Some years ago, a young believer in a well-established assembly rushed up to one of the elders on a Sunday morning and said in a tone of alarm, “Sir, our assembly is falling apart!” “What do you mean?” replied the elder. “Come and see.” Following the young man out the door and around to the back of the building in which they met, the problem was pointed out. Sure enough; there were several large foundation stones that had come loose over the winter falling out of the wall that supported the building.
We smile at such a story as the young man had obviously not yet gotten his terminology straight, but it does make several good points. He knew danger when he saw it, instinctively he sought help from a more experienced brother, and in so doing he was demonstrating his love for his home church.
This true story has always reminded me of a passage in Titus 1:9-11. After listing qualities of a church elder, Paul the apostle mentions one of surpassing importance: the ability of an elder to handle the Scriptures to defend the church. Referring to false teachers “whose mouths must be stopped,” Paul describes the danger in graphic terms. He says that their teachings will do in the church what this young brother saw happening to the building. The NASB says “they undermine whole families.” The word literally means “to over- turn” or “to upset.”
Consider what is actually being described. This was probably not an open attack against the doctrines of the faith that could be quickly identified as unorthodox, but a subtle erosion of foundation truth upon which true Christianity rests. How do elders protect the church from false doctrines of the subtle sort?
Elders must know the Scriptures, be able to identify dangers and courageously confront the opposers. Three things will help in this good work. Preparation, vigilance and courage are all virtues of godly leaders, and require a close walk with the Lord and partnership in a disciplined team effort to succeed. Let’s think about how this can work practically.
Elders are generally portrayed in the New Testament as ordinary working men with families and jobs. They are not religious professionals with special degrees and often have no formal religious training, although there is nothing wrong with good Christian education. The point is that most elders do not become leaders in the church because they have attained proficiency in systematic theology but because they love the Lord and have a care for the flock.
Some may be especially skilled in the handling of Scripture, but it has often been pointed out that false doctrines are most dangerous when they closely resemble the truth. Wise elders will acquaint themselves with the foundational doctrines of the faith, and the Scripture passages that support those doctrines. And elders should make good use of reference Bibles, good books by men who have wisdom in these matters, as well as Bible correspondence courses and (where possible) schools of higher learning.
The very description of an elder given by Paul in the Titus 1 passage is instructive; “Holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught….” (vs. 9 NKJV) Not only must the elder know the Word and hold it fast, but note also that he is a teachable man. There is no shame in an elder admitting that he does not know everything and could become more useful by sharpening his skills. Wise elders will devote some part of their meeting times together in the study of the Word (Acts 6:2,4).
In his farewell address to the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20), Paul used words like “take heed” and “watch” be- cause of threats that would come after his departure. He specifically warned of dangers coming into the church both from the outside and also rising up from within the church. These latter individuals would speak perverse or corrupt words with the intent of drawing away followers as their disciples.
Elders must always be watching and weighing the spirit of the ministry given in the church. In spite of the dangers of false doctrine, there is never the slightest hint in the New Testament that the free exercise of the priesthood of the believer is too risky and ought to be replaced by a one and only speaker who, because he is hand- picked and authorized, will say only things that are “safe.” As in those early days, so the church today must receive teaching through a healthy number of trusted brethren, and the elders will always, as a matter of oversight, be ensuring that the food given to the flock is sound and edifying, for they bear the ultimate responsibility for the feeding of the flock (Acts 20:28).
Prov. 11:14 reminds us that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety,” and we can picture a team of elders exchanging counsel on the profitability of ministry given by those who visit and those who share in the regular teaching of the assembly. This wise plan is God’s design, and allows young men who have some gift in opening the Word to edify the very congregation where they are well known. How different from groups where the gifts of men in the congregation can lie dormant while the church calls in strangers to fill the “empty pulpit.”
Finally, it should go without saying that whatever dangers might come through the pubic preaching, can be even more insidious when passed on quietly in private conversations. Thankfully, the Lord has His ways of bringing these things to light to elders who make it a regular practice to “watch and pray.”
A past article in ESN (May, 2004) was devoted to the necessity of elders being willing to confront difficult people and situations when required. Here is one area where boldness is a great virtue. Elders can- not afford to sit quietly by while diseased teaching upsets the church and undermines the faith. How many congregations have been decimated by error disguised as “exciting new truth,” while the overseers stood silently by?
Using some strong words in Titus 1:9- 10, Paul describes the false teachers as “gainsayers” (KJV) or “those who contradict” (NKJV), “insubordinate, …idle talkers, and deceivers” who undermine the faith of believers with a motive of personal gain (vs. 11). As peace-loving men, elders are probably reluctant to enter into controversy with men who may be in great favor with the people of the church. Whenever possible, such confrontations should be handled privately. But there are times when elders must take a public stand to refute error, and even reject those who bring false doctrines. How much of this is to be inferred from the statement “whose mouths must be stopped” (vs. 11) can only be guessed!
Not long ago, the writer witnessed a situation where elders felt constrained to confront men whose teaching had crippled the assembly through legalism for many years. The process was painful and required real courage, but the outcome was delightful. One elder was heard to remark that the very tone of the fellowship times had a new freshness, as friends were now coming in and cold hearts were thawing out, giving way to smiles and hugs of endearment, as the Word was received with joy and rejoicing.
Many young people today are growing up in a permissive society where it is nor- mal to be suspicious of, or even resent authority. Even after conversion, some of this may hold over in their thinking. In time they will grow, but in the meantime, it is especially important that all admonition and correction be undertaken in a Christlike spirit of sincerity and grace.
Paul told Timothy to “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine….” ( I Tim 4:16). This advice is just as needful today as when written. Elders who labor in the Word and doctrine (I Tim. 5:17) do a good work and should be honored. Why? The flesh longs to be soothed and made to feel good. Teachers who tickle “itching ears” (II Tim. 4:3) can win a place in the hearts of young believers as they tell of their exploits and travels and make the audience laugh with their jokes. But this will not build sound doctrine into the hearts of the saints! Protecting the Church from False Teachers (cont. from page 2)It is hard work to learn good doctrine. But it is critical so that faulty doctrine can be recognized.
Living as we do in a world of lawsuits, elders must be wise in handling necessary disciplines regarding false teaching. They must never think: “Such things could never happen to us.” Keeping dated notes of meetings, and making sure that difficult public statements about persons involved in doctrinal or moral difficulties are carried out, with writ- ten copies available to all in the fellowship, will provide helpful safe- guards. Accusations and inflammatory statements should be avoided, and the simple statement of the error and consequent action should be written as if it might become evidence in court. It has happened to some!
Elders who work at being gentle and gracious shepherds without giving up their calling as “overseers” or watchmen will not find their assembly falling apart because the foundations have been eroded. Rather, they will be an encouragement to healthy growth among God’s people.