By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.
“So when they had appointed elders in every church. . .” – Acts 14:23
One can hardly read about Paul’s first preaching tour in Asia Minor without being thrilled at the introduction and success of the gospel among the Gentiles of that region (Acts 13,14). H. Leo Boles estimates that Paul traveled “twelve hundred eight miles; this was a long journey for that time with the ancient modes of travel.” Boles adds, “Paul and Barnabas had traveled the twelve hundred eight miles and had established more than half a dozen churches within the two or three years that they were gone on this journey” (A Commentary On Acts by Leo Boles).
Not only were these churches established, at least three of them – Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch – had an eldership in place (Acts 14:21-23). All of this within about three years.
I am impressed with a number of things. The efforts and sacrifices of Paul and Barnabas to get the gospel to the lost. Their persecutions for the gospel’s sake. Their successes and failures in converting the lost. The reactions to their preaching – ranging from whole hearted acceptance to outright violence. Their being able to appoint elders in the churches on their return trip.
Now, with the introduction out of the way, let’s get to the real reason of this article. I am disturbed by the number of churches that are operating without an eldership. I am also concerned by the lack of concern among us about this condition. I do not believe that we are overstating the case when we say that there is a serious leadership crisis among the churches. There are churches, good sized churches, who have met for, not two or three, but twenty or thirty years or more without elders to lead them. Instead of getting better in recent years, the trend has worsened. I fear that in many areas elders are becoming an endangered species. If the trend continues, my grandchildren may be members of congregations for a lifetime without the guidance and oversight of an eldership. I have had older Christians to tell me that they have been Christians from their youth but have never served under an eldership. It is down right scary to one who has spent most of his preaching life warning against departures from the faith in church organization.
I do not have all the answers as to the why this situation exists in every case, nor do I know how to solve it in every case. If I did, I think I would write a book and sell it to many other brethren whom I know to be wrestling with the problem. I do not think some of the simplistic answers that I have heard lately will solve the problem. It is sometimes suggested that if men cannot be found who meet all the qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1), then the church ought to appoint those the nearest to qualified.
Others seem to want to put an arbitrary time limit on how long a church can go without elders. One preacher suggested in a gospel meeting that there is something badly wrong with a church that exists more than five years without appointing elders. Maybe so, but maybe not. If they have men qualified and will not appoint them, then there is something bad wrong. Congregations, like individuals, develop at different paces. To arbitrarily set a definite period of time for every Christian to become a teacher (cf. Heb. 5:12-14) or be considered badly wrong is foolishness. Some may be teachers, almost immediately, because they already know a lot about the Bible before they obeyed it. Some people just naturally develop knowledge and abilities faster than others. To find a brother who just about comes up out of the water ably preaching the gospel does not mean there is something wrong with another who must have more time before he can become a teacher. Similarly, churches vary in the time needed to develop an eldership. Some almost from the very beginning may have two or more men who are qualified. Others may not have such men for years. So, let’s not be too hard on churches simply because they have not appointed elders in “X” number of years. We need to look at other factors as well.
Antioch (of Pisidia), Lystra, and Iconium had men qualified and appointed in a short time. It can be done. Some have suggested that since these were appointed so soon after their conversion that maybe we are putting too much emphasis upon meeting every qualification of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. It is assumed these men could not have had time to develop every thing on the list. Wait a minute. This assumes that we know how little these men knew; and that they did not already have many of the abilities and character traits when they were baptized. The Bible is silent on these matters.
However, it can be easily seen that these men would not have had to “start from scratch” in their path to qualification. Some of those converted in each place had been Jews. They would have already had a good knowledge of the Old Testament and possibly even the ability to teach it. If they had been devout Jews they would have already proven themselves to have most if not all of the moral traits necessary. They could have been ruling their houses well for years, as was customary among the Jews. They were of a people, who for generations had lived looking for the Messiah (Christ), having; learned from the prophets much of what he was to be. Now, they and their families learn the truth about Jesus’ being the Christ and obey him. It should not take one with such a background long to become grounded in the faith and be apt at teaching and defending it. No, I do not know that this is how these men became qualified so quickly. The Bible does not say. I do know they were qualified because they were appointed by the one who wrote the qualifications to Timothy and Titus. He did not give them one standard for appointing elders and use another for himself. Surely we can see from the above that it is not even unreasonable to think that these men could meet every qualification in such short time.
There are a number of factors contributing to so many churches being without elders other than they simply have not had time for men to develop the qualifications.
1. There are men who need to be elders who do not want to be. They meet every other qualification except they just do not desire the office (function). It is true that if one does not desire it, he does not qualify. These men need to be impressed with the importance of this work. Having been an elder, I know how hard it is to have and keep the desire, knowing that so much is expected of you. The weight of responsibility that one feels is awesome. Then there are times, as a famous comedian says, you “don’t get no respect.” No matter what decisions elders make or what advice they give they know they will have to face critics over it. However, the work done by elders is so crucial to God’s plan for the church that qualified men must stand up and accept the work in spite of the problems associated with it.
2. There are men who want to be elders who do not need to be. These either want to be appointed to the eldership or want to do the work of elders without being appointed. Some think of “desiring the office” in a political sense, so they virtually announce that they are running for office. These men keep good men from accepting the office, because they know that they will constantly have to deal with these carnally ambitious men who resent the fact that they were “defeated” and are constantly “campaigning” in preparation for another run at the office.
Then there are others who know that they could never be elders “officially,” but who want to be elders nominally. They want to be leaders, doing the same work that belongs only to elders, even though they admit they are not qualified for the eldership. These are found among preachers and other members of congregations. So, they find a way to block the appointment of good men as elders because they would diminish their own leadership role. They have a long list of nit picking reasons why this church is not ready for elders.
3. There is the failure to fully recognize that the Lord’s kingdom is not of the world (cf. John 18:36). The governments of most institutions in the western world are democratic. This seems to work best in nations and other institutions, so why not in the church? So, being influenced by the world, brethren are more comfortable with some system where all have equal say – so they like majority rule business meetings better than submitting to the rule of an eldership. Even where there is an eldership, they look at it as being their representatives who can only reflect the will of “those who (s)elected them.” Elders are warned not to “lord it over” the church or be abusive in their rule (1 Pet. 5:1-5), but they have been made overseers by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28) and must rule according to God’s will rather than the will of the church. I am firmly convinced that the reason some churches are without elders is the thinking that some form of democratic rule is the better course.
Granted that, in the absence of elders, things must get done and the Bible is silent as to how the churches reached decisions without elders. We do know they got along somehow before elders were appointed. A general business meeting of the men has, over the years, proven to be expedient without violating any biblical principle. If attitudes are good, it pretty well gets things done that must be done. Until someone comes up with some better expedient, in the absence of elders, brethren do well to use it. Brethren should participate and help each other come to a consensus as to how to best scripturally and peacefully facilitate the Lord’s work. However, it should be considered just an expedient – and a temporary one at that! It is not a substitute for elders!
The longer a church delays qualifying and appointing elders, the greater the danger becomes that what should be the exception (no elders) becomes the norm – the longer a mere expedient becomes regarded as the established and preferred order and divinely authorized elders be considered inexpedient. The danger of other disorders arising and becoming ingrained in a congregation is also great. Decisions are often the result of political manuevering to get things passed in business meetings where a teenage novice may have equal voice with a brother of years experience – rather than the result of the careful investigation and deliberation of men who meet God’s standard for elders. Too, mere “leaders” become a substitute for elders. Younger men of ability and knowledge, but without the experience and wisdom of elders, are looked to more and more to manage the work program of the church. Sometimes it falls upon a preacher, who is not an elder, to run the affairs of the congregation. These often come to relish the leadership role forced upon them by default and take more and more upon themselves to act and speak for the church – and are reluctant to surrender that role even after elders are appointed. “All the saints . . . with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1), can easily become “all the saints . . . with the leaders and committees. “
We need to encourage more and more men (and their families) to work toward the eldership as a goal. Churches need to do more to train men, not only to preach, teach, lead in public worship, but to do the work of elders. All of us need to desire that the church have elders and be willing to submit ourselves to them with due honor so that they may do their work with joy (Heb. 13:17). This might encourage more qualified men to accept the responsibility. Those who are elders need to give more attention to “ruling well,” in being examples worthy to be followed, watching for souls, and not being lords over God’s heritage (1 Tim. 3:5; 1 Pet. 5:2-5). This might help keep many brethren from thinking that churches get along better without elders.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 16, pp. 484-486
August 20, 1987