Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr.
The churches of Christ are not growing today the way we were just a few years ago. Our net growth rate has decreased steadily over the past 15 years - primarily because of a significant increase in our drop-out rate. The most recent survey results indicate that 35 percent of our local congregations have started to decline in membership, 40 percent have stopped growing and are just holding their own, only 25 percent are growing --and they are not growing as fast now as they were just a few years ago. If the present trend continues, growth will totally stop early in the 1980s. At the present rate, our membership by the end of this century will be only half what it is today. Unless this declining growth trend is reversed, the church of Christ will cease to exist on the earth in just 50 years.
It should be evident that there is a bottleneck somewhere. Every bottleneck that I have ever seen was right at the top of the bottle. That is the way it is with the church. The greatest bottleneck hindering growth in the churches of Christ is in the eldership. The error of an authoritarian leadership style in the eldership is the greatest single problem that must be overcome to get the churches of Christ growing once again the way we can and should be growing. In this chapter, we will describe the authoritarian leadership style, demonstrate that this leadership style is contrary to the Scriptures, and discuss the factors which have contributed to the development of this style of leadership.
In most congregations, the work of shepherding the flock has been turned over almost entirely to the preacher. Jas. 5:14 says, "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church:' Those elders were to pray for the sick (Jas. 5:15). They were to counsel those who had sinned (Jas. 5:15-16). The command to "confess your sins one to another and pray one for another" (Jas. 5:16) is generally applied to public confession, but it was written in connection with the counseling, teaching, and praying done by the elders of the church. Today, however, most congregations would re-write Jas. 5:14 so that it would read, "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the preacher." And the work of counseling, teaching, and praying with those who have sinned is also assigned almost totally to preachers in the church today.
In the New Testament, there were three titles for this office: elder, overseer, and shepherd. But in the churches of Christ today only one of these titles is used to any great extent. Perhaps 99 percent of the time we call these men "elders." We do not call them "overseers" or "shepherds" And about 99 percent of the time when we pray for these men we say, "Lord, bless our elders and help them make wise decisions." About all that most congregations see in this office any more is the decision-making function. That is also about all that many elders see in this office. Many elderships function only as a decision-making, policy-making "board of directors" for the congregation. They do not function as administrators because they do not delegate enough decision-making authority to give them anything to administer. They do not function as spiritual counselors and teachers because they have given that job to the preacher.
But the limitation of the eldership to a decision-making role is only one of the characteristics of congregations where the eldership practices an authoritarian style of leadership. Another important characteristic has to do with the way that these elderships lord it over the church in their decision-making.
The English word "lord" comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that literally means "one who guards the bread" (no pun intended). A lord was a person who had the authority to rule and that authority came by right of birth or by appointment of a king. The authority of a lord to rule was totally independent of the consent of the people over whom he rules. In the original Greek text of the New Testament the word for lord is kurios and that word had a similar meaning. It referred to one having power or authority. Jesus assumed this title for Himself(Mat. 7:21-22; 9:38; 22:41; Mk. 5:19). The authority of Jesus to rule is totally independent of the consent of any human being. The authority of Jesus as Lord is based on who He is and what He is In Lk. 6:46, Jesus asked the people why they called Him "Lord" and yet refused to obey His commandments A lord has the authority to command and his authority is totally independent of the consent of the people over whom he rules.
Elderships which practice an authoritarian style of leadership function as though they had the authority of lords. They make their decisions in total isolation from the congregation. They do not let the members of the congregation know what things are being considered. They do not ask for any input from the members in the decision-making process. They do not create channels of communication to keep the members informed about things being considered. They do not create channels of communication so that the views of the members can be heard before the eldership reaches its decision. And once the decision has been made, these elderships simply announce the decisions as orders which the members are expected to obey without question.
These elderships place great stress on the authority of their office and on the chain of command in the congregation's organizational structure. They do not involve the members of the congregation at the input stage of the decision-making process, and yet they expect total submission, obedience, and cooperation once the decision has been made.
Such elderships function as a self-perpetuating board of directors for the congregation. The members of the congregation do not have the right to determine that additional elders or deacons are needed. The members of the congregation do not have the right to nominate men to serve as elders or deacons. These elderships decide when men will be added to the eldership or the deaconate. These elderships decide who will be nominated. Typically the congregation is given only the opportunity to present Scriptural objections in the event that someone nominated by the eldership is not Scripturally qualified. And if objections are raised, it is the eldership that decides whether or not to sustain the objection.
These eldership assume that they were appointed for life and they never go back to the congregation to see if they still have the consent of the congregation to serve as elders. Many congregations today have a very high turn-over rate. In many congregations, at least 90 percent of the members were not members of that congregation just ten years ago. And yet in many of these congregations there are elders who were selected at least ten years ago. That means that at least 90 percent of the present members of the congregation had no voice in the selection of the men who now serve as that congregation's elders. But these elders see no need for going back to the congregation from time to time to see if they still have the consent of the congregation to serve as elders. They assume that the authority of their office comes by a direct delegation of authority from God and they accept the doctrine that "once an elder always an elder" (at least as long as an elder remains in a given congregation).
Editor's Note: The above quotes are from a book by Flavil R, Yeakley, Jr., entitled: Church Leadership and Organization. It was published in 1980 and is still available from various bookstores.
Our brother's observations about the growing menace of authoritarian Elderships is very much to the point. He charges that "the bottleneck" is at the top that stifles "church growth." His views are in stark contrast to the brazen, anti-scriptural claims made by the Eldership of the Sixth and Izard Church in Little Rock. Be sure to read carefully the two articles in this issue about the Little Rock lawsuit. It is a shameful tragedy that men will exert such authoritarian rule over the saints of God and brazenly assert that such is in harmony, even the requirement, of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a blessing to this generation and generations to come that brethren in Little Rock, members of Sixth and Izard, have stood against this insidious evil. That Eldership claimed that they are above the requirements of the law in the execution of their responsibility as trustees of the incorporated Church. We owe these brethren a debt of gratitude for their gallant opposition to this outrageous claim of papal power by those who "lord it over" that church. -- CAH.