Elders: When They Should (And Should Not) Resign

By Jady W. Copeland

I write on the subject with “fear and trembling” as I know it is very controversial. Yet it is a needed subject. I am afraid harm has been done to the work of the Lord by elders resigning for no good or scriptural reason. Likewise much harm comes when elders refuse to resign when”they should. It seems paradoxical that the men who should be the -wisest men among us sometimes cause trouble in the church they oversee.

I believe that elders should neither be “appointed for life” nor temporary duty. Neither do I believe that just because one is “older” that he is an elder in the scriptural sense. True, elders are older men but they must be appointed (Acts 14:23). If not, the word appoint is meaningless. If they are to be “appointed” to what are they to be appointed? To being older? They are already that. They are appointed to do a work – to do a service for God.

Why Did God Want Elders In Every Church?

Let us lay a foundation before answering the question above. While not writing on qualifications and work of elders, we need to say that God wanted them to do a work and carry out certain duties that every member of the body is not capable of doing. These duties may be summarized in a word: oversight. In Acts 20:17-28 we note four terms applied to these men. In verse 17 they are called elders, (American Standard Version) but the footnote renders it presbyters. Verse 28 calls them bishops while the footnote indicates overseers. From these we learn that older men must oversee. Hebrews 13:17 tells us to obey them for they have the rule. They are spiritual guides. They watch for souls – a work to be done, and one that requires wisdom and knowledge. This is a work not an “office” in the commonly-accepted definition of that word. They are not figureheads or potentates. They are workers and have the job of oversight, looking out for souls, holding fast the faithful word, etc. Any worker with so important a job must be qualified to do the work and God laid down qualifications because He knew it would be only certain men who could do this work.

If a company needed an engineer they would advertise for a men or woman with so much experience and so much education. Why? Because, in their judgment, the job they wanted done must have a person who had qualified himself, and they believed that the education and experience would prove to them that the person could do the work. God knew what work needed to be done by elders, and he knew what would qualify them. He knew what kind of men were needed to be leaders, overseers, shepherds or bishops. In order for the church to know who could fill the bill, he laid down certain qualifications for us to follow.

Now, by inspired writings, we can know what type of man is needed to do the work which is assigned them. Even though God could (if he chose) look down and know who could do the work, he laid down qualifications so that the flock could know what type men were needed. Of course, there may be error in human judgment, and often men are picked because they are “good business men” or even they may be picked out of prejudice. That is the reason extreme care should be used in selecting men for the eldership. Pick qualified men – not those who are popular with men. God wants godly, capable men to work – to oversee the flock. So He laid down qualifications so that men could know who had qualified themselves. Their influence must be without reproach – from within and without. Their capability must be recognized. They must be men that the congregation is willing to follow (because they are good men) and they must be men capable of convicting the gainsayer. There are some good men who may not be able to do the work needed (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:9).

When Should An Elder Resign?

I believe that when men are qualified they should be appointed as elders. Does it not follow that when they become disqualified they should resign? If their influence is of such nature the congregation cannot follow their example should they not resign? If for some reason (health or otherwise) they are no longer capable of overseeing should they not step down? The same is true of preachers. All who can preach should preach. Whether or not they want to be “full-time” preachers supported by brethren is their choice, but if they can help people know the Bible, they must preach. But suppose they are no longer capable — should they continue to present themselves as preachers? If they become physically or mentally sick, should not they quit? The shame of this is (either of elders or preachers) that some don’t know when they are not qualified. If elders are for some reason not able any longer to meet the qualification should not they step down? I know sickness is a relative thing, and often a man is not completely disabled so he can still render a valuable service in the eldership even though he cannot do as much physically as before. But there may come a point when he is so sick that he cannot serve. When this happens, he can no longer oversee, and, therefore, should resign.

I knew of a deacon who resigned after the police had caught him stealing money from the bank where he worked. Suppose the elders had found out before the police did that he was a sinner. Should he have been asked to quit? Elders can also sin, and when they are thus disqualified, of course they should no longer serve.

When Should An Elder Not Resign?

Should an elder resign when his wife dies? While I do not try to press my belief on other, I personally do not believe he must resign. Of course if he believes he should, then I would not try to get him to offend his conscience. But is he less capable of doing the service? He has proven over the years that he has ability to rule the flock. Is this diminished when she died? I do not believe so. In earlier years he has proven in rearing the family that he has the ability to rule the flock, and once his wife dies this does not take away his ability to guide the flock. But does not the Bible say he must be the “husband of one wife”? Yes, but as we have shown, the family qualifications were in the context of showing by these that he had the ability to oversee. It seems from 1 Timothy 3:5 that ruling the family qualifies him to do the work God knew needed doing. Paul said, “. . . but if a man knoweth not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” His ability to take care of his family has shown that he can rule the house of God. This is not taken away when his wife dies. Each one must make up his own mind in this area.

Should elders resign if all of their children are not Christians? Again, I do not believe so in every case. Each case, of course, must be judged on its own merits. And whether we admit it or not, there is a judgment call here. I knew of a man who had about ten children, all of which were faithful Christians except one, and he was early born in life. Must he resign when (in adulthood) one of the ten fell away? I do not think so, because he had proven his influence over his children in life, and while an outside influence had caused one to fall later, this was no reflection on the elder’s life or ability to rule. Again, we must be careful here, for it is impossible to draw an exact line. If a man had five children and only one was ever a Christian, then I would certainly question his qualifications. But just because one of several never obeyed the gospel would not prove he was disqualified. Common sense and reason must be exercised here, and if the congregation did not want such a man, perhaps it would be unwise to appoint him.

There is another instance when elders must not resign. Sometimes troublemakers decide they want their way, and ‘ therefore, ask for an elders resignation. Often it is an ulterior motive that prompts such actions. In this event ‘ the elder must make sure he is still qualified and that he is standing on truth. During the controversy on institutionalism this happened. If one or more elders did not want to support the human institutions and some in the church did, often petitions were gathered asking for his resignation. But an elder need not resign if he is sure he is on scriptural grounds just to appease such men.

I illustrate the above with four cases I have known. When a young preacher, I had a man come to me thinking of resigning. I discouraged it because, even though he had no children of his own, I believed he had qualified himself by helping to rear his nieces and nephews. The congregation wanted him to stay. I called in an experienced preacher to talk with him. It turned out the older man discouraged him from resigning. In all cases where a man had no children, I would not do as I did, but under the circumstances I believed it was the scriptural position.

In the second case I probably made a mistake. After a short stay in an East Texas town an elder mentioned he probably should resign. I discouraged it, only to learn late he was in the middle (if not a major cause) of problems in the church. (I learned there that sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut.) In the third instance a man mentioned resigning in the middle of problems on the institutional issues. I discouraged him from doing so, because I believed he was upholding the truth and trying to do what was right. While many asked for his resignation, Uthought he was still qualified and trying to lead the congregation in truth and not error. In the fourth case a man who had four children wanted to resign because one in his teens had not obeyed the gospel. But as explained earlier, I understood that in that particular case, since the other three were faithful, the man was qualified because he had guided them all in the right direction, and through no fault of his (so far as I knew) the child had never obeyed the gospel. I did not then, nor do I now believe he should have resigned.

Brethren, make sure men are qualified before appointment and these problems may never come. There is one thing worse than not having elders and that is having unqualified and self-willed elders. Let us give some prayerful thought to these matters and do all we can to cause men to want to qualify themselves for the eldership.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 16, pp. 499-500
August 18, 1983