Discipline Of Elders In The Church

Written by :   Zac Poonen Categories :   The Church Leader
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Towards the end of the first century, many un-discerning believers would have been greatly impressed by the great zeal and ministry of the senior elder of the church in Ephesus. That elder too may have been quite proud and boastful of his labours for the Lord. Yet what those believers (and the elder himself) did not know was that the Lord had quite a different opinion about him. The Lord saw him as having fallen so badly, that his church was on the verge of being de-recognized. The Lord said to him, "I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and you have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place - unless you repent"(Rev.2:1-5).

That elder had become so puffed up by the blessing of the Lord upon his labours, that he had fallen from grace without even realizing it. He had lived on the admiration of the members of his church and was blind to his own pride. So the Lord warned him through the apostle John that his church would be de-recognized ("I will remove your lampstand"), if he did not repent. What if he did not repent? Then the Lord would have de-recognized that church. Then the overcomers in that church (Rev.2:7) would have left it and started meeting by themselves elsewhere.

When an elder is unwilling to humble himself and repent, then the instructions given in 1 Timothy 5:19-21 have to be followed:

"Don't listen to complaints against an elder unless there are two or three witnesses to accuse him. If he has really sinned, then he should be rebuked in front of the whole church so that no one else will follow his example. I solemnly command you in the presence of God and the Lord Jesus Christ and of the holy angels to do this whether the elder is a special friend of yours or not. All must be treated exactly the same" (Living Bible).

When an elder has to be corrected or disciplined, God wants the whole church to be informed about it. This is because all the believers in the church must know why an elder is being disciplined. They must not imagine that this is being done because of some prejudice against the elder or due to some personal grudge.

And so, when the Lord told the apostle John to write to the above Ephesian elder and to four other backslidden elders, about their faults ( Rev.2 and 3 ), He told John to send copies of those letters to all the seven churches in that area, to be read out publicly in all those churches (Rev.1:11). Such a public exposure of the failures of those elders would certainly have been very embarrassing for the elders. Imagine how embarrassing it must have been for the elder in the Laodicean church (and his family) to hear it being read out in all the churches, that "he was a wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked elder, in the Lord's eyes" ( Rev.3:17)

God exposes elders publicly, because He does not want their church-members to fall away along with them. When the Lord appoints someone as an elder in His church, He gives him a great honour. But if that elder gets puffed up and refuses to humble himself, then the Lord will expose him publicly and humble him. "When much is given to someone, much will be required from him as well" (Lk.12:48 ).

When Peter suggested to Jesus to avoid the cross, the Lord rebuked him publicly and called him "Satan" in the presence of everyone (Matt.16:23). Most of us would have thought it to be more "spiritual" to call Peter aside and to correct him gently and privately. But God's ways are not our ways. Jesus rebuked Peter publicly, in everyone's hearing. And that was the strongest rebuke He ever gave to anyone. In a similarly strong manner, we see our Lord using a whip publicly, when He saw covetous people exploiting the poor, in the temple of God (John 2:15, 16). Most of us would have preferred to adopt a less drastic method. But "zeal for the purity of God's house consumed Jesus" (John 2:17) - in a way that most believers today know nothing about, because they don't have the same zeal.

Once, when Peter compromised on a certain issue, Paul followed Jesus' example and rebuked Peter publicly, in the presence of the other believers. Later, Paul even wrote about this incident to all the believers in the churches in the Galatian region so that they too would know about Peter's failure (Gal.2:11-13). Most of us would have found fault with Paul for writing like that about a godly man like Peter - and especially to immature believers in Galatia. But that is because we are ignorant of God's ways. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write what he wrote - and that has been included in God's Word to teach us that God's way of doing things is very different from ours - and it is good for us to humble ourselves and acknowledge that.

The Lord taught us to pray "Hallowed be Thy Name" as our first request in prayer. God's Name is dishonoured, whenever Christian preachers ask people to give money for their ministry. Thereby they depict our Lord as a money-lover and a money-grabber.

God's Name is also dishonoured when Christian leaders domineer over other believers, and make them dependent on them. Jesus was a Servant and He told His disciples to be servants of others and not "Benefactors " (Luke 22:25, 26). When we are benefactors to people, we attach them to ourselves and not to Christ. Such domineering over others prevents them from growing up to maturity and becoming strong leaders themselves for the next generation.

When elders and preachers dishonour Christ's Name in such ways, those who have authority over them in the Lord must rebuke them patiently - and then expose them, if they do not change. Those in authority must react with the same zeal for the purity of God's house that Jesus and Paul manifested.

Who has the authority to discipline an elder? The answer is very simple :The one who has the authority to appoint an elder has the authority to discipline him as well. In Acts 14:23 we see that it was the apostles who appointed elders. And so they could discipline those elders as well. Don't ever attempt to do this unless God has given you such authority.

The apostle John writes of one elder however, who refused to accept his correction: "I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church." (3 John 9,10). John may have been the one who appointed Diotrephes as an elder - and Diotrephes would have been happy to accept John's authority when being appointed as an elder. But he was unwilling to accept discipline and rebuke from the same apostle later. In his pride, Diotrephes had converted his servant's seat (the true seat of an elder) into a throne on which he sat as a king!

As the work of planting churches expanded in the first century, Paul could not always go to a church himself, to appoint elders. Then he would depute godly men whom he trusted - men like Timothy and Titus - to appoint elders on his behalf (See Titus 1:5). This is the new-covenant pattern.

Much of the church of Jesus Christ has become a dead religious institution today instead of being a spiritual power-house for God, because such apostolic authority is almost non-existent. And so believers have become soft towards sin and compromise. Thus they have come to consider all strong preaching against compromise to be "a hard message". Many of Jesus' disciples also called His preaching "tough and hard" and were offended and left Him (See John 6:60-66).

By the end of Paul's life, many of his co-workers also left him, because they found Paul's messages and apostolic rebukes also to be "tough and hard". But a few faithful ones stayed on with Paul till the end of his life (See 2 Tim.1:15, 16). Along with them, Paul finished his course successfully - and thus God's purposes were fully accomplished in his time (2 Tim.4:7).

The Holy Spirit says, "There have to be divisions among you, so that those who are approved by God will become manifest" ( 1 Cor.11:19). It is through such divisions among His people that God separates the light from the darkness even today - just as He did at the beginning of time (Gen.1:4).Thus the church is preserved from generation to generation as a pure testimony by the Lord for His Name - through faithful men.

If you proclaim the whole purpose of God strongly and powerfully, you will find people getting offended and leaving you, calling your message " too hard" - just as people left Jesus and Paul. But a few faithful ones will accept the truth of God and remain - and through them the true church of God will be built.

God is looking for godly, humble leaders today, who will be faithful to Him, who will be strong against every form of sin and compromise, and who will never seek to please any man. The Body of Christ will be built through such men - the way God wants it to be built.

May the Lord preserve us in humility and help us to be totally faithful to Him, in these days of backsliding and spiritual decline.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.