Reformed Theology

Elders in every church…

The church where we have providentially found ourselves is accepting elder nominations through the month of May, even as the pastor teaches a series on the character of a godly leader as laid out in Scripture. The order of worship handout actually has some lines at the bottom where you can write down the names of those you think should be elders, and then you can just drop it in the offertory box. They are deliberately making it easy for the congregation to bring to attention those who they see being called to leadership. It brings me great joy to see a young, small church wasting no time, but moving forward with fulfilling the Biblical model of polity. It reminds me of Paul’s own policy on his first missionary journey.

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:19-23, ESV)

There is so much action in this paragraph, and I think the fast-paced language as a literary technique speaks also to the fast-paced reality of the missionary journey. Paul had just planted these churches, which were made up of brand-new converts. They were what we might call “baby Christians.” And yet, he made sure there were multiple elders in each church before he moved on to the next town! When he appointed these elders, was he violating his own rule about not being hasty in the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:23)?

To the contrary, the context of 1 Tim. 5:23 is not about choosing elders (see chapter 3 for that). 1 Tim. 5:17-19 addresses how elders are to be honored in the church, and then in verses 20-22 the topic changes to deal with how to handle those who persist in public sin.

As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.

The rules of homiletics require the points of your outline to agree in verb, number, tense, voice, etc., so this wouldn’t be my final outline if I were teaching on it, but it’s how I would start:

  1. Those who persist in public sin (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:1-2) are to be rebuked (v. 20)
  2. Such proceedings should take place without prejudging; that is, we use restraint when coming to a decision of judgment (v. 21)
  3. We are to use restraint when coming to a decision of restoration, or even praying for the sinner (cf. 1 John 5:16: “There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that”) (v22a)
  4. We are to keep an even keel and restrain ourselves from participating in the sins being committed (v22b)
  5. The reason for our restraint (“keep yourself pure”) is that we may fulfill the charge given to elders to remain above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2)

The hasty laying-on of hands addressed here does not have anything to do with ordination. On the other hand, interpreting this as ordination is an example of modern Evangelical methods of taking Scripture out of context in order to support one’s own ends. The hermeneutical approach of Reformed theology require us to take a text in its context, to interpret Scripture with Scripture, and to utilize the principle of perpescuity by interpreting solitary texts in the light of the clear teaching of the rest of Scripture.

The clear teaching of Scripture is that having a plurality of elders is so important, even more important than avoiding the so-called hasty laying-on of hands. This is the Scriptural model for church government since the Great Commission, and it is also in agreement with the overall doctrinal teaching of scripture. Reformed believers, because of the doctrine of Original Sin/Total Depravity, have an inherent mistrust of any single man, and rightly so! It is also noteworthy that reformed polity, with its checks and balances, has served as a model for the United States government (Steven Lawson said that).

Not only is a multi-elder polity is the clear teaching of Scripture, and not only does it line up with the doctrinal teaching of Scripture, but we can also see a practical benefit to this sort of polity. Here is an example from Mark Dever about the importance of a plurality of elders in a church discipline situation:

It’s also important to have a preexisting structure of leadership that will not buckle under the pressures of the situation. This is one of the most practical reasons for developing a plurality of elders… Carrying out public corrective discipline as the only pastor/elder is possible, but it may not be wise. To proceed with such a case as the lone pastor/elder is to risk creating an “us vs. him” mentality–the congregation vs. the paid pastor. From within that leadership structure, it is often difficult to avoid the perception (however false) that the pastor is acting in an authoritarian or unilateral way–and for that reason it may also be difficult to avoid getting fired! (The Deliberate Church, 69-70)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I implore you to think critically and Scripturally about what you are told. No matter what kind of Bible-believing church you go to, be like the Bereans in Acts 17 who dug into Scripture on a daily basis to make sure what they were being told was actually biblical. And don’t be like the hypocrites in Matthew 23 whom Jesus accused of straining out a gnat to swallow a camel! Don’t neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.

“Obey your leaders [plural] and submit to them [plural], for they [plural] are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them [plural] do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17, ESV)

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