How Elders Are Ordained

By Hoyt H. Houchen

I. Usages Of The Word “Church”

Sometimes the church (Gr. ekklesia) is referred to in the universal sense – the general assembly (Heb. 12:23). The word “church” denotes “a called out assembly.” The church in this sense is composed of all the saved, all the redeemed individuals throughout the world. They sustain this spiritual relationship because they have obeyed the gospel of the Son of God (Rom. 6:17). They have by one process been baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27) and into the church (1 Cor. 12:13), which is the body of Christ (Eph. 4:4; Col. 1:18). It is one body and is the institution that Jesus promised to build (Matt. 16:18). It came into existence on the first Pentecost after Jesus arose from the dead (Acts 2).

The church, in the universal concept, has no organization except that Christ is the head of the body and each member is subject to Him. The church is governed by the divine laws as set forth in the pages, of the New Testament (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Jude 3). It has no universal bishops (elders) to direct its affairs, has no earthly headquarters and has no synods, councils or conventions composed of delegates. It does not enact laws and issue decrees.

In the New Testament, the church is sometimes referred to in a regional or territorial sense – “the churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2), “the churches of Judaea” (vs. 22). These were congregations, different assemblies of Christians in a specific district or area. There was no tie-up or federation of churches in these regions. An organizational tie-up of the Judean churches or the Galatian churches was unknown.

A third way in which the New Testament speaks of the church is in a local sense – a particular congregation of saints in a given place, the church which was in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Car. 1:1), “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess. 1:1). Each church was separate and independent from every other church. There was no federation of these churches; there was no sponsoring church (one church directing any work of any other church or churches). In whatever sense the church may be referred to, each individual Christian and each local church must work under the direction of Christ and be guided by His teaching (2 Jn. 9).

Elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23). There was always a plurality of elders in each church (Acts 11:29, 30; 14:23; 15:4; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2). In view of the fact that there were no universal elders and no diocesan elders, the question of how elders are ordained is confined to the local church only. Their oversight begins and ends in the local church where they have been ordained. They do not oversee another congregation nor any work of another congregation.

The New Testament reveals to us that the church is a divine institution. It originated in the mind of God (Eph. 3, 10, 11); it was built by the Son of God (Matt. 16:18); it was purchased by the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28); Christ is its head (Eph. 5:23); it exists for a divine purpose (1 Tim. 3:15); and its members labor in the hope of heaven (Tit. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:3-5). These are but a few noteworthy features of this grand and glorious institution.

I1. A Specific: Appointment

Some false ideas have been circulated among brethren through the years about the appointment of elders. One of these views that has been advocated is that elders are not to be formally appointed; that is, they are not actually to be selected by the congregation and then announced “officially” that they are now recognized as elders. The basis of this contention is that men in a congregation who qualify for the work of elders automatically become elders when they do the work of elders. Coupled with this view, is the idea that when these men become elders they rule by example and teaching only, not having any right to make decisions for the congregation. This author dealt with these views in 1966 (Gospel Guardian, Vol. 17, No. 38, p. 550), under the heading “Elders by Appointment, or by Assumption?”

Now let us consider the word “appoint.” “And when they appointed for them elders in every church . . .” (Acts 14:23). Paul wrote to Titus, “For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every city” (Tit. 1:5). Both of these passages are quoted from the American Standard Version. In the King James Version, instead of the word “appoint,” the word “ordain” is used. The Greek word in Acts 14:23 that is translated “appoint” or “ordain” is cheirotoneo. According to Robert Young, it means “to elect by stretching out the hand” (Analytical Concordance, p. 722). Thayer defines the same word cheirotoneo, “to elect, appoint, create” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 668). These definitions indicate that it was in some definite manner that these men were elected to do the work of elders.

The Greek word, translated “appoint” or “ordain” in Titus 1:5, is kathistemi. It is contended that because this same word is used in 2 Pet. 1:8 (“make you (kathistemi) to be not idle nor unfruitful”) and their being made such was without direct appointment but by growth and development; therefore, it conveys the same idea with regard to elders. This interpretation is not valid, however, because the word is used in different senses in the two passages. Thayer defines the word in Titus 1:5, “to appoint one to administer an office”. He defines the word in 2 Peter 1:8, “to render, make, cause to be” (op. cit., p. 315). Arndt and Gingrich make the same distinction (A Greek-English Lexicon, p. 391). The two verses are not parallel in meaning, so the contention referred to cannot be sustained.

From our consideration of the word “appoint” or “ordain” as used in Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5, there was some method of appointment. Certain men were named and designated. By what method this was done, the Scriptures do not say. It would be well to observe here that the same Greek word kathistemi that is translated “appoint” or “ordain” in Titus 1:5 is found in Hebrews 5:1; 7:28, and 8:3 where reference is made to the High Priest under the law of Moses. Those among the Levites who qualified to become priests were named (Ex. 28:1) and they were appointed in a definite manner (see Ex. 28 and Lev. 8). Their priesthood was not by assumption, but by appointment. So, we have established that the appointment of elders was specific – that men did not simply assume the office of elders because they were doing the work of elders.

III. How Ordained

The method of appointing or ordaining elders in the local church is optional, provided it in no way violates any Bible principle. When men meet the qualifications as set forth by the Holy Spirit in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, in some way recognition is to be made by the congregation.

Some maintain that because the Bible does not specify how to ordain elders, they are therefore not authorized in the church today. But there are some things which fall in the area of human judgment. The Scriptures do not tell us how many songs to sing in worship, nor how to serve the Lord’s supper. Are we to conclude from this that we are not to have any songs in worship, or that we are not to observe the Lord’s supper? Certainly not; however, the procedures are matters of judgment. So it is with ordaining elders; the procedure is left to us, and we emphasize that any method that does not violate Scripture teaching may be used.

Others contend that, since there is no one to ordain or appoint elders today, therefore elders are not authorized to exist. This fallacy is based upon the asumption that inspired men in the New Testament did the appointing and because there are no inspired men today, there is therefore no way by which elders can be appointed. Although Timothy and Titus may have had some spiritual gifts, there is no way to prove that they were inspired. Timothy was to teach what he had learned from Paul (2 Tim. 2:2) and from the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:14, 15; 1 Tim. 4:13). Elders in each local church are guided by the word of God, so their work is not dependent upon spiritual gifts. No one today is needed to bestow these gifts by the laying on of hands. Furthermore, spiritual gifts were given by the laying on of hands by the apostles. Neither Timothy nor Titus were apostles; therefore, when they appointed some elders they did not bestow spiritual gifts upon them. And, even the laying on of hands did not always mean that spiritual gifts were given. The brethren at Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul, two men who had been selected by the Holy Spirit to do a work. There is no indication that spiritual gifts were given to them. So, the idea that elders cannot be apointed today is without scriptural warrant.

How then are men selected and appointed? First, proper preparation should be made. The preacher and, perhaps, the elders along with Bible class teachers should devote considerable time to preaching and teaching on the subject of elders. The congregation should be thoroughly taught concerning their qualifications and work. The congregation should then be ready for the selection of men whom it believes qualify for elders.

A method that has been used in various churches where this writer has preached, and where he now preaches and serves as an elder, is for names to be submitted by the members to the elders, or to whoever may be designated to be in charge of this matter. The names are then placed before the congregation, and the members are given the opportunity to voice any scriptural objection to anyone whose name has been submitted. If a scriptual objection is made to a man being considered, that man is not qualified and, therefore, cannot be appointed. Sufficient time should be given for scriptural objections to be offered.

Sometimes objections are made, but they are not scriptural ones. Such may be offered because of some personality conflict, a personal dislike for the person, and sometimes even jealousy. Petty peeves should not keep a man who is qualified from serving as an elder.

An invalid objection is sometimes made to a man serving as an elder because all of his children are not members of the church. Brethren have been known to become contentious on such a point, but they need to stop and think. If those children of a man’s family who have reached an accountable age have become Christians, but there are younger children not yet accountable and, therefore, have not become Christians, he would meet the qualifications of having believing children. Suppose a man has been faithfully serving as an elder and his wife bears him another child, does this automatically disqualify him? I would say it certainly does not. By the same token of reasoning, a man who has all the other qualifications is not unqualified to serve because he has some younger children who are not old enough to obey the gospel. Should there be children in his family who are old enough to obey the gospel, but who have not, would be another matter. Brethren very often offer their opinions instead of scriptural objections.

After a careful selection of men has been made of those considered to be qualified to serve as elders, and after a reasonable time has been given for any scriptural objections, then this procedure could follow. The preacher, in a solemn manner, may so appoint these men, impressing upon them their .most serious responsibility as overseers and upon the congregation as to its obligations to these men. This is one method of selection and appointment which has proven to be successful. But whatever method is used should not be a political maneuver to select men who will best serve the personal interest of the one who has suggested them, nor by a secret ballot. Whatever method is employed, we should be careful to do nothing, which in any way, would violate any scriptural principle. When brethren have the motive to please God, there should be no difficulty in selecting and appointing men who meet the requirements of the scriptures.

An additional point or admonition should be kept in mind. A preacher may appoint men as elders, but it should always be the congregation who has first selected them. In Acts 6:3, 4 when men were to be appointed to see after the work of benevolence, the disciples selected these men; the apostles appointed them. So, the church chooses those whom it will have to rule over it. As to this point, elders are not to act for the church in selecting other elders. God has not invested elders with such power. H. Leo Boles made a very appropriate comment. “The power of elders in the church is small. They cannot make a single rule or enact a principle to impose on the church that is not found in New Testament teaching. They have no power save that which is granted them by the New Testament. They cannot add a single command; neither can they give any promise of blessing. They cannot lord it over God’s people . . . When churches begin to delegate their own inherent powers and rights to elders, the days of their degradation has set in; that moment they depart from the New Testament pattern” (“How Elders Are Appointed.” The Gospel Advocate, Feb. 2, 1941). The word of God has already legislated what we are to do; elders (the overseers) see to it that the word of God is obeyed. The Lord’s plan is right and cannot be improved upon; let us always follow it.


  1. What are three usages of the word “church” in the New Testament?
  2. Why is the appointment of elders confined to the local church only?
  3. What scriptural evidence do we have for the specific appointment of elders? What idea does the word “appoint” convey?
  4. Do the Scriptures specify the method by which elders are to be appointed?
  5. What reasons do some give for not having elders in the church today?
  6. What preparation should be made in the local church before their selection and appointment of elders?
  7. Name one practical method of selecting elders.
  8. What are some invalid objections offered about men who are being considered to become elders?
  9. Who is to select men to become elders before they are appointed?
  10. Why are the preacher or the elders not permitted to make the selection of who are to become elders?

Guardian of Truth XXV: 43, pp. 680-682
October 29, 1981