational unity, and to each of your brothers on the elder team, you may experience times when you are at odds with another elder. Satan loves to exploit this kind of situation (see Eph 4:26-27). He will work mightily to prolong the distance and deepen the fracture. In order to preserve health among an elder team, each member must be committed to prompt reconciliation. Prompt reconciliation, however, does not imply a superficial reconciliation. Issues between elders should be dealt with in an honest and forthright manner, and such work may take time. But the initial move toward reconciliation should come soon after the fracture occurs.
(4) Be careful to not let another elder’s personal idiosyncrasies annoy or bother you. Unity can be undermined by pride, bitterness, and selfish ambition. That’s obvious. What may not be so obvious is the eroding effect that unchecked annoyance will have on the harmony of the elder team. In his goodness, God has made each of us unique. Our personalities, our interests, the way we talk, walk, sit in our chairs, play with our pens, and raise our eyebrows are features of our personhood. For our part, we should seek to eliminate idiosyncrasies that annoy or distract others. (You just might need to consider whether or not your habit of constantly picking your nose should be laid aside for the good of others.) But we should also strive to cultivate such a love for our brothers in Christ that we steadfastly refuse to let these strange idiosyncrasies annoy us.
(5) Be careful to not speak poorly of any elder to another elder. When a major decision needs to be made and obvious divisions exist among the team members, we will be tempted to talk poorly to other elders about elders who oppose our position. While it may be necessary to discuss these things with other elders outside the regular meetings, we must guard against the temptation to talk ill of another elder who disagrees with us. If we allow the habit of speaking poorly of other elders to grow and strengthen–even under the guise of “discussing the issues”–we will have played directly into Satan’s hands. Love, trust, and confidence in one another’s integrity will erode and divisions among team members will widen. Public disunity will be inevitably follow.
(6) Never secretly assemble the elders against each other. Similar to the previous exhortation, we must guard against the temptation to gather a group of elders against another set of elders. If you have staff elders and lay elders, this task will be particularly difficult but nonetheless vital for the internal health of your elder team. Granted, there may be times when disagreements during meetings will lead to discussions outside of the meetings, but unity must be of utmost concern at both times. Secret gatherings of one set of elders in order to lead an ambush against another elder or group of elders should never come into the realm of possibilities for an elder team.
(7) Do not entertain a church member’s complaint or gossip about any elder, but direct the complaining person to speak to that elder personally and defend your fellow elder when appropriate. Due to our pride and our desire to be recognized as a superior member among the elder team, we will be tempted to entertain complaints about other elders from church members and attenders. But such a temptation must be vigorously resisted at all times. I am not talking about charges of outright sinful behavior. Paul is clear that such charges against elders cannot be entertained unless on the evidence of two or three witnesses (see 1 Tim 6:19). What I am referring here are the subtle comments about an elder’s preaching style, administrative abilities, choice of music, managerial decisions, or other similar issues. Disgruntled members or regular attenders should never find safe-haven in one elder for leveling complaints against another elder. When it is fitting to defend our brother, we should defend him. But our rule should be to instruct the complainer to first pray for the elder and then go straight to him with his complaint.
Unified Elders, Unified Church
Why is unity among the elders so important? First, because it honors the Lord Jesus who prayed for the unity of his people (John 17:22-23). Second, because the health of the elder team will inevitably dictate the health and happiness of the congregation. It is difficult to imagine any church truly thriving under elders who are fractured by bitterness, unresolved disagreements, and obvious disrespect toward each other. On the other hand, when leaders are unified and demonstrate a true love and respect for one another, such qualities are sure to make themselves their way into the people. So, for the glory of Christ and the good of your people, consider these seven strategies and pursue unity among your elder team.