By Earl Kimbrough
After Paul and Barnabas established churches in Southern Galatia, they appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). This and all other New Testament references to elders or bishops show their importance in the development and function of local churches. Faithful elders are worthy of honor (1 Tim. 5:17) and should be esteemed “very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thess. 5:12,13). In view of this, it is distressing to hear men belittle the eldership almost as if it were a device of Satan foisted on the churches to hinder progress and hogtie preachers.
The fact that some elders abuse their oversight does not justify rejecting elders as an established order among God’s people. There may be times when it is best for a church to delay the appointment of elders, but to argue that as a rule a church is better off without elders is to argue against the will of God. Nor is there much improvement in attitude when brethren say we should have elders, but interpret the qualifications so as to prevent it. A preacher, who labored fifty years where churches under his influence had no elders, told me he had been falsely accused of not believing in elders. Then he said, “I just never have seen anybody qualified.” What’s the difference? A man may as well not believe in elders as to think God requires the impossible.
One of the errors prominently featured in The Examiner, official voice of the Truth and Freedom Ministry, Inc. of Chattanooga, Tennessee, concerns the work of elders. Among other things, Charles A. Holt, the editor, claims that elders are merely the older man in the church who become elders by seniority, not by appointment, and that the eldership carries no authority. Some of his teaching is in reply to the questions: “Do you believe in elders? What does the word ‘elder’ mean? Who is an elder? How are elders made?” Here are some responses.
“I Believe In Elders”
“Yes definitely, I believe in elders and always have. . . . I am an elder! I am a ‘Senior Citizen.’ The word ‘elder’ simply means ‘older’ or ‘elder . . . (The Examiner, Vol. 1, p. 11).
Brother Holt believes in elders about like a Methodist preacher believes in baptism. The Methodist might with equal sincerity say: “Yes, definitely, I believe in baptism and always have. . . . I am a baptizer! I am a sprinkler.” Both shift gears on the key words. The Methodist sees no difference between baptism and sprinkling. Brother Holt sees no difference between an elder and a senior citizen. But an “elder” of the church is not necessarily a “Senior Citizen.” The word “elder” has both a general and a special use, which is determined by the context.
Elder (Presbuteros) generally refers to age, sometimes meaning the older or oldest of two or more persons (Luke 15:25; John 8:9), and sometimes signifies those advanced in years (Acts 2:17). But the word also means: “of rank or positions of responsibility . . . in the Christian churches, those who, being raised up and qualified by the Holy Spirit, were appointed to have the spiritual care of, and to exercise oversight over, the churches” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). In places where the word refers to overseers in the church, it signifies men “of rank or positions of responsibility.” Of course, “The term ‘elder’ indicates the mature spiritual experience and understanding of those so described” (Vine). But just being an older man does not carry such a meaning.
Elders Not Made By Appointment
“You do not, cannot, make someone an ‘elder’ by ordination or appointment” (The Examiner, Vol. 2, p. 11).
Here again is a misuse of the word “elder.” Certainly you cannot make one a “senior citizen” by appointment (although many good elders might agree that the work does age a person). But you can make one a person of rank or place him in a position of responsibility by appointment. This is what Paul and Barnabas did in Southern Galatia: they “appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). This is why Titus remained in Crete: to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Titus could not appoint elders before they were qualified to be elders (Titus 1:5-9), but he could, and apparently did, appoint elders, contrary to the claims of The Examiner.
Men Are Elders Before Their Appointment “Men who are already elders were appointed, or placed, or arranged for doing the work of a bishop, shepherd, or pastor . . . . Any and all who are elders (older, mature, experienced) had better be up and about this business” (The Examiner, Vol. 2, p. 12).
The New Testament does not teach that elders were appointed “bishops,” but that qualified men were “appointed elders.” They were appointed elders at the same time they were made bishops by the Holy Spirit. The word , ‘elder” does not necessarily convey the idea of old age, maturity, or experience. The elder brother of the Prodigal Son may have been a young man and his conduct indicates that he lacked maturity. It is only in its special use that the word denotes maturity and experience. But age per se is not a requirement for an elder of the church, although experience and maturity are (Titus 1:5-9). A man may acquire all the qualifications for the eldership to a superlative degree without being a “senior citizen” or an “old man.”
The Examiner seems to encourage the older people in the church to just rise up and assume the oversight. This, of course, would necessarily preclude any appointment to the work. Notice that the editor gives no sexual limitation to the phrase, “Any and all who are elders. ” This might be insignificant were it not for other statements. He also says: “In the NT (New Testament) we read of elder or older men; and of elder or older women (Titus 2). The word means the same in both instances” (Vol. 2, p. 11). Then he adds: “even elder or senior women have been appointed or ordained by God . . . for certain kinds of service. Does this make them ‘church officers’? . . . The apostle appointed or ordained elder women to certain responsibilities just exactly like he did elder men (Acts 14:23; 20:20)” (Ibid).
Brother Holt does not say older women should join the older men in being “up and about this business” of shepherding the congregation, but on the basis of his reasoning, he could hardly object to women elders in the church. But neither “the older men” nor “the older women” in Titus 2 were appointed elders. The apostle simply instructs the older men and women to conduct themselves in a manner that conforms to sound teaching (Titus 2:1-5). The older women were taught to perform a specific service (to teach the younger women). They were not appointed to a place of rank or responsibility over the flock of God, and could not be (cf. 1 Tim. 2:12).
Elders Have No Authority in the Church
“The NT (New Testament) does not teach that elders had ‘authority,’ especially of the kind Jesus claimed for Himself in Matthew 28:18” (Ibid., p. 10).
Anyone who teaches that elders have the kind of authority Christ has, or that the apostles and other inspired men had, does not speak “as the oracles of God.” But elders do have authority from Christ to do what they are appointed to do. They have authority to oversee and shepherd the flock of God among them (cf. Acts 10:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; 1 Tim. 3:4,5; 5:17). Whatever this involves, when it is done according to the teaching of the Scriptures, those under the elders’ oversight are taught to obey and submit to them (Heb. 13:17). These instructions cannot be ignored without violating the teaching of Christ (cf. 2 John 9,10).
Furthermore, the authority of elders takes into account their fallibility and imperfection. They have no right to make laws for the church (Jas. 4:12), nor to modify Christ’s word or act as His “official” interpreters. Their decisions are not written on tables of stone. Their oversight is somewhat like that of a husband to his wife (Eph. 5:23-25). No Christian is obligated to obey elders who act contrary to God’s will, or when they operate outside the range of their authority (cf. Acts 5:29). Nor are Christians required to submit to elders who disregard their spiritual welfare (cf. Acts 20:28; Rom. 14:12), or who run roughshod over their conscience (1 Cor. 8:12). In emphasizing the authority of elders, we may fail to stress with equal vigor the limitations, we must be careful not to deny them the authority they have from the Lord to do what they are appointed to do.
The Examiner has not cornered the market on perversions concerning elders. Some of old have held erroneous views regarding certain aspects of the office, and there have been enough abusive elders to make brethren justifiably wary and cautious in choosing men for the work. But The Examiner makes a frontal attack on the whole concept of the eldership as set forth in the New Testament. This is why its teaching is more especially dangerous.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 21, pp. 656-657
November 6, 1986