By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.
Belinda, a fine young Christian from Mexico, spent six weeks of last summer with my daughter’s family. Her enthusiasm, devoutness, and general spirituality were an inspiration to us all. What a delight to see one so young and so interested in so many things, yet seeming to have her priorities in order.
The first time she visited the church where my wife and I attend, I introduced her to brother Billy Norris, one of our elders. Her face almost literally lit up as she exclaimed, “I am so happy to meet you. I never met an elder before.”
Belinda is a faithful member of a small church in Mexico, where her father preaches and makes the bulk of his living doing secular work. Churches in that part of the world are very small, few, and far between so it is understandable that she would have not had the opportunity to have “met an elder before.” Many of these churches barely have a plurality of men, much less a plurality of men qualified for the eldership. Churches can exist and be faithful to the Lord, in such circumstances, without elders overseeing them.
This incident got me to thinking. I wonder how many young Christians in our country, where there are more and larger churches, could empathize with Belinda “I have never met an elder before.” Too many churches in areas where churches have been around for decades are without elders and the number seems to be growing all the time. Some have never had elders. Others have had but are now without them. Something is wrong.
No church should appoint elders just to say that they have elders. This does happen. A church’s having elders is contingent upon there being a plurality of qualified men who can be appointed to that work. If there is anything worse than a church without elders, it is a church with unqualified men masquerading as elders. The late J.D. Tant is reported to have said that when he was a boy he used to go into the words and cut branches off elder bushes and make pop-guns. He said the situation was later reversed brethren were making elders out of pop-guns. I think I may have met some of those.
In a relatively short time after churches were established in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “they (Paul and his companions) had appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Some have wondered how these men could have met the strict qualifications, outlined by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in so short a time. Some have suggested this proves that those qualifications were not meant to be strictly observed, but were only general guidelines because these men would not have had time to develop all of them, strictly speaking. So, rather than insisting on all the qualifications listed by Paul, we should simply appoint those who come nearest to them the best that we have, even if they don’t have all of those traits.
Paul would not have so carefully listed the qualifications for Timothy and Titus to follow and ignored any of them when he had a part in appointing elders. Besides, it is not unreasonable to think that there could have been men in those churches with all the qualifications. All qualifications do not have to be developed after one becomes a Christian. Obviously those that are peculiar to the faith must come after conversion not a novice, holy, holding fast the faithful word, being able to teach it, and by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. If one applies himself it would not take very long to develop these.
As to other traits, one could have had them before becoming a Christian the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy, gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous, ruling his own house, etc. As to believing children, they may have been converted at the same time as their fathers were (cf. Acts 16:34; 1 Cor. 1:16).
Churches need to be paying more attention to seeking out men and helping them develop scriptural qualifications or many of our young people are going to grow up not having met an elder.
There are many reasons for the shortage of elders among long-established congregations. Individually, developing the qualifications is simply not a high priority with many men in the church. Too, their families are not as careful as they need to be to help them meet the qualifications relating to the family. Collectively, little is done to train men to be elders. Churches often have training classes to encourage men to preach or have some other “public part.” Yet, few of these classes are geared to help train men to become elders.
In some cases, churches are kept from having good elders by a perverted idealism. Some qualifications are absolute, such as being the husband of one wife and having believing children. Some are relative, such as being able to teach and hospitable.
How many of the qualifications must one have? All of them both relative and absolute. If one has all of them he can be appointed, if he lacks just one of them he cannot be. With a relative qualification, once it is determined that one has it, then the degree to which one has it can vary greatly from person to person. We need to be careful that we do not demand perfection or even near-perfection in those relative qualifications. Nor do we need to expect all the elders to possess them to the same degree. For example, we may know (or envision) elders whose hospitality or ability to teach is extra-ordinary. They become our ideal. We then reject any prospective elders who, though some-what hospitable and able to teach, are not as much so as our ideal. Such perverted idealism keeps some churches from having elders.
Sometimes power struggles keep churches from having elders. Preachers and other members, fearful of losing some of their clout, block the appointment of elders in one way or the other. Brethren, influenced by democratic models in civil governments, civic clubs and religious organizations, have in many cases come to believe that this type of government is best for the Lord’s church. The only way they will accept elders is for them to be “figure heads” who kind of lead a democratic process in the congregation.
This process is often accompanied by base political maneuvering. No wonder many churches feel that they can get along without elders as well as with elders if not better. When elders are appointed, they are simply appointed to allow the congregation to claim scriptural status, but are expected and allowed to have little more than a ceremonial role.
The Lord’s church is not a democracy. The Lord is the head with all authority (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20-23). In congregations, the Head has decreed that elders are to rule and members are to submit (1 Tim. 3:5; 5:17; Heb. 13:17). It is not majority rule. It is not minority rule. It is not dictator rule. It is not preacher rule. It is not women rule. It is elder rule.
Let brethren everywhere become more diligent in desiring the position of a bishop (1 Tim. 3:1). Let churches be more attentive to helping men qualify and then be eager and willing to appoint them once they are qualified. Let wives and children become more concerned with making it possible for husbands and fathers to become elders. Let members, honor, submit to, and otherwise help elders do their work, “with joy and not with grief ” (Heb. 13:17), so that we will not lose good men who just cannot take the pressure any longer. Yes, elders are human and limited in the amount of abuse they can endure.
Let elders learn to rule well, not as “being lords over those entrusted to (them),” so brethren will be less inclined to dispense with the eldership because of its abuses. Let us all recognize that the Lord’s way is best for the church yea, the only way to please the Lord. Then, maybe just maybe, our children and grandchildren will not be saying, “I never met an elder before.”
Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 2 p. 8-9
January 19, 1995