The importance of godly leadership among the people of God is written large on the pages of Holy Scripture. Both Old and New Testaments affirm the deep concern of God that His people have leaders who will guide them in right paths. And the influence and effect of the leaders on the course and conduct of the people is most evident. Godly leadership has resulted in obedience to God on the part of the people; weak and wicked leaders have led into paths of disobedience and departure.
In the early days of their national history, God gave to Israel Moses and his successor Joshua. In Judges 2:7 we find the significant words:
And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord, that He did for Israel.
But, in spite of the fact that God raised up various judges to call the nation back to Himself, when we come to the close of this book of Judges we find a leaderless people, and the record closes on the tragic note of 21:25:
In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
As a result we have a sad scene of national failure, religious apostasy, moral corruption, civil strife and individual lawlessness.
The six books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles record the history of Israel as a monarchy, first as a united nation, then as the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah. During this period, God’s ideal leader was David, whom He took from before the flock of his father Jesse at Bethlehem to lead the flock of God (II Samuel 7:8). But the majority of the kings, particularly in Israel, were wicked men and, as a result, the nation drifted further and further down the path of apostasy until, as we read in 11 Chronicles 36:16, “there was no remedy” and the nation was carried into captivity. The few bright spots in this dark picture are provided by the reigns of a small minority of good kings in Judah who sought to lead the people back to God.
There are those who would agree with all this, but who, nevertheless, feel that the unique character of the present church age presents a different situation in which human leadership is unnecessary and even incompatible with the Lordship of Christ and the liberty of the Holy Spirit. That this view is erroneous and neither practical nor scriptural is quite clear from a consideration of the apostolic era as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. At no other period in the Church’s history has the Lordship of Christ and the liberty of the Holy Spirit been more acknowledged, and yet at the same time the leadership of elders was most prominent. Ten times in the book of Acts we find reference made to elders, and on six of these occasions the apostles and elders were acting in conjunction. It was the elders at Ephesus whom Paul called to meet him at Miletus (Acts 20), and these he addressed as “overseers” in verse twenty-eight, exhorting them to “feed the Church of God.” The word “feed” in this verse is the verb form of “pastor,” and is literally “shepherd.” Thus, these elders were, clearly, the ones responsible for the leadership in the assembly at Ephesus.
The teaching of the New Testament is that Spirit-made elders (Acts 20:28) are the guides or leaders of the local assembly of believers, and as such are to be obeyed (Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24). Such are not overlords (I Pet. 5:3), but are under-shepherds (v.4).
In I Chronicles 12:32 we read of men who came to David to Ziklag in the time of his rejection.
And of the children of Issachar) which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment.
Here were men admirably suited to be patterns for elders in today’s assemblies They were knowledgeable men, who “had understanding of the times;” wise and practical men, “to know what Israel ought to do;” and leaders, for “all their brethren were at their commandment.” Their knowledge and practical wisdom brought them recognition as leaders with their brethren, and gave weight to their words so that their advice was followed. So it should be with the spiritual guides in today’s assemblies.
In considering the leadership of elders, let us think of three areas in which the elders must provide leadership. These areas are: 1) Truth, 2) Trends, 3) Trouble. There are PATHS OF TRUTH in which the Lord’s people must be led. This calls for SPIRITUAL leadership. There are POPULAR TRENDS which could lead the saints astray. This creates a need for SENSIBLE leadership. There are PERILS AND PROBLEMS when TROUBLE comes into the assembly. This demands STRONG leadership.
I. SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP IN PATHS ACCORDING TO THE WORD OF GOD.
Surely all would agree that spiritual leadership in paths of Truth is the basic responsibility of the elder in the New Testament assembly. Whatever else he may or may not be, an elder must be a brother who is taught in the ways of God. He must know the Truth. He must be convinced it is the Truth. He must refuse to be swayed from the Truth.
We have already noted Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28 to “shepherd the church of God.” One of the prime responsibilities of a shepherd would certainly be that of leading the flock in right paths. Writing to Titus, Paul describes a bishop (or elder) as one characterized by:
Holding fast the faithful Word, as he hath been taught, that he may by sound doctrine, both to exhort and to convince the gainsayer (1:9).
The spiritual guides who were to be remembered by the Hebrew believers, according to Hebrews 13:7, were those who “have spoken unto You the Word of God”. And the exhortation of Hebrews 12:13 would certainly apply to all leaders of the Lord’s people:
Make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way, but rather let it be healed.
The New Testament teaching does not require that all elders be what we might term “platform teachers.” Only some are such, as inferred in I Timothy 5:17 where we read:
Let the elders that rule well be counted nor, especially worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the Word and doctrine (or teaching).
But all elders should be “apt to teach” (I Timothy 3:2). Much teaching can be done in private (and should be), and there is a broad field for personal counseling. Furthermore, the elder should lead the saints in the paths of truth by the godly example of his personal and family life.
II. SENSIBLE LEADERSHIP IN REGARD TO POPULAR TRENDS.
Every age has its fads and fancies. Trends set in and are followed by the majority. Tragically, this is also true of professing Christians, many of whom might correctly be termed “weathervane Christians”-they swing around whichever way the prevailing wind is blowing. Like sheep they follow the crowd. Some popular trends are relatively harmless fads that will soon be gone and forgotten. Others indicate dangerous drifts that may create serious problems and pitfalls if allowed to go unchecked.
Each period has its trends in speech, in music, in dress, in actions, which may at first sight appear quite harmless, even amusing. Some Christians, particularly younger ones, feel that they must adopt the latest fashions in dress, speech, music and deportment, if they are to keep abreast of the times. These have not learned that the Christian marches to a heavenly drumbeat that the world cannot hear.
Here is where sensible leadership is invaluable. This is not an area where we have definite Scriptures to guide us. It is a grey area. Truth and error are black and white, with no room for intermingling. But trends are in the grey area. Sensible leaders will determine the true nature of the trend and how best to deal with it. This will likely call for the united conferring of the oversight for, “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11: 14). It will be prayerfully decided just how much attention should be paid to the trend. Should it be allowed to wither on the vine, or should it be decisively incised by the sharp edge of the Word if Scriptural principles are involved? Sensible leaders will know where the line should be drawn between the personal liberty of the individual-which must not be infringed upon-and the public testimony of the assembly-which must not be damaged. In an age when time-honored standards of dress and decorum are increasingly being cast overboard, it behooves the assembly leaders to maintain standards of reverence befitting the presence of the Lord in our midst (Psalm 89:7). Slovenly attire, slang language, irreverent actions, and thinly-disguised rock and roll music should have no place on the platforms of New Testament assemblies. Here is where the elders among God’s people should heed Paul’s inspired words:
Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conduct, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
But there are truly dangerous trends in every age, and the most dangerous are in the area of doctrine. Certain actions are propagated by prominent persons; they become popular fads, and those with little spiritual discernment are carried away by them. Looking back over half a century, one recalls many such doctrinal trends which for a time carried many away from the paths of truth. Today, the most extensive one is the so called charismatic movement or neo-pentecostalism. In regard to the modern tongues movement, too many even in assemblies are adopting an easy-going, fence-straddling attitude. “We don’t propagate it, but we don’t oppose it,” is the Laodician stance of many. If it is Scriptural, then we should promote it. If it is unscriptural we should oppose it. Let us be hot or cold on the matter, not a nauseating lukewarm (Revelation 3:1516)!
Then there is the growing resurgence of ultra-Calvinism. This has always appealed to some who like to think of themselves as the intellectuals; but it has a withering effect on the souls of the saints, and stultifies an aggressive gospel testimony.
All of us are aware of the popular movements in today’s society regarding the so-called rights of women-the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Equal Opportunity Act, etc., etc. Some of it is silly, some is sickening, some is sacrilegious-but all is serious! Serious because it creates an atmosphere in which Christian women are tempted to step outside the sphere assigned to them by the Lord in His Word . This is not the place for the development of the Scriptural teaching on this subject, save to emphasize the need on the part of godly elders for sensible leadership in maintaining Church order as laid down in the New Testament. The invaluable service of Christian women in the assembly should certainly be utilized to the full, but always within the guidelines of Scripture. One hears of an increasing demand in some assemblies for public participation by the sisters, and there is a growing disregard for the God honoring head-covering of Christian women. When any of these modern trends become discernible in the local assembly it is the responsibility of the elders to prayerfully reach a united decision as to the Scriptural course for the assembly to take. No allowance should be made for the public or private teaching of that which is contrary to the Word of God. If such a firm attitude is adopted it will save from sorrow and trouble in the assembly.
III. STRONG LEADERSHIP AMID THE PERILS AND PROBLEMS OF TROUBLE
Trouble among the saints of God is always deplorable and is devilish in origin. Satan is a troublemaker, and he delights in disturbing the peace of the people of God.
For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints (I Cor. 14:33).
There are not wanting those who can be used by Satan as his tools in this sad business of troublemaking. The Church of the first century was plagued with this problem, so we need not be surprised to find it confronting the Church of today. We have already referred to Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders:
For I know this, that after my departing, shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves (Acts 20:29-30).
The message to the Gentile churches from the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15, begins with the words:
Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you . . . (v.24).
To the Galatians, Paul declared:
There be some that trouble you and would pervert the Gospel of Christ (1:7). and “he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be” (5:10 … “I would that they were cut off that trouble you” (v. 12).
So there is nothing new about trouble: Let us consider three of the major causes of trouble among the saints-deception, dissension, division.
TROUBLE THROUGH DECEPTION
It is not likely that the grievous wolves of whom Paul warned in Acts 20:29 came among the believers as wolves, but rather as wolves in sheep’s clothing, as our Lord had previously warned:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15).
Peter, who had undoubtedly heard his Lord’s warning, wrote:
There were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you (II Peter 2:1).
His inspired description of these false teachers is quite striking. He describes them as those “who bring in stealthily destructive sects (Gr.). Their ways are termed destructive, and their words well-turned.” Could anything more accurately describe the false cults that are proliferating today? These cults, with their insidious teaching, must be exposed by the careful shepherds of the flock. The Apostle John adds his warnings:
Many false prophets have gone out into the world (I John 4:1).
And these he designates as deceivers (II John 7). Jude writes of men who “came in stealthily” (v.4). These warnings of deception surely emphasize the need for strong leadership on the part of elders with spiritual discernment, who will expose such deceivers.
TROUBLE THROUGH DISSENSION
In most local assemblies there is a small, but often vocal, minority of discontents. While the majority of the Christians are happily and heartily engaged in carrying on the testimony for the glory of God and the blessing of saved and unsaved, these dissatisfied complainers eagerly watch for something to criticize. Whereever there’s a problem, there you will find these critics, seeking to aggravate and enlarge the trouble. Usually these unhappy dissidents are afflicted with an overdose of chronic self-pity, and feel themselves to be completely overlooked and unappreciated. The poet wrote of such:
A little seed lay in the ground, and soon began to sprout,
“Now which of all the flowers around,” it mused, “will I come out?”
“The lily’s face is fair and proud, but just a trifle cold,
“The rose, I think, is rather loud, and then its fashion’s out.”
“The violet is all very well, but not a flower I’d choose,
Nor yet the Canterbury bell, I never cared for blues.”
“And so it criticized each flower, this supercilious seed,
Until it woke one summer hour AND FOUND ITSELF A WEED!”
But the tragedy is that these carnal discontents and chronic complainers can often secure a hearing and work untold harm, breeding serious trouble among the saints. Such a situation demands strong leadership on the part of the elders to silence these troublemaking talkers.
TROUBLE THROUGH DIVISION
This is the most serious, and it is that to which dissension and discord will lead, unless nipped in the bud. Division among the people of God is a tragedy to be abhorred and avoided. It grieves the Lord, dishonors His Name, weakens His testimony, delights the devil, and gives the enemies of the Truth an opportunity to blaspheme. This is not the place for an extended discussion of the subject, but the writer has strong feelings on the matter of division. For fifty years he has refused to condone or fellowship with division, or with those who promote or participate in it. There is nothing indefinite in the Scripture teaching regarding division. Paul’s sad and solemn prediction was:
Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:30).
Who are the division-makers? “Men … of your own selves.”
How do they cause division? By “speaking perverse things.”
What is their objective? “To draw away disciples after them”
There is no uncertainty nor ambiguity in the Scriptural instructions as to how to deal with division and those who cause it. The malady is dangerous, the remedy must be drastic. This is not the place for sentimentality or partiality. The inspired apostolic injunction is clear and concise:
Now I beseech you brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple (Romans 16:17-18).
We conclude our study with a clarion call for strong leadership in dealing with division. This is no place for weaklings nor men-pleasers. Nip division in the bud, before it blossoms, and produces its bitter fruits. Expose and condemn it as soon as it raises its ugly head; and if it develops then, brethren, “quit you like men, be strong” and carry out the divine commandment to mark the division-makers, avoid them, turn from them and refuse to fellowship with them.
MAY GOD GIVE US STRONG, SPIRITUAL, SENSIBLE LEADERS IN THESE CLOSING DAYS!
H.G. Mackay Presented at S.E. Workers Conference, Greensboro, North Carolina – 1976.