Mailbag 52: Nominating Other Elders When I’m the Only One; American Flags on the Stage

Mailbag
02.17.2017

How does nominating new elders work when I’m the only elder? »
Does having an American flag on stage obscure the message of the gospel? »

Dear 9Marks,

I am in preaching a series on membership, elders, and deacons, and am planning on asking the congregation to nominate potential elders. Right now, I am the only elder. The church called me when we particularized last year. Regarding nominations, should people make them privately to me and then I decide which to make public, or should we make all nominations public? I am inclined to the first option. I know a couple of the men who will be nominated are good men but, having spent time with them, I know they are not ready. I don’t want to put men out there who I know are not ready.

—Tom

Dear Tom,

I think your instincts are right. It’s good to take recommendations privately, but formal public nominations should come from you.

Admittedly, the biblical pattern for elder nomination and affirmation is difficult to discern. On the one hand, the apostles ask the congregation to “pick out from among you seven men of good repute” and that “they chose” seven names for a role that would eventually line up with the office of deacon (Acts 6:3–4). On the other hand, Paul and Barnabus “appoint” elders in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (14:23), and Paul tells Titus to “appoint” elders (different Greek word for “appoint,” though) in Crete. Admittedly, the word used with Titus does not preclude congregational involvement, a point even Presbyterians acknowledge. Yet, back to the first hand, the churches “appointed” Titus to go as a missionary with Paul (2 Cor. 8:19).

Absent a clear biblical prescription, I think we’re pushed to theological judgment and pastoral prudence. For theological reasons I won’t belabor, I do believe the congregation possesses the final say for affirming elders or pastors (as an inference from passages like Gal. 1:6–9 and 2 Tim. 4:3). Incidentally, many (most?) Presbyterians and Anglicans agree. As a matter of pastoral prudence, however, I think elders should nominate elders. At least three reasons commend this:

First, as a matter of competence. You are the one elder or pastor the congregation has publicly affirmed as “able to teach” and “above reproach.” The fact that they affirmed you means you’re not going to remove their role entirely, but it also suggests that you’re the “safest bet” for who’s most competent to lead that process moving forward. You then lead that process through nominations; they remain involved by providing a final affirmation (which parallels the process for church discipline we see by comparing who exercises “judgment” in 1 Corinthians 5:3 and 12).

Second, as a matter of pastoral and church unity. Imagine if the church nominated and affirmed someone whom you believed was not qualified. The two of you would have to work together. So every time some issue arose in which you disagree, you would find yourself hard pressed to work through the disagreement since you don’t believe the man should be there in the first place. This disunity between the two of you would eventually affect the unity of the whole body. In fact, I’d even say that two pastors cannot work together for long when one pastor doesn’t think the other meets the qualifications in 1 Timothy or Titus (with some adjustments for the nature of the exact issue). One needs to go.

Third, as a matter of protecting would-be nominees and their families. One elder friend tells the story about a man in his church who, in many ways, appeared to be an upstanding and godly man. Externally, he possessed all the characteristics of a good leader. Every so often, therefore, someone in the church would publicly nominate this man since that is how their process works. The challenge was, the elders, through their pastoral care with this man and his wife, knew that he struggled with pornography. Therefore, every time a public nomination came, the elders had to find some way of turning down the nomination without needlessly embarrassing the man or his wife.

Bottom line: I do believe the congregation possesses the final say on who the elders or pastors should be, but I believe it’s pastorally wise for those nominations to come from the elders. And if you’re the only elder, that means it comes from you, at least for this first batch.

Last word: our elders continually invite the church to tell us (privately) who they think should be nominated. We very much want to know from them whom they see shepherding the flock. Sometimes we get the names of people we never would have thought of, and, after a little bit of investigation, happily nominate them. I’d even say these kinds of private conversations are part of the culture of our church now. “Hey, Jonathan, have you guys ever thought of Jack as an elder?”

Hope this is helpful.

Dear 9Marks,

I’m wondering if you could comment on the usefulness or propriety of having American (or national) flags in the church auditorium. Does it obscure the message of the gospel? Does it hinder the ability of a foreigner to worship with us? Or is it a way to show respect for our military veterans and to demonstrate appropriate patriotism for our nation?

I am coming into a pastoral position in my church, where we’ve had multiple American flags up front for decades. I’m trying to think through how to handle that, and if it is something I should think about changing in the next few years. Thank you for your ministry and your time.

—Jeremy

Dear Jeremy,

“Yes” to everything you asked. Yes, flags in our church buildings risk obscuring the gospel. Yes, they risk hindering the ability of foreigners to feel welcome. Yes, they show respect to veterans. I guess I’m not sure about demonstrating an appropriate patriotism. Probably not, I’d say.

What all that means is, get rid of the flags if you can, but don’t divide the church over it. When and how do you remove the flags without dividing the church? I have no idea. That’s up to you to know the people, knowing how to proceed carefully and wisely.

But here’s what you want to teach. The Old Covenant established a national people. The New Covenant, however, deliberately, intentionally, explicitly, decidedly, and unquestionably established a non-national or international people. For example, see Matthew 3:9, 8:11–12, and 28:18–20 or passages like Isaiah 19:23–25 and 49:6. Why would we do anything to risk confusing national identity with Christian identity? Isn’t that moving backward in redemptive history?

Help your congregation to understand that you have more in common spiritually with Nigerian and Japanese and Argentine believers than you do with unbelieving Americans. So, why would we want to put the stumbling block of American identity in front of these other believers (or foreign unbelievers with whom you’re sharing the gospel)? Doesn’t Paul concretely illustrate this kind of nation-identifying flexibility for the sake of the gospel, willing to be a Jew to Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles (1 Cor. 9:19–21)?

Mind you, this is a very hard lesson for many American Christians to understand. Since John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on the hill” sermon, Americans have tended to conflate nation and church. And the instinct remains alive and well, particularly among older generations. Be patient with such sheep. Don’t force it down their throats. Are they trusting Jesus, in spite of inconsistencies in how they put nation and church together? Then they are his sheep, and you can afford to be slow and tender, even as the good shepherd has been slow and tender with you (and me).

Having a flag in the room may be foolish, but I’m not sure it’s sin. So remove it when you can, but don’t shed too much blood over it.