What Difference Do Elders Make?
Yesterday, a friend of mine Facebook-messaged me, asking precisely the question in the title. Apparently, they'd been having a conversation with a friend, and the subject arose. It has the sound of a rhetorical question, which says something interesting about the experiences of members of churches of Christ in the 21st century. Most churches don't have elders, so for many or most Christians (elder-less churches are generally smaller, so it may be that most Christians belong to churches with elders, even though there are fewer such churches), the business-meeting model is the norm. That's their ceiling. They can't imagine how different having a church with elders would be, so they feel no particular urgency to develop and appoint elders.
However, even though it's entirely possible to have an eldership that is so dysfunctional that it descends to the business-meeting level, having an eldership should make a difference. If a congregation has elders who fulfill their Scriptural responsibilities, they will make a great difference indeed. Here, off the top of my head, are a few of the most important such differences.
Conformity to the Pattern
As prevalent as the business-meeting model is, one might think that there were some kind of Scriptural justification for it, that somewhere in Second Opinions, Paul says, "If you don't have elders, then you have to have a men's meeting, and here's how you run it." However, I've never encountered any such passage. Sure, you have the appointment of the Seven in Acts 6, but in that text, it's obvious that the authority lies with the apostles, not the congregation. Something similar happens today when an eldership invites the congregation to propose elder or deacon candidates. That is not the same thing as the eldership stepping down!
As a result, from an authority perspective, the kindest thing we can say about business meetings is that they are an extra-Scriptural expedient adopted on the basis of necessity. Somebody has to make decisions about repairing light fixtures, etc., so we hand decision-making power (I speak accommodatively) over to the men of the congregation. For all that we cry out against the pastoral system of the denominations, there is no less authority for a pastorate than for a business meeting. I suspect that churches of Christ have chosen to go the men's-meeting route rather than the pastor route because even though men's meetings tend to accomplish nothing, pastors tend to lead churches off into apostasy. It is the least bad option.
That this extra-Scriptural model has become so prevalent is a massive problem. Every church that does not have elders is a broken church. Every church that does not have elders does not conform to the first-century pattern, because the first-century norm is for churches to have elders. As far as we can tell, some churches, like the church in Corinth, didn't have elders (and look how well that went!), but they were exceptions. From passages like Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5, it appears that most churches had men qualified to serve (and therein hangs a sermon) and were expected to elevate those men to the eldership in a prompt fashion. Churches with elders were the first-century norm, and for most modern American churches of Christ, their lack of an eldership represents a significant and potentially fatal departure from the pattern.
During my 11 years working with the church in Joliet, I've spent roughly half the time under elders and half the time without them. Even though the congregation has had many of the same people during both those periods, it hasn't been the same church. Elders have the authority to make decisions, and they do make decisions. During their time, the elders at Joliet made significant changes to the way the church operated in order to take advantage of opportunities or respond to threats. The church prospered under their leadership.
During the time of the men's meeting, well . . . It is a diabolical marvel that you can take a dozen godly, respectable, sincere Christian men, organize them into a business meeting, and somehow end up with far less than the sum of the component parts. I don't mean this as any slight against the men of Joliet (of whom I am one, of course), because I think it's a universal truth. At its best, a men's meeting can respond to crises ("We need to appoint somebody to replace the toilet in the ladies' restroom!"). At its worst, it degenerates into a cacophonous squabble in which the devil is surely gathered in the midst. However, the powers of the men's meeting do not extend beyond maintaining the status quo. Too many cooks spoil the soup, and too many visions prevent the formation of a vision for the church.
In early 2012, when the eldership of the Joliet church disbanded, the congregation had 110-115 in attendance on Sunday morning. A year later, it had 75 in attendance. This precipitous decline had several causes. There were some who were willing to submit to the eldership but weren't willing to submit to the men's meeting and ended up walking out. More significantly, though, there were a number of weak Christians whom the elders had spent years patiently nudging back into the flock. With the dissolution of the eldership, they were left to wander as widely as they wished, and wander they did.
In theory, a church without elders will look after weak Christians as effectively as a church with elders. After all, doesn't I Thessalonians 5:14 tell us all to help the weak? In practice, that's not how it goes. In practice, most Christians, though they mean well, are too concerned with their own business to invest significant time in looking after others.
This is what lies behind Paul's description of Timothy in Philippians 2:19-20. Timothy was one of those rare birds who cared about people at an elder level without actually being qualified to serve. Of course, before we get too envious of Timothy, we need to remember the evidence of his spiritual struggles in II Timothy 1:6-7. Every personality trait is double-edged, and mature Christians are made, not born.
So it is with most elders. Sure, you have some men who start out with gift-level concern for others, but more typically, you have men who are determined to serve God and learn along the way that God expects them to care about others and be involved in their lives. In fact, there's some truth to the idea that elders are acknowledged rather than appointed. As elders, they continue doing the same work they were already doing beforehand. However, the eldership gives such men the authority and the responsibility to excel still more in their labors.
What labors they are! I've worked with elderships in two different churches, and I have a father-in-law and a number of friends who serve as elders. As a result, I have more of a window into the work of shepherding than most Christians, and if there is a more thankless, arduous task under the sun than that, I don't know what it is. There are so many sleepless nights, disappointments, and heartbreaks (and also moments of great joy). Being an elder means spending yourself in the service of the church. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all if elders don't live as long as non-elders.
However, the elders' loss is the church's gain. The good that comes from the work of a few godly, self-sacrificing men cannot be measured by mortals. It's impossible to say from looking out across a congregation how many of the faithful saints on hand are there because an elder intervened when he was needed.
Such saints often aren't the kind of Christians who stand out when they're there. For that matter, they often don't stand out when they're gone, either. It is in the shepherding of brethren like that, which simply does not happen without elders, that God's wisdom in establishing the eldership is most readily apparent. What difference do elders make? Most of all, they make that difference.