My question is not about the validity of their counsel, but how to respond to what I consider bad counsel from people I respect and whose blessing on a relationship I would desire.
This is an interesting question, and I appreciate the conscientiousness and maturity you show in asking it and thinking it through (many younger people simply do what they desire either without seeking the counsel of an elder or by ignoring any counsel they don’t want to hear). I can certainly offer some general principles about how to respond to advice of elders with which you disagree. But I think these principles also apply generally to “people you respect” whose counsel on a particular issue you are disinclined to follow.
First, I would encourage you to seek additional counsel. You said that you consider the counsel you received to be “bad,” but if your assessment is simply based on your own wisdom and desires (over and against the counsel of an elder or multiple elders), it would be wise to seek additional input. Plainly, elders are human beings and are by no means infallible. They occasionally offer advice that is unwise or even biblically suspect — especially on secondary issues that are not as clearly discussed in Scripture (like dating). It’s possible that you’re right that the counsel you received was unsound.
Having said all that, if a church is choosing its elders responsibly, the elders will tend to be among the wiser and more biblically knowledgeable men in the congregation. Faithful elders also know they will give an account to God for the way they shepherd the flock, and they tend to act and counsel in the genuine best interests of the people they love and serve. Importantly, elders also tend to have more information about particular people and situations and circumstances than the congregation at large, and it’s possible the elders have advised you in light of such additional information. In other words, even if the elders who counseled you weren’t speaking with formal authority or in primarily biblical categories, the advice may still be wise.
In terms of how you respond, I suggest that you speak to additional elders (if you only spoke to one) and/or others in the congregation whose wisdom you trust and who know you or the young woman well. You might even want to follow up with the elder(s) you spoke with and ask if there are additional things you should know or, if the details are inappropriate to share, whether the elders are counseling you as they are based on particular information they have. You may end up with some contradictory opinions, but at least you will not be acting based simply on your own wisdom and (probably quite strong) desires. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22).
Second, maintain a respectful tone. Whether you end up following the elders’ advice or not, be respectful and humble both in how you speak to the elders about the issue and in how you speak about the elders and their counsel to others. The Bible counsels that elders are worthy of respect and that members of the church are to aid them in their work and are not to undermine them (see 1 Timothy 5:17-19; Hebrews 13:17).
Third (and related to being respectful to the elders), maintain communication about the issue with the elders who advised you regardless of what you decide. It is difficult and frustrating for elders when in their efforts to care for the congregation, a member seeks counsel on a significant life decision, receives it, and then is never heard from again. This is especially hard when it appears that the elders’ counsel was disregarded.
Even if you end up pursuing and dating this woman, stay in contact with the elders about it. Let them know that you sought additional counsel from other wise believers who know you and/or the woman well and believe this is a good (and biblically permissible) way to proceed. Respectfully and humbly offer the reasons you’ve decided to proceed as you have and invite their response. Let them know you appreciated their counsel and hope to seek it again as you conduct the relationship. Invite the elders to pray for you and help hold you accountable for conducting the relationship in a godly way. We are not always required to follow our elders’ advice, but we should always remember that elders are doing their best to “keep watch over [our] souls, as those who will have to give an account,” and that we are to help them “do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to [us]” (Hebrews 13:17).
Again, thanks for your thoughtful question. I will pray for the Lord to give you wisdom as you think through your response.
Copyright 2013 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.