"Position" or "Responsibility"

The Local Church Elder

Carl Coffman is a professor of religion at Pacific Union College.

With this issue, The Ministry begins a series of articles prepared for the local church elders by Pastor Carl Coffman. Pastor Coffman served in the pastoral ministry from 1950-1960 in the Northern California Confer ence. He was then called to teach in the department of religion at Pacific Union College where he has since been active in helping to prepare future ministers for their task. Local elders, whether serving in large churches or small ones, will find valu able suggestions in the material from a writer so well qualified to present it.—Editors.

WE OFTEN refer to the "call" that leads some to study for and dedicate themselves to the gospel ministry. The local elder, of course, is chosen by the church nominating committee. But in a very real way he is also called by Cod, through men, to a very important service in Cod's church. As a minister, I consider my board of elders as the highest level of officership in my church. They are ordained to office, set apart by the laying on of hands, after having been selected in harmony with clear and strict Biblical guidelines to guide the church in ways that bring glory to the name of Cod.

Does being an elder consist of merely holding a position in the church? Some look at it this way. They consider it to be the highest position in the church. They have attained, have been advanced to the top rung of the ladder of lo cal church organization.

If an elder sees his eldership in this light only, there is great danger that he will succumb to the temptations with which capable men are especially surrounded. The minister is tempted in exactly the same way. Both the minister and church elder can be tempted to forget that all men are but dust in the sight of God. In doing this, we tend to look at ourselves and our fellow men as being on different levels of the ladder, some even needing to step up onto its very first rung.

A feeling of superiority develops and we are prone to begin to dictate to others because of the position we hold as "your leaders" of the church. Simply to state this danger lays bare the cause of certain resentments within our midst today.

Such inward attitudes actually disqualify even good men for true service for God. With this philosophy behind their thinking we find that such men rule rather than serve. Our Lord came to minister to others, He served His brethren. He pleaded with men, He invited men to be faithful, but He never commanded, never treated anyone as His inferior.

Ellen White tells us that Jesus saw in all men what they might become, and through the Holy Spirit He sought gently to lift them up to higher plateaus of experience. It seems clear that the chief proof that the church elder is fulfilling his office well is evident in the extent of his cooperation with Christ in Jeading his fellow members to a sincere personal experience with the Lord. If this is his one great objective, he will treat all men as equal in God's sight.

There is much safety in looking at our calling to eldership as responsibility rather than as position. All men are entrusted with varied talents by the Lord. Superior talents do not make a man superior—they increase his responsibility to God. Cod requires more of him than He does of the lesser-talented person. And when we see our Cod-given abilities as only entrusted to us for His service, we then fall to our knees and plead with our Lord for much needed divine strength to use our talents in the way that is best for His church. Greater talents imply greater responsibility, which in turn destroys the possibility of superiority.

Some ministers look upon other ministers who pastor larger churches or who administer conferences as being superior to themselves. They may be easily led by this fallacy to give less of themselves to God's work in their smaller district. Ministers have varied talents, just as do laymen. The man in the large district, if there because of his talent and ability, is in no way greater in the sight of Cod. Again, his greater talent demands that he meet greater responsibility. And it is as the minister or the church elder pleases Cod in the way he does his work that he is rightly occupying the office to which he has been called.

When this becomes his outlook, the minister or church elder has arrived at the place in which Cod can use him as a responsible Christian to hasten the preparation of the church for the coming of Christ.

The local church today is in need of dedicated leadership. There can be no question about that. But if the church is to accomplish what Cod designs it should, the leadership must be a truly responsible leadership, which understands church officership as service for Christ to people inside and outside of the church walls. And as we sense that our acceptance of office has placed this kind of responsibility upon us, we will live much on our knees in order that we do not fail our Lord.


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Carl Coffman is a professor of religion at Pacific Union College.

January 1975

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