Our topic for this session is how elders can help a church not divide, bite and devour. How elders help the church not bite and devour. John 13:35 says (the disciple whom Jesus loved wrote this verse and says):
“By this, all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
People know that we are the people of God when we love one another. When this verse is spoken of, it's normally focused on the testimony of the church in the world, the implication being that if we don't love each other, it's a harm to our testimony of the grace of Christ and His power to transform His people. Of course, that's a right application, but there's something more fundamental here. When we're blatantly unloving (not in an isolated instance, but over a period of time, in an ongoing way) we are exposing ourselves as being either (1.) not really Christians (we said we were Christians, but we aren't really; we don't have the fundamental mark of a Christian; that is, love in our hearts) or (2.) grotesquely immature Christians. When we are unloving in an ongoing way (not just an eruption of immaturity, but when we're unloving over a period of time, in an ongoing way), we're either declaring that were not Christians, or we're exposing ourselves as being very immature Christians.
Now, how do elders fit in with this? Well, theoretically, elders are among the most mature Christians in a local church. They’re the men who had been identified as being ahead on the curve of having the Fruit of the Spirit in their lives. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace - no, stop too far - the Fruit of the Spirit is love. Period. Not that those other marks aren't important. But that is definitely a list with priority. Love is the overriding mark of a Christian. And when we don't have love (when we are blatantly unloving over a period of time in an ongoing way) we're saying something that is so concerning about the condition of our own souls.
Theoretically, elders are to be the most loving people in the church. If it's true that, theoretically, elders are to be among the most mature, then it must also be true that, at the same time, they’re among the most loving in the church. There is no such thing as the most mature, but not the most loving! Elders are to lead in love. And this is the exact opposite of biting and devouring. Elders must lead the church in a life - a pattern of life - of love and of being as far away as possible from biting and devouring.
Let's ask the Lord to help us.
“Oh, Holy Spirit, help us. Oh, come and produce fruits in our lives; You who indwell Your people, come and make us a holy people. You are a Holy Spirit; make us a holy people. Make us a people who are full of love in our hearts, both for God and for our neighbor, and especially for our brethren. May love among us flourish. May the world - the on looking world - see a people who love one another and know that we are Your disciples - the disciples of Jesus. Oh, God forgive us where we have not been what we should have been; where we have not been what we should be. We have been unloving. This is unworthy of You, Lord. I pray that you would forgive us and change us. We pray these things in Jesus name. Amen.”
Well, I'd like to look at the text - Galatians 5 - which contains the phrase “bite and devour”. So please turn to Galatians and then consider how elders should lead in light of that. Galatians 5. I'll be reading verses 13-17. Galatians 5:13. The Apostle Paul writes:
“For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!
“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.”
I'd like to go verse by verse. Verses 13-17 sort of give you the central truth of every verse. According to verse 13, our liberty is an opportunity for loving service of one another, not an opportunity for the flesh. We're not free to do what our flesh inclines us to; we're actually free to love each other in practical ways. Our liberty is an opportunity for loving service of one another. According to verse 14, the sum total of the law is to love your neighbor. It's exactly what Jesus said when He was asked what the greatest commandment is. He said:
“The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And the second is like it to love your neighbor as yourself.”
And then what does he say?
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Every law of God is a law of love. It is the sum total of the law to love your neighbor. Who is my neighbor? Jesus answers that with a parable. Your neighbor is the one who needs love expressed to him in a very practical way. Even if you're part of a race that has always been despised by him, you're still supposed to love him in a practical way.
According to verse 15, there is an opposite to this beautiful world of love that the Bible sets before us. It is biting and devouring and consuming and being consumed by each other. So there are these two sort of polar opposite worlds. One is filled with love, where our liberty is an opportunity for loving service. We fulfill the law by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. The opposite world is a world of biting and devouring, always striving with each other, being consumed by others and consuming them in turn.
Now verse 16. The antidote to this poison of the lust of the flesh is to walk in the Spirit - the Holy Spirit of God that indwells His people. He is a Holy Spirit, so He makes His people progressively holy. A mark of that is love. You think you've been transformed by the Holy Spirit but you're not loving? Then you've just saved yourself. The key mark of the work of the Spirit in your life is that you're more and more and more and more loving both towards God and towards your neighbor.
Now verse 17. Recognize what is happening here. There's an ongoing war for supremacy. Being born again doesn’t end the war. It actually begins the war in some ways. Meaning, that the spirit and the flesh of the unregenerate are completely on the same page - self loving, self serving enmity against God. But when you're regenerated, that changes. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The flesh still has the remaining corruption. So the spirit actually delights in the law of God in the inner man. And so the war is on in a way that it really isn't on in the life of an unbeliever - there are senses in which that is true.
So in light of what we read in Galatians 5:13-17, I'd like to give you five ways in which elders can help a church not to bite and devour.
Number one, elders can help a church - elders can lead in love - by loving each other. Well, that sounds obvious and simple. But simple is not the same thing as easy. True? Are simple and easy the same thing? It’s simple. We all grasp the concept. Even a child can grasp the concept that elders should begin leading a church in love by loving each other well, but just because it's simple doesn't mean it's easy. Elders work together under pressure (sometimes a lot of pressure for prolonged periods of time) and that lends itself to little irritations, becoming big irritations and temptations to dishonor one another and to act unlovingly towards one another. The longer you work together under pressure for a sustained period of time, the more temptation there is for little things to become big things, and to begin to dishonor each other in our thoughts, and then in our words, and then in our actions.
There's always a honeymoon period. I have a co-elder. We've served together for almost two years now. I think we're still in the honeymoon period. We still have such an affection for each other, for working together. We have a co-elder that has been a co-elder of ours for less than two weeks. He's sitting right here, and we're all pretty sure he's better and smarter than us, because we've only served together for two weeks. We haven't been under pressure with him for a prolonged period of time. And so it's easy to think that he's never going to irritate us. Guess what? Time and circumstances are going to show that’s a lie. You're going to irritate us, Michael. And we're going to irritate you, as pressure takes its toll. And that's when the rubber meets the road. Will elders love each other? Will they be patient with each other? Will there be a culture of grace that we function in? Or do we start to pick at each other’s shortcomings and sins? Elders - a plurality of elders - serving on a team don't share a brain. There’s not one brain for the elder team. We're not like the Trinity where we have one will. We elders have different backgrounds, different perspectives, different strengths and weaknesses, different sins, different doctrinal stances, and different preferences. So we must be prepared to be gracious and patient with each other.
We must be prepared to love each other. Love is active. Love is not a sentiment. Love is action. You decide to love each other. Part of that means keeping short accounts. When the pressure makes little irritants start to grow, we must talk with each other about it. We address these things. If you can let love cover a multitude of sins, and just overlook offenses, you should. But when it starts getting harder to overlook, you should talk about these things. And this should be in both directions. Meaning that, when I'm offended by these two brothers (whether they've really offended me or whether I'm just seeing it wrong), I should go and talk to them and get these things on the table and work through them patiently and graciously. But also, I think elders should solicit it. Hey, James, and Michael, what are the things that I'm doing that are little irritants that are going to become big as circumstances are brought to our door that put pressure on us for an extended period of time? Well, what are those? How can I be less annoying in the way that I work with you?
So we should we should go to our brothers when we can't overlook an offense or when it's getting harder to overlook. But we should also solicit. Hey, how can I be a blessing to you? If we don‘t, the church will know. Either these things will be on the surface, or the church will pick up undercurrents. And that is almost worse. You're trying to hide your annoyance with your co-elders, but you're sending signals that people pick up on in the church.
I want to talk about the stability a happy, unified elder team provides to a church. Have you ever thought about how stable and safe a church with a happy, unified, godly elder team is? An elder team where the men are being patient with one another. The men are being gracious with one another. The men are actually loving one another. You know that that is a church where the wolves are going to struggle. When there's a happy, unified, godly, gracious, and patient elder team - when you have a strong elder team - the wolves are going to struggle to make progress in that church. That's the church I want to go to. That's the church I want to lead.
I recently heard of a situation where conflict on the elder team was being waged from the pulpit. Subtle things were said from the pulpit. But then another elder would get his opportunity to preach, and then there was the subtle response. Talk about passive aggressive! That is a church headed for trouble. If the church is going to be loving, if the people of the church are going to grow in love, then the elders can't act like they're co-executives. They have to act like brothers that love each other, that are prepared to sacrifice for each other, that are patient with each other, and gracious with each other. So that was number one. Elders can help the church and lead in love by loving each other well.
Number two: elders can help a church and lead in love by loving the people of the church well. So point one was loving each other well, and point two is loving the people of the church well. I feel sort of embarrassed about how obvious these points are. But again, simple isn't the same thing is easy. This is obvious too, but elders are often tempted not to be patient and gracious with the weak and immature of the church. The temptation is great not to be patient and gracious with the weak and immature of the church. I read this in earlier session, but I want to read it again. It's 2 Timothy 2:24-26. In 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Paul says:
“And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.”
I think elders should read this over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. It is easy for the objectives of the church to loom larger than the blood-bought people of the church. It’s so easy. I have my list! It's not going anywhere! I have to get stuff done and there's this person again! Needing again! Do we care about the objectives of the church more than the blood-bought people of the church? Jesus doesn't. Elders need to acknowledge and resist that tendency. In other words, an elder is well-served by just understanding that there is a gravitational pull towards objectives over people. He must acknowledge that that gravitational pull is a reality that's going to have to be resisted today and next week and next month and next year. Forewarned is forearmed. An elder who knows that will just have it on his radar that this happens from time to time, where objectives loom large and a needing person in the church seems like an obstacle, when God has put you there for the lavish care of His people,
Brothers, fellow elders, we set the pace. We set the pace for growing in love for the church. In 1 Peter 5, we’ve already seen this. We're not to lord over it, but rather be examples to the flock. So we set the pace in the local church not by commanding people to love, but by being loving! In our interactions with people who are struggling, we are patient and we're gracious and we’re, in practical ways, loving them by following up and remembering them and praying for them and remembering to tell them that we're praying for them. We show them we actually love them - that they're not an objective, but that we see their value as a blood-bought member of the people of God.
As a side note, part of that is how we speak of brethren who aren't present when we're talking to people. Part of loving the people in the church well is how we speak of others who are not present, because people are smart enough to conclude that if you'll talk about someone else and pick their sins and weaknesses when they're not present, that when you're talking with someone else it might be about them. That fact is not lost on people. People are smart enough to figure that out. If you'll talk with me about his sins, then when you're talking with him you'll talk to him about my sins. People get it.
Number three, elders can help a church and lead in love by insisting on the direct dealings of Matthew 18. I think this is probably my most important of the five points. Elders can lead in love by insisting on the direct dealings of Matthew 18. Matthew 18 insists that when a brother offends you, you go to him in private in a brotherly way and try to win him over. Elders have to insist on that. Elders must make it their overwhelming practice to insist on that. Meaning, elders can't afford to be spotty and inconsistent on this. Elders must be deadly consistent to insist that people handle offenses in private, in a brotherly way, first trying to win their brother over. When elders catch wind of someone talking to someone else about an offense other than the person who caused the perceived offense, our overwhelming practice what must be to stop them short and send them to their brother.
So you walk by and you think you're hearing an offense being relayed to a brother who's not the offender. Stop and say, “This is what I think I'm hearing. Is this one I'm hearing?” So establish the facts. And if you're hearing what you think you're hearing, say, “Brother, you shouldn't be talking to him. You should be talking to the offender.” Now, how awkward is that? As awkward as it gets! You're essentially delivering a rebuke in front of another. The alternative is to let it run. And it's better to plow through the awkward moment and to insist on the direct dealings of Matthew 18 than it is to live with the consequences afterwards. You determine when you want to pay. Pay now by plowing through the awkwardness or pay later by the fallout from walking away from how God tells us to deal with this - the direct dealings of Matthew 18.
So much resentment and conflict in the church starts right here. It starts with someone talking to the wrong person about a perceived offense; we let it happen and run at our own peril. I heartily recommend that we teach periodically on the government of the tongue. We're overdue. It's Sovereign Redeemer Community Church. And it hadn't even occurred to me until I was thinking through this again. We're overdue on teaching on the government of the tongue.
Number four: elders can help a church and lead in love by actively peacemaking. Elders can help the church - elders can lead in love - by actively peacemaking. Listen to Philippians 4:2-3. In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul writes:
“I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life.”
Paul is calling for an intervention. Interventions did not begin with Dr. Phil! Paul here calls upon people to help these women. We don't know the nature of the conflict, but we can tell that things are not right between them, so Paul is calling on outside action - active peacemaking. Elders should do this. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” - Matthew 5:9
This is part of imitating God. An elder should lead. An elder should show the congregation how to be active peacemakers. Imagine if we had a local church full of active peacemakers. Not just the elders - if it wasn't just the exclusive domain or the elders - but if everyone had learned by the example set down by the elders that we don't just let these things fester and escalate. Rather, we jump in to try to help brethren be reconciled.
The Triune God is the ultimate peacemaker. Think of how the Father sent the Son so that His wrath wouldn't be poured out on the people who deserve the wrath but then they could be clean - clean and free and forgiven. Think about how Jesus accepted your wrong - your sin - upon Himself. He bore the weight of your sin. He bore the wrath for your sin. And he never responded in kind. The ultimate example of this is the cross. But you don't have to wait in the account of his life until the cross. He's wronged but does not respond in kind over and over and over and over and over again in the Gospels. Think about how the Holy Spirit comes and convicts you of your sin. You don't deserve His influence, but He comes and He draws you to Christ so that you can be forgiven. The Triune God is the ultimate peacemaker. If you want to, as dear children, imitate God, you have to actively peacemake. This means that the elders don't passively standby as things are escalating. Nor does it mean that we rush in with guns blazing at the first signs of trouble. I am really not speaking out of both sides of my mouth here. Both are really important. It's wrong for elders to passively sit by while things are escalating. And it's also wrong for elders to come in decisively too soon, at the first sign of trouble. It requires wisdom. But I think experienced elders have a bias to action. Experienced elders don't sit back while things are escalating. My experience is that people (even people in conflict) appreciate humble, courteous directness. They appreciate it. Most of us, when we're in a conflict, don't want it to escalate, but we're not sure how to keep it from escalating without getting into things we don't want to get into. And we welcome someone who humbly and courteously enters into the fray to help us be reconciled.
Number five: elders can help the church and lead in love by acting decisively with the divisive - by acting decisively with the divisive. There are new believers who are just getting started. There's so much they don't know. They haven't grown very much yet. They haven't made very much progress yet. There are Christians who are growing and you really wish that would pick up the pace. There are instances of immaturity from time to time. Eruptions of immaturity among people who are generally mature. An instance of immaturity that's out of character in the life of a Christian who's made a lot of progress. But there are also truly, deeply divisive people who should be dealt with decisively. Again, this requires wisdom. Are we dealing with a new believer here? Someone who's making progress, but might need to pick up the pace? Or is it someone who is generally mature, but has this little eruption of immaturity? Or is this a truly and deeply divisive person who needs to be dealt with decisively? Our Bibles tell us about them and tell us what to do about them. Romans 16:17:
“Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.”
Note and avoid these divisive people. Titus 3:10:
“Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition.”
What? There are people that the Lord's people are supposed to reject? Yes! Truly and deeply divisive people are to be noted, avoided, and rejected. Now, in both of those passages, doctrine is in the immediate context. In other words, it refers to people who are divisive over doctrine. But the larger context in both places, it is relational and doctrinal. It's not just doctoral. Brothers, it is a great frustration to the people of God when leaders are timid in dealing with people who are like this. You want to frustrate your church? Then let a divisive person work unopposed in the church. Because the church sees that it exposes them to significant harm; it makes the church vulnerable. And if they see it, but you don't act like you see it, that makes them nervous. And they have a right to be nervous. It frustrates them that you won't protect them.
When I look back at my decade-plus of being an elder, I see so many mistakes and shortcomings. But I think that some of my very best moments are when I confronted divisive people and sent them on their way. Some of the best work that elders do is getting nose-to-nose with divisive people and making them stop or making them leave.
Here's my conclusion. Local churches are intended by God to be outposts of love. But that doesn't come easy. We have to fight for every inch of ground. There's a war going on between the flesh and the Spirit in every individual Christian and within the church. There's a war between the flesh and the Spirit. If you want inches of ground, you have to take them with blood, sweat, and tears. Elders are at the forefront of that war, in their own hearts, on their elder team, and in the churches that they are serving. Brothers, let's be elders who lead in love.
Father, thank You for Your people. May we be faithful undershepherds among Your people, leading and growing in love in our own hearts, growing in love for our elder team, and growing in love for the people that you have set us to serve. God, may our example be worthy of following. As people follow our example, may our churches be more loving, not less. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.