Over the last several years, I have asserted what I take to be an axiomatic statement: If you are not part of building congregational community under an eldership, you are outside of the will of God. This could be due to rebellion to the revealed will of God, or it could be out of ignorance of the Word of God and the biblical norm to be part of a local expression of the congregation of Yeshua.
The form this community takes is flexible. It might be expressed in weekly gatherings with a preacher and worship team, or it could be expressed in a house congregation. It might be liturgical or free-form.
Those Not Interested
Sadly, I am finding many who cannot hear this word. One group that is not hearing is the young adults who see congregational life as largelyirrelevant. Their sense is, “been there, done that”. Perhaps they had a faulty or dysfunctional model of congregational life. Perhaps they were never discipled in the meaning and importance of congregational life. Some try a more emergent, edgy group; while others simply stop fellowshipping with believers. Either way they can easily lose their faith.
There is a second group, some of whom are older believers who spent years in congregational life. They are now dropouts. I am watching some drop out in their later 50’s and 60’s. This often stems from dissatisfaction with leadership capability, along with disappointment in the lack of vibrancy and stability of congregational life. Sometimes it is a reaction to abuse from leaders. Unimpressive results lead to questioning a lifetime of commitment. This is taking place in Israel and elsewhere.
Patty and I have ministered to many people who came from abusive leadership situations. Thankfully some of them have received healing. We always ask one question in counseling them:
“Why did you submit yourself to this particular leader or leadership?“
Many reasons are given: teaching quality, worship, classes, youth programs, etc. Generally, people choose their congregation without really knowing the character qualifications of the leaders. Yet, in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, the character qualificationsfor elders are central and more important than the gifts and talents of the leader. When these qualifications are not maintained on a basic level then a crisis is likely.
We have sought to minister healing to people who left congregations due to two common leadership tragedies. One is a leader committing adultery. The other is a leader personally abusing by putting others down, losing his temper and engaging in manipulation and wrong control. The latter can also be expressed in a wrong doctrine of shepherding. Here members, attracted to a strong teaching gift, are told that they should not choose personal directions for their lives unless the leaders agree and confirm these decisions. In addition, congregants are told that the leader is the anointed of God and not to touch God’s anointed1.
Standing Firm on Leadership Standards
The issue is that of a real eldership and deaconate that fulfills the basic standards of I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The basic standards are:
“Above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, and see that his children obey him with proper respect. He must not be a novice or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders.” (I Timothy 3:2-7)
First Peter 5 adds the gifting of being able to teach and shepherd the flock.
Some years ago when I was teaching at a leadership meeting on enforcing such standards, one leader stood up and said that if we required these standards, half the pastors would have to resign! I am not speaking of continual perfection in achieving these standards, but there should be a general and normal life pattern that does fulfill them. They are attainable. I responded at that meeting by saying that if half did resign, then people would be in larger congregations with qualified leaders. Out of such right order would come new leaders who were produced from a healthier context.
Avoiding Communities with Unqualified and Abusive Leaders
The issue I am dealing with here is the abuse of the people who are under unqualified leaders. Abusing the sheep is itself disqualifying. The answer to this problem is that leaders who do qualify should practically and verbally support godly standards in other leaders. We need to build a consensus and demand that we have godly leaders. We also need to promote a strong word that people should only join congregations with qualified leaders. Yet how can they know?
First, they should look for an accountable leader who is in mutual submission to a plurality of qualified leaders, both within “his” congregation and in other local congregations. In addition, it is good if local congregational leaders are in association with out-of-area leaders in a real accountability relationship.
Secondly, it is important to look beyond programs and meetings to ask who will testify that the leader really fulfills I Timothy 3 standards. If there is not a strong testimony by other respected leaders, then it is best to not join the congregation.
A healthy community under the leadership of truly qualified leaders is a wonderful thing. It greatly enriches us to have life together in such a community. Conversely, the pain from abusive leadership can be deep. Much healing may be needed. Each person needs to check his heart. We need to repent if we joined a congregation for the wrong reasons, setting up an idol by allowing something less important to supersede obeying the Bible’s standards for leadership. A good experience in a weekly gathering is not a sufficient reason to join a congregation.
Let us hope and pray that in these last days, the Body of Believers will regain the higher standards for the sake of Yeshua, His Kingdom and all of God’s people.