Do Church Elders Have to Agree on Everything?

by Jonathan Leeman February 10, 2016

Every church elder must be biblically qualified for the office. But what about their collective doctrinal alignment? How united must they be?

You certainly don’t want the elders to agree on less than the church’s statement of faith. If the statement of faith is the set of truths around which your church gathers, than the elders are to be an example to the flock when it comes to trusting those truths.

So if your statement of faith is pre-trib/pre-mill, or cessationist, or Arminian, or whatever, your elders should believe all that. (Now, this should make you think twice about including some of these kinds of disputed matters in your statement of faith in the first place.)

But can you ask for the elders to be united around more than what’s articulated in the statement of faith, such that the additional matters become a kind of litmus test for prospective elders? Well, that depends on who you think possesses authority for guarding doctrine in the church (i.e. the keys of the kingdom). If you think the elders possess that authority, as in a presbyterian conception, then, yes, you can ask the elders to affirm, say, the whole Westminster Confession of Faith, while you ask the members to affirm a few basic principles of the faith. If, however, you think the congregation as a whole possesses the priestly role of being the final guardian of doctrine, you probably don’t want to require the elders to affirm more than the church as a whole must affirm. That is the practice of our church, anyhow.

Now, at the risk of sounding like I’m contradicting myself, I do think it’s probably fine to make sure your elders agree with one another on a basic philosophy of ministry (else it will be hard to work together). And I think it’s probably fine to informally make sure your elders agree on certain culturally disputed matters like complementarianism that you might not require of the whole church (again, else it will be hard to work together). But I don’t think there should be much of that.

Sometimes when I’m teaching a Sunday School class and I’m about to give my opinion on a touchy doctrinal subject that’s unspecified by our church’s statement of faith, such as whether or not the gift of tongues can be practiced today, I might start my comments by acknowledging that our statement of faith says nothing on the matter, and that people with different opinions than my own are certainly welcome in the church. Or I might acknowledge that I’m not speaking for all the other elders, only myself. Making this kind of distinction in my public teaching between what’s me and what’s all the elders gives me the space to teach what I think the text says while not burdening the other elders with feeling like they have to back me up in places they disagree. Our statement of faith provides a transparent standard for knowing which doctrines unite all of us.

This post adapted from a Q&A originally published at 9Marks.org