Dangers Facing Assembly Leadership
by Stephen Hulshizer (1941-2019)
In my travel among the assemblies it is evident that the general spiritual condition of many of them is poor. Attendance is often a small portion of those who would claim to be in fellowship. Worldliness has made inroads and it is manifested in a lack of commitment to the local assembly and by a strong commitment to careers, hobbies, sports, and recreation.
Another very evident need is for godly oversight, men who are committed to caring for the Lord’s people even though it means great personal sacrifice. In many assemblies there is no identifiable leadership and the Lord’s people go from week to week like sheep without a shepherd. In other gatherings there are those who have been identified as elders, but who do little or none of the work involved in shepherding the Lord’s people. Thankfully, there are those assemblies with identifiable and godly overseers who with personal sacrifice care for the saints.
When he was about to leave the Ephesian elders for the last time Paul exhorted them, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). One danger that a shepherd faces is that of neglecting himself. While expending himself for the Lord’s people he neglects his own spiritual condition. In a similar way one can get so involved in the Lord’s work, that the Lord Himself is set aside. Like those at Ephesus, one’s works, labour, and patience may be commendable, but he has left his “first love” (Rev. 2:1-4).
In addition to taking heed to himself the shepherd must be on guard for those grievous wolves who come from without with the desire to destroy the local testimony (Acts 20:29). This requires discernment because they will often come in sheep’s clothing, speaking softly and acting graciously (Rom. 16:18). Shepherds must also be on the alert for those who arise from within the local fellowship and who would desire to gain a following.
It is evident that those in oversight are subject to many dangers. The adversary of the sheep and of the Chief Shepherd is constantly on the prowl, using his many methods in an attempt to have the shepherds fall, leaving the sheep unguarded.
We will take a brief look at some of the dangers those in oversight are subject to by looking at the experience of leaders in the Scriptures. We should always learn from experience, and if possible from the experience of others–it is far less expensive!
In the beginning of 1 Samuel 10, Saul was privately anointed by Samuel to be the king of Israel. Later in that same chapter Samuel called the people together to publicly present Saul to the nation. After Samuel worked his way through the tribes and families, Saul was selected, but when the time came for him to be set before the people “he could not be found” (1 Sam. 10:21). How sad that after the Lord had clearly marked him out, Saul hid himself “among the stuff.”
At first glance one might mistakenly see this as humility, but in reality it was fear–timidity. In a similar way, it is possible for one whom the Holy Spirit has clearly marked out as an overseer (Acts 20:28)–and only the Holy Spirit can do so–to hide himself among the stuff. Could it be that many in oversight who are failing to do the work lack conviction that the Lord has raised them up to do this important work? Such a lack of conviction will surely lead to being fearful and ineffective. If one believes he has been raised up for this valuable work then he should move forward with a holy boldness to act accordingly.
When the apostle Paul was called to be an apostle there was no hesitancy. He clearly identified himself as “an apostle by the will of God.” He clearly understood his calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Peter likewise understood his calling and identified himself as an elder (1 Pet. 5:1). He in turn exhorted other shepherds to “feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind” (1 Pet. 5:2). He encourages not hesitancy, but definite action.
David, the shepherd, when coming upon the battle scene and beholding Goliath taunting God’s people, did not exhibit timidity. As a true shepherd he moved forward, knowing the battle was the Lord’s. It was Paul who exhorted Timothy to stir up his gift and reminded him that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Now to have a definite conviction of one’s call to shepherd the Lord’s people also requires humility. There is such a thing as holy boldness with humility. The same Paul who clearly knew his unique calling also referred to himself as the “chief of sinners,” “the least of all the apostles,” and “less than the least of all saints.”
Certainly one danger for those in oversight is timidity. Timidity that comes from a lack of a conviction that the Holy Spirit has raised them up to shepherd the Lord’s people. It may also be a lack of trust in the Lord to enable those whom He calls.
Amazingly, the same one who was hiding “among the stuff” when he was to be introduced to the nation of Israel as its new king, is later found exercising the power of his position to the point of ignoring God’s Word. The prophet Samuel had clearly conveyed the message of the Lord to Saul. “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” It could not be more clearly stated.
When Saul failed to do as the Lord commanded, the prophet Samuel reminded him, “When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the LORD anointed thee king over Israel?” The one who was taken from among the smallest of tribes and least of the families was now taking things into his own hands, and thereby rejecting the Word of the Lord. Saul offered the explanation that the animals which were not killed were kept in order to offer them to the Lord. Samuel responded with those words that have rung down through the centuries, “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). The great lesson here is that obedience to God’s Word is better than good intentions!
So while one danger is that of timidity, another danger is that of power. The overseer can, perhaps with good intentions, take things into his own hands and neglect the Word of the Chief Shepherd. He may even act as a lord over “God’s heritage.” Many have failed when placed into a position of leadership because they could not control their power and authority. Sadly, down through the years many saints have been “driven” rather than “led.” May the assemblies be spared the misuse of power by those who provide oversight.
Scripture clearly informs us that Diotrephes “loveth to have the preeminence” (3 John 9). He left no room for others, even to the point of not receiving the apostle John. It is often true in leadership that there is one who seeks to have the chief seat among the brethren, at times even to the point of shutting out all others. Paul addresses this competitive spirit in his epistle to the Philippians. Apparently there was a spirit of competition among the saints there and Paul writes, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.” He writes, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
Now it is in this context that Paul brings in the ultimate example of the Lord Jesus. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.¨ What was the mind of the Lord Jesus? The One who was very God did not concentrate on Himself. He was “others minded,¨and being so He came from the heights of glory and took on humanity and the form of a servant. He took the low place, even to the point of the cross, with the good of others in view.
We see this clearly as we view Him in the upper room washing the feet of His disciples. It was a ministry that needed to be done and since none of the disciples had the mind to do it, He did! How beautiful that mind and how much we need to think upon it, that it may in turn become ours. We find in Scripture that overseeing the Lord's sheep is to be done by "servant leaders." The Lord Himself said He "came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." May we seek the Lord to provide those godly overseers who lead by example and who serve in humility, not seeking the preeminence.
Too often men are recognized as elders because they are successful leaders in the secular world. If this is the sole or primary reason for their recognition it will most likely lead to failure in spiritual leadership. Success in the business world is not a qualification for spiritual leadership. This is not to say that one who is successful in worldly terms is not qualified to lead the assembly, but he must be recognized only for his spiritual work in caring for the saints.
Success can lead to self confidence. It is after the victory that we are most open to the adversary’s counter attack. Joshua and the children of Israel are excellent examples of this truth. The Lord had instructed the children of Israel to march around Jericho once a day for six days and then seven times on the seventh day. At the completion of this march they were to shout at the sound of the trumpets. Having done as the Lord commanded, the mighty walls came crashing down. Victory had been gained.
The next obstacle to their occupying the land was the small city of Ai. So small that Joshua felt no need to consult with the Lord concerning it, and with confidence gained from their victory at Jericho, Joshua decided to send only a few to take the city of Ai.
The result was absolute failure. The men sent by Joshua were soundly defeated and sent running like rabbits. Scripture foretold this result when it said, “Pride goeth before destruction” (Prov. 16:18). Now there were several things which led to this failure. There was sin in the camp. There was the dividing of the Lord’s people, with only a few felt to be necessary for the battle. There was self-confidence and pride as a result of their victory at Jericho.
When it comes to assembly oversight, self-confidence and pride in previous accomplishments, whether in the world or in the assembly, are the prescription for failure. The apostle Paul warned of this when he wrote concerning those desiring the oversight. “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.” Those in oversight were not to be novices–newly planted trees which were not rooted by godly experience. Experience that manifests the weakness of the flesh and the necessity of dependence upon God. Experience that causes one to look away from success, ability, education, wealth, etc., and to depend solely upon the Lord.
No one enjoys being disliked and thus acceptance by others can often lead us to do things simply to please the people. Throughout Scripture we find those who were driven by "the people." In 1 Samuel 15 we find Saul trying to justify his disobedience and several times he speaks of ¨the people. "But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep" (v. 9). “And Saul said, They have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep...” (v.15). “But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal” (v. 21).
We find a similar thing with Aaron. Moses had gone up to the mount and when he did not return for some time, Aaron built the golden calf. Moses returned and asked, “What did this people unto thee, that thou has brought so great a sin upon them?” Aaron replied, “Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. For they said unto me, make us gods, which shall go before us” (Ex. 32:19-23). Once again a leader is persuaded by the sentiment of the people.
In contrast to this we read concerning Paul, “...do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). Writing to the Thessalonians he says, “But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” Paul was not driven by acceptance by the people, but by obedience to the Lord, which to him was of utmost importance.
Nowhere do we find that Christ was driven by man’s opinion and desires, but rather He would say, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (John 4:34). May it be so with those who seek to shepherd His sheep. May they seek to please the Chief Shepherd above all else. May the Lord provide the needed grace to obey His Word and absorb the reproach of the people when their minds are different from the mind of the Lord.
Often those in leadership are the object of the people’s rage. Moses is an excellent example. The nation of Israel had come to the point where there was no water and so “they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!” (Num. 20:2-3) It is not uncommon that when things are not going well, those in leadership are unappreciated, but when hard times come the blame is immediately place on those in leadership. So it was with Moses and Aaron.
No doubt Moses and Aaron were frustrated as a result of the people’s constant murmuring, and they “went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces.” The Lord instructed Moses to take the rod and gather the people, to speak to the rock before them and it would provide the needed water for the people. Moses did as instructed, except in frustration he struck the rock with the rod. His frustration with the people was evident in his language. ¨Hear now, ye rebels, must we fetch you water out of this rock? (Num. 20:10) His frustration led to anger and his anger to disobedience.
How different is the Lord Jesus. Many times His disciples were dull in hearing and yet He continued to deal graciously with them–and now with us! In one case, after just feeding the five thousand, He desired to feed four thousand people and the disciples asked, “Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude?” (Matt. 15:33) We, like His disciples, are so dull at times and yet He graciously leads us on.
May the Lord encourage the hearts of those in oversight, particularly when they are dealing with a murmuring people. May they be enabled to be gracious in situations which normally promote frustration.
There are many accounts in Scripture where leaders failed because their relatives were involved. At the very beginning the adversary used Eve to bring about the downfall of Adam. This was a difficult situation for Adam. The only one of his kind on earth with whom he could communicate and enjoy a relationship had been deceived by Satan, and he must decide whether to follow her or to obey God. His choice may well exemplify the magnitude of the influence which relatives can have on those in leadership.
Sarah, Rebecca and Jezebel, and many other relatives recorded in Scripture had an influence on those in leadership. David and Absalom would be another example. As is often the case, David could see no wrong in Absalom. He overlooked Absalom’s slaying of Amnon and even after Absalom had rebelled and attempted to overthrow him and become king of Israel, David still saw no wrong in him.
A great danger for leaders is to treat relatives differently than other saints. The failures of their children or other relatives are swept under the carpet while others are openly rebuked or disciplined for their failures.
Those in assembly oversight must also be careful what information they share with loved ones. Most information known to those in leadership should be kept confidential. Often the failure to do so has brought relatives into the situation. This puts great and unneeded pressure on family members to keep this information to themselves. If they should fail, it could be disastrous!
May the Lord enable those in oversight to be faithful to His will and keep them from the influence of relatives that so easily brings failure in leadership.
These are but a few of the dangers which those in assembly oversight face. May we pray for them often and ask the Lord to keep them from falling as they serve Him and care for His sheep. May those in oversight be aware of such dangers and seek to serve the Chief Shepherd faithfully, avoiding the pitfalls of timidity, power, preeminence, self-confidence, popularity, frustration, relatives, and the many other dangers that the adversary may place in their paths.
written by Stephen Hulshizer (1941-2019)
published free of charge by Spread the Word, York, PA
published free of charge by Spread the Word, York, PA