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Elder Authority, Discipline, Sanction, and the Village Leaders

Yes, the local church is too often like a village with elders. And each village has its dynamic, culture, traditions, and power structure. All the villages have their political dynamic and the unspoken-but-felt vibe of whether one is in or out. Unfortunately, too many villages feel that they are safe from the abuses of a single chief because they have a council of elders and that is enough. But a council of elders is no guarantee against the abuses of a council of elders.

In the space of six months we have seen several high profile churches deal with the public consequences of their elders’ decisions and, in all cases one way or another, retracting previous unanimous elder-decisions.

  • The 14,000 member Mars Hill Church closed its doors. Elders who were unanimous several years ago in their disciplinary actions toward two other elders recanted their decision.
  • The elders of Harvest Bible Church in Elgin, Illinois issued an apology for their unanimously-decided rebuke of dissenting elders.
  • The elders of The Village Church issued an apology for the way they dealt with a particular church discipline issue.

How could a group of elders be so confident that they would actually engage in actions that would hurt a brother and yet a mere few years later be no longer unanimous or confident in their elder action?

These churches have (had) this in common:

  1. A high view of church discipline and pastoral authority.
  2. A strong leader of “celebrity” status.
  3. A plurality of elders.
  4. Autonomy as a local church.
  5. Strong emphasis on the life of the local church and membership obligations to the local church as the central place for their spiritual growth.

This is a recipe for plurality groupthink and the consequences are dangerous, particularly when it comes to the very delicate business of spiritual discipline, rebuke, or issuing some kind of sanctioning action, whether that is advising the congregation to not fellowship with the person charged or by exercising a group policy in relations to any individual (as in “anything that is said to one of us elders about the church will be shared with the whole body of elders”). But this problem is not just a problem in the big churches, but it is prevalent in many small churches where there is plurality of elders.

In the Providence of God, I have been on both sides of the actions of this kind of plurality groupthink that was either disciplinary or sanctioning.

Plurality groupthink is the rigid adherence to a perspective-bound narrative of any given situation combined with unwavering confidence in the rightness of the group’s position or analysis on the basis of their group’s sense of unity. Elders fall into this trap all the time. The subsequent pain on the part of those who are being dealt with by the elders results in one of faith’s biggest tests. I’ve experienced both sides.

Let’s break the definition down:

“perspective-bound narrative” – Strong leaders are naturally good at a kind of cognitive framing or narrative framing. Positively, a leader can and should be able to insinuate ideas into the minds of his or her followers that prepare them to receive the message that is being sent. As is often said, leadership is influence and leaders intuitively know that the most effective way of influencing someone is by helping them to perceive information in a way that is conducive to their desired end. I think that there are plenty of positive examples of this kind of influencing.  But, the bad side of this is that leaders can frame a narrative about an individual that makes the message they intend to share much more readily received. And a strong, intelligent leader can steer the thinking of the group that theoretically are his peers (the lay elders) so that they confidently come to conclusions that are consistent with his personal ambitions. So, for example, a leader may frame the narrative around a young critic by insinuating into the minds of all those in the plurality that the young critic is youthful, over-zealous, inexperienced, and has issues with authority. This narrative governs the perspective of the group when they begin to deal with the youth’s criticism. Plurality should be multi-perspectival, but instead it becomes perspective-bound.

“unwavering confidence in the rightness of the group’s position or analysis on the basis of the group’s sense of unity” – Many elder groups believe that unanimity is a safeguard against bad decision making. I am inclined to disagree. The quest for unanimity puts undue pressure on thinkers within the group to comply before they are fully at peace with any given decision. Unity and unanimity are not the same thing. I have often said that if my wife and I go on a romantic date to an expensive restaurant our unity would fall apart if I insisted on unanimity over our menu choices. She likes chicken. I like fish. We have great unity because we do not insist on unanimity in our date nights!

In my experience with the plurality groupthink regarding the spiritual sanctioning or discipline or rebuking of another believer I have not observed one instance where I think justice was perfectly meted out. This assertion is both a complaint about what has been done to me and a confession about what I have participated in.  I think the right thing resulted in some cases and in other cases I think we (as elders) totally screwed up. As an elder, I appeased my soul at the time because I could say “we” instead of “I” and I took too much security in the plurality. In fact, as I have stated before, I think plurality can become quite the cover for sloppy leadership. Many men would be much more hesitant to take certain actions individually that they do with full confidence collectively. Too many elders would humbly decline individually what they arrogantly demand collectively.

In the cases where a plurality acted against me I have experienced the clumsiness of elder groupthink and hubris. The first time was when five deacons handed me a pre-written letter of resignation for me to sign and when I declined to sign it I was accused of being willfully un-submissive. It  has consequently always made me a little nervous about what the effect of plurality action out of plurality groupthink might actually feel like to the person on the receiving end of it. I wish I could say that because of the experience that I had in the distant past that the pain served to safeguard me from mishandling authority in the years after.

That would be wrong. Since that first lesson in plurality action through plurality groupthink and through the years of my own involvement in plurality I have come full circle and have experienced in a small but painful way plurality action through plurality groupthink. I am grateful for that.

It would also be wrong to say that the earlier pain I experienced did not radically temper my management. Even though the new church I was in gave me the keys to the kingdom I did not seize it, but began the long and thorough process of learning about and implementing plurality, something that none of us but one in our new church had actually experienced! It is one thing, however, to establish plurality of elders; it is a totally different thing to avoid groupthink.

Some cases are easy in church discipline if you hold to traditional biblical morals. The issue of how to effectuate the church discipline is the only concern. My friend who was consciously choosing to remain in the homosexual lifestyle despite many hours of tearful discussions was excommunicated from our fellowship. He told me with a hug and tears at the time that he felt the love our body as he left. In almost every aspect of that process I feel like God gave our leadership keen wisdom and compassion. There is one aspect of that discipline that I wish I could take back. I think we were unjust. Over ten years later I wrote my friend a personal and contrite letter expressing my sorrow and shame for the blindness and lack of gospel understanding I had during the process. And he forgave me.

But in that case was still a measure of objectivity. You are or are not practicing homosexuality. However, on the occasion of church discipline that involved “divisiveness” as one of the charges, I have serious qualms. “Divisiveness” is one of the go-to sins that elders use to banish a problem child. I will write another blog piece on that particular sin because I am convinced that nine times out of ten it is used wrongly, but I think that we all can admit that particular sin is dangerously subjective. Just because something or someone has the effect of dividing does not mean something or someone is divisive. More on that later. Suffice it to say here that this is the most used accusation in disagreements in the church of Jesus and it is the one that the elders at Mars Hill used against the few elders and others who were clamoring for attention. They were trying to say something is wrong, but they were getting dismissed as divisive.

That happens too often. I remember one decision that we elders made that was not widely popular and we stuck to our guns, basically saying, “Follow us or go somewhere else.” It was a non-moral, non-doctrinal issue. But I’m cringing now. It was easy to define the opponents as divisive and drop narrative-forming instruction from the pulpit about submitting to the leaders so that they can serve with joy. Even though it was a little bit awkward my sense of confidence came in the fact that the plurality stood with me.

On a couple of occasions in my life when I have been on the receiving end of elder action through groupthink I was told that I was deliberately “disobeying” the elders or deacons. And I have been painfully sanctioned by a collective action against me. On a couple of occasions, on the elder side of things,  I have “stiff-armed” individuals who constantly bucked my/our leadership with an informal “sanction.” I’m not pleased with that fact. I think it is a potential over-reach or abuse of authority.

On Authority

When one talks about the matter of authority, particularly elder authority, the questions that have to be answered are complicated:

  • Who has that authority?
  • Is that authority equally shared? (Parity)
  • What does the management of that authority look like?

But other questions that have to be answered regarding all authority, whether it’s the authority of the state, a father, a husband, or an elder are the much more nuanced and complicated questions:

  • What is the jurisdiction of that authority?
  • What can I/we as authority legitimately sanction?

I have authority in my home. I’m the husband and father. But does that mean that I can just boss my wife? Some might answer that, theoretically, I can tell my my wife to do whatever I want her to do, but my authority ought to be tempered by a Christ-like love for her.  Thankfully, they add the whole “be like Christ” part, but I know plenty of abusive husbands that think they love their wives like Christ loves the church and lord it over their family like a medieval potentate. I think that is dangerously erroneous to think of authority — any authority — without contemplating the limits of jurisdiction.

I think that I do not have authority to boss my wife. Period. I have a delegated authority and when God gives authority to people he gives authority with prescribed jurisdiction. The authority I have is to lead lovingly toward God’s goal with God’s Word.That’s it. Since in Christ she is free from all men, she is free from me as well. I cannot tell her what she has to do, when to make supper, and to comply to my wishes as lord of the house on any other matter. It is God’s authority, not my authority, that keeps her in the framework of our marriage covenant and as a free woman in Christ she submits to my authority insofar as it is within the jurisdiction that God has assigned for my authority.

Similarly, a police officer can tell me to do some things in some places at some times with total authority. There are other places that he has no authority over me and I am a smart citizen if I know where his limits are. This applies to a wife and a church member also.

Most of the time elders overreach with their authority. I was told by a group of men with whom I was in conflict how to talk, how to approach them, and how to interact with them and when I didn’t comply exactly as they wanted (not because I didn’t want to, but because I was truly befuddled by what they wanted exactly), I was asked why I was so “disobedient.” A person that hardly knew me in the group dismissed all of my concerns or thoughts on the basis of my lack of submission and compliance. To say that is very difficult to accept is an understatement. But I’m a hardy soul compared to the average church member. I can eventually think through emotions and analyze what is happening. Most church members cannot. And we elders have to explain to God later on why we got so big for our britches with the authority he has delegated to us.

The fact of the matter is that the demand I have received from several pluralities to follow procedure that was not only unbiblical but unwise was also an exercise of authority outside of the jurisdiction that they had over me. Even if it was wise I was under no obligation to obey it. And yet I have personally been involved with using the whole “elder authority” card to intimidate people into compliance with my personal opinion. I did it in ignorance — even as I suspect that those who have mistreated me have done. But it doesn’t make it less painful.

Recently I saw a multi-page disciplinary action of a Presbyterian synod against a friend. It was over-reach. I was shocked at the hubris of the elder group that reached outside of its legitimate jurisdiction and tried to bully my friend with intimidating charges of disobedience and quotations of Hebrews 13:17 and so forth by issuing rules of communication and behavior and consequent sanctions if he did not comply. All with the smug confidence of rightfully held authority.

With the longview in mind, I am not disturbed that this kind of stuff has happened to me. In fact, I am deeply grateful. It has chastened me in more ways than one. I am, however, very disturbed that I have been on the elder side of it at times. And as I contemplate the start of another church, an autonomous church (a concept that I increasingly have philosophical and biblical anxiety about), I am earnestly praying that God will guide us to a proper understanding of the jurisdiction of the elder/pastor group and that we will wrestle long and hard over the difficult questions that must be answered when we assume the role of authority.

This is an age-old discussion. William Cunningham, a 19th century Presbyterian, in his classic and difficult work on “Historical Theology” addressed this matter in his chapter on “Canonical Law.”

“The great scriptural principle… that church power is not lordly, but ministerial; that ecclesiastical office-bearers, even within their own province, have no right to be making laws or pronouncing decisions, merely according to their own judgment and discretion, but that they should do nothing in these matters except what the word of God requires them to do in the discharge of the necessary duties of their place, and are bound to do it all according to the standard which Christ has prescribed, their decisions being entitled to respect and obedience only if consonant to the word of God; and all men, civil rulers and private individuals, being not only entitled, but bound, to judge for themselves, with a view to the regulation of their own conduct, and upon their own responsibility, whether they are so or not. (emphasis mine)

Ministerial power doesn’t make decisions about how people are to respond and not to respond and processes that they are supposed to follow and who they are to talk to because all of these actions are outside the bounds of jurisdiction and impinge upon the family rights of all the Children of God. There is a Regulative Principle for elders too. That is, elders should only declare a person disobedient on the grounds of that individual disobeying what the elders are required to say by God, not on the grounds that they are no cooperating with the processes and ideas and narratives of the elders. But elders are often too self-assured collectively in their decision making because of their groupthink.

When the Apostle Paul issued his apostolic order to “not even eat with” the persons who were committing certain sins while boasting about their belonging to the Church he was speaking with apostolic authority about very objective issues. Naturally, the church took his delegated authority and went too far with it so he had to appeal to them to receive the poor brother back into the fellowship. Sadly, even that text (1 Corinthians 5:10) is misapplied and misunderstood in church discipline issues and has to be revisited with a more humble understanding of what church leadership/jurisdiction can and cannot do. Another time.

In the meantime we elders need to be cautious. We are lying if we say that we have never abused our authority. What parent can say that he or she has never crossed the line with his or her authority?  I confess that I have. I pray God help me to be vigilant never to do it again. And when I do to say, “I’m sorry. Please constrain me, Lord.”

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6 Responses

  1. Thank you for your humble and insightful handling of an all too common issue. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how someone who’s been the recipient of this kind of behavior should respond or break through the narrative/groupthink. Or is that something that just needs to be left to the Spirit’s work over time?

    • I’d like to attempt an answer to that question, but it may be post-length worthy. The short answer is that groupthink takes a lot longer to dissolve and usually takes a lot of times, often years, before godly individuals start to doubt the decisions and actions they have taken. What to do in the interim is the tricky thing. More on that later.

  2. Excellent, Bob. I do not have as much experience as you with these issues but basically have seen the same things and come to similar conclusions.

  3. Hey, thanks for your humble and helpful post. I wonder how a healthy emphasis on the biblical role of the congregation in a local church could help in some of this? I know that wouldn’t solve everything, but could it help against some of the abuse?

    • I think that we have to think about the role of the congregation or individual in the congregation AND the role of the Larger Body of Christ. The difficulty with autonomous churches is, in fact, their autonomy. This doesn’t mean that it is unbiblical or wrong. It simply means that it is complicated.

  4. Yes. Yes!! Thank you.

    Plurality is, I believe, the biblical pattern. But when one of the elders has a stronger personality OR a higher position such as “senior pastor,” the model is hardly different from the singularity-with-pastoral-employees model. Which shows its not enough to change the model to plurality; we’ve got to change our mindset as well.

    I’ve clumsily referred to this as “realms of authority” up to now. Your enunciation of this in terms of “jurisdiction” is very helpful.

    I would love to hear you comment on John MacArthur’s model and how that fits into this picture… or doesn’t.

    Grace to you.

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