The Age Old Question of Elders

Amongst the many and varied offices of Christendom, (most of which have little or no Scriptural foundation), are found bishops (or overseers) and elders. The New Testament (NT) Scriptures also speak of these, though even the most cursory examination will reveal that in many cases their counterparts in Christendom are very different. That Scripture regards overseers and elders as identical is shown by Acts 20: 17, 28. In verse 17, Paul called for the elders of the assembly at Ephesus to see him at Miletus. Addressing them in verse 28 he says, “Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, wherein the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the assembly of God”* (My emphasis––see also Titus 1: 5, 7; 1 Pet. 5: 1, 2). If there is a difference, it is that 'elder' designates the person, and overseer the work to which he is called.

   I have already alluded to the erroneous practices of Christendom. Scripture shows the office to be local, (i.e. an overseer in Ephesus would not be an overseer in Philippi), and plural, that is a number of elders in each locality (see Acts 14: 23; Phil. 1: 1; Tit. 1: 5). By contrast, in the established church the office is not local, with a Bishop presiding over a large district or diocese, and hence also not plural, with one Bishop presiding over a number of clergy. (The office of clergyman has of course no Scriptural basis at all.) The functions of these so–called ‘Bishops’ are also frequently far removed from those specified in 1 Tim. 3 and Tit. 1.

   However, my intention is far from being to show you how the elders of the assemblies should operate, but to question whether the office now exists at all. I do not of course question the fact that there may be persons today having the character of eldership, but I do question whether such persons are to be named as elders. Are there official elders in the Church today?

   In seeking to show that the notion of named elders today is false, it is of course essential to prove that the office is not indispensable for effective functioning of a Christian company. That this is so is evident from the fact that elders were by no means universally present in the early Church—even in apostolic times. Thus Paul was inspired to write epistles to assemblies where there were no elders; as for instance the letters to the Thessalonians and to the Corinthians. The latter was a notoriously disorderly  assembly,  and  elders might have been thought useful there. Nevertheless, not the least word or hint about elders there is heard from beginning to end. Had elders been then in their midst, surely the apostle would have called them to account, and blamed their lack of godly care and diligence in oversight? Of this there is not a trace. Surely the simple conclusion is that Corinth had no elders. (Neither, I might add, is there any subsequent instruction to appoint elders, despite the obvious deficiency. Perhaps there were none qualified to fit the office?) All this, however, does not alter the fact that, elders or not, Corinth was an assembly of God, (1 Cor. 1: 2).

   Generally speaking elders were not ordained in assemblies of  recent origin. Time had to be given for the development of the relevant spiritual and moral qualifications required for one to exercise oversight in the local assembly. Having arrived at a state of competency, the next step was appointment to the office. Thus in Acts 14: 21–23 we read: “And having announced the glad tidings to that city, and having made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, establishing the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to abide in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. And having chosen them elders in each assembly, having prayed with fastings, they committed them to the Lord, on whom they had believed.” Notice at once who did the ordaining: the apostles. There is no thought here, nor elsewhere in Scripture for that matter, of the company electing the elders, nor of elders electing their peers, as some do today. The only persons with competent authority to select and ordain the elders were Paul and Barnabas. Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ, and as such had received authority from his Master to appoint officials in his Master’s assemblies. Barnabas was probably not an apostle in the sense of the distinct gift, but this is inconsequential: Like Titus and Timothy at a later date, he was working in association with the apostle, and in that connection, the apostle’s authority was invested in him too.

   Some have drawn attention to the Greek verb ceirotonew –“to choose”—pointing out that the word could be translated “elected” and going on to propound the theory that the apostles merely collected the votes of the assembly. Such a claim, however, rests on an entire reversal of the grammatical construction of the passage, for nothing can be plainer than the fact that the apostles, and not the people, are the subject of the verb. Let the English reader simply trace the connection downwards from verse 20 and he will perceive this easily. In  verse 20, it is said “he” (Paul) “ went away with Barnabas to Derbe.” The actions of these two then becomes the subject of narration. The parties that “announced the glad tidings .... returned to Lystra .... establishing .... exhorting” are the same that chose the elders in verse 23. To make it simple read the verse like this, “And” (the apostles) “having chosen them” (the people) “elders.” The apostles, not the assemblies, did the electing. As a point of fact, ceirotonew  never means choosing by the votes of others. Those that choose are those that vote.

   The only other place where we read of elders being ordained is Tit. 1: 5: “For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou mightest go on to set right what remained [unordered], and establish elders in each city, as I had ordered thee”(my emphasis). It can be seen at once that though Titus was not an apostle, he was acting under apostolic orders. He had a special commission from Paul to ordain elders, and could prove his authority by the production of this apostolic letter. Nevertheless, his authority was only as good as his commission and that was clearly limited to Crete. Neither is there any hint that he was to continue ordaining after the apostle’s death.

   We can probably infer that Timothy also ordained elders as an apostolic delegate from the details as to their qualifications that Paul gave him, (1 Tim 3). Scripture, however, remains silent as to whether he actually did.

   If, therefore, Scripture is to rule, it is certain that none exercised ordaining authority except the apostles and persons specially commissioned by them to do their work. Likewise, it is clear that we have neither apostles living on the earth, nor representatives, like Titus, charged by an apostle to do quasi–apostolic work. The consequence is that you cannot now look for elders in their precise official form. If any one allege otherwise, it might be well to hear his grounds from Scripture. You cannot have persons formally and duly appointed to this office, unless you have a power formally and duly authorised of the Lord to appoint them. True there are those who pretend to a derived apostolic authority, but what have they to show for it? Had Timothy or Titus entered an assembly of believers to “hold an ordination”, a challenge to their authority would at once have been silenced by the production of the apostle’s letters. Had Barnabas’ authority been questioned, Paul stood by his side to make it good. Today, however, the needed power to authenticate elders is lacking—a fatal blow to those that pretend to appoint them. We have neither apostles nor functionaries delegated by the  apostles to act in their stead;  and so the  entire system of appointment breaks down for want of competent authority.

   An aside, but no less important, is the fact that those who insist in appointing elders within their denomination, by so doing practically deny the truth of the one body. Elders were for the local assembly (see Acts 14: 23, Tit. 1: 5, Phil. 1: 1)—and that means every Christian in a particular town. Denominational appointments must, of necessity, be more restricted. They are in fact sectarian in character. The only official body that God recognises in a place is the local assembly—every believer in that community. If there are to be official elders, they must be elders in that official body. You may, for instance, be called an elder in Nutwood Baptist church but you would not be an elder elsewhere in Nutwood—even if there were Christians meeting next door! The fact is, you are either an elder in Nutwood assembly or not one at all!

   Some may plead that the present divided state of the Church requires that the “rules” be modified, but we are not to move where God has not so instructed. If there is one body, then let us act as if we believe it! Let us not attempt, wrongly, to set up a paltry and rather arrogant imitation of the apostles and their delegates.

   What then? Are there none suitable to be elders or bishops, if there were apostles to choose them? Of course there are—thank God! You can hardly look into a gathering of God’s people without hearing of some grave experienced brothers who go after the wanderers, who warn the unruly, who comfort those that are cast down, and who counsel, admonish and guide souls. Are not these the men who might be elders if there were a power existing to appoint them? We cannot call them elders, but we are to esteem them highly for their work’s sake, and to love and acknowledge them as those who are over the rest of their brethren in the Lord.

   In this regard the case of the Thessalonians is most interesting. Paul (1 Thess. 5: 12) exhorts that infant assembly to “know” those who laboured among them and took the lead among them in the Lord. Now, we have no proof that there were any ordained elders in Thessalonica; and if any one says there was, the burden of proof lies with him. The language of the apostle leads fairly and legitimately to the inference that there were not; for to know or discern (eidw) is not the exhortation one would think of addressing to an assembly in reference to officers already set over them by a formal ordination. To obey, honour, respect, remember, would fit (as in Heb. 13: 7); to know  would seem out of place. (Surely they would know them if such had been ordained?) Not so, however, if that infant assembly, bereft unexpectedly of the apostle’s care only a few weeks after they had first heard the Gospel, and before ordination had been effected, was left to it's own spiritual discernment to discover the leaders among them. Observe again the language: “know those who ... take the lead among you in [the] Lord”. It is not who ought to be leaders amongst you—still less any hint that they were to appoint their own leaders—but those who were leaders amongst them already. If the apostle had had the opportunity he would have pointed out the men to them—ordained them—and so spared them all the exercise about the matter. In the absence of his aid however, the suitable candidates were there all the same, and they must discern and own them, letting them exercise the functions divinely bestowed. How gracious of the Lord to record such an incident; since if it happen that we ourselves are in identical circumstances today, (and we have no apostle) the guidance for our own procedure is here before us.

   Let us not pretend to authority we do not have. The desire to get back to NT conditions is well and good—but only where Scripture allows. According to Scripture we have no competent authority to appoint elders—hence we should not appoint them! On the other hand, however, we must not forget that it is our duty to accord full moral recognition to those who possess the qualifications.