One of the biggest side effects of the consumerism that is so rampant in modern Christianity is a total disregarding of the authority of elders. Our current coronavirus situation is a case study in how this problem manifests itself, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Stemming from a mindset that puts individualism above all else, many Christians view themselves as free agents who can move from church to church or ignore their leadership’s decisions on a whim. The folks who do so are customers of a business more than they are members of a family.
Think of how we behave as customers. We all have the restaurants we like, for example. If they change the menu, the prices change, or we just get tired of what they’re serving, we go somewhere else. There is no commitment that keeps us from taking our business elsewhere.
The same should not be said of our choice of church. Not only are we interconnected with the other members as a family or a body, as the New Testament describes. We’re also united under the leadership God has put in place. But, to continue the analogy, when we act as consumers, that makes the elders just managers of the restaurant. We can freely move on and have no obligation to give them our patronage. They, on the other hand, have to stay, try to keep the business running, and try to provide a service to the customers who stay.
Just as consumeristic Christianity wasn’t God’s plan, neither was such a casual view of the authority of elders. To defy them whenever you want or to move from church to church for personal preference is to reject their God-given authority.* Submission to God-given authorities has deep roots in Scriptures, perhaps seen most clearly in David’s refusal to do harm to God’s anointed, even though Saul was intending to kill him! Respecting God’s established authorities is emphasized throughout the New Testament as well, with specific nods to our spiritual leaders such as in Hebrews and 1 Peter.
“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17 NKJV)
“Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders.” (1 Peter 5:5a)
Pair such verses with the qualifications of elders and descriptions of their work (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5) and the picture God had in mind becomes clear – mature, Christ-following men are to be appointed to lead, and God’s people are called to submit to their leadership. As God put this structure in place, it is deserving of our respect. We would be foolish and prideful to try to circumvent it in the name of individualism.
But, that’s exactly what’s been happening. And that’s what’s happening now. As it pertains to our current situation with the coronavirus and church lockdowns, I offer two thoughts:
First, if your elders have decided not to meet, then your church is not meeting. You are part of your church, so that includes you. You are not a free agent who then gets to bounce from church to church to find a place to worship. Instead, you should seek to participate in whatever alternative options your elders offer. Submitting to them is your biblical duty. And, you are far better off investing yourself in your own congregation and finding ways to connect and serve in this difficult time than you are finding a place to go check the Sunday attendance box. God designed the church the way He did for a reason.
Second, and more pressingly due to the discussions going around social media, if another congregation’s elders decide that they will not meet, respect their decision. Don’t do as so many have and take to social media to question their decision or call them out for perceived faithlessness. If we truly believe in congregational autonomy as we in the churches of Christ claim, then we have to actually let each other be autonomous. In judging some other congregation for their decision we downplay their autonomy, diminish their eldership, and place ourselves as arbiter of their church’s decisions. Do we believe churches are autonomous, or not? Do we believe in the authority of the eldership or not?
It’s time we restore a healthy view of church leadership. The job such men do is not easy, especially in trying times like this, and it’s left to us to submit to their authority and ease the burden of their work. Let’s do our job so they can do theirs.
*Yes, there are valid reasons for walking away from an eldership, such as unaddressed abuse or departure from clear Scriptural teaching. But that is a last case resort and should be fairly rare.