4 Principles for Raising Up Elders

Biblically qualified elders are crucial for the health of the church, which is “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Faithful elders lead to stronger churches and the preservation and advancement of the gospel. But what should a pastor do when he finds a church without elders, or without the right ones?

When I became the senior pastor of the United Christian Church of Dubai (UCCD) in 2005, I was excited about the possibility of ministry there, but the leadership challenges were daunting. The elders were good men who loved the Lord, but they were guided by varying theology and different ministry philosophies. They spent much of their meetings focused on programs and parking problems—important issues, but not the main matters of elder ministry. How could that culture change?

Here are four principles for raising up elders in a church-revitalization environment, all of which helped me in this task.

1. Teach

Before you call a members’ meeting, before you announce a new leadership structure, before you do anything—simply teach the Bible. If you’re seeking to lead, first show yourself to be a man under authority. Commit to regular, consecutive expositional preaching that dispels any notion you have an agenda or axe to grind. And when you encounter passages that touch on biblical leadership, pause to explain and apply—whether you’re seeing how Moses benefited from a plurality of leadership (Ex. 18), or how David extolled the virtues of leadership (2 Sam. 22:3), or that Paul and Barnabas specifically appointed elders in every town (Acts 14:23).

Before you call a members’ meeting, before you announce a new leadership structure, before you do anything—simply teach the Bible.

Hand out good literature on biblical leadership. Talk with people one on one. Take them to Acts, 1 Timothy, Titus, James, and 1 Peter, and show them the plurality of spiritual leaders called “elders” or “overseers” in the early church. Trust that God’s people are indwelt by his Spirit and will find Scripture persuasive and compelling.

Many churches are confused about leadership because they have not been taught. They drift toward corporate models, or fashionable trends, or whatever works best, and the spiritual life of the church slowly dies. Elders are not a board of directors. They’re pastors—whether paid or not—who love the church and lead by counseling, teaching, one-on-one discipling, preaching, and praying. This isn’t always intuitive, and your congregation needs you to teach.

2. Pray

Pastors don’t make other elders; the Holy Spirit does (Acts 20:28). That’s why, in addition to teaching and training, church leaders must be dedicated to prayer. God is the one who will raise up faithful shepherds through the ministry of his Word.

Pastors don’t make other elders. God is the one who will raise up faithful shepherds through the ministry of his Word.

In the beginning at UCCD, some suspected I was trying to get “my guys” in leadership. Others were fearful of losing power. There was nothing I could do about it. I became painfully aware of my inability to reform the church on my own. So I began praying that the Lord would transform the elder board—and slowly but surely he did.

One of the answers to my prayer was Richard. He joined our church shortly after arriving from Zambia. He was there whenever the church gathered, he engaged people intentionally in spiritual conversation, he served others regardless of whether he received credit. Thanks to his previous church, we’d received a ready-made elder. Soon the congregation recognized him as such. One by one the composition of our elder board began to change.

3. Love

Love is expressed by pastors in many ways, but a crucial one is meeting individually with potential elders for intentional discipleship. Jesus invested deeply in the Twelve, and even more so in the three (Peter, James, John). We must train elders in the same way. Select a few promising men and disciple them.

This stewardship involves teaching, but more. Making disciples and raising up elders is less like a classroom and more like parenting. As Colin Marshall and Tony Payne observe, “It’s deeply and inescapably relational. When we look at the relationship between Paul and Timothy, it becomes immediately apparent that much more than a transfer of information was involved in Timothy’s training.”

Making disciples and raising up elders is less like a classroom and more like parenting.

Mark Dever endured many Subway sandwiches during the early years when he was discipling me. I remember as a brand-new Christian wondering: Why do we always go to the same place for lunch? How about some variety? Only later did I realize Mark chose to eat there because he was systematically building a relationship with the family behind the counter—and in that, he was modeling for me the intentionality and evangelistic faithfulness I needed as an elder.

The apostle Paul said, “The aim of our charge is love” (1 Tim. 1:5). This kind of love multiplies itself in the life of a church. Model it to the potential leaders you disciple.

4. Stay

Training elders is more like farming than a factory assembly. As Thabiti Anyabwile wisely counsels, “Be patient and note those men who evidence the desire over time. Watch a man. Encourage him. Observe the desire in fruitful seasons, in dry times, when he is full of joy, and when he is sorrowful.” It helps to take the long view. Think in terms of years, not months.

Nader, from Egypt, was a young man when he arrived at UCCD. He was affable, encouraging, and naturally connected with our Arabic-speaking members. As Nader got married and started raising a family, he also developed a growing interest in missions and was elected as our deacon of missions. Then people began to notice his shepherding gifts. He cared for our supported workers pastorally and checked in on them regularly. He began teaching more and our congregation eventually recognized an elder who’d grown up among us.

Take the long view in training elders. “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22). Training elders takes time. With a long-term perspective, we can cultivate the next crop.

Police Block and Barricade Canadian Church Over COVID-19 Violatons

Health officials in Alberta, Canada, made the decision to “physically close” a local church building until its leaders agree to finally comply with coronavirus regulations.

Police vehicles blocked entrances to the parking lot of GraceLife Church in Edmonton Wednesday morning and temporary fencing was erected around the building. The congregation has met normally since summer 2020, despite requirements that church gatherings limit capacity, require masks, and practice social distancing.

Over the last nine months, the province’s health department fielded more than 100 complaints about GraceLife and conducted 18 inspections, resulting in multiple fines and orders to comply. Its pastor was arrested and spent a month in jail refusing the conditions of bail, that he agree to follow health regulations.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents GraceLife and its pastor James Coates, said the move to barricade private church property prevents citizens from “exercising their Charter freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and worship.”

As officials surrounded the church, dozens of GraceLife members gathered outside and sang hymns, according to a report by the Globe and Mail.

“Please pray for wisdom as our elders navigate this new development!” one member tweeted, posting a screenshot of the view of the new fencing from the church’s security camera.

Premier Jason Kenney told Albertans a week ago that the province is in its third wave of COVID-19 outbreaks. He suggested that more stringent enforcement by police may be necessary at this point, saying authorities have “been very patient during a difficult time trying to get compliance through education, through voluntary compliance, and using sanctions as a last resort.”

The GraceLife case has drawn the attention of those in both Canada and the US who fear government overreach during pandemic. Alberta legislator Dan Williams, a conservative politician and a Christian, spoke up to defend worship as a fundamental freedom. He said while he respects the 15 percent capacity limit for gatherings, “it is a different line to cross to barricade a church, a place of God.”

GraceLife leaders consider the COVID-19 risks overblown and claim that their ability to continue gathering without spreading the virus is proof.

“We believe love for our neighbor demands that we exercise our civil liberties,” the church wrote. “We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along. If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end—the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections.”

Pastor Coates is due in court next month for violating gathering limits at GraceLife.

The Need for Stories in a Data-Driven World

Fresh off a frustrating experience navigating COVID-related policies that stood in the way of his daughter’s health care, a friend recently asked me to explain “how you economists calculate all the costs and benefits of these policies.” From his vantage point, policymakers seemed unable or unwilling to see the real-world consequences of their actions.

As I started composing an answer with all the details of a good economic analysis, I had to pause. The best answer economists could offer sounded a bit embarrassing. I felt what Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro acknowledge in Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities: “The real world usually involves the kind of trade-offs that economists like to avoid” (26).

Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro

Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro

Princeton University Press. 320 pp.

Economists often act as if their methods explain all human behavior. But in Cents and Sensibility, an eminent literary critic and a leading economist make the case that the humanities, especially the study of literature, offer economists ways to make their models more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just.

Economists need a richer appreciation of behavior, ethics, culture, and narrative—all of which the great writers teach better than anyone. Cents and Sensibility demonstrates the benefits of a freewheeling dialogue between economics and the humanities by addressing a wide range of problems drawn from the economics of higher education, the economics of the family, and the development of poor nations. It offers new insights about everything from the manipulation of college rankings to why some countries grow faster than others. At the same time, the book shows how looking at real-world problems can revitalize the study of literature itself. Original, provocative, and inspiring, Cents and Sensibility brings economics back to its place in the human conversation.

Princeton University Press. 320 pp.

The central thesis of Cents and Sensibility, written by an economist and a literature professor at Northwestern University, is that for precisely these types of complicated issues, economists have much to gain from engaging with other disciplines, notably the humanities. Economic theory has tremendous value for simplifying and systematics, but the most important challenges we face—like the right ways to respond to globalization or to address inequality—require more than systematic theory.

Appreciating Complexity

The book makes two central claims: we need to recognize the complexity lost in the simplification of theory, and we need a healthy respect for issues of ethics and morality. Great literature is helpful for both. Economics presents a world of simplified assumptions, but literature offers a world of brimming with conflict and contradictions.

Moreover, while economics helps explain how people respond to incentives, it offers little help in discerning whether that’s good or bad. Or as economist Luigi Zingales says, economists sometimes call rational (responding to incentives) what normal people rightly call immoral. In engaging with complexity and ethics, the authors call on us not just to offer theories but to tell stories.

The most important challenges we face—like the right ways to respond to globalization or to address inequality—require more than systematic theory.

Consider cartography as a metaphor. A life-size map including every detail isn’t very useful. A map’s value is that it simplifies the world; a theory’s value is that it makes complex realities accessible. But the hiker using the map encounters all the nuance of the real world. So too reading great literature places us on the ground, as it were, to appreciate the complexity not captured by a simplified map.

Challenges and Opportunities

Though there’s promising wisdom in literature, Morson and Schapiro acknowledge that many modern humanities departments offer only social constructions of truth that cannot give universal insight into human nature or morality. Morson the humanist writes, “If forced to choose, I would pick the disciplines that at least presumed the possibility of meaningful knowledge”—not the humanities.

The authors’ moral reasoning, derived from literature, would be foreign in many literature departments today. In rejecting preposterous economics-alone conclusions, they affirm that marriage is sacred, that parents ought to sacrifice for their children, that many of the things people might consent to do with their bodies degrade their dignity, and that there’s sanctity to human life. Notwithstanding the failures of modern academia, these affirmations point to the potential for great literature to act as a moral conscience for policy prescriptions that can otherwise dehumanize or degrade human dignity.

What Christians Can Offer and Learn

Reading this book as a Christian, one cannot help feeling a desire to move the conversation to the greatest story of all. Morson and Schapiro appreciate that we will only benefit from stories that are true. For reading Austen, Dickens, or Dostoevsky to be helpful—or Langston Hughes or Toni Morrison or The Story of the Stone or The Tale of Genji—they must tell us something true. Not just any story will do. And as noted in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, every good story points to the gospel, the ultimate story, and it’s true. “All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them.”

What Christians can offer economics, the humanities, and our world is an honest telling of the true story behind all stories. We can help provide the basis for human dignity and the complexity of people made in God’s image to inform better economic policy and pursue human flourishing. But we can only do so if we tell the story as it truly is—and here we can learn a lesson alongside the economists.

As Morson and Schapiro would say, we need to respect the complexities of people and of the gospel if we’re to tell people the right story. Christians can sometimes simplify Christianity beyond what it can bear. The gospel is simple, but it isn’t simplistic. Neither are the people in our world who need Jesus. If we flatten the gospel into simplistic formulas applied to two-dimensional people, we’re making the same error as many economists. Should we be surprised when real people don’t respond?

The gospel is simple, but it isn’t simplistic. Neither are the people in our world who need Jesus.

The world needs the fullness of Christian wisdom, not platitudes. One could get the “point” of Job by reading the first and the last chapter, but those challenging chapters in between provide comfort and encouragement that the point alone would not. The author of Ecclesiastes distills the lesson in one verse—“Fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccles. 12:13)—yet the Preacher gave us 12 enigmatic chapters to make us wise.

The church is in the storytelling business. We worship the God who taught in parables and wrote himself into history. When we tell the gospel story well, we serve as salt and light in a world increasingly needful of the true stories God has given us and the beautiful complexity they reveal.

Bible Reading Has Boosted Mental Health of Christians During Pandemic, New Poll Says

Bible Reading Has Boosted Mental Health of Christians During Pandemic, New Poll Says

Reading the Bible during the pandemic has improved the mental health of a large segment of Christians and also eased their anxiety about the future, according to a new United Kingdom survey.

The poll of 1,123 practicing Christians who attend church and read the Bible at least monthly found that 33 percent say reading the Bible has improved their mental health during the pandemic, while 28 percent say it has increased their confidence in the future. Another 42 percent say it has boosted their hope in God. Most in the survey say reading the Bible has allowed their mental health and their beliefs about the future and God to remain the same, rather than decreasing.

The survey was conducted by Christian Research for the Bible Society.

“It’s encouraging to see that the Bible is giving people hope and confidence,” said Andrew Ollerton, author of The Bible Course, a publication and course by the Bible Society.

“The Bible has the ability to stand over our circumstances as something solid, a reference point in uncertain times,” Ollerton added. “It’s like having felt all at sea, and then having a rock to stand on.”

Among other findings:

  • 84 percent of practicing Christians have regular Bible reading sessions.
  • 35 percent say they have engaged with the Bible more frequently since the pandemic started.
  • 16 percent say they read the Bible when lonely or sad.
  • 33 percent of Christians ages 16 to 24 say reading the Bible had helped them feel less lonely.

Naomi Campbell, a mother of two in the United Kingdom, told the Bible Society she has drawn strength during the pandemic from Isaiah 61:3.

“‘You have given me a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair,’” she said, paraphrasing the verse. “My life has had a lot of challenges, but all the way along, God has given us the opportunity to see his goodness, his creativity in our lives. That verse has stayed with me during lockdown. This verse has been amazing, actually.”

Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/Digitalskillet

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chroniclethe Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.