Dissension Among Elders Brings the Church Low

The beauty of equality and unity has disintegrated at Midway, and it starts on the Session…

Geerhardus Vos, who has been called the “Father of Reformed Biblical Theology” is quoted as saying “Where the pure proclamation of the Word exists, there the church is revealed.”

How true this is. Consider the church and all of the wonderful things it is associated with – not the least of which is a proclamation of truth.  The Westminster Confession of Faith asserts that the church has been given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God for “the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world”. If you are a member of the catholic and visible church of Jesus Christ, you share in this gathering and perfecting. 

The word used today for “church” is derived from the Greek word kyrios, which is most often translated as “Lord” or “Master”. Imagine that! The very word used to describe the people of visible church reinforces the concept that Christians belong to Jesus Christ! These same ones being elect of God are a part of the ekklesia – that is translated as “those who are called out of the world” and where the word “ecclesiastical” is derived.

How simply the people of God are distracted from this holy association they share as the visible church with the petty prideful pursuits of men! Midway Presbyterian Church is in turmoil. Many in the leadership seem to blame the members who have raised concerns about decisions made by the Session, but the tone of the dissension starts at the top. The example set by the Session and the Senior Pastor’s leadership is one of internal strife.

The beauty of equality and unity has disintegrated at Midway, and it starts on the Session. First there were the charges against Ruling Elder Philip Dudt. Learning nothing from the division the secret and prejudicial manner of his prosecution, the Session tripled down and indicted and charged the 3 additional Ruling Elders James Scott, Don Barnett, and Clay David (whose own secret trail has been ongoing for months at the church).

“Dysfunctional Elders Make a Dysfunctional Church”

Anyone who has experience in management or organizational leadership in the business world will agree that the tone, ethical atmosphere, and culture of how employees treat one another in a workplace is set at the top – by the leadership. The same is true at the church. The example set for the members at Midway Presbyterian Church is one where leaders persecute each other as opposed to loving one another as the ultimate head Jesus Christ would.

It is easy to sympathize with the victims of this error and highlight their plight (much of The Midway Guardian’s programming has been dedicated to informing readers on this exact topic), but there is a greater casualty of the Session’s behavior – the truth. Every moment they continue the senseless, protracted, and secret trials against their equals, they further distract themselves and the church from proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

If one added up the pastoral leadership’s time spent on the multitude of secret trials and the logistics of their preparation and balanced it against the time spent on preparing Gospel oriented activities such as community outreach to West Cobb, or serving widows and orphans, or helping those in need within the church – do you suppose Christ would smile or frown at the balance?

Is Midway squandering its sizable wealth and ability to effect change while it destroys itself from within?

Has Midway’s Session betrayed the Christlike example to which Scripture calls elders?

Dr. Phil Newton, who has written extensively on leadership cultures in the church and the role of elders, has much to say on this topic in a blogpost titled “Dysfunctional Elders Make a Dysfunctional Church”. Ponder some of his observations below about the culture that elders establish:

“Pastors expect the congregation to evidence unity as those who demonstrate “deep affection toward one another in brotherly love; [who are] outdoing one another in giving honor” (Rom. 12:10; my trans.). This happens when the church is “of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose . . . with humility of mind regard[ing] one another as more important than yourselves” (Phil. 2:2–3).

While unity should be true in the larger body, it starts with the elders. Elders are not to lord over the church, but be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Since example implies a template for others to follow, elders should model the life that characterizes godly community. What pastors long to see among the body, in other words, must be evident among the elders.

Sin can slip in among elders, however, and causes them to struggle for unity: pride in position and abilities, longing for recognition and praise, exaggerated view of usefulness, the misuse of authority, and more. When elders give way to these sins they use biting words, demonstrate attitudes of superiority, abuse authority, and show disdain for others. The beauty of equality and unity disintegrates.”

Also ponder his observations about Senior Pastors:

“Among the mixture of staff and non-staff elders, the lead pastor serves as first among equals. He doesn’t have more authority than the collective elders, but he’s in the most prominent position due to God’s calling and ministry gifts. He leads in worship, instructs the congregation, voices pastoral burdens, and represents his fellow elders to the corporate body.

Proclaiming God’s Word each Sunday positions him as the most visible elder in the church. He has no more authority, however, than the least gifted elder. Like the rest, he only has one vote. His authority as first among equals must never be coercive, self-promoting, authoritarian, aggressive, domineering, or controlling. His authority is derived from God’s Word.

First among equals is a heady matter wherein humility gets tested. Does he grab for power? Does he misuse the pulpit by crafting sermons that further his plans and desires? Does he denigrate fellow elders in conversations with church members? Does he bypass wisdom, counsel, accountability, and God-ordained plurality to seize power? Does he forget he’s called to set an example of humility?

Elder plurality in some churches just doesn’t work. But the problem is not with the biblical idea of plurality; the problem is sin among those Christ charges to be templates of humility for the church.

When elders struggle to get along or work together, the same dysfunction will seep into the whole church. Instead of a community beautifying the gospel in unity, this sullies the church’s witness before a watching world. A church may have admirable evangelism and may serve well, but disunity, bitterness, and animosity will eventually emerge through sinful talk (Matt. 12:34).”

So What?

Here are 3 questions by category worthy of prayerful reflection:

For Teaching Elders at Midway:

  1. Do I seek to faithfully preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ every time I rise to the pulpit, or am I (if even in part) advancing my own agenda?
  2. Am I serving to heal and unify the portion of the visible church I have been called to shepherd or am I actively dividing it?
  3. In what ways do I need to repent?

For the Ruling Elders at Midway:

  1. Am I seeking to unify a broken body in my actions and words or am I allowing myself to be a part of someone else’s agenda?
  2. Do I react defensively when challenged or do I prayerfully consider an opposing viewpoint with the belief that I might be called to correction?
  3. In what ways do I need to repent?

For the members at Midway:

  1. Have I remained silent in an unjust cause?
  2. Have I prayed without ceasing for those who are I believe are in error?
  3. In what ways do I need to repent?

For the presbyters investigating the dissension at Midway:

  1. Am I judging matters before I have heard them (Proverbs 18:13) or holding back from embracing the truth?
  2. Am I a respecter of persons and titles or am I willing to embrace the truth – no matter where that leads?
  3. Do I have an open mind with respect to all issues and parties and seek to remain impartial, judging against the Scriptures and Constitution of the PCA?

The answers to these questions matter. The witness of the visible church at Midway in the future depends on how seriously they are answered.

Pray and give the devil no foothold. Obey God and not the sinful intentions of men. “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob”, He can solve all problems.