Transitional Leadership

Term limits” apply to politicians, but not to assembly leaders. Paul told the Ephesian elders, “The Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Act 20:28).[1] But does that mean they continue as elders until they die, or can the Holy Spirit retire them or fire them?

The Case of Intentional Development

Of course, no elder wants to die and leave God’s people “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mat 9:36). And yet, a leadership transition can be challenging since elders have to give up their life’s work and identity.

Leadership transitions are abundant in Scripture, including Moses to Joshua, Solomon to Rehoboam (see Proverbs) and Elijah to Elisha (2Ki 2:12). In the New Testament, apostles led the Jerusalem assembly until the Spirit raised up elders (Act 11:30). Likewise, Paul left Timothy in Ephesus, Titus in Crete and Aquilla in Ephesus until overseers were raised up and recognized.

Therefore, the goal is that an assembly experience seamless transitions between generations of leadership to avoid the tragedy of men leaving behind untrained neophytes to scramble for control upon their passing. Like Moses, every elder should be praying for a man “who shall lead them out and bring them in” (Num 27:17). After all, will not transitions be included when the Chief Shepherd rewards elders with an “unfading crown of glory” (1Pe 5:4)?

Probably the closest parallel to NT elders in the OT is the Levites. Their duties included managing funds (Num 18:26), judging difficult cases (2Ch 19:8) and teaching the Scriptures (Neh 8:9). The Lord said their period of service was “from twenty-five years old and upward” (Num 8:24) and “from thirty years old up to fifty years old” (Num 4:23). Likely, the first five years were for training.

An assembly leader is to live “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught” (Titus 1:9 KJV). This latter phrase indicates a training time (unspecified) in which a potential elder develops character, accompanies overseers in visits, observes decision-making and learns to feed and tend the flock (Joh 21:15-17).

Levites served in three distinct phases: in apprenticeship capacity (ages 25-30), in active capacity (ages 30-50) and in advisory capacity (from age 50 forward). The latter is because the Lord said, “From the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more” (Num 8:25). And yet, He also said, “They [shall] minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service” (v26). Their care for God’s people never changed, just how they expressed it.

So, a shepherd’s heart remains constant, but his care for the flock is shown first through learning to care for sheep, then by doing the work, and finally by developing other shepherds. Thus, the apostle Peter wrote, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder” (1Pe 5:1 KJV). He was still an elder (in Jerusalem), but now writes to develop future leaders.

The Case of Individual Decision

For physical, mental or emotional reasons, an assembly leader may no longer be able to “care for God’s church” (1Ti 3:5). Honorably, he might step aside as the future of God’s testimony is more important than his own sense of usefulness.

With David aging, carnal Adonijah plotted to take over the leadership of Israel. Thankfully, David listened to Bathsheba’s plea that it was time to effect a leadership transition (1Ki 1:15-21). Nathan the prophet encouraged the same. Thus, David had Solomon anointed (v35) so that they could share leadership for two years before David’s death. May God give overseers today the admirable grace of King David to sense their limitations and to graciously and wisely pass the baton.

The Case of Identifiable Disqualification

Scripture also presents cases of shepherd failures. Isaiah talked about “shepherds who have no understanding” (56:11), Jeremiah spoke of “shepherds … [who] do not inquire of the Lord” (10:21), Zechariah identified “shepherds [who] have no pity” (11:5), and Jude described “shepherds feeding themselves” (v12). Thus, Paul warned the Ephesian elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves” (Act 20:28), because every overseer is capable of failing personally and causing assembly problems.

Of course, the case of an elder holding doctrinal error (1Ti 1:19-20) or committing moral sin (1Co 5:1-13) results in excommunication, which simultaneously removes him from leadership. The less clear case is when an elder no longer meets the requirements or no longer does the work (in an active or advisory capacity). In this situation, he should voluntarily resign. For example, if an elder falls into pornography use, he is no longer a one-woman man (1Ti 3:2) and should relinquish overseership. Similarly, if an elder develops anger issues, he should step aside as he is no longer “self-controlled” (v2).

Sadly, there are times when an elder should step down, but he refuses. Scripture says, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses” (1Ti 5:19 NKJV). So, instead of talking with him privately (step one of Matthew 18:15-17), witnesses must be present whenever an accusation is presented against an overseer. If the following statement, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all” (1Ti 5:20 NKJV), refers to elders continuing in their error despite being confronted, the assembly, led by other leaders, must then publicly rebuke them. That would occur prior to assembly discipline, step three of Matthew 18:15-17.

The Apostle John said that Diotrephes, who “loves to have the preeminence,” was refusing to receive the apostles and brethren (3Jn 9-10) and falsely accusing the apostles. From this case, we learn that resolution should be sought:

At the right time: Instead of rushing in when emotions were high, John would wait and pray. If still not resolved, he would confront him in person (“If I come …”), not by letter.

By the right person: As the offended party, per Matthew 18:15, John would personally confront him.

In the right way: John would “bring to mind” what Diotrephes’ sins were in light of the apostles’ doctrine. Similarly, today, spiritual brothers must bring the apostles’ doctrine (Jud 3) found in our NT to the mind of a sinning elder.

If the elder still refuses to repent, he must then be removed from his role and perhaps excommunicated for unwillingness to face sin (Mat 18:15-20) and for dividing the church (Titus 3:10-11). A case like this should not be hurried, but when identifiable disqualification occurs, may we seek grace and courage to deal with the situation according to Scripture.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.