By Larry Ray Hafley
From Alabama: “The church I attend has been in existence for nearly 30 years. We don’t have elders and have never had them. This bothers me. Shouldn’t a church have elders after 30 years?”
It is not the purpose of this column to pronounce judgment on local situations. It is difficult for an “insider” to know all the facts and circumstances. An “outsider” like myself cannot be expected to accurately and correctly diagnose and deal with a specific point of reference. However, a few general thoughts may be helpful.
What The New Testament Teaches
The New Testament teaches that churches should have elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet. 5:2). God’s order is for a plurality of scripturally qualified men to feed, lead, watch, and warn souls in each local church (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2, 3). The work charged to elders reveals that no flock of God can be perfect or complete until it has elders or overseers (Titus 1:5). Therefore, no church of God should be satisfied without elders whether it be 30 months old or 30 years of age.
No Qualified Men
The New Testament clearly teaches that only a certain class of men can be bishops or elders (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). Qualifications necessarily make it impossible for every church to appoint men as elders. God does not place standards in operation and expect that each church will always be capable of meeting them. For example, there must be two or more men willing to serve (1 Tim. 3:1, 2; Acts 14:23). These facts eliminate some small churches. As only qualified men should serve, it follows that a church should not appoint men when they have none who meet the scriptural specifications.
Excuses Or Extenuating Circumstances?
After an indefinite period of time, it appears a church should grow and develop men as elders. Surely, after 30 years a church might be expected to have elders, but there may be various reasons and excuses. Some are justifiable while others are suspect at best.
First, some churches have a high population “turnover” rate. The membership is not the same for very long due to families moving in and out every few years. Second, divisions, both the necessary and the unnecessary kind, may be instrumental in stripping a church of potential eldership timber. Third, some congregations never seriously consider the need for elders. Unappointed “leaders” become old and feeble. Meanwhile, young people are marrying and moving away. Now, most all that are left are a few sweet elderly widows and several failing and feeble older couples. The younger couples who do remain are wondering, “Why have we never had any elders here?” The truth is that the church just did not seek the New Testament pattern with respect to elders. Fourth, no teaching is ever done to encourage a man to become an elder. Is it a sin to urge a young, faithful man to consider the office or work of a bishop? Waiting until a man is 45 years old before asking him to “consider being an elder” is foolish and wasteful. We guide men to equip themselves as preachers, so why not as elders? Fifth, some churches can find no men who desire the work of elders. Why is it that able and generally faithful men to not aspire to preach or be elders? Does the fault lie within me? Often men may be discouraged because of the abuses they see heaped on elders by tyrannical preachers and mean members of the church.
Essentially, there are four classes or kinds of church organization. A church may be:
1) Scripturally Unorganized: This condition exists where there are no men qualified to serve and none are serving. This was the early state of the churches mentioned in Acts 14:21-23. At first, the new converts were likely not in accord with the qualifications of elders. Upon Paul’s return, certain ones were appointed, but prior to this time they (the churches) were scripturally unorganized.
2) Scripturally Organized: A church is scripturally organized when it has qualified men who desire to serve and who are appointed. This was the status of the Philippian church (Phil. 1:1). This level of development is no accident. It is the result of purposeful and prayerful teaching and living. Not every church that has men called “elders” and “deacons” is scripturally organized. They have men who are merely going through the motions, but who are not watching for souls. Their elders are elders in name only. They wear a title, but they do no work. As it takes more than the name “church of God” to make a church of God, so it takes more than “elders and deacons” to have a scripturally organized congregation.
3) Unscripturally Organized: A church is unscripturally organized when it has no men qualified to take the oversight but who are doing so nonetheless. This was the sad plight of the church where Diotrephes ruled and reigned (3Jn. 9). That church was unscripturally organized. This is why many churches have no elders. A dictator or a clique runs the church, or else the church has always relied on a pastor-preacher to be chairman of the board. This is a sad situation. It restrains many churches from progressing to scriptural organization.
4) Unscripturally Unorganized: A church may be termed unscripturally unorganized when it has men who are qualified to serve but who are not appointed and laboring. Jealousy, envy, and apathy are often the causes of a church’s being unscripturally unorganized. When men are not submissive to the leadership of elders, when they fear the subjection that is required, they will see to it that a church remains unscripturally unorganized by dictatorially forbidding the appointment of elders. This they do through party-power politics.
Scriptural congregational organization should characterize every church. But even after 30 years do not appoint men hastily. If you think a church without elders is bad and unscriptural, just appoint unqualified, half-hearted servants. Two wrongs do not make a right. Churches suffer without qualified elders, but they are doubly pained if they select men just for the sake of saying, “Well, now we have elders.” Further, remember that it is a work, not a political office, that you are appointing men unto. It is an awesome task and should be approached with reverence and godly fear.
Truth Magazine XX: 33, pp. 524-525
August 19, 1976