Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name” (I Kings 18:30-31).
Elijah truly was a remarkable man. This is of course evident from the miracles accomplished through him, but there was a lot more to Elijah than miracles, important as they were.
As a prophet, Elijah was really a kind of national pastor to Israel, for a true prophet never stops being a pastor. We sees this initially, with his dealings with the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17:8-24). He dealt with the one appropriately and faithfully; now he was to graduate to the many. Her last description of him that the Bible gives us, was:
Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth (I Kings 17:24).
Now, he was obligated to bring the word of the Lord to Israel, and he cared for Israel as a shepherd does his flock. As such, he never had an axe to grind, except out of faithfulness to God.
Jesus taught us,
He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much (Luke 16:10).
What does this mean? Like Elijah, the church needs to begin with “little things”, like the care of widows and fatherless children. In fact, when we look at the early church, this is exactly what took place, in Acts 6. Stephen and the other deacons took up a role they were probably familiar with, for it was an Old Testament role, a requirement under the law, found immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments:
You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger shall be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Ex.22:22-24).
If the church would pick up the care of widows and fatherless children, that would be a massive welfare statement; something that could well lead to the replacement of the Welfare State.
Elijah’s direction to the people to “Come near to me,” shows us that after the three and a half years of drought (which he had predicted-I Kings 17:1), Elijah had a measure of national authority and standing in the nation, for all the people in this instance obeyed him. Presumably, they’d all been affected by the drought. Now, he was calling them to him, and they came.
National authority is not something that can be accrued overnight. The church today must realise its reputation has to be built from the ground up. What’s been lost over time, will need to be regained, over time. Elijah had predicted this terrible drought. Now that it had ravaged the land all this time, he called them all together, through Ahab (I Kings 18:19). Elijah was calling for a religious confrontation in Israel.
This means there may well have to be decades and generations of steady faithfulness and obedience on our part, much of which will be hidden and unknown to outsiders. Proper foundations for reconstruction are essential, but they are not glorious things in the eyes of many people, though they do hint of great things to come, over time. And wise people will see and understand how essential they are.
Paul explains to us how important this is, when he tells us that the church has been
…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord (Eph.2:20-21).
Your body has an essential skeletal structure, but apart from your head, none of it is visible. Take away your femur, and you won’t walk. Every church is the same, requiring that there be (minimally) elders, and probably deacons. These are the people who govern the church, making the decisions, elected by the church members.
Now some would say, “What about the pastor?” He should simply be one of the elders, ensuring there is plurality of leadership, so that the probability of the abuse of power is significantly reduced.
All office-holders are to be governed by written rules and a constitution; public documents that all should have access to, and be familiar with. This means there are available minutes of meetings, along with transparency and accountability; no “secret men’s business.”
Why? Because all constitutions will be tested, whether it be a church, a company, or a nation, at some point. If there are weaknesses, they will surely be found. And all of this is essential for the local church to be healthy. These do not ensure church health, but they certainly mean some of the possible inroads can be shut off.
I recently heard of a large church, which was governed by a Senior Pastor. This man’s father, a member of the church, was accused of serious sexual abuse, dating back decades earlier. The Senior Pastor then led an “investigation” himself, which led to his father being excommunicated by the church.
Isn’t that good? No.
Anyone with an ounce of legal understanding would know that there is such a thing as a conflict of interest. These have a long history, going back at least as far as the conflict of interest that David faced, when his son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar (II Sam.13). But one of our modern church problems is that we have such little time for the Old Testament, though the scripture warns us that
these things [ie, what happened to the children of Israel] happened to them as an example, and they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the world have come (I Cor.10:11).
Would the Senior Pastor be really able to objectively make a judgement on his father’s behaviour? Hardly. The sexual abuse was so serious it was certainly criminal, if proven. It should have gone to the police.
Did that happen? No. Now it has really gone public, on TV, and the reputation of that church has been shredded.
Where were the elders? They weren’t ruling, they were being ruled by the Senior Pastor.
What’s that got to do with church reform?
A lot. It tells us what we must not do, when it comes to church government. The Senior Pastor and any other “leaders” had made a fateful, dreadful, self-interested decision when the structure of the church was being determined, decades ago. Now it’s come back to bite them, and the church. And when the leaders are incompetent, the innocent suffer from the injustice.
That church needs a new Board of Elders, and to show that Senior Pastor the door.
If Christians are serious about the church becoming an institution of godly influence again in the nations of the world, we will have to face up to hard things, and deal with them. This means the Biblical choice of leaders, along with documentation, transparency and accountability.
Some will oppose this, and this is to be expected, because change often has resisters, especially amongst the status quo, when they’ve had their hands in the honey jar of money and privilege all along. Tyrants and other abusers hate to lose their opportunities, and will fight those who oppose them.
But we are either serious about change, or we’re not. And if we’re serious about requiring Biblical accountability and faithfulness, we’ll press ahead as God gives us the grace to do so, “…knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor.15:58).