The Teaching Elder & Church Leadership
Modeling the Word of Life to Struggling Saints
Photo Description: Commissioners (TEs and REs) converse at the 2023 annual GRN PCA General Assembly lunch in Memphis, TN.
The following post is part of our ‘The Work of the PCA Elder’ series. For the first post in the series, please click here.
“The necessity of illuminating the sermon properly is found in the mental attitude of the people. Whether we like it or not, most of us preach to the ‘moving picture mind.’ It is the mind accustomed to images, pictures, scenes, rapidly moving. It certainly is not accustomed to deep thinking or long, sustained argument. Current magazines, billboards, novels, drama, rapid transit, all add to this popular method of visual thinking. We as ministers may not approve of the daily fare of the people; we may regret their inability to pursue abstract logic; we may wish them to prefer theoretical reasoning. But whatever our wishes, we must recognize that they regard thinking which is not imaginary and concrete as dull and uninteresting.”
It’s hard to believe that Bryan Dawson published this argument for illustrating sermons almost a hundred years ago in his work, The Art of Illustrating Sermons. His almost prophetic depiction of the image driven culture must have seemed a terrible over-reaction when he wrote it in 1938 but couldn’t seem more accurate today. Illustrations in preaching are necessary because they make the theoretical and abstract concrete to the listener.
In many ways leadership in the church should be viewed through the same lens. Just as illustrations in a sermon take the abstract truths of the Scriptures and turn them into pictures we can see, noises we can hear, and sensations we can feel, so too does good leadership in the church provide living, breathing portraits of the truths of God’s Word. We talk of seeing the Word of God in the sacraments which is certainly true, but there is also a sense in which we can see the Scriptures acted out in the officers of the church. Do you want to see what holiness looks like in twenty-first century America? The elders of the church should provide a concrete, tangible example of what that looks like.
This is one of the many reasons why almost all the qualifications for office deal with a man’s character, and not with his abilities. Officers of the church are called to be men that are above reproach, faithful pictures of a properly ordered life. I suspect M’Cheyne was correct in his oft quoted contemplation, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness.” This is certainly not to say that our people need holiness in their ministers for some redemptive purpose, but rather to further clarify the task of the elder to model holiness to the people of God. Few things complicate or cloud the example that I set as much as my own sin.
More specifically, I have found this type of thinking to be the most powerful and transformative to the weakest and the most wounded in the flock. So often those that have been the most hurt are those that struggle to understand the Lord’s good, gentle hand with His people. The pain makes it hard to understand how Christ could be so tender that “a bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not quench” (Matthew 12:20). The promises of God can seem so far off and be lost in the ether. This is where illustrative leadership can be a gift. In these situations, the elders can fulfill the command in Jude 22 to “have mercy on those who doubt” by showing them the very ways that God is being tender to them. The elders have the chance to be part of God’s tenderness to the hurting, part of His love made concrete to them. When the saints of the church hurt so badly as to be like Bunyan’s Pilgrim in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and be so confounded that they don’t even know their own voice, they can at least see tangible portraits of the love of God; men that walk beside them, care for them, and watch over them. These struggling sheep might not be able to apprehend the abstract, but they can often understand the people right in front of them that love them with the love of Christ.
Further, this type of thinking lets us view leadership as an extension of the preaching ministry of the church. In so many of our pulpits, we are busy challenging our people to live as “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15), but we elders don’t think of our leadership in the church as one of the most important and persuasive illustrations of what that looks like. What does it mean to be gentle in an angry world? Look at the elders. How should we react to the constantly changing standards of sexual ethics in our culture and the new challenges that it raises for parents with school-age kids? Look at the elders. What does generosity look like in a hyper-materialistic culture that is in love with its own pleasures? Look at the elders. The elders have the chance to be the thousand different illustrations of those realities that preachers don’t have time to include in our sermons but wish we could.
Additionally, this type of thinking can help protect elders from that sneaky pride of place that can quietly creep into our hearts. That devious type of pride can pollute our minds, transforming and reducing our thinking about leadership into thoughts of power, authority, or greatness. Rather than viewing our service through the ministry of our Savior and his ministry of humiliation then exaltation, we grow tempted to view ours as an opportunity for recognition and affirmation. We want to skip the humiliation and proceed directly to the exaltation in this life as well as in the life to come. One common example in the part of the country where I serve is for men to serve briefly as elders, rotate off the Session, and retain that title for the next forty years without ever serving again. I have been amazed at how tightly they can cling to their title, defining their personhood, value, and power based on their title as an ‘elder,’ a position that they haven’t filled in years. They want prestige without the service, honor without suffering, and recognition without hard work. Thinking of leadership as an illustration of God’s truth can be a hard but helpful medicine in cases such as these.
Leadership isn’t about power as much as it is a unique opportunity to glorify the Lord by displaying His great power in our tremendous weakness. Rather than finding our identity in some sense of authority or accomplishment, we may return to meditate on the Savior’s merciful work in us and the great privilege we have in caring for His saints. We get to show them a tangible (though very flawed) portrait of what obedience looks like in our circumstances and culture.
Finally, thinking of leadership as illustrating the Word of God can help us grow in our own personal holiness. It makes it a lot harder to lose my temper when I realize that the people of God are looking at me to see what patience looks like. It’s easier for me to treat my people with gentleness when I remember that they will use my shepherding to inform their understanding of God’s gentleness. These sorts of thoughts can produce a powerful drive to mortify the lingering corruptions of sin in my heart. While I know that I won’t be free from those lingering effects until the life to come, I certainly don’t want my people to suffer under my failings any more than what is strictly beyond my control. I want them to see Jesus, and the great power, care, and kindness that He displays in using a weak creature like me to do anything good at all.