Since We Have Elders, What is the Role of the Congregation?

August 8, 2008

(This is a summary of the fifth sermon in the six-part series, “God Gave Pastors and Teachers,” preached on July 13, 2008. The audio is available here.)

What roles does the congregation play in the leadership of the church?

Do the pastors/elders have all authority, which the congregation must always follow?

Or is the congregation the final authority on every issue, able to overturn any decision of the elders/pastors?

How should a member of the congregation think about the pastors and elders?

Today and next Sunday we will look at several biblical passages that shed light on this question. We will see that the Bible clearly teaches that members should honor, respect, indeed, love their leaders. And they must submit to them.

But in the end it is the congregation as a whole that is responsible that the church teaches right doctrine. Elders are sheep, and some will wander from the truth – and will attempt to lead others astray. The church not only may but must deal with an errant elder.

We’ll look at four responsibilities of members of the congregation, which will serve as our outline. Next week’s sermon on how to deal with disappointments in elders will continue this theme.

The congregation must honor and esteem the elders 1 Thes 5:12-13, 1 Tim 5:17

The congregation must imitate their elders Heb 13:7

The congregation must obey/submit to their elders Heb 13:17

The congregation must watch over the teaching, purity, and unity of the church

The congregation must honor and esteem the elders

Last week we looked at 1 Timothy 5:17:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

We said that while some subset of the elders is worthy of the additional honor of receiving monetary support, the congregation should honor them all. God has called them. They are His gifts to the church. So honor and respect is due to them

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 states this very strongly:

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

The very fact that Paul gives this command implies that we are tempted NOT to do this. Some in Thessalonica must have been failing to honor and respect and love their elders. This is a common problem in the church today – especially in the US, where we put a high value on individualism, on not being just a follower. We tend to be suspicious of authority.

But even in cultures not individualistic like ours, there is still this tendency NOT to respect elders. Why?

In part, because of the very nature of their position, as Paul details: They “are over you in the Lord, and admonish you.” As pastors preach the whole counsel of God and applying it to individual lives, some of what they say will cut and hurt. We as a rule don’t like to be admonished. We tend to attack the messenger, saying, “Who is he to speak to me that way?”

Paul says: None of that! Instead, he uses the most powerful language possible. He says not only, “Respect them,” but, “Esteem them very highly. ” The Greek word translated “very highly” is much stronger than the English phrase. One lexicon says this is the “highest form of comparison imaginable.” So we might render this “esteem them infinitely highly.”

And note what Paul commands in addition to respecting and esteeming them: “Esteem them infinitely highly IN LOVE.” You see, this is not just an issue of the head. It is also an issue of the heart. He is saying, “Hold them in your hearts. See them as God’s gifts to you. Love them dearly. Hold them up in prayer. Listen carefully to their teaching. Value their labor.”

Note: This is not Paul’s suggestion. This is biblical command, for God’s glory and for the good of the church. He says as much in the last phrase in the verse. “Be at peace among yourselves.” That is: When the congregation follows these biblical commands, when elders follow the biblical commands to them, then the local church will be at peace. There will be no factions, and there will be no friction. Then the church can be what God intends: A display of His glory for all to see. Indeed, a display of Jesus Christ through the love we have one for another.

Second command: The congregation must imitate their elders

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7).

To remember is to keep them in mind, to think about their lives, to see how God’s Word has worked in them, changing them, rooting out sin, equipping them. Learn from their lives – and then imitate them.

In 2 Timothy 3, Paul says the same:

10 ¶ You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance,  11 persecutions, sufferings– what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.  . . .  14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it,

What was the outcome of Paul’s way of life? He’s about to be beheaded! But Paul says: Imitate me. Follow me. Consider the more important outcome of my way of life: God is glorified among the nations!

Just so, the author of Hebrews tells his readers: Imitate your leaders. But he doesn’t quite say that, does he? What does he say? Imitate THEIR FAITH!

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Learn from their faith. Focus on the good lessons from their lives. To the extent that they provide a good example of the life of faith, follow that.

He is NOT saying, “Imitate their actions, their dress, their mannerisms, or their hair style. No. Imitate their following of Jesus. Imitate their letting the Word dwell richly in them. Imitate their love and concern for others. Whatever is God-centered, Christ-exalting in them – imitate that.

Third Command: Obey/Submit to elders

Hebrews 13:17 NIV: Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Now perhaps some of you are thinking, “Oh boy, here’s the place where he tells us we’ve got to do whatever he and Fred say.” If that’s what your thinking, please listen carefully to the rest of sermon. For I’m not saying you must do whatever I say. Indeed, what I say doesn’t matter. What does God’s Word say? Listen, and I think you may be surprised.

Three weeks ago we talked about elders keeping watch over the souls of the flock, of their having to give an account. So let’s focus on the other parts of the verse.

“Obey your leaders and submit to them.” What does the word “submit” imply?

Suppose I tell my son Joel, “You must drink this Sonic strawberry limeade I bought for you!” If he drinks it, is that submission? He may drink it with a submissive and respectful attitude towards me, but his obedience is not really a test of his submission, because he wanted to drink it anyway.

But if I say: “Joel, would you please clean out the kitty litter?” And he does it – that is submission. He didn’t want to do it. He would have preferred someone else to do it. But he submitted – hopefully with joy – and cleaned it out.

Do you see what I’m saying? The test of submission comes when there is a difference of opinion about the way to proceed. Submission is not tested when you agree, or when you are eventually convinced the other person is right.

So Hebrews 13:17 is saying: “There will be times when you disagree with your elders/pastors. Submit to them. Follow them. They are there as leaders, as gifts to this church.”

Now, the author is NOT saying: “Whenever there is a disagreement, the elders are always right.” Just as in marriage: When the husband and wife disagree about the right way to proceed, the husband is not always right. Nevertheless – with qualifications yet to come – it is right, good, healthy, and God-honoring for the wife to submit even if her husband is wrong. And the same holds in the church.

We see that in the rest of the verse: “Obey and submit . . . SO THAT they might [lead and keep watch] with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no benefit to you.”

Did you catch that? The elders’ joy in their leading and keeping watch is vital for YOUR BENEFIT. It is vital for YOUR ADVANTAGE.

Now, hear me: Submission in the church as in marriage is:

  • perfectly consistent with discussion and persuasion about alternatives,
  • perfectly consistent with times of brainstorming, when everyone puts ideas on the table,
  • Perfectly consistent with times of advocating, discussing pros and cons of different ideas,
  • Perfectly consistent with creativity, and taking initiative.

But at times, a decision must be made. Leaders must lead. And if when the elders propose and lead, you are frequently saying, “No, we should go a different direction; they’re not right;” if you are frequently resisting, thereby making their leadership difficult, that diminishes their joy in their labors. Indeed, that can lead to their groaning in their labors. And that is BAD – for whom? Not just for the elders. Not primarily for the elders. That is bad, says Hebrews 13:17, for the congregation! The leaders’ joy is vital for the health of the congregation!

So the bottom line is that unity is good. Trusting your leaders is good. Respect, love, and esteem of leaders is good. Submission to leaders is good, even if they haven’t made the best decision. These attitudes and the resulting joy and unity is more important than making the best decision in any particular case.

In our vision statement, we say: “Our leaders are not lords.” A biblical leader is a servant, pouring out his life for the glory of God and the good of the people of God (Mark 10:42-45). This is a precious biblical truth, that we at DGCC have highlighted from the beginning.

But while our leaders are not lords, they are leaders. And, with the exceptions we’ll talk about in a minute, the church should joyfully, willingly submit to the leaders God gives them – for their own benefit.

Fourth Command: The congregation must watch over the teaching, purity, and unity of the church

Three brief points under this heading:

1) The Bible clearly teaches that the congregation as a whole is responsible to see that the church teaches right doctrine on major issues

Remember the opening of the book of Galatians? False teachers have arisen in the church. Paul writes this letter to counter their impact. He begins the body of the letter with these words:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. (Galatians 1:6)

“YOU are so quickly deserting.” Who is included in “YOU”? That is, who is responsible for the doctrinal purity of the church? Certainly the elders.           But the letter is addressed to “the churches of Galatia.” Then in Galatians 3:1 Paul addresses all of them as “you foolish Galatians.”

Surely had the elders lived up to their responsibilities, this letter would not have been necessary. But given that false teaching on a central issue had entered the church, it was the responsibility of every member to deal with it. And they had not done so.

The congregation is ultimately responsible for the doctrinal purity of the local church.

2) The Bible clearly teaches that the congregation as a whole is responsible for major cases of church discipline

Consider 1 Corinthians 5:4-5. Paul is discussing the case of a man who is sinning openly and publicly. The church has not yet done anything about it:

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,  5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Once again, Paul blames the entire church, not just the elders.

We see something similar in Matthew 18:17. Again, someone is engaged in clear, obvious sin, and is not repentant after entreaties from several people.  In this case, Jesus says,

Tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matthew 18:17).

As we will see next week, this discipline can and should extend to elders who clearly go wrong – for the Bible tells us that some elders will deviate from the truth, and should be disciplined.

So the congregation is responsible ultimately for the PURITY of the church, for the purity of church’s WITNESS to the world. When there is a clear case of a violation, the church as a whole must deal with it.

3) The Bible clearly teaches that the congregation has an important role in affirming leaders

Remember situation in Acts 6. The church in Jerusalem assists widows, but the Greek-speaking widows feel like they are being discriminated against. So the apostles appoint men we regard as the first deacons to organize the distribution of support.

Is that an accurate summary of the chapter? Look closely at how they appoint these men. Speaking to “the full number of the disciples” they say they shouldn’t take on this task themselves, but:

“Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3).

So while the Apostles appoint these men, the entire congregation is involved in the decision.

So when we read eight chapters later, in Acts 14:23, that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church” we shouldn’t assume that this was without congregational involvement. We don’t know exactly what that looked like. But in Acts 6 there is heavy congregational involvement, even though the apostles “appoint” the deacons. So it is no stretch at all to think there was similar heavy congregational involvement in the appointment of these elders.


Consider both a practical conclusion and a theological conclusion:

Practical Conclusion

How do we as church live out BOTH the biblical picture of elder authority and congregational submission, AND the biblical picture of congregational responsibility for right doctrine and for purity in the church?

While there is no prescription for how to do this in the Bible, our constitution lays out one biblically consistent way to accomplish it: The first elder was recognized by the congregation after being commended by the sponsoring church. Other elders are nominated by existing elders, but also must be affirmed by three-quarters of the congregation.

Our constitution, vision statement, statements of faith, and church covenant were drafted by an elder, then circulated and discussed with the congregation. Changes were then made, and the final versions were approved by the congregation.

At present, modifications to the statements of faith and the church covenant must originate with the elders, and then must be passed by a supermajority of the congregation. But the constitution, with proper notice, can be changed by a supermajority of the members of the congregation, without necessarily having the agreement of the elders.

This is key. If the elders go wrong, the congregation can fulfill its responsibility by overruling the elders, even getting rid of them, and bring the church back to biblical faithfulness. Church history shows that this is necessary at times, as predicted in Acts 20.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to lay out such procedures. But the main practical issue in the church is having the right heart attitude towards one another.

John Piper, in one of his sermons on Hebrews 13:17, summarizes this very well:

A church should have a bent toward trusting its leaders; you should have a disposition to be supportive in your attitudes and actions toward their goals and directions; you should want to imitate their faith; and you should have a happy inclination to comply with their instructions.

A bent toward trusting, a disposition to be supportive, a desire to imitate, a happy inclination to comply.

Why should you have such attitudes? You’ve GOT to see the theological grounding of all this discussion of elders and the congregation. Why is all this important?

Theological Conclusion

Go back to Acts 6: What is at stake in Acts 6? The unity of the body: The congregation acts in a way that will unite the church, that will avoid the creation of factions on linguistic grounds. The specific issue is how to care for widows. But the major concern is the witness to the world through the unity of the church. Thus, the glory of Jesus Christ is at stake.

This is behind all we’ve discussed today. The congregation is to:

  • Esteem/honor elders
  • Imitate them
  • Obey/submit to them
  • Watch over the teaching and purity of the church

All for the purpose of displaying Christ to the world, all for the purpose of living as ONE BODY to His glory. For that’s our calling, to:

  • Express joy in Christ
  • Deepen joy in Christ
  • Spread joy in Christ

God created mankind for this purpose: to display His glory. Yet in the Garden of Eden, the first man and the first woman rebelled against this purpose. Their sin stained all their natural descendants, so that each one of us is a rebel at heart. Each one of us fails to glorify God, and thus deserves His just condemnation. But God from before the beginning of time planned to unite a people for Himself from among these condemned, rebellious sinners – a people for Himself who would fulfill the purpose of mankind: To bring glory to His Name. So He sent His Son to live the perfect life God intended, and to die on the cross, paying the penalty that we deserve, so that all who trust in Him are united with Him in His death. Their sins are covered, paid for. And then these redeemed sinners become His church, His bride, His people – the people God intended to display His glory from before the beginning of time.

When you see the church in that light, you’re not tempted to think that you should focus on getting your way, exalting your status, or having your needs met. Instead, you ask: “How can we unite ourselves, so that we might effectively display Christ to the world? How can we live together under the leadership God gives us so that together we might spread joy in Christ?

All discussions of church leadership, church polity, and church constitutions, must come back to the Gospel: For we bear witness to the GOSPEL through what we are as a church.

We together are ambassadors for Christ. God is making His appeal through us, through His body, through His people, through His church. So we implore you – our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends, every tribe and tongue and people and nation: Together, as a church, through what we say and through what we do, we implore you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God!


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