ELDERS LOSE AUTHORITY WHEN THEY SEEK POWER AND CONTROL
Authority is not power and control. Power and control may work over the short term but will eventually fail. Power is the use of gift, position, and opportunity to control others so they serve the elder and his aims. Often elders claim their power is from God and they seek to justify it by well-meaning claims, but their claims are marked by destructive attitudes that bring great hurt to our Lord’s sheep. Authority, on the other hand, is the use of gift, position, and opportunity to release others at the right time so that elders and others serve Christ together. Elders do lead people, but not for their own sake. They do it because of their concern for their growth. They don’t seek power. Henri Nouwen wrote about the dangers of power: “One of the greatest ironies of … Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power…. What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people … the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.”
The apostles were concerned about the misuse of authority. In 2 Cor 1:24, Paul reminds the Corinthians of his own apostolic authority: “Not that we lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy, …” In the same letter he describes with disapproval how they reacted to certain leaders among themselves: “For you bear it if a man makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face” (11:20). Peter, too, is careful to warn the elders not to govern by “lording it over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pt 5:3). And John speaks strongly against Diotrephes “who loves to be first… even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church” (3 Jn 1:9-10). These first-century examples of church bosses indicate how easily churches can ignore the example of Jesus.
One of the ways we see in Scripture that Paul and others exercised their authority was that instead of giving orders they urged and appealed as fellow elders and brothers. In 1 Peter 5:1 he says, “I appeal as a fellow elder.” Then in Philemon, Paul clearly believes Philemon should set his slave Onesimus free, but he doesn’t deliver an edict. Instead he says, “…although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love” (Philemon 9).
Ray Stedman is now in heaven. I miss him. The church needs more elders like Ray today. Let me close with something Ray wrote several decades ago: “The task of the elders is not to run the church themselves, but to determine how the Lord in their midst wishes to run his church. Much of this he has already made known through the Scriptures, which describe the impartation and exercise of spiritual gifts, the availability of resurrection power, and the responsibility of believers to bear one another’s burdens, confess sins to one another, teach, admonish, and reprove one another, and witness to and serve the needs of a hurting world. In the day-to-day decisions which every church faces, elders are to seek and find the mind of the Lord through an uncoerced unanimity, reached after thorough and biblically-related discussion. Thus, ultimate authority, even in practical matters, is vested in the Lord and in no one else.”