Have you ever heard an influential man in the church referred to as a “leading brother?” Usually used to describe someone in leadership, the expression arose in years gone by for a number of reasons. Some assemblies did not accept the idea of a recognized group of elders, so those who led the assembly were described informally by such terms for their greater influence among the flock. In other places, the elders were a known group, but a particular brother stood out due to outstanding gifts or leadership qualities, and could be identified as the “spark plug” of the team. In still other cases, one man came to hold such a place of prominence, that his involvement and ultimately his will eclipsed the gift and participation of his brethren. As time passed, he became a sort of bishop presiding over the elders. It is this latter situation that we want to consider in this article. Perhaps a practical question will help. What do you do when one elder becomes de facto the head elder, and virtually runs the assembly? The actual cause might range from an over active ego, to the natural result over time of letting the “eager beaver” do it all. The question is important because no matter what the cause, the result is nearly always a bad one. Before thinking about how this problem might be resolved, it will be helpful to understand some of the conditions that helped produce it.
Good leadership is important to the church. To be healthy, a local church needs an active and functioning leadership team to feed and protect the flock. The Biblical model seen throughout the NT is not a lone individual in charge, but a team of men working together, sharing the load. In spite of the differences these men will have in energy, availability, personality, natural talent and spiritual gift, the integrity of the team will depend on its own ability to maintain a sort of equilibrium in the application of authority. If this balance becomes lopsided, problems can follow. In many cases, substantial time is devoted to making and implementing church decisions, leaving little time for attention to unity, harmony and relationship building. Thus the assembly can become vulnerable to faulty decisions since the safety provided by the multitude of counselors (Prov. 11:14 KJV) has been undermined—not so much by neglect in the decision making process, but by a breakdown of team relationships that protect the objective participation of every brother.
What to do?
In ideal situations, problems stemming from lack of balance can be dealt with and corrected from within the leadership itself. Certainly, elders have the authority to deal with their own problems. Each brother must view his role in the church as a trust from God. Frank and honest discussion, and respect for the Biblical injunction to prefer one another in honor will go a long way in maintaining a healthy balance of responsibility within the leadership. But what about situations where one man has dominated for years, and no ones seems able (or willing) to address the problem?
First some diagnostic questions: Is the situation seen for what it really is – a problem? Have those who are aware of it brought it to the Lord in prayer? If neglect of duty or lack of exercise by the men of the church contributed to the one brother taking on more than his share, has this been admitted and repented of? Has appeal been made to the zealous brother, not with a critical spirit, but with an attitude of appreciation for all the work he has done? Is there a real desire to see the brother restored to a fitting place as one among equals, or is every thought now devoted to removing him? Only when such questions have been honestly faced, can we inquire about more serious measures.
Scripture does not have a lot to say about such situations in the church. Certainly some good lessons can be learned in principle about strong willed leaders in the Old Testament, especially during the early years of Israel’s monarchy. Consider Saul, the man who could not relinquish power, Absalom, the man who would stop at nothing to gain it, and Rehoboam, the man who abused it once he had it. What a contrast to the good example of men like David who wielded authority rightly.
In the church, aside from direct intervention by the Lord (which unfortunately, in some cases may be the only answer), there are three logical possibilities as to how to deal with the problem. The first, a confrontation by the congregation, may create more problems than it solves. Without question, godly elders should desire a voluntary accountability to the people among whom they labor. But we are discussing a situation where there probably has been no such accountability for years. Furthermore, even though elders must be known and submitted to by the people, the ultimate source of their authority comes from God (Acts 20:28) and not the congregation. So it is of questionable value to expect the people to change (or remove) an elder, and in practice it usually doesn’t happen anyway.
The second possibility is for the other elders to face and deal with the situation. It will help if they have already established some guidelines as to what qualifies (and disqualifies) an elder for service. In order to restore a healthy working relationship, there will probably need to be some repentance by any who have not been functioning, and a new commitment to distribute the work load more evenly. When the controlling elder is strong willed and cannot submit to anyone else, the other elders will need to take loving but firm action to deal with him. Support for this difficult work is essential at such a time. The people of the church should pray fervently. Help might also come from outside the assembly which leads us to the third option; assistance from a trusted Christian servant in the larger body of Christ.
The apostle John faced a domineering man named Diotrephes (III John 1:9) in one of the assemblies he visited. He does not say what action he would take, only that he would remember that man’s deeds when he came. At the least, it implies some help to the assembly from a respected brother coming in from the outside. Paul, in writing instructions to Timothy, is more explicit about dealing with elders who need correction. He writes; “Them that sin, rebuke before all that others may fear….” (I Tim. 5:20). Based on these passages, it does not seem unreasonable for an assembly struggling with an unaccountable brother to request help from respected servants of God who have maintained a long standing relationship with the particular local church.
There are no easy answers. But the idea of “peace at any price” must give way to the greater good of a healthy, balanced leadership team. At stake is the blessing and growth of the Lord’s work, and the testimony of the church in that locale. One thing is certain, younger men will never desire to share in the work of feeding the flock if it means going along with a rubber stamp kind of leadership. A true working plurality is one of the hallmarks of the New Testament church, and must be preserved blameless before the saints and the world. There is only One qualified to be the Head of the Church: the Lord Jesus Christ.