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Jeramie Rinne on Church Elders (Interview by Matthew Claridge)

The resurgence of interest in church polity is something that has taken many by surprise. Organizations like 9Marks churn out book after book, podcast after podcast, and article after article on this topic with gusto and, apparently, an eager public. Frankly, I count myself among those hungry for more. 9Mark’s success in an area usually considered the “Valley of Dry Bones” for most seminarians and lay people alike is attributed, I believe, to infusing church polity with a theological vision and purpose.

That distinctive hallmark can be seen once again in the newest booklet from 9Mark’s “Building Healthy Churches” series. Jeramie Rinne, who serves as senior pastor at South Shore Baptist Church in Higham, MA and regularly contributes to the 9Marks Journal as well as other venues, has written a practical and theologically rich treatment on Church Elders: How To Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus.

imagesYou state that “elders” are not an optional feature in church life. Everyone agrees that leadership is important, why this kind of leadership?

The short answer is the apostles specifically installed elders to lead the churches that they planted.  For example, Paul told Titus, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5).  Churches aren’t “straightened out” until they have pastoral, elder leadership in place.  A church without shepherding elders is a disordered church.

The longer answer involves the very nature of church itself.  Local churches are first and foremost spiritual families.  Churches are assemblies of people who have been united to Jesus by faith and by the Holy Spirit in order to display God’s glory.  Therefore churches need more than just good organizational leadership.  They specifically need spiritual leadership—i.e. leadership provided by godly men who proclaim and obey God’s word with the goal of leading people toward Christ-likeness for God’s glory.

In pastoral theology, the categories of Prophet, Priest, and King are often used to describe pastoral leadership. Do you find this a helpful paradigm? Should a elder manifest all the qualities associated with these offices?

I actually don’t find those categories for leadership that helpful, or even very biblical.  While the offices of prophet, priest and king exist in the Old Testament, the Bible doesn’t use them as paradigms or metaphors for leadership styles.  When prophet, priest and king are used in this way, it feels a bit like a biblical skin is being pulled over a modern personality test.

It seems to me more helpful to adopt the dominant biblical paradigm for spiritual leadership, namely the “shepherd.”  As shepherds, all elders should feed, protect and lead God’s flock well.  That being said, every elder is unique, and each one brings a different personality, gifting and life experience to that common shepherding task.  This is also one of the reasons elder plurality is such a blessing for the church: these differences among elders can complement and balance one another.

How can you encourage lay elders to feel like “real pastors”?

Allow your lay elders to carry out functions in your church that people typically associate with the role of a paid pastor.  Let elders lead communion, perform baptisms, preach sermons, visit the sick, and provide counsel.  When elders perform these functions it communicates their pastoral status to the congregation, and to themselves.

Do you see a difference between an “elder led” vs. “elder rule” model of ministry? Do you have a preference (or a biblical conviction)? And how does a decision here work out practically in how the elders serve the church?

The difference between “elder led” and “elder rule” lies in the authority of the congregation, or lack thereof, in relationship to the elders.  In elder led churches, the elders lead and direct the affairs of the church.  But the congregation still has the final authority and responsibility before God for the doctrine, discipline, and leadership of the church.  So in elder led churches, for example, the congregation typically elects its elders.

In an elder ruled church, the elders have an authority that is not answerable to the congregation in some significant way.  Elders in an elder ruled church might make major decisions without any congregational vote, or might have the sole power to choose and elect fellow elders.

I am convinced that the elder led model more closely reflects the biblical pattern.  Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom to the church, not the elders (Matthew 18:18;cf. 16:19).  While elders have an authority to lead the church and church members have a responsibility to obey their leaders, that elder authority is not absolute.  When explaining the governance of our church, I like to say that we are an elder led, congregational church. This tension best reflects the biblical pattern.

We all know that an elder needs to be able to teach. Should an elder also be someone who loves to read? Or, to put it another way, are “blue collar” redneck elders an oxymoron?

No.  Blue collar, redneck elders are not an oxymoron.  An elder need not necessarily be highly educated or widely read.  The scriptures only require that an elder be well taught and faithful to that teaching: “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).  Were first-century elders well-read?  Wasn’t Peter an unschooled fisherman?  Should elders and pastors in developing nations without access to lots of books be disqualified?  We need to be careful not to impose modern, Western ideals onto the biblical qualifications for elders.

That being said, elders in modern, Western churches should strive to read more.  Given the complexities of Western life under the conditions of advanced modernity, and given the massive resources available, elders living in the United States, for example, would be foolish not to avail themselves of the opportunities to learn more so that they can faithfully articulate sound doctrine in our information age.

What is the relationship between eldership and membership?

If elders are the church’s shepherds, then membership defines the boundaries of their flock.  When an elder takes the shepherding task seriously, a logical question comes to mind, “For whom am I accountable before God?”  Every Christian in the world?  Any Christian who happens to attend a church service on a given Sunday?  And how would an elder know that a person sitting in the pew really is a believer?  Is an elder responsible for someone attends one of his church’s Bible studies weekly, but worships regularly in another congregation?  Does an elder have a pastoral authority over and responsibility for an unbeliever who attends church faithfully with his spouse?

Membership answers all these quandaries in two ways.  First, church members identifies the sheep as sheep, to the best of the church’s ability.  And second, church membership tells an elder that he is responsible for these sheep in particular, and not for other sheep.  He can still minister to unbelievers or believing non-members in the congregation.  But at the end of the day he gives an account for the church members.

How does a plurality of elders make lay eldership more feasible?

Over the years, I have grown in appreciation for the genius of elder plurality.  An elder team distributes the ministry load and provides protection against burnout.  A group of elders complement one another’s gifts and balance one another’s personalities.   Elders can shepherd and care for one another, since in the end they themselves are all sheep as well.

There are challenges to team leadership.  Decisions can move slower and unity can be elusive.  But God uses the difficulties of communal leadership to refine elders.  Ideally, a plurality of elders provides a microcosm of love and mutual care for the entire church to emulate.

Chapter seven is about “spiritual maturity.” How can we as elders and church members avoid confusing grace and godliness for giftedness?

First and foremost, churches need to read and take seriously the elder qualification lists in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5.  Interestingly, these lists focus primarily on character qualities rather than talents and abilities.  When considering an elder candidate, we need to candle the person against the words of scripture.  We should ask things like: “Does this person model Christ-like character?  Do we see the fruit of the Spirit?  Is he above reproach?”

It’s very tempting to choose elders because of their education, wealth, personality, or worldly success.  But would those people close to the potential elder consider him a model of humility, love and self-control?  Does anyone in fact know this elder well?  Who is he already shepherding and what is the fruit of that relationship?  Pay particular attention to the candidate’s track record in the church.  Does the man leave a wake of conflict wherever he goes, or does he tend to unify and build up others in the church?

All of this suggests that churches need some sort of thoughtful, deliberate process for assessing and choosing potential elders.

What are some ways to cultivate a “prayer soaked” eldership?

The most fruitful thing our elder team has done is to carve out time for extended prayer together.  In addition to our monthly elder “business” meeting, we have a monthly prayer meeting where we pray over the membership list and the needs of the church.  This gets the elders focused on the people rather than the programs and projects, as important as those may be.

Also, create opportunities for elders to pray for church members in person.  Find a way to put James 5:14-15 into practice in your context.  If you’re the pastor, ask your elders to offer public prayers.  If you’re talking with an elder and some church members, ask the elder to pray right there for those members.  The best way to soak your eldership in prayer is to pray often.

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.

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