Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Binary Thinking

How we choose to express disagreement is often more important than what we are disagreeing about in the first place.

Some folks have a tendency to take aim at the most ridiculous, transparently caricatured representation of the side they oppose. I used to put it down to straw-manning. I considered people who argued this way manipulative and calculating.

Now I wonder.

It seems to me some people are simply binary thinkers. There’s no malice involved, and no intention to be difficult or obstructive. But to their way of thinking if some church practice has blessed them or been beneficial to others it must be an unmitigated good. Therefore any suggested modification to that practice, however modest or scriptural, must be a bad thing.

Discouraging the Troops

In the process of setting out the New Testament evidence that church elders ought to be older men, I have encountered a fair bit of opposition from folks who have either benefited from the ministry of young men or hold out hope their church may benefit from such exercise of gift. To some, involving more young men in leadership seems the solution to all kinds of current problems.

Therefore the suggestion that there has been anything premature, anti-scriptural or ill-advised about the recognition of some of the young men currently functioning as elders in local churches produces a very visceral reaction. These are much-loved family members and friends whose lives and service for Christ I am discussing, after all. More than once it has been the person commenting who serves as an elder and sees the assertion that there is a better or more scriptural way things might be done as a personal attack.

And yet at no point have I set forth any argument that young men should not be active in the service of the Lord, that their service is less valuable than that of older men, or that they should be restrained in their exercise of gift or discouraged from service in any important way.

Still, this is the sort of counter-argument that frequently presents itself:
“I can’t help but feel that … comments against having younger elders might have a discouraging rather than an encouraging effect.”
Let me digest that for a second: we’re worried that an argument from scripture might be discouraging?

I sure hope so.

If I manage to discourage one young man from taking on responsibility for which he is ill equipped and to which the Holy Spirit has not yet called him, I would be delighted. If I cause Christians in even one local church to stop and say, “Wait a second, maybe we should consider if he’s mature enough for the job yet” or “Maybe we should look realistically at the qualities he displays to see if he measures up in all respects to the standards Paul gave Titus and Timothy”, I would dance a jig.

Putting Young Men on the Shelf

Does that mean I want young men to sit in the pews, listen to messages, keep their mouths shut and get old without participating in the life of the local church and sharing with the people of God the gifts the Holy Spirit has graciously given them?

No, no, no — a thousand times no! Must we always be binary thinkers?

I am delighted to see young men active in the church. Teenagers, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings … it’s absolutely wonderful. Evangelizing, preaching, teaching, sharing, exhorting, encouraging, participating in worship, visiting the sick, studying the Bible, mentoring even younger men, reaching out to the needy, being hospitable, laboring with the young people and in every way using the strength God has given them to expend themselves for the sake of their fellow believers.

I love it. Carry on, young men.

But you know what? You’re not elders. Not yet. Anyone who tells you otherwise is doing you and the church a grave disservice.

Thank the Lord you’re not elders.

No, Really, I’m Not Kidding

Because you are not elders, you are preserved from sitting with a bunch of men stuck doing a lot of the things that in the New Testament church would have been done by deacons. Administrative things. And worse, things neither elders nor deacons in the first century worried about: stuff to do with buildings, arguments about worship teams, servicing debt and details of compliance with the IRS or Canada Revenue. That’s what a lot of elders are tied up doing these days. Find me a church that actually qualifies deacons from scripture and can point them out. If you can, fantastic, but I bet you’ll look long and hard to do it.

Because you are not elders, you are preserved from having to make decisions about spiritual matters for which the Holy Spirit has not yet equipped you. He is working in your life to remake you in the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a process. You are well on your way, but there are certain evidences of maturity and testimony that can only be seen with the passage of time. I know you probably know this, but maybe your church doesn’t. Worse, maybe they’re so desperate to have somebody upon whom to lay the burden of leadership that they don’t care. We’ve been warned about that.

Because you are not elders, you are preserved to some extent from the danger of pride. You are preserved from the “condemnation of the devil”. Recognition as an “elder” before you are spiritually equipped and seasoned enough to handle it may inflate your ego in ways you cannot imagine now. It may also be a weight you are not yet fully prepared to carry.

Thank the Lord you’re not elders. Yet.

But don’t worry, if you care about the church of God and remain consistent in your Christian life, one day not so far in the future you will be. And when the time comes that you legitimately meet the criteria established in Timothy and Titus, neither your church nor your family will have the sorts of concerns they might have today, even if they would not express them publicly.

Racheting Up Those Numbers

But wait, here’s another objection:
“We need MORE elders, not less.”
No, actually we don’t. We need the number of elders the Holy Spirit makes. No more, no fewer. It is the Holy Spirit who is best equipped to discern what each local congregation really needs.

Now of course our perceived needs are something else entirely. Every local church has in place numerous programs, regular activities and plans that require time and energy to keep functioning. Having blessed in these things with the resolute conviction that they are unquestionably the work of God and near and dear to his heart, we feel great concern when we find ourselves unequipped for (or overwhelmed by) the effort required to run the machinery we built; to meet the obligations we set for ourselves. We assume that we have failed God or that our fellow believers lack commitment.

But are such programs really near and dear to God’s heart, or to ours?

What would happen if we stripped the church down to only those activities and regular meetings for which we can find precedent in the New Testament? I suspect we’d find each local church had more than adequate gift and commitment, including sufficient elders to fill the biblical roles for which they have been fitted by the Holy Spirit.

That’s only a theory, but it seems to me a plausible one. Trust me, in most local churches it will never be tested.

Infants and Antiques

Binary thinking is everywhere. But we are not being asked to choose between putting young men on the shelf until they rot, at one extreme, and capitulating to the anti-scriptural notion of teenage “elders” at the other. We are not being asked to choose between infants and antiques.

We are simply asked to obey the scriptural guidance we do have, whether or not that leaves us feeling entirely comfortable imagining where our church might be in a few years. Don’t worry; sorting that out is the Lord’s business.

We are wise to acknowledge that to everything there is a season, and for some eager young men that season is still a few years away.


  1. I love this, Tom. You're dead right. Age is not a guarantee of spiritual fitness for eldership, but being a novice most certainly is a disqualifier -- and that's whether you're a spiritual novice or simply a novice in life experience, by virtue of age.

    It's not by accident that the Lord specifically instructed us to see if elders a) have children that believe, and b) are keeping their homes in good order, so much as that rests with them. We are explicitly told, "if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?" It's a rhetorical question, drawing a direct parallel between home nurture and the skills required for eldership: he can't be expected to know what he needs to know unless he's done it.

    That alone should decisively rule out anyone who has not at least raised a family to the point at which his child-rearing skills and ability to establish a healthy home are manifest.

    But you also raise a second issue: that what most elders are doing today is not really elders' work. That also is a very serious problem. I was reading today that elders are to be honoured, "especially those that work hard at preaching and teaching." (1 Tim. 5:17). How many of our elders are working at that at all? Do we not routinely excuse them from the duties of this passage by saying, "Well, not everyone can do that..." or "The 'pastor' is the one who will do it all"? But I seen no more warrant for that than for appointing youthful "elders." We don't seem to be very serious about ANY of the qualifications for elders anymore.

    It's almost as though we don't believe the Lord really knows what we need...

  2. When the role of elders in a local church devolves to the point that their primary involvement with preaching and teaching is voting on the hiring and evaluation of candidates for pastor (or pushing the pastor out when he becomes difficult to manage), we have indeed hit bottom.

    At least I hope it's the bottom.

  3. This to me brings up an interesting question. Is it really always forbidden to the Christian to call someone an idiot if they really are an idiot (even a callous idiot like president Biden)? Or, is it just a matter of getting across the same idea by just using different words allowing you to evade the biblical consequences for calling out idiots?

  4. Pretty sure I wrote something on this subject a while back ... why, yes,
    I did.