Elders in Every Church

By Franklin Burns

“And when they had appointed for them elders in every church . . .” (Acts 14:23). The passage before us contains the earliest mention of the appointment of elders, yet these were by no means the first elders appointed. ‘Paul and Barnabas, when sent to Jerusalem with a contribution for the poor saints, delivered it to “the elders” (Acts 11:30). This shows that there were elders in the churches in Judea. Titus was left in Crete that he might set in order the things that were omitted, and appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5). James took it for granted that the churches he addressed ordinarily had elders, by directing in his general epistle, that the sick should call for the elders of the church, to pray for them and anoint them with oil, with a view to their recovery (James 5:14). Several congregations that have been established for years still do not have elders. In view of Bible teaching on elders the situation points up the need for more serious concern in many places.

This is a curious situation, and is approximately equal to claiming that we have business but no managers, or organizations without leaders. Such things just do not happen, but are caused by sinful neglect (in all cases where qualified men exist but are not appointed, or where no effort is made to develop qualified men). Two equally bad situations exist among such churches: (1) Some such congregations have what we may call “acting elders,” whether or not we acknowledge the truth of their eldership. These congregations have men functioning as elders; it does not make a particle of difference (from a practical standpoint) if we give them the title elders or not. From a religious standpoint it does matter.

(2) In many churches, no one “takes hold” or “acts” on matters which need attention. Many functions of the local church are crippled or totally neglected. Try as we will, we cannot effectively get around troublesome passages such as Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5. As usual the Bible condemns our arrangements whenever we try to do things our way rather than follow scriptural commands and examples.

Churches in the first situation described above have often had men who guided and oversaw the congregations down through the years. These men are elders (in practice) in every sense of the word, and sometimes good ones, too. Their leadership is accepted almost without question by the congregation. The only thing lacking is the formal acknowledgment that these men are elders and have been carrying ‘on the business of that high calling for years. Why are they not scripturally appointed and recognized? That is a good question, but unfortunately there is no ready answer. The simplest and most painful answer would most likely be the rebelliousness of the congregation and its stiff-necked determination not to give in to clear scriptural authority. The congregation has decided that elders are not needed and prefer to operate without them. They seem to think “we have always gotten along without appointing elders, so why should we do so now?” It would appear that the congregations in question do not consider 1 Pet. 5:2 to be very important and have agreed to ignore that and other annoying passages.

When we refuse to follow divine commands on the eldership, we are crippling the church and therefore depriving ourselves of the divine, plan for carrying out our primary mission: to carry the gospel to the world. All other functions of the church are impaired, too when God’s plan and wisdom are not respected. If a congregation has qualified men but no elders or is making no effort to develop them, then that congregation is to that extent in error.

Not only do we need to study this subject, a lot of us need to do something about it. How much longer can this or that congregation go hobbling along in direct disobedience to the Lord’s command? It is strange that we are so sensitive about some errors, and so willing to accept others with nonchalance. We would disfellowship a man for playing an instrument of music when we are singing praises to God. We are not nearly so excited about men taking over the flock and being “lords over God’s heritage” (1 Pet. 5:3) without any scriptural authority for their actions. ,When we encourage or allow men to “take hold” of positions and functions without the divine method of appointment, we are encouraging them to “take hold” also of authority beyond that intended by, God even for scriptural elders. In other words, such men are likely to become tyrants or dictators, as the sad experience of some churches show. The Lord has commanded that congregation’s be led by elders and has gone into detail as to the qualifications of such men. We can see and know those within our congregation who possess the traits that fit men to be overseers of God’s people.

What must an elder be? See 2 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-14. Those qualifications may displease and disappoint many of us. That is too bad, because the Lord provided them. As a people we always have a number of reasons ready to explain our shortcomings, and no doubt there are numerous explanations as to how a congregation can follow the Bible and still have ‘elders who are unseen and unknown. Nevertheless, He does not leave any convenient loop-holes. We must approach the study of these scriptures with the conviction that they are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We realize that an appeal to the scriptures for our authority carries very little weight with those who do not regard the scriptures as inspired of God, hence, our concern and efforts are directed toward those who receive “the word of the message not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).

Truth Magazine XIX: 33, p. 514
June 26, 1975