Other Related Pages
Elders -- Deacons -- Comparison of Elder/Deacon Qualifications
Compulsive Personalities -- Three Styles of Church Government -- Leadership Diagram
I. Their Qualifications
II. Their Selection
III. Their Discipline
IV. Their Tenure
V. Their Support
VI. Their Number
VII. Their Leadership
VIII. Their Decision Process
IX. Their Due
X. Other Items
Conflicts of Interest
There have been several excellent books and articles written recently confirming the fact that the New Testament church government must incorporate a board of elders. This is also the presupposition of the paper that follows.
However, great problems in the application of the Biblical form of government have also been observed. This paper seeks to expose those problems and propose solutions.
Leith Anderson in his article, Practice of Ministry in 21st-Century Churches (Roy B. Zuck, editor, Vital Church Issues, Examining Principles and Practices in Church Leadership, page 40), believes there are four characteristics of dysfunctional churches:
"These dysfunctional churches typically have one or more of the following characteristics. First, specific sins are consistently practiced and known to be practiced by persons in the church, often in cooperation with one another. The sins may be anything, but often they include sexual immorality, financial dishonesty (especially in business dealings), disharmony, feuding, gossip, and resistance to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. What makes the church dysfunctional is not the practice of sin but the inability of the church body to deal with it biblically.
"A second characteristic is dominance by carnal leaders. In dysfunctional churches, leaders do not have the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3, yet they remain in office, controlling the direction and ministry of the church.
"Isolation is a third characteristic. Some churches have so withdrawn from outside relationships that they have lost touch with reality, do not participate in the larger body of Christ, and lack ministry to the world outside the church. They are spiritually independent and isolated.
"Practical heresy is a fourth characteristic. Some churches are orthodox on paper but heterodox in practice. The most common expressions of this dysfunction are in the extremes of legalism and license. These extremes are often rationalized by sectarianism or by an unbalanced doctrine of grace. The difficulty is that dysfunctional churches perpetuate their illnesses. They are closed systems in which wrong seems right and the healthy are diagnosed as sick."
A paper interacting with the first characteristic is called Local Church Discipline. This paper addresses the second characteristic.
The translation made by the NASV scholars is being used here.
One of the contributions of the so-called Christian (or Plymouth) Brethren is its doctrine of local church leadership. In sometimes modified forms, many conservative denominations and independent churches have adopted the doctrine. Muller and Craik were leaders involved in the formulation of the new movement during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Where two different English words or phrases are listed in the qualifications, they are similar in the Greek. Italics and bold type have often been added to emphasize certain portions.
Scripture says, "An overseer, then, must be . . . (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7)." The items are certainly qualifications and not just ideals for which elders strive but can never meet nor are they just a cumulative list that the oversight corporately meets but that individual elders do not have to meet.
The qualifications are found in literature that is of the logical style. This style is designed to be taken at face value. It is not poetic material like the Proverbs that contains concepts that are generally true but may be different in isolated instances. Logical material is designed to be obeyed and not allegorized.
The qualifications are not meant to eliminate anyone who has failed to meet a standard in his earlier life though he meets all of them at the time he is a candidate for the oversight. For example, a potential elder should be known for his hospitality at the time he is a candidate although earlier in his life he may not have been know as hospitable.
He should be habitually hospitable at the time he is considered for eldership. But he need not be disqualified because five times in a hundred opportunities in the year preceding the consideration of his fitness to be an elder, he was inhospitable.
1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6-7 are exceedingly strong statements demanding that an elder meet the qualifications that follow. However, no one is perfect. But it must be required that, in the preponderance of opportunities, the candidate will display positive qualities. A candidate who habitually meets the qualifications may be made an elder. Even if a candidate on rare occasions does not display a positive quality, he may be recognized as an elder if he habitually displays the qualifications.
This is a quality of a person whereby he affords ". . . nothing which an adversary could take hold of, on which he might ground a charge . . . (Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, p. 382)."
However, some enemies have very creative minds and can make bizarre charges. One who seeks to be an elder should not be disqualified just because someone brings forth a charge that is believable only to the one making it. Only a candidate who is liable to charges having an aura of possibility in the minds of the electors (probably due to well know defects in the life of the candidate) is disqualified. This aura should be based on well-known defects in the life of the candidate.
There are four interpretations:
The "one wife" in this interpretation is the church. This is a clumsy attempt on the part of Roman Catholic theologians to protect the unbiblical doctrine of the celibacy of priests. There is not the slightest hint in the contexts that the wife of the elders is to be understood as the church. Rather there is frequent reference to the elder's family. Thus he must have a literal wife (1 Timothy 3:4-5; Titus 1:6). Furthermore, the marriage figure is that Christ is the husband and the universal church is His bride (Ephesians 5:23; Revelation 19:7b). The figurative husband of the church is not an elder.
The argument that an elder should be married is not without merit, see paragraph "Y," below. However, the emphasis in this phrase is not the lack of a wife (if it were it would read "the husband of a wife") but the plurality of wives ("the husband of one wife").
In this interpretation, if a married elder looses his wife through death, this qualification would prohibit him from remarrying. However, there is a parallel passage that deals with widows. It demonstrates the inadequacy of this interpretation.
A widow is to be "the wife of one man (1 Timothy 5:9)." Young widows are encouraged to get remarried (1 Timothy 5:14). Paul would not have advised a widow to do something that could be a threat to her future livelihood if her second husband also died. Thus "the wife of one man" cannot mean that a widow must remain unmarried.
Since "the husband of one wife" is the same as "the wife of one husband" except the genders have been reversed, it is reasonable to conclude that prohibition of remarriage is not the correct interpretation in the elder context.
The qualification would prevent one who had a multitude of wives from being an elder. During New Testament times, polygamy was practiced among the rich and the rabbis allowed the king to have 48 wives (Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, pages 90, 93). The qualification would also prohibit a man from being an elder who is in a present state of fornication (including adultery).
Literally this is the opposite of intoxication. However, that characteristic is covered by the phrase, "not addicted to wine," in this same catalog of qualifications. Since the same list would not duplicate qualifications, "temperate" is probably being used figuratively. So used it indicates complete clarity of mind and its resulting good judgment (Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1:514-515).
This is the description of a person who has control over his ungodly passions and desires (Trench, pages 71-72). A candidate need not be impeccable. However, he should be familiar with the sin he is prone to commit and have it under control. NIV translates the word, "self-controlled."
Because the candidate has properly ordered his thought life, his relations with others are appropriate and functioning properly.
To be hospitable in Timothy's culture was to receive and entertain guests, especially strangers, in a friendly and generous way (Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1:59-60).
This is a questionable translation of the Greek. Only twice is the word, didaktikos, used in a context that discloses the meaning. In that context it means "taught" or "learned" (Philo, On the Change of Names, paragraph 84, and Rewards and Punishments, paragraph 27) (Rengstorf in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:165, also agrees with this understanding).
Thus this qualification does not mean that the candidate must be a teacher. It rather means that he must have been a successful student of the Word. He does not have to have a gift of teaching according to this qualification. He does have to have a comprehensive knowledge of God's Word so that he may pastor, reprove, and correct. This qualification speaks to knowledge not wisdom. Wisdom is implied in "temperate," paragraph I-E, above.
Titus 1:9 emphasizes that an elder candidate must have enough knowledge of the Word to exhort and convince those who hold to false doctrine. Furthermore, the leadership of the church in Jerusalem sought the help of deacons so that the leadership would not be so busy as to neglect the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Ministry of the Word could include counseling, evangelism, teaching, and so forth. Apparently an elder candidate would be expected to be capable of some type of ministry of the Word although not all would need to be teachers.
The best way for a candidate to achieve this qualification is formal training. Perhaps the equivalent of an Associates Degree in Bible or theology would meet this qualification. This is usually a two-year course of study for students at schools like Emmaus Bible College, Moody Bible Institute, and Brooks Bible College. However, a candidate could meet this qualification through informal study on his own. If the candidate studying informally is not doing it full time, he may not achieve an appropriate degree of knowledge for many years.
Literally the word means, "tarrying at wine (Vine, Expository Dictionary, 1:146)." Certainly an active alcoholic would be excluded. Only those who practice moderation or do not drink alcohol would be qualified.
The one who meets this qualification would not be considered by his charges as a general, a king, a master, a lord, a boss, or a CEO. Rather, he would appear to them as a leader whose leadership is not overbearing.
Literally the words mean, "not fighting (Vine, 1:146)." One who has to be held back when he gets angry or one who is argumentative or quarrelsome should not be an elder. The candidates who, in the context of arguments, stomp around, raise their voice, slam their fists on a table, and attack their opponents or misrepresent their positions, are not qualified. An elder should be able to engage in a controversy and make his point without the opposition believing the elder is attacking them figuratively or literally and without further inflaming passion.
The striving for possessions, wealth, and property should not be the focus of an elder's life. Certainly any financial consideration that comes with being an elder should not be the motivation for a man to be an elder. That a candidate has been financially successful in business is not a qualification.
Candidates who do not do a good job of managing their families cannot be elders. If a father is not able to successfully discipline his family, he might use the same defective methods as he leads the church in discipline if he were allowed to become an elder. The candidate's inability may not be his own fault as he may have a strong willed wife or child. But it is hard for an assembly to determine responsibility and since leadership is critical in making it possible for the assembly to attain Divine purposes, a proven family-related track record for a candidate is imperative.
Nor is the man who can only discipline by threat to be an elder. Rather he should discipline with grace and dignity and inspire others to respect him (Trench, pages 346-347).
In Titus 1:6 the phrase, "not accused of dissipation or rebellion (Titus 1:6)," refers to the elder candidate's children, not to the elder candidate. This is know because in Greek the word, "rebellion (plural, neuter)," agrees in number and gender with "children." It does not agree in number and gender with "man (singular, male or female)."
A man whose children are involved in extravagant expenditures on their own lusts and appetites or who are unruly, would not qualify for the oversight (ibid., page 55; Luke 15:12). All children are sinful--therefore, an elder candidate cannot be expected to have children with no sin problems. However, he must be able to manage their problems. If their problems get so out of hand that they are accused (e.g., the church has to publicly discipline them, a judge sentences them as felons, another parent truthfully accuses them of fathering their daughter's child) then the father would not qualify to be an elder.
Note that the qualification here involves children who are part of the household. The elder candidate is expected to discipline the members of his household. He may have a child who has a strong will and who was difficult to discipline but he successfully managed the child while the child was in his household. The child leaves the household and attends college, takes up a vocation, or gets married. Now that he is responsible for himself, he becomes undisciplined. This does not disqualify his father as an elder but rather reveals the father's expertise in managing difficult persons. An elder may have to manage difficult believers in the assembly and the father in this example has shown that he is able.
Other qualifications address the unsatisfactory character of a father who leaves a negative imprint on a child through lording and otherwise careless living.
God punished the Devil because of his pride (Isaiah 14:14-15). One problem with immature believers becoming elders is that they may rule as lords rather than as examples and as servants (Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48; 22:24-30; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:3). They may not have replaced the pride of the old man with the humility of the new man.
Paul told Titus to appoint elders (Titus 1:5) in Crete (AD 66--House, Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament, page 132). Since there were Jews present at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11; AD 32--House, page 129) it is possible that some of the elders Titus appointed had been believers for around 34 years.
Paul appointed elders in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:21-23; AD 49--House, p. 130). If Nicolas had been part of a Christian community in Antioch (Acts 6:5; AD 34-35--House, page 129), the new elders could have been believers for 15 years.
Paul preached in Iconium in AD 48-49 (Acts 4:11; House, page 129). Thus the Iconium elders could have been Christians for just a few months before being appointed to the oversight. However, there was a strong Jewish community there (Acts 14:1). Thus some of these men could have been Old Testament believers for quite some time.
Paul was in Lystra in AD 49 (Acts 14:6, 8 and following; House, page 130). What was true of the Iconium elders could have also been true of the Lystra elders (Acts 16:1, 3).
Ed Glasscock argues for a minimum age of 30 years for elders. He indicates that the Qumran community required 30 years as the minimum age to serve as an elder in their community. Jesus was 30 years old when He began his public ministry. Paul may have been 30 years old when he cast his vote for the death of Christians (The Biblical Concept of Elder, in Vital Ministry Issues, Examining Concerns & Conflicts in Ministry, pages 140-141). However, none of these examples are directly applicable to local church elders.
Length of time as a believer does not always indicate that a candidate is humble. But often that is the case as spiritual maturity takes time. However, the emphasis in this qualification is on humility not on how long the candidate has been a believer. In any case, a new believer should not be immediately appointed an elder. Rather he should be observed long enough to be certain that he has his pride controlled and would control it as an elder. But a prideful man who has long been a believer should also be rejected.
This qualification is similar to "above reproach." However, the emphasis here is his lifestyle outside the church. His unreproachable lifestyle must also extend into the community.
Paul was an elder according to 1 Peter 5:1. He is also widely believed to have been unmarried. Does this mean Paul made a mistake when he wrote these words? Since we know all Scripture is inspired, we cannot reach that conclusion. If Paul means he was an elder of a local church, he was probably a member of the oversight because of his position as an Apostle and the qualifications would not be applied to him. This was probably also the case with the Apostles at the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:6).
Is the husband a spiritual leader in his own family? Some may play the part in public but are deficient in the own homes.
This verse, like Acts 16:31-33 and 1 Corinthians 7:14, shows that a person may have an influence toward salvation on his relatives. A candidate cannot believe for his family, but the fact that his family members are all saved either shows that he has had a positive spiritual influence on them or that he has not had a negative influence that keeps them from being saved. Because of the effect that an elder has on the spiritual lives of his congregation, a candidate needs to have this indication of his spiritual ability to oversee. Without it there is no certainly of his ability.
If any of his children are under the "age of accountability," he should not be appointed an elder. It is only in this way that creditable evidence can be produced that he is a spiritual leader in his family and thus qualified in this sense as an elder.
He should not be one who stubbornly maintains his own opinion, right or wrong, in reckless disregard of those of a different viewpoint (Trench, page 131).
He should not be quick to become settled in a type of anger that seeks revenge (Trench, page 131).
Before one becomes an elder, he must demonstrate that he loves things that are good. You could count on finding him defending and assisting the helpless, spending time in prayer and Bible study, disciplining young believers, worshipping with his family, and so forth.
One is just when he lives a life in accordance with the righteous standards of God.
He lives a life that is in accordance with standards of morality that are universally accepted in the church. He would not tell off color jokes or race stories. He would only attend morally good entertainments. He would not do anything that shames or embarrasses spiritually mature believers.
He controls himself rather than being controlled by the world, the flesh, or the Devil.
One who would be an elder should have a high view of the Bible's inerrancy and authority.
The Greek language is sophisticated enough to have allowed single men to be elders had that been the intention of the Holy Spirit. He could have said, "If he is married, he must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control . . ." But He did not. That the candidate must be married and have a family is the teaching of qualifications D, N, and Q.
The condition of ones family is a potent and unique indicator of his ability to be an elder. Apparently there is no other institutions like marriage and the family in the life of a single man that would reveal his ability to be or not to be an elder. The risk is too great without this type of test.
However, the single person, having less "secular" responsibilities, can dedicate himself to ministries that a married person might not be able to accomplish without neglecting his family (1 Corinthians 7:32-35; e.g., missions, pioneer work, evangelism). In such work the single person might not be able to settle down in one area, which is important for the elder in order that he might adequately minister to his congregation. Such ministries, though different in kind, are just as significant as eldership in the plan of God (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
The word, "elder," may indicate that the one named is an older person or it may just refer to the office without respect to age (Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1952 edition, pages 706-707). Should an elder of a local church be advanced in years? Can younger men be elders?
The elder as an office holder would be familiar to the original Jewish readers of the New Testament because there were such officers in the Sanhedrin and in the synagogues. According to Jeremias, the under age sons of the Sanhedrin elders had a right to sing with the Levites during the daily sacrifice in the temple (pages 224-225). Therefore, the Jews understood that the office of elder was not just filled by aged men, but it also included fathers having young children. With this background, the oversight of the local church should not be limited to the white-haired.
It may be best that an oversight be composed of men of various ages. This will help assure that the assembly's ministry is relevant to all ages.
All Biblical references to elders are to persons of the male gender. Women are not to lead men (1 Timothy 2:12).
1 Timothy 3:10 indicates that candidates should be tested before they become deacons. The "also" in this verse also applies this qualification to elders. Elders are discussed in the verses prior to the section on deacons.
Some qualifications can literally be tested. In the case of "learned" (see paragraph I-I, above), a candidate can be given a written test or an oral examination to discern his degree of Bible knowledge and theology. Other qualifications like "respectable (paragraph I-G, above)" are more subjective and can be confirmed only by observations over a significant period of time.
The existence of qualifications cannot be assumed.
The New Testament example is that only apostles or their designees appointed elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Such spiritually gifted persons no longer exist in the church. The Holy Spirit used them to establish the Church in New Testament times (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 3:9-17; Romans 15:20). Without these specially gifted men, this method cannot be used today.
The lesser office in the local church leadership is the office of deacons. We often think of deacons as being considerably less qualified than elders. However, the qualifications of deacons (Acts 6:3; 1 Timothy 3:8-13) are in some cases the same as elders (e.g., above reproach, husband of one wife, temperate, free from the love of money) and in some cases beyond those of elders (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:11 in which deacons' wives are evaluated). For a comparison of elder and deacon qualifications, click here.
Philip was selected a deacon in Acts 6 and then conducted a very successful evangelistic campaign in Acts 8. Stephen became a deacon in Acts 6 and then preached a sermon in Acts 7 that was so powerful that he was martyred. Deacons are not second rate. They are not more spiritually immature than elders are. They are as highly qualified for their work as the elders are for their work. Their works are different. Functionally they are under the authority of elders like a wife to her husband and the Lord to the Father.
Elders are assigned numerous responsibilities. An elder's most important responsibility is to minister the Word. Deacons do work that is assigned to elders but that the elders cannot complete because of the press of ministering the Word (Acts 6:1-6). So, it is not a suprise that the qualifications of deacons approximate the qualifications of elders because their function is so similar. Similarly one would expect that as much care would be taken in selecting a deacon as in selecting an elder.
The Biblical example is that the congregation selects deacons. The congregation was trusted to select deacon candidates who met specified qualifications. The assembly's oversight then confirmed the selection (Acts 6:1-6). Because the qualifications and work of deacons and elders are so close, a method of selecting deacons would be acceptable for selecting elders.
So, the only Biblical example we have of leadership selection that we can apply today is selection by the congregation. With this guidance, we are free to seek a Biblically based principle that may be applied. A principle might be that the qualifications for elders (or deacons) should be taught to the congregation, the congregation should select candidates for elders (or deacons) whom they believe fulfill the qualifications, and an authority should confirm the selections.
In the case of an assembly with existing elders, the authority should be the elders who are already serving. In the case of a new assembly without elders, the authority could be the pioneer worker (after the example of Titus) or the elders of the "mother" assembly. Where neither is available to be an authority, the elders of an interested assembly could be the authority. In any case, the authority should spend a significant amount of time in close fellowship with the assembly to know who meets the qualifications (1 Timothy 5:22, 24-25).
The only example we have is of the authority confirming the selections of the congregation (Acts 6:6). The inspired writers do not give a thought to the possibility that, with the qualifications applied, the congregation would be unsuccessful in the leadership selection process.
Apparently the process in Acts 6, if it follows this minimal guidance, will be supervised by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28).
Elders should be careful to obtain a strong congregational input to the selection process so that the temptation to inbreed and to be exclusive might be minimized and so that they demonstrate that they are servants not lords.
This method of appointing elders is based on invalid theories and is insufficient in providing elders that are recognized by the whole congregation.
While selection by Apostles might seem to be a basis for this procedure, Apostles had authority and gifts beyond that of elders. They acted with the full authority of God (Matthew 10:20; 2 Corinthians 11:10; Galatians 1:11-12) and worked miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12). Apostles could appoint elders without using a list of qualifications because they had a impeccable ability to discern the Lord's will. Note that the Apostle Paul appointed elders in Acts 14:23 years before the 1 Timothy and Titus lists of qualifications were revealed. Like other believers, elders are not inerrant in their ability to sense the Lord's will and must rely on the Scriptural direction given by our Lord and His Apostles (1 Corinthians 14:37)..
Sometimes it is taught that elders should appoint their peers because Timothy and Titus appointed elders. However, there is no evidence that either were elders of the churches in which they served. They were in fact persons an Apostle selected to work with designated churches. God instructed the Apostle Paul to make Timothy a designee (1 Timothy 1:18; 4:14). Paul issued personal instructions to his designees (e.g., 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). Because an Apostle told them what to do, they exercised the Apostle's authority. By role they were more like today's full time workers who plant new churches or establish existing churches and use the Word as their guide. The designees' function was not like today's elders and thus we cannot say that, because they appointed elders, today's elders may appoint new elders.
This procedure lacks the scrutiny of the whole congregation that is needed to insure that the candidates habitually meet the qualifications and that the candidates have the support of the entire church.
There are several problems with such a procedure:
There is no teaching or example in Scripture that supports such a procedure.
The authority's pre-approval before the congregation has input, biases the congregational inputs. Members of the congregation normally do not feel free to resist the leadership of the oversight by making negative inputs. When they do, the church is often thrown into a crisis.
This method of appointing elders causes splits should the congregation be uncomfortable with the elders' choice. The tragedy often follows a menu like the following:
Thus, a local church loses persons who have great potential of being elders in the future.
Erring elders must be disciplined. Though such an elder can cause great havoc because of his critical position, he is to be given the same safe-guards when disciplined as any other believer (1 Timothy 5:19-24). Verse 24 teaches that the sins of some elders are difficult to discover before they are installed as overseers. But, once they are discovered, discipline is mandatory. The need for advanced phases of discipline indicates that a person is no longer qualified for the office of elder. See the next paragraph. A paper on discipline can be found here.
There is no information from Scripture concerning the length of an elder's term of office other than the following:
Men do not have to be elders. They should not feel compelled to oversee. They are volunteers (1 Peter 5:2). The implication is that they may resign.
Elders must maintain their qualifications if they are to continue to enjoy the Holy Spirit's calling to be elders.
At the time that Paul wrote 1 Timothy (AD 62-3, John Stirling, An Atlas of the Acts, page 25), there were already elders in the Ephesian church. Paul met with them at Miletus in AD 57 (Stirling, page 20). Note also that in Titus 1 Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders using the provided qualifications as his guide. In 1 Timothy 3 Paul does not instruct Timothy to appoint elders. Rather Paul tells Timothy that they are qualities that existing elders must have.
The verb in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7 is dei.
The meaning is "it is necessary" or "one must or has to." It denotes compulsion of any kind (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, page 171).
The very strong compulsion intended in the meaning of the verb can be demonstrated by quoting usages of dei from the LXX, the Greek version of the Old Testament used in the first century, and from the New Testament. The original language of the New Testament is Greek. The English translation of dei is underlined in the following examples. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 2:665-666, suggests the examples:
The tense of dei is present. This means that the action of the verb is occurring at the time that the writer composes the letter. This reinforces what is known from the historical background. The qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 are qualities that must be observed in men who are serving as elders. Of course, it would also be logical to use these qualities as qualifications for elder candidates.
Persons who hold the office of elder but do not meet the qualifications are not elders.
Some elders will do the honorable thing and resign when they discover their own disqualifications through introspection.
Sometimes an elder in an oversight of only two members is reluctant to resign. Knowing that there should be a plurality in the oversight, he is concerned that his resignation would bring an end to the local church. Such an action may terminate the oversight. However, an assembly can continue without an oversight.
Local churches existed before Paul and Titus appointed their elders. Since women are not to lead (1 Timothy 2:12), the men of such churches probably provided the temporary leadership. Some assemblies now have organizational documents that call for the more primitive form of government, the men of the assembly, if the preferred form of government, a plurality of elders, does not exist.
It can be disastrous for an assembly to appoint unqualified men as elders.
Scripture says nothing about retention reviews. The Book does speak of the congregation removing elders using a process related to formal church discipline, see below. The purpose of reviews is to exercise the authority of the congregation to remove unqualified persons in a gentle fashion. In stubborn cases, the congregation must be more forceful.
Some elders may not notice their disqualifications. Perhaps an elder would take corrective action on his own if the problem were brought to his attention. The corrective action might be enough to maintain their calling.
For this reason some oversights schedule periodic, non-binding evaluations of elders by their peers.
Other assemblies periodically have their congregations review the elders. Perhaps this can be scheduled as a normal action every year or two.
If an elder does not see his name on such a list, he might do the right thing and take corrective action or resign.
Some elders will neither resign nor will they take corrective action. The congregation must remove such elders from office. The Lord does not want the congregation to be in submission to unqualified men simply because of their office. The congregation is not to be admired for its submission to unqualified elders. It has been observed that in cases in which a congregation tries to keep a disqualified elder from being embarrassed by removal, that the lives of many others will be wrecked as the years pass. The Apostle Paul's instruction is to rebuke them (1 Timothy 5:20)! There is also the example of the Apostle John in 3 John 9-11 who promises to rebuke Diotrephes. A procedure like that used in formal discipline should be used.
Some will object with Acts 23:3-5 in mind. They will say that even Paul respected the position of disqualified leaders. Here bystanders complained that Paul reviled the high priest. Paul defended himself by pleading ignorance of the high priest's identity and by indicating he understood the teaching of Exodus 22:28 which he recited as a prohibition to speak evil of a ruler of the nation of Israel. Exodus 22:28 does not apply to unqualified persons serving as elders of the local church because (1) the church is not Israel and (2) removing a person who is disqualified from the office involves speaking the truth, not evil.
The congregation must take as much care in dismissing an elder as it took in selecting him.
If these steps are not taken, the usual result is that believers will leave the fellowship and the effectiveness of the assembly will be hampered. Ultimately the assembly finds itself in such disrepair that it ceases to exist.
It is not unusual for a dysfunctional congregation to keep disqualified men as elders fearing that the application of Biblical guidelines would divide the church. However, it has been observed that in the decades that follow there will nevertheless be frequent splits and huge numbers of believers who will exit the fellowship. It is best to be obedient to the Word and tackle the problem as soon as possible.
Once an elder has left the oversight due to disqualification, can he be restored? The answer is yes, as long as his electors observe habitually held qualifications. This obviously requires observations of an ex-elder over a significant period of time. Jay E. Smith has written a helpful article on the restoration of elders from which the following quote is taken:
. . .
"Does God then forbid the restoration of fallen leaders? No. Does He leave open the possibility? Yes. Does that possibility look promising? Yes and no. If both the life and reputation of the fallen elder can be rehabilitated, his prospects for restoration are promising. However, rehabilitating his reputation, not to mention his life, will be particularly difficult, for squandering one's reputation is "a snare of the devil" (1 Tim. 3:7), and he does not yield up his prey easily (Can Fallen Leaders be Restored to Leadership? in Roy B. Zuck, editor, Vital Church Issues, Examining Principles and Practices in Church Leadership, pages 118-119)."
The work of an elder when fully exercised may demand enough of his time that his entire support cannot be obtained through a "secular" vocation. In such cases it is the obligation of his church to support him (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
Except when used generically, Scripture always speaks of a plurality of elders.
Sometimes we see a word like "lead" and assign our own meaning to it. The meaning comes from our background. Perhaps when we see the word, "lead," we think of a general in the army if we have had experience in the military. We may think that a leader's style should be like that of a CEO if he has been an employee in a large corporation. Some may have a background that makes him think of it as a chain-of-command. However, what an interpreter of the Bible must do is determine the Bible's meaning of the word in the appropriate contexts. To do this, he must study what the Bible has to say about leadership words and examples in contexts dealing with the oversight.
Henry Bavinck was correct when he wrote: "All power within the church is always of a serving character. Because Christ alone is the Head of the Church (Eph. 1:22) . . . (Eldership in the New Testament, BRR, Summer 1978, page 24)." See also Ephesians 5:24. It is probably for these reasons that elders are not to rule by decree but by example (1 Peter 5:3). Also, they are to be humble (1 Peter 5:5a and paragraph I-O above).
The word used for "lording" in 1 Peter 5:3 is katakurieuw. It is the word for "lord" with the prefix, kata. "The prefix kata- clearly has a negative force and implies that the princes exercise their rule to their own advantage and contrary to the interests and well-being of the people (Matt. 20:25; Mk. 10:42) [H. Bietenhard, kurios,* The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, volume 2, page 519]." The word is used four times in the New Testament. It is used once in 1 Peter 5:3 and in these passages:
Some of the responsibilities of elders (see paragraph A, above) are very serious like the requirement to exclude false teachers from the assembly (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:7). In that and similar roles, the leaders need to make sure they are enforcing a pillar of theology and not a private hobbyhorse. They should be looking out for the congregation and not for their own advancement. Furthermore, elders should not use excessive force.
The word used for "example" is topos.* Behind the word in the ideas of a stamp and its impression (H. Müller, Type, Pattern, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, volume 3, pages 903-907). Elders should not want their church to be filled with believers only looking out for themselves while they blow up each other. If the elders aspire to good fellowship within their congregation, they should lead with a non-lording example.
Apostles were often involved in the leadership of the local churches of which they were a part (e.g., Acts 15:6).
The disciples were instructed by the Lord to be servant leaders (Mark 9:33-37). They were not to lord like the Gentiles (Matthew 20:25-28).
Paul, who was gifted by the Holy Spirit as an Apostle, indicated that he exercised his responsibility with "humility and with tears (Acts 20:19)." In another place he describes his relation to others as a bondservant (2 Corinthians 4:5). He was enslaved to those he led.
While Paul was occasionally forceful in his exhortations, his forcefulness was not exercised to enhance or preserve his position (i.e., to lord, to be prideful). Rather he was forceful because it was the best thing for those to whom he was enslaved. See for example 2 Corinthians 6:11; 7:8-13a.
Another office in the local church is that of the deacon. The Greek word for deacon, diakonos, has the meaning, "servant" and "helper" (Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon, page 183).
Elders are also expected to observe exhortations made to Christians in general.
". . . put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, . . . be thankful (Colossians 3:12-15)."
As you read Paul's great chapter on love, meditate on how it would apply to a special category of Christians, elders.
All Christians have spiritual gifts that, according to the Apostle Paul, are to be exercised in love in order to build up the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:7-16). The exercise of all the gifts, not just those given to thee oversight, is necessary.
Paul teaches that the Church is an organism, not an organization (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Every part of the organism, the body, is essential and works together. The organism is incomplete without any part. To strip the congregation of its assistance in the leadership of the assembly is like lobotomizing the brain and chopping off the head (1 Corinthians 12:21). Paul says, ". . . there should be no division in the body, but . . . the members should have the same care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25)."
All the members of the congregation, not just its leadership, are priests (1 Peter 2:5; Revelation 1:5-6). The congregation works together as a priesthood in offering worship to God.
From consulting the Biblical evidence, one must conclude that the style of leadership that an elder should use is that of modeling and being a humble servant. His style should not be that of a despot issuing commands to his inferior followers.
. . .
"Following the biblical model, elders must not wield the authority given to them in a heavy-handed way. They must not use manipulative tactics, play power games, or be arrogant and aloof. They must never think that they are unanswerable to their fellow brethren or to God. Elders must not be authoritarian, which is incompatible with humble servanthood. When we consider Paul's example and that of our Lord's, we must agree that biblical elders do not dictate; they direct. True elders do not command the consciences of their brethren but appeal to their brethren to faithfully follow God's Word. Out of love, true elders suffer and bear the brunt of difficult people and problems so that the lambs are not bruised. The elders bear the misunderstandings and sins of other people so that the assembly may live in peace. They lose sleep so that others may rest. They make great personal sacrifices of time and energy for the welfare of others. They see themselves as men under authority. They depend on God for wisdom and help, not on their own power and cleverness. They face the false teachers' fierce attacks. They guard the community's liberty and freedom in Christ so that the saints are encouraged to develop their gifts, to mature, and to serve one another (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, Restoring the Eldership to Its Rightful Place in the Church, pages 26-28)."
". . . [Paul] never asked for submission to leaders in the church because of their position as leaders. Submission was forthcoming because of a leader's hard work and character (1 Cor. 16:15-17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 5:17).
. . .
"Biblically speaking, respect, influence, and power are not based on educational accomplishments nor upon position gained. They are based upon remaining in work that has no privilege, no perks, and no personal fame (Bard M. Pillette, Paul and His Fellow Workers - Chapter 1, in Emmaus Journal, Summer 1996, pages 52-53)."
There are several areas in which the elders' responsibilities are limited because the responsibility belongs to the whole congregation. The oversight does not have unlimited power. The congregation acts as a check and balance.
The church was given the responsibility of carrying out the final phases of church discipline (Matthew 18:17). Though the elders should be an investigative body as in Acts 15:6, the congregation as a whole should be present during their investigation and make the final decision as in Acts 15:22.
The Apostle Paul instructed "the church of God which is at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2)" to become involved in their local church's discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Some believe the church is figurative for the elders. And thus the congregation should not be involved in formal church discipline. There is such a figure of speech called a synecdoche in which the whole (the local church) is put for the part (the oversight).
However, before one can impose a meaning on a word, he must prove that it is one of the actual meanings available. The most common way of finding the available meanings is to consult a dictionary. Dictionaries list both literal and figurative meanings. The New Testament was written in Greek, so one would check a Greek dictionary.
The following Greek dictionaries have been consulted concerning ekklhsia, the Greek word for church:
William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 16th impression, page 240
L. Coenen, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1:296-305
Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, AP&A edition, pages 195-196
W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words with their Precise Meanings for English Readers, 17th impression, 1:83-84 (see also "congregation," 1:228)
None of these sources list elder as an available figurative meaning of ekklhsia. Church in these passages most certainly does not mean elders.
Elders need to be sensitive that closed-door reviews of a person often thwart the benefits and checks and balances of formal discipline. Some believers have become aware that they are looked down upon or have been sanctioned by the elders but have never been given access to the purifying benefits from a face to face encounter by an accuser with a specific concern. Indeed, without the personal confrontation, the elders may not have knowledge of the truth.
Sometimes an elder, sensing he needs advice on how to counsel a member of the congregation, will bring up the problem during a closed elders' meeting. The undesired result is that the elder biases his peers against the one who is to be counseled without the checks and balances of formal discipline. When an elder needs such advice, he should inquire individually of one or two qualified believers with the understanding that the details are not to be shared with others. It should be done outside of a closed elders meeting.
An elder needs to be aware that in some states civil or criminal charges can be brought against a "minister" (i.e., an elder) who breaks confidentiality with those he counsels. The leadership needs to consult an attorney for the law in a particular state.
The church at Pergamum was held responsible for the doctrine being taught there (Revelations 2:12-17).
While in the Jerusalem church the elders led in the development of doctrine (Acts 15), the congregation (the apostles plus the elders plus the congregation) was present during the deliberations and made the decision (Acts 15:22-23). Luke emphasized the whole church's participation in the approval of the letter by using the preposition, with. ". . . it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, . . . and they sent this letter by them, . . ."
The congregation has the authority over it's representatives (Acts 11:22; 13:1-3; 14:27). Representatives would include full time persons (e.g., domestic workers, missionaries) and those that are not (e.g., a representative to an organization in which the church has some type of affiliation, a part time pioneer worker). In the case of those representatives who have a teaching ministry, the persons spiritually gifted as teachers selected the representative.
The congregation, not just the oversight, receives and sends significant communications (Acts 11:22; 14:27; 15:3-4, 30).
The congregation selects candidates for leadership. The elders or another authority confirm the selections. See paragraph II above. The congregation removes men from office using a formal-discipline like process. See paragraph IV-C-2-b above.
The Biblical government of the local church is leadership by elders assisted and monitored by the entire congregation. Deacons may also be used to assist elders. Click here for the page on deacons.
No doubt that, under the Biblical style, most elders' meetings would be open to the congregation and the goals and work of the local church would be integrated with the whole assembly. Elders would have inputs from all the gifted believers within the local church not just those present at a closed meeting. Elders would be less liable to make mistakes and to receive criticism. Discipline that is accomplished by the elders before the congregation is apt to be fair to victims and to the accused. A congregational inspection of financial records and procedures would eliminate suspicions and stimulate giving. The supervision of full time workers before the whole congregation would avoid a leadership clique.
Robert L. Saucy has written an article describing a type of church government that has a plurality of elders but the authority rests in the congregation. Thus, Saucy's style of church government could be categorized as a type of congregationalism (Authority in the Church, in Walvoord: a Tribute, pages 219-238). However, his style does not sufficiently explain strong terms like "have charge (1 Thessalonians 5:12)," "lead (Hebrews 13:7)," and "rule (1 Timothy 5:17)" and some of his interpretations are not convincing.
This paper teaches that the final authority in the local church is the oversight with five exceptions that involve the congregation: performing discipline, formulating doctrine, supervising full time workers, receiving communications from other local churches, and leadership selection and removal. Even in the five exceptional cases, the oversight is expected to take a strong role in guiding the congregation to its decision. Deacons may assist elders.
"Assembly decisions should not be made on the basis of a simple majority vote of elders. Such a policy will almost inevitably lead to hard feelings and divisive tendencies. Over and over in God's Word we are exhorted to be of one mind, of one accord and of one spirit (I Cor. 1:10; II Cor. 13:11; Phil. 1:27; 2:2). If such unanimity is not immediately forthcoming on an issue, the elders need to wait before the Lord until He gives a oneness of mind and Spirit (Gary Inrig, Life in His Body, page 111)."
However, there are two excesses that are allowed by a perceived need for unanimity that need to be avoided.
Requiring unanimity does not solve the problem that all the elders can be wrong.
Elders cannot claim Divine approval for their decision, even if they are unanimous, if the decision goes against the clear teaching of Scripture. Only the Lord and His Apostles have absolute authority. Where they have spoken, elders must submit (Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 14:37; Galatians 1:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:2). Specifically, Matthew 18:18-20 only assures that our Lord's disciples (see Matthew 18:1) have the power to bind and loose, not elders, nor the church.
In the recent history of the Brethren movement, the oversights of scores of assemblies voted unanimously to sue other Christians in the government's courts. This was in violation of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. These oversights were wrong in their unanimous decision.
It is probably for this reason that the entire congregation was involved in the five important roles of paragraph VII-C above. The check and balance is that in the entire congregation there will hopefully be some believers sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit who can bring the assembly back into obedience.
This problem occurs in an oversight that practices unanimous decisions for important issues and in congregations that have not been careful in the qualification and retention of elders.
There is a very dominant personality type that disqualifies the holder from being an elder. He would not meet qualifications like F, H, K, L, O, P, R, and S, above. However, his dominance is superficially assumed to be the sign of a leader. When he gets on the elder board, he dominates it by using the requirement for unanimity. The spiritual leadership of the other elders is eclipsed by the dominant elder's need to be self-serving. Nothing gets done unless it serves the dominant elder's interests.
Compulsive Personality Disorders have also been observed in those who hold the office of elder. Click here for further information. Such an office holder will also dominate an oversight causing the local church to reflect his shortcomings..
Preponderance is an improvement on the requirement for unanimity. Preponderance requires that there be a strong one-mindedness but provides a check and balance. Preponderance requires a very large majority. But, because it does not require a unanimous vote, the effect of a dominant elder is nullified. Obviously preponderance is not appropriate when there are only two or three elders. Perhaps we should not have small oversights for this reason. But with four elders, a large majority can be obtained with a preponderance of three elders (75%). It is of course also possible with larger oversights.
Decisions like the color to paint walls should require a simple majority.
See also "Their Support," paragraph V, above.
Paul advises in 1 Timothy 5:17 that elders who excel at their task are "worthy of double honor." By implication he is also saying that even those who do not excel but do tolerable work are to be respected for their office and work and are thus worthy of single honor.
Of course those who are found to be unqualified for the office must be removed. See "Their Tenure," paragraph IV, above.
Believers are encouraged to imitate elders because of the high standard they must maintain to continue their calling as elders (1 Timothy 3:1; Hebrews 13:7). They should become intimately familiar with the elder's way of life (1 Thessalonians 5:12, where "appreciate" in NASV is better translated "know" as in KJV) and regard it and the elder highly (verse 13).
The obedience suggested in Hebrews 13:17 ". . . is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. It is a type of obedience which is the outworking of trust in a person (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary, 3:124)." It is not the type of submission imposed in a chain-of-command, the type that an elder might demand because of his office. It is rather the submission that one would willingly give because of the elder's spiritual excellence.
In order to meet government requirements, some churches will incorporate and for that purpose create a board of trustees that does not correspond to the board of elders. This is just asking for trouble. The trustees may not have the qualifications of church leaders and may have goals at odds with the elders. The board of elders should be the board that is responsible in the incorporation papers.
The entire congregation should be involved in the creation of organizational documents. If the church is a corporation, they may include Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. By giving every member of the congregation opportunity to provide inputs, the whole congregation will have ownership in the documents and they will unify with the leadership around the accomplishment of the church's goals.
In the 1970's and 1980's lawyers often advised church planters not to mention the congregation in organizational documents. At that time there was a struggle to restore traditionally conservative denominations that were infested by liberal theologians. It was thought that congregations were notoriously weak theologically and could easily fall to liberal teachings. Thus it was believed that the leaders needed to have firm control over a church. Lawyers told planters that there was no better way to maintain control than to simply not mention the congregation in the documents.
However there were several problems with this approach. First, Scripture specifies that the congregation is to be a check and balance on the elders. Second, congregations felt that this approach bred a leadership style that was too authoritarian. It was not unusual to hear a member of the congregation praying that an elder would taken by the Lord in order to open the way for qualified leadership who would solve the problems of troubled churches. Third, generally it was leadership that brought liberal teachings into the churches. The congregations were often more conservative that the leaderships. Organizational documents should address the entire congregation, not just the oversight.
In the early days of the Brethren movement (the first half of the 19th century), it was rightly believed that creeds had become too important in the chorizurch. The recitation of creeds replaced personal Bible study. Thus there has been a reluctance to authorize creeds or anything that looks like one. That tradition, now misplaced, continues to this day. Some churches are still reluctant to authe a statement of faith or to issue policies covering the essential workings of the local church. The attitude is that if anyone would just read Scripture, they would come up with mutual interpretations.
However, students do not come to the same conclusions in their study of Scripture. This is because of several reasons: biases from their backgrounds, different levels of intelligence, different abilities in interpreting, conflicts of interest, sin, and so forth. So, at the crucial moment, when a great doctrine is in question or when the discipline process is activated, there are no mutually agreed interpretations and procedures. And a crippling controversy and perhaps a church split develop. A statement of faith and policies accepted by the entire congregation needs to be created in advance as accepted guides on how to survive.
Furthermore, without organizational documents that mention the congregation and without policies, the church and its leadership expose themselves to grave liability when a member brings suit against them. The congregation must also have access to them (Jay A. Quine, Court Involvement in Church Discipline, Part 2 in Vital Ministry Issues, Examining Concerns & Conflicts in Ministry, pages 238-239).
Dominate elders will object to policies because they will restrict their ability to manipulate (see paragraph VIII-A-b).
Again, during the 1970's and 1980's, lawyers advised church planters to include their Statement of Faith in their Articles of Incorporation. Their idea was that the Articles of Incorporation are harder to change because they are often on file with the government. Bylaws are usually not seen by the government and are easily changed by the church leaders. The advice was given thinking it would reduce the inroads of liberal theology.
However, liberal theology often uses the same statements of faith so that the congregations will accept them . . . but changes the definitions of words to incorporate the deviant teachings.
It is probably better to include the Statement of Faith in the Bylaws and make updates to the statement in order that the readers might understand clearly the true doctrines in the face of changing meanings.
Churches often keep their policies separate from their organizational documents and update them as necessary. Topics of policies might include finances, discipline, conflicts of interest, full time workers, and so forth.
Scripture forbids the suing of other Christians in "secular" courts (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). If a congregation is unable to settle controversies in a Biblical fashion, they should seek out binding arbitration rather than suits. Some churches and Christian organizations have found it useful to include clauses requiring Christian arbitration in their by-laws. For more information, contact the Institute for Christian Conciliation, a division of Peacemaker® Ministries.
In churches and parachurch organizations, leaders should avoid conflicts of interest. One such trap is a board of elders attempting to discipline one of the elder's own relatives. Another conflict of interest would be awarding a contract to seal a parking lot to one of the elders. Such conflicts often result in disputes. A conflict of interest resolution will help eliminate such disputes.
A Christian lawyer specializing in churches and parachurch organizations could provide assistance. The Christian Legal Society at www.christianlegalsociety.org can also provide assistance..
Bohlin, Ray, Can Deacons be Divorced? Probe Ministries, http://www.probe.org/docs/e-deacons2.html.
Bramford, Alan, Ed. Where Do We Go from Here? West Sussex, England: H. E. Walter, 1979, pages 13-26, 103-118.
Fish, John H. III, Brethren Tradition or New Testament Church Truth, Emmaus Journal, Winter 1993, pages 112-154.
Inrig, Gary. Life in His Body. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1975, pages 101-113.
The Journal of the Christian Brethren Research Fellowship, No. 30. This entire issue is entitled, "Leadership in the Churches."
Littleproud, J. R. The Christian Assembly. Bible Class Notes. Grand Rapids: Gospel Folio Press, n.d., pages 63-75.
Smith, Jay E., Can Fallen Leaders be Restored to Leadership?, pages 103-119, in Roy B. Zuck, Vital Church Issues, Examining Principles and Practices in Church Leadership. Grand Rapids: Kregel Resources, 1998.
Strauch, Alexander. Biblical Eldership, An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, 3rd ed. Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers. There have been several editions of this book. Unfortunately, we are often unable to associate notes in the paper with the appropriate edition.
Strauch, Alexander. Biblical Eldership, Restoring the Eldership to Its Rightful Place in the Church. Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1997.
Strauch, Alexander. Minister of Mercy, The New Testament Deacon. Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1992.
Summerton, Neil. A Noble Task, Eldership and Ministry in the Local Church. Exter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1987.
Joseph M Vogl and John H. Fish III, editors, Understanding the Church, the Biblical Ideal for the 21th Century. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1999. This compellation has a couple of articles by John Fish and David MacLeod that address church government.
Williams, John. Living Churches. Paternoster Pocket Books, No. 14. Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1972, pages 55-92.
© 2001-2003, Ken Bowles -- September 30, 2010, Edition
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