“To be sure, doctrinal unity is prior to and provides the grounds for genuine relational unity. But it is never enough for a church to exist with corporate commitment to specific theological truths without a hearty commitment to inter-personal unity.”
Six months ago I was ordained as an elder at Grace Bible Fellowship in Sunnyvale, CA. Prior to my ordination I was required complete an oral examination. This two-hour, 70-question theological interview and was the final step in a multi-step ordination process that was designed to revere Paul’s admonishment to Timothy: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5:22). These elders were not hasty, and I am grateful for their patience and care.
Prior to my examination I was required to complete a questionnaire of theological and practical ministry questions. One question under the “Miscellaneous” section required me to reflect on how I will seek to preserve unity among the elders. The rigor of the theological questions indicates that doctrinal unity among this elder team is of supreme importance. Unless the elders unite around truth, our efforts for unity will prove superficial and vain.
Nevertheless, the apostle Paul, in writing to the doctrinally-sound Philippians, didn’t, in light of their theological unity, refuse to admonish these believers to pursue relational unity. Rather, it was for the very reason they were united around the truths of the gospel that Paul instructed these Christians to pursue relational unity and like-mindedness. To be sure, doctrinal unity is prior to and provides the grounds for genuine relational unity. But it is never enough for a church to exist with corporate commitment to specific theological truths without a hearty commitment to inter-personal unity.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest seven practices that will promote and protect unity among the elder team.
(1) Pray regularly for the spiritual good and joy of each of the elders. Regular prayer for the other members of the elder team is essential to forging a unity that endures. The primary culprits to unity–bitterness, suspicion, anger, pride, selfish ambition–grow quickly and pervasively in prayerless hearts. But if we commit ourselves to intercede regularly for the spiritual prosperity and joy of each of the elders on the team, we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to nurse sins of bitterness and pride toward our brothers.
(2) Conduct discussions concerning practical and doctrinal disagreements with other members of the team with respect, straightforwardness, a willingness to hear their side, and a willingness to admit if and when you’ve been wrong. Even with a commitment to pray regularly for the other elders, we may find that disagreement, misunderstanding, and a myriad of other problems will, at times, find their way into the strongest of elder teams. How we deal with these troubles is what will make the difference between enduring or short-lived unity. When disagreements concerning doctrinal or practical issues arise, we can mitigate trouble by discussing these disagreements with:
Respect. If you have gathered a large amount of information on a given topic or, over the years, garnered much experience in the area around which the disagreement is centered, you may find it difficult to believe that the other elders with whom you disagree can have a substantiated opinion on the issue in question. They may not. But they may, and air of disrespect between two men will quickly upend thoughtful dialog. Each of you is on the elder team because you are biblically qualified to be there (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Respect for each elder, therefore, is necessitated by the office they occupy.
A willingness to hear the other side. Mortimer Adler’s statement, “Before you can say, ‘I disagree,’ you must be willing to say, ‘I understand’” is a useful principle for any situation that requires the rigorous exchange of ideas. If we are unwilling to hear the other side of an argument, it demonstrates that we (1) may not be able to articulate our view with clarity and substance; or (2) do not respect our fellow elders enough to hear their case. Scripture says this is foolishness. Wisdom listens carefully to the other person in order to get the facts straight and to truly grow in understanding, even if it is about a position with which one disagrees (see Prov 18:2; 18:13).
Straightforwardness. In dialog with other elders, we cannot mistake the fear of man for humility. We must be ready to present our ideas and concerns honestly and clearly, regardless of what other elders may think of us. If we don’t speak up in the elder meeting but seethe afterwards and speak ill of our fellow elders in the days following the discussion, we’ve demonstrated that we are probably in the grip of cowardice. Why? Because by our silence we’ve shown that we are not courageous enough to offer our thoughts during the allotted time for fear of ridicule or opposition.
A willingness to admit if and when you’ve been wrong. A man characterized by humility won’t refuse to speak straightforwardly and truthfully, but he will admit when he has been wrong. This kind of humility is essential for unity among the elders. It can be embarrassing to admit that we’ve been wrong, and pride will tempt us to guard ourselves from the vulnerability of confession. But our refusal to concede when we’ve been wrong will not strengthen our reputation among the elders. Just the opposite: our stubbornness will erode the elder team’s confidence in our ability to lead and drive them away from us.
(3) Seek reconciliation quickly after a fracture occurs in your relationship with any of the elders. Despite your commitment to Christ, to the good of the church, to theological and relational unity, and to each of your brothers on the elder team, you may experience times when you are at odds with another elder. Satan loves to exploit this kind of situation (see Eph 4:26-27). He will work mightily to prolong the distance and deepen the fracture. In order to preserve health among an elder team, each member must be committed to prompt reconciliation. Prompt reconciliation, however, does not imply a superficial reconciliation. Issues between elders should be dealt with in an honest and forthright manner, and such work may take time. But the initial move toward reconciliation should come soon after the fracture occurs.