the weblog of Alan Knox

In Theory

Posted by on Aug 17, 2009 in discipleship | 20 comments

In the last few weeks, I’ve had several very encouraging conversations with people who are attempting to live out their beliefs. During these conversations, the person would usually say (or infer) something like this:

“I’ve been studying Scripture, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the church that we see in Scripture is not like the church that we see today in many ways. But, the problem is, I believe this in theory, but I don’t know how to put these things into practice.”

Interestingly, the discussions have been about several different aspects of ecclesiology (the study of the church). I’ve talked to people about leadership and authority, fellowship, mutual teaching / edification / discipleship, missions, giving, serving. In each case, the person or people indicated that they believed that Scripture teaches something different from the way they usually see the church living. But, while they believe these things “in theory,” they don’t know what to do about it.

I remember a certain seminary class in which the professor was talking about elders and Scripture. The professor made the statement that there is no hierarchy among elders in Scripture. Someone asked (it may have been me… I don’t remember), “Then why do most churches have senior pastors or head pastors today?”

The professor replied, “Well, in theory there should not be a hierarchy among elders. All elders should be equal. But, it doesn’t work that way in practice. Someone has to be in charge.”

I think the church has bought this logic for too long. Many agree that the church should not do certain things in certain ways “in theory,” but those same people are perfectly willing to live in ways that contradict Scripture “in practice.”

Last Sunday, I was reminded of this problem when a brother read Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24-27 ESV)

In this parable, both people hear what Christ says. But, only the one who actually does what he says has a firm foundation. The one who only hears but does not do builds his life on a weak foundation.

I like the way Eugene Peterson translated the end of this passage in The Message:

“But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.” (Matthew 7:26-27 The Message)

We like to think that we have accomplished something great by studying Scripture. However, as Peterson points out above, our Bible studies, sermons, commentaries, books, etc. are worthless if we are not actually working these things into our lives.

Don’t misunderstand me, as an elder, it is not easy to lead without “lording it over” other people, but Jesus said, “It shall not be so among you.” So, it does me no good to state that I should NOT have authority over others, then go ahead and exercise authority. I must try to work this into my life.

It is not easy to actually fellowship – share our lives – with other people. It is uncomfortable, time consuming, often expensive, and sometimes inconvenient to invite people into our lives. But, it does us no good at all to say that we should have fellowship with one another, then do absolutely nothing about it.

Similarly, we can state that all believers should be responsible for teaching, encouraging, admonishing, etc. But, if we are not willing to actually teach, encourage, or admonish others AND allows others to teach, encourage, or admonish us, then our statement is meaningless.

In other words… following Christ is not something that is done “in theory.” Following Christ is about real life. As Peterson translated, we must attempt to work these beliefs into our lives. And “these things” should come from our understanding of Scripture and what God is telling us to do. As James would say, we must be doers and not only hearers.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-17-2009

    Thanks for this Alan. It is an encouragement to me. I have had the same experiences when talking to believers about the church. Most everyone agrees with me that much of what is done today in church is not biblical. However, the vast majority continue to do things the same. It can be discouraging…especially now when so many excellent books like yours and others are out there that unpack these issues so well yet nothing changes.

  2. 8-17-2009


    You nailed it! Your words brought back memories of many conversations with church folk. There has always been a common phrase uttered by those I was speaking with, whether a congregation or individuals: “I agree, but……”.

  3. 8-17-2009

    Hey, Alan. We really should have met before now, but I’m glad you’re blogging. First heard about you on Viola’s blog. Since you seem game for debate, I’m gonna jump right in. 😉

    You said, “As an Elder, it is not easy to lead…” and I got your point but I’m wondering – are you implying that leadership is ever designated as a primary function of NT Elders? Maybe my memory is slipping – and seriously, it might be – but I don’t recall where the NT says that Elders/Overseers/Shepherds are supposed to “Lead”. Do you? Or if not, which set of Paul’s instructions to them are you interpreting as meaning “bring direction in corporate activity”? Which verb in those passages do you think is similar?

    As I read Eph.4, the shepherds are among those who equip the saints, and they *all* do the ministry that builds up the body, bringing it to maturity. That ministry must include having various individuals function in directorial ways at various times. So to me it seems Leadership is not the exclusive domain of the Overseers.

    Maybe you’ve blogged about this in the past – I don’t know – but it do you believe it is primarily E/O/S’s who instigate most or all church activity? Does “Elder” = “Director”?

    To use a different metaphor, I think NT Elders were much more like Supervisors than Team Leaders. Some work places use those titles interchangably, but others make a very practical distinction. And as far as I can recall, plus a quick skim to double check, there’s no specific warrant for NT E/O/S’s to “Lead” apart from whatever must have been involved while “equipping the saints”.

    In the sheep fields, actual shepherding is lonely, patient, passive work – most of the time.

    Sorry to make friends by writing a book here. 😉 Btw, there’s six question marks in there somewhere, and I’d love to hear six distinct answers, but I certainly understand if you only respond to my major point. Thanks in advance. 🙂

  4. 8-17-2009


    I’m glad that other are having these same discussions. Be encouraged and continue practicing what you learn from Scriptures! It is important for others to see your example.

    Aussie John,

    Thanks again for the encouragement! You really should move over here. 🙂


    Thanks for the comment. I didn’t understand why you were asking the questions you were asking until I re-read my post. There was a typo in my post. It should have read (and I have changed it) as follows:

    “So, it does me no good to state that I should NOT have authority over others, then go ahead and exercise authority.”

    I do not believe that elders (or any other believer) should exercise authority over other believers. As Jesus said, “It shall not be so among you.”

    However, I do believe that elders (and others) should lead. We see “leading” often in Scripture (1 Thess 5:12-13, 1 Tim 5:17, Heb 3:7, 17). Again, though, I do not think this type of “leading” should be authoritative. Instead, we lead by serving others.

    Sorry for the confusion, but I hope this answers your questions.


  5. 8-17-2009

    Thanks, Alan. I’m convinced 1 Thess 5:12-13 is about Timothy and Silas but that’s a debate for another day. The Hebrews reference eludes me – another typo, or am I missing your angle there? And the 1 Tim verse is the one I forgot. So I’ll grant you that. 😉 But I do have some questions about it.

    Btw, “authoritative” doesn’t necessarily bother me at all. Even to that, there is a season. What bothers me is that we’ve got oodles of instructions for what Elders are supposed to do, and 99% of it (if not 100) is as I described above. But our minds fixate on “lead”.

    Is there another reference I’m forgetting?

  6. 8-17-2009


    For me, “leadership” is not the main issue with elders. Elders are to shepherd – take care of – people. I mention authority in this post because I’ve talked to alot of people who do not think elders to make decisions for the church (exercise authority), but they continue doing just that.


  7. 8-17-2009

    I would love to drop this, but now I’m confused again. Sorry. Honestly confused. (I get that way a lot.) 😉

    It sounds like you’re saying Elders are primarily Leaders, but they are not to make decisions for the church. But how does one “Lead” without “making decisions”? You don’t mean they are merely to suggest direction which the church sometimes decides against? Do you?

    I trust there’s some fruit in this, btw. I’m really not trying to be difficult. 🙂

  8. 8-17-2009

    Kind of asked the same question over at my blog, maybe in a different way.

    I also found out you meant Hebrews 13:7,17. Got that one and mentioned it there, also.

    Thanks very much for the continuing conversation.

  9. 8-17-2009


    Actually, I said, “For me, ‘leadership’ is not the main issue with elders. Elders are to shepherd – take care of – people.”

    Do elders lead through serving? Sure. But so do other believers who are not elders.


  10. 8-17-2009

    When I think of the word “lead” I think of leading the band or a mama duck or a team captain in sports. And I think there are plenty of church activities where one person can lead in that way, for an exercise, for ten minutes, or an hour, or even a month. Or, especially, for the entire beginning phase of a new church plant in the NT, a la Paul and Barnabas.

    So to me, “lead” is pretty much telling people what to do, however temporarily or graciously. And given the right contexts (as above), I think that *is* something we should do more of.

    Thus, in my terms, leadership can be “authoritative”, technically.

    This is what I thought you disagreed with. No?

  11. 8-17-2009


    To me, the difference is between submission and subservience. We can submit to others and allow them “lead” in our lives. But, I do not think we are allowed by Scripture to force our leadership on others. To me, this would be subservience.


  12. 8-18-2009

    Thanks. 🙂

  13. 8-18-2009


    I think it can be very hard to put scripture into practice, it would take great faith in order to give up a decent paying public speaking position in this job market! I mean these guys have invested a lot of time, energy and money pursueing the unbiblical positions that contribute to the prevention of the church from functioning properly. Perhaps a job placement and retraining ministry is in order for the misguided but mosty well meaning special caste? 🙂

    I am also well aware that there are also a lot of folks who are willing to lay down their priesthood and responsibility and allow a special caste put on the show so to speak.

  14. 8-18-2009

    Hi Alan,

    Another great post! I think that the answer to the problem about putting theory into practice involves:
    (a) faith – to take the risk of obeying what the bible teaches
    (b) humility – if the risk of faith works out okay (and does not result in a major embarrassment), we can become proud of our obedience
    (c) love for others who do not, for whatever reason, see things differently to how we understand scripture

  15. 8-18-2009


    Thanks for the call last night. It was a great encouragement to talk to you!


    Yeah, it’s a two way street… we’ve built a system of codependency that is also self-perpetuating.


    I like your three steps of putting our beliefs into practice! Thanks!


  16. 8-18-2009

    Thanks for the discussion,
    As of late we have had some issues with elders saying that they are not to laud the overseeing of the flock over them and then doing just that. leadership is by example not comand. the elders of our church are the heads of each household. recently several men that were elders before we changed our definition have said that they are still in authority and have railroaded some things thru. How does a body exercise decipline towards an elder other than matt. 18. without taering the body apart.

  17. 8-19-2009

    Alan -Bill – Hutch – Gordon and the rest

    Enjoyed your conversations and thoughts.

    There was a time I desired to be a leader/elder
    and was reading all the “How To” books on
    how to be a good leader. There are lots of them.

    “If a man desire the office of a bishop,
    he desireth a good work.”

    I thought that meant leader at the time.
    That’s what I was taught by “my elders.”

    I was already doing the work of an elder, (???)
    shepherding, teaching, praying for the sick,
    cleaning the bathroom, sweeping the sidewalk,
    repairing the roof, visiting the hospital,
    staying overnight and christmas day
    with someone who was dying of Aids
    so the family could rest a little
    and have some time for themselves.

    “My elders” wanted to make it official,
    and give me the title elder,
    I refused and said,
    being a believer was good enough.
    I didn’t need a title.

    I wasn’t being humble at the time.
    I knew I still had a few “character defects?”
    (Okay, okay, SIN.)

    I knew I didn’t yet measure up for
    the qualifications for a leader/elder.
    Must be blameless, ( I wasn’t.)
    have your family in order, (Mine wasn’t.)
    holy, just, temperate, not quarrelsome, etc…

    How many believers take those qualifications
    for bishop and elder seriously today?

    The Bible talks about bishops, and elders.
    And qualifications for bishops and elders.
    Can’t have one without the other; Can you?

    Bishops “must be” blameless…

    After finally leaving “the religious system,”
    (Much pain, tears and spiritual abuse.)
    And struggling with these things about
    elders/leaders/shepherds/bishops, etc.
    (as I see your struggles and many others also.)
    I now see it this way. Well today anyway.
    Subject to change? As I write this?…Mercy Lord.

    That “must be” is the same Greek word as
    …You “must be” born again. John 3:17
    Seems to be a small word but very important.

    It’s Strongs #1163, die. – It is necessary (as binding).
    Computer – necessity established by the counsel
    and decree of God.

    Bishops “must be.” Hmmm? Very important or…?

    Blameless… How important is this word?

    Webster’s – Without fault; innocent; guiltless;
    not meriting censure.

    Synonyms – faultless, guiltless, innocent,
    irreproachable, spotless, unblemished.

    Computer – that cannot be reprehended,
    (cannot be, rebukable, reprovable, cannot find fault)
    not open to censure, irreproachable.

    Strongs #423 – anepileptos
    inculpable, blameless, unrebukeable.

    How many, who honestly examine themselves,
    seriously considering these qualifications,
    can see themselves as blameless, without fault
    and thus qualify to be an overseer/elder?

    And if you can see yourself as blameless;
    Is that pride? And no longer without fault?

    The Bible talks about bishops, and elders.
    And qualifications for bishops and elders.
    Can you have one without the other?

    This is only one of many qualifications.

    But some would question;
    Don’t you need leaders/elders in the church?
    Can’t we just ignore some of the qualifications?

    Didn’t Paul also leave us a way out
    “if” we can’t find someone who qualifies.

    In Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus,
    to ordain elders in every city.

    But in verse 6 Paul leaves a loophole (?) saying,

    “If” any “be blameless.”

    This is a very large, little, word: “IF.”
    This “IF” is found many times in scripture.

    In verse 7 he explains why he leaves an opening.

    For a bishop “must be blameless.”

    Not that I’ve met all that many elders,
    I just never met one “leader/elder”
    as nice and as humble as one might be,
    who could live up to that “one qualification,”
    never mind all the other qualifications.

    Paul didn’t say “they” can grow into being blameless.
    To be ordained bishop “they” must “be” blameless.

    Titus 1:6 If any be blameless…
    Titus 1:7 For a bishop must be blameless…

    Who do you know who is “blameless,”without fault?

    I came pretty close for awhile.
    I came so close “my elders” even
    gave me a medal for being humble.

    Then, only one week later,
    they took it away from me
    when I wore it.

    Only God, and sometimes me,
    know the hidden motives of my heart.

    Only God, and sometimes me,
    know “the idols” of my heart. Ezek 14:3-7

    Can “titles become idols” – of the heart?

    Doesn’t God then talk to us, and direct us,
    according to those “idols” of the heart?

    Just wondering and wandering.

    Be blessed in your search for truth… Jesus.

  18. 10-5-2011

    The professor replied, “Well, in theory there should not be a hierarchy among elders. All elders should be equal. But, it doesn’t work that way in practice. Someone has to be in charge.”

    We have built organizations and now we have to have someone ‘in charge’. It is the nature of having an organization. If we want an NT leadership structure then we must needs return to an NT ecclesiology, small groupings of disciples who follow Jesus meeting in their homes. I don’t see too much appetite for this though. Keep writing Alan, maybe the appetite will grow!

  19. 11-1-2011

    It’s been my experience that when a pastor/elder/campus evangelist wants you to follow Christ, what they really mean is they want you to help them accomplish their personal goals. They’re really not interested in shepherding you and helping you walk closer with Jesus, in whatever form that might make. I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life serving leaders because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do — you know, submit — who, when they get discouraged or get a better offer, abandon the servants around them. They say God is “leading them” or has “opened a door.”

  20. 4-12-2012

    This post generated a lot of thoughts, and got me thinking about this issue again (I need to think about it a lot).

    I agree with the underlying philosophy of church leadership expressed in this post, and I’ve been wrestling with it for years, and have read several books that discuss this. I highly recommend The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. This book helped it all come together for me, but then left me with the question you’re bringing up: “What does this look like in practice.”

    Evidently lots of people were asking this question, so they wrote a study guide / group curriculum called The Tangible Kingdom Primer which I read and then taught. It really helped to flesh out what this looks like in action, so I also highly recommend it.

    Obviously, the Holy Spirit is our leader, but I realize how often I/we love to talk about being led by the Spirit, but don’t like to actually be led by Him and rely on His leadership. It’s too nebulous, too fuzzy for our western mindset. We’d rather rely on the seminary training of a pastor or the business experience of a CEO than on the Spirit, and I think this is one of the roots of our problem.

    I’m re-reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and I love how the characters in these books really are being led by the Spirit, and feel no unease about it. Of course, the scientific, logical humans watching this think it’s really strange.

    This idea causes us to ask another question: “What does it look like to listen to and follow the Spirit?” This, of course, is another western-mindset kind of question, but for us non-Pentecostal types, it’s a difficult question to ignore.


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