By John N. Evans
Having established that it is God’s plan for a church in its maturity to have elders, why is it that so many congregations do not? Why does there seem to be a growing number of local congregations, some which have been in existence for decades and some with a significant number of older brethren, who are
The New Testament makes it plain that local congregations may exist for some time without elders. For example, on Paul’s first mission- ary journey, he established several churches in southern Galatia. Time passed until he revisited them and elders were selected (Acts 14:21-23). Thus, we have an example of churches existing with divine approval until such time as qualified overseers could be selected.
It is equally plain, however, that a church should never become content to be without elders. In Titus 1:5, for example, Paul wrote, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” Obviously, a congregation that labors without qualified elders and deacons is lacking to that extent. Business meetings of the men are an expedient to help the local church function properly, and when they are conducted according to biblical principles I believe they are authorized. They are not, however, “just as good as having elders.” If they were, God would not have created the office of bishop to start with!
God’s plan for the organization of the local church consists of elders, deacons, and members, with each congregation functioning as an autonomous body under Christ’s authority. Philippians 1:1 spells this out in language plain enough for any grade schooler to understand: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons . . .” To put it another way, the eldership is a divine provision for a legitimate need. The church is best equipped to do the work that God has assigned for it to do when it has qualified, serving elders and deacons. When a local church does not have qualified elders, it is wanting to that extent.
Of course, a legitimate desire to have bishops should not compel a church to appoint unqualified men or those who are “close to being qualified.” The Holy Ghost inspired the qualifications of Titus 1:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and in that way makes overseers (Acts 20:28). We cannot ignore divine revelation in an attempt to satisfy personal whim.
Two extremes would be equally sinful because they violate God’s law to an equal degree: (1) Having unqualified men attempt to serve as elders, or (2) Refusing to allow men to serve who are fully qualified.
Having established that it is God’s plan for a church in its maturity to have elders, why is it that so many congregations do not? Why does there seem to be a growing number of local congregations, some which have been in existence for decades and some with a significant number of older brethren, who are lacking bishops? And, why is the selection of elders so often a source of controversy within churches of Christ? Instead of strengthening the church, the selection process sometimes divides it!
First, allow me to say that there are several scriptural reasons why a church may not have overseers. A newly formed congregation, for example, may not have had time to search out the qualified men among them. Or, an established congregation may have suffered the passing of its elders and no other qualified men are members. Or, qualified men may have become unqualified by yielding their lives to Satan. Or, men may be serving as elders and one or more decide to step down for personal reasons. Or, a church, regardless of its size and age, may truly have no qualified men, even though it seems that they should. All of these are biblical reasons for a congregation not to be fully organized.
Sadly, experience tells me that there are also a number of unscriptural reasons for a church to be without bishops, and these are the ones that demand scrutiny.
Some churches do not have elders because the men remain spiritually immature. The elders’ qualifications describe men of wisdom, maturity, and judgment. In some churches men have not grown in these capacities as they ought. Of course, a man can be a Christian without being an elder, and not all are suited by qualification or temperament to the office of bishop. Still, if the men of a local congregation remain babes in Christ through lack of effort, the church may never have elders.
In Hebrews 5:12 the inspired writer chastises the saints for their stunted growth: “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.” Of course, this admonition is to all saints, but it certainly applies to our discussion of elders. Bishops must be able to convict the gainsayer (Tit. 1:9). How can they do so if they have only a limited knowledge of Scripture? Elders are to be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). How can they demonstrate this ability if they repeatedly refuse teaching opportunities? I understand that not all can or should be teachers (Jas. 3:1), but many refuse even to try. As the Hebrew writer explains, enough time had passed when they should have developed the knowledge and discernment of teachers, but they were still unpracticed in the Word.
I repeat: some congregations lack elders because the men have not set themselves to the task. In the course of each man striving to become spiritually mature (1 Pet. 2:1-2), some will qualify to become bishops. It is not an impossible task. If we agree that it is God’s desire for a church to have elders, then it must be an attainable office.
Some churches do not have elders because there are members who do not want them. I know this sounds extraordinary, but I have met men and women whose attitudes are totally opposed to having bishops. Oh, they probably would not admit this, even to themselves, but their actions speak volumes.
I have known those who had the spirit of Diotrephes in 3 John 9. Diotrephes wanted to be preeminent, or first in importance. Evidently, he was the kind of individual who would have been unwilling to submit to anyone. He was going to be the chief, the head honcho, or no one was. His attitude was one of imposing his will on others, to the point of not even receiving gospel preachers.
Sadly, Diotrephes has his modern counterparts. Elders oversee a congregation within the boundaries of God’s word (1 Pet. 5:2). We willingly submit to that lawful, loving oversight, in accordance with Scripture (Heb. 13:17). A two-way relationship exists. Tragically, Diotrephes and his heirs are unwilling to submit to anyone.
Of course, one with this spirit is not qualified to be an elder, but neither is he going to follow a qualified elder! These are the same individuals who will worry, badger, and bully others in attempting to have their way. They will have their way and their say, or no one will!
Others within local congregations are simply divisive and factious in nature. They have a gunslinger attitude and simply want to stir up trouble. They have no real desire to work together with the brethren toward common goals. The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 4:1-3, says that we should endeavor “. . . to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” The argumentative person would rather have a fist fight than unity based on truth. The more the pot boils, and the more tempers flare, the more he seems to enjoy it.
In Matthew 5:8 Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” That statement describes disciples who have a pure desire to serve God and lead others to the gospel. Factious people operate from impure motives. Controversy is what they want. Woe is the man who is being considered for the office of bishop because he is sure to suffer from their severest criticism!
A congregation that tolerates such spiritual bullying will find it difficult to ever appoint overseers.
Some churches do not have elders because of bad experiences. Sometimes a local church will allow negative episodes with elders in the past to dictate their future. As the old saw goes, they throw the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps previous elders acted in a dictatorial, arbitrary fashion. Or maybe an unqualified man tried to serve as elder. For what- ever reason, the members survived an unpleasant experience and, in their desire never to repeat the same mistake, they are reluctant to search out qualified men. After all, if I go to one dentist and experience excruciating pain when he fills a tooth, I may develop a bad attitude towards dentists in general! This is a natural human reaction, but we must guard against it. The best way to overcome this problem is to remember that it is God’s desire for a church to have qualified, serving elders and deacons. If previous elders acted incorrectly or were unqualified, God’s plan was not at fault — the men were! Let us learn from our mistakes and press on.
Some churches do not have elders because members have interpreted the qualifications in an overly strict manner. Or, to put it another way, no man ever measures up to their standards of qualifications. As the old saying goes, we use the qualifications to disqualify a man instead of to qualify him.
I am not urging saints to soften 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. We cannot choose to ignore any of the qualifications. Nor would I suggest that we just identify those men who come closest to meeting the qualifications. Either of these approaches would be sinful. I also understand that careful, conservative students of the Bible have disagreed over the years concerning the exact meaning of several of the qualifications.
The point is, we should not imagine that elders will be perfect men, for we shall all fail. As I once heard brother Elmer Moore preach in a lesson, “Do you know where we will find perfect elders? In a congregation of perfect members!”
For example, sometimes members misunderstand the term “blameless,” as it is used in 1 Timothy 3:2. They imagine that it means the man has always shown impeccable judgment and has always made wise decisions. Of course, we know that we have not always done so, but we think that elders must be above the limitations of all men. In one discussion about selecting elders, a member brought up an incident years before in which the man had exercised less than perfect judgment. The incident was relatively trivial, but, in this member’s mind, it forever disqualified the man from being an elder! Who can survive such scrutiny?
Let me tell you about a man I know. Sometimes he talked when he should have listened. Occasionally he was impetuous in his actions. One time I know he acted in a racially prejudiced manner. Why, earlier in life he even denied the Lord three times! Do you think such an individual could ever become an elder? He was, you know — 1 Peter 5:1 says so! Tragically, I fear that some of my brethren would reject Peter out of hand.
Others look at “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and imagine that it means an elder must be an accomplished public orator. Certainly an elder must be of a disposition that makes him ready, able, and willing to teach. Also, it would be a bonus if he were a polished public speaker. It is not a requirement, however, that he rival William Jennings Bryan in ability.
Elders will have all the biblical qualifications, but they will not be faultless. Like the rest of us, they will have room to grow. Beware the member who interprets the qualifications in such a way that no man ever measures up.
Sometimes churches do not have elders because the church has become accustomed to being without them. Frankly, I believe this happens fairly often. For whatever reason, a church is without elders for an extended period of time. Sadly, the longer the time, the less likely it seems that elders will be appointed. The men get used to business meetings. All the members become accustomed to the routine and neglect God’s plan of organization in their thinking. Maybe the preacher does not preach on the subject very often. Lip service is paid to the idea of needing bishops, but no real effort is made in that direction. We become too comfortable with an arrangement that should be temporary. Sound familiar? I fear this scenario is repeated in far too many locations!
I have described five unscriptural reasons why churches do not have elders, but I am certain you could add others to the list. May I suggest that, often, several of these hindrances are active at once.
Imagine a church that has been without elders for a number of months or years. The congregation seems to be functioning fairly smoothly, and the brothers and sisters are comfortable with the situation. One or two of the men sort of like having their say anyway. In fact, they insist on it — even if it means bullying the others. Once, two years back, the church tried to select men, but Diotrephes and his brother insisted that no one was qualified. There were several men who could have worked toward that goal, but they allowed themselves to be intimidated and stopped trying. Besides, as some members recalled, they had an elder back in 1970 who strutted around like a little general. The congregation languishes, consoling themselves that they are doing the best that they can under difficult circumstances.
Friends, I fear that there is a growing trend for more churches of Christ to be without elders for longer periods of time. I pray that conscientious brethren will remember God’s plan for the organization of the local congregation and labor to be faithful to that pattern. I ask God that faithful men will rise to the task and that churches will recognize their courage. May we have such strength and conviction!