Elders in Every Church (Part 5): Appointing and Working with Elders

Elders in Every Church (Part 5): Appointing and Working with Elders

Once men have developed to the point that they are qualified to be elders, what comes next? Elders must be appointed. After this, the congregation must work under their oversight. How does this work? And what about a congregation without qualified men to serve as elders? Let us consider these questions in this final lesson.

The Appointment of Elders

In order to serve as an elder, one must first be appointed to that position. While the New Testament does not provide a detailed step-by-step process to follow in these appointments, it does contain certain instructions and principles that help us determine how this is to be done.

The preacher’s role – Some brethren have assumed that since Paul told Titus (a preacher) to “appoint elders” (Titus 1:5), then it is exclusively the work of a preacher to do this. However, the New Testament does not teach that a preacher holds an office with special authority – he has simply devoted his life to the work of preaching (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:14). Through support and opportunities provided by brethren, a man may be able to “[devote] himself completely to the word” (Acts 18:5) as he preaches the gospel. But what a preacher does in appointing elders can be done by others who can capably teach the word of God.

The primary role of the preacher (or other teacher) in appointing elders is accomplished through teaching. Titus was to “appoint elders” (Titus 1:5) by teaching the qualifications for elders (Titus 1:6-9) because no one could be appointed without the brethren having a knowledge of the qualifications. So the preacher will teach the qualifications that are presented in the New Testament, but he does not have the responsibility of selecting the men or determining the qualifications himself.

Also, it should be noted that a preacher can serve as an elder. Paul made this clear in his first letter to Timothy: “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Those who oppose the concept of a preacher serving as an elder are adding to the word of God. The Scriptures are clear in condemning this (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18). Of course, it may be that a particular preacher is not qualified to be an elder; but it is not that fact that he is a preacher that disqualifies him.

In appointing elders, Paul warned Timothy not to appoint elders too hastily: “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others” (1 Timothy 5:22). Care must be taken that it is done right.

The Holy Spirit’s role – When Paul met with the elders from the church in Ephesus, he reminded them that the Holy Spirit put them in their position: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). The Holy Spirit still makes men elders today, but it is not done miraculously. Instead, it is done through the word. He was sent to “guide [the apostles] into all the truth” (John 16:13). We have the words which He revealed to them recorded for us in the New Testament. The qualifications for elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) came from above by the Holy Spirit. In this way, the Holy Spirit is involved in making men elders today.

The congregation’s role – The role of the congregation in appointing elders is not explicitly stated, but we can learn of its importance by implication. For example, consider the example of the appointment of the seven (Acts 6:1-6). The apostles explained the qualifications that were to be met by those who would be appointed; then they told the congregation, “Select from among you seven men” (Acts 6:3). After this, the “whole congregation…chose” the seven men that were to serve (Acts 6:5). They were presented to the apostles who then appointed them for the work and “put [them] in charge of this task” (Acts 6:6, 3).

In the same way, the congregation must select the men who will be appointed as elders. If they are to submit to them (Hebrews 13:17), then they must recognize them as being qualified to serve in that capacity. After the congregation selects the men, they ones selected will be confirmed as being qualified and then appointed to serve as elders (1 Timothy 5:22).

When a Congregation Has Elders

After qualified men are identified and appointed to serve as elders and they begin their work, there are certain responsibilities that the members of the local church have toward the elders. Let us notice these responsibilities.

The congregation must submit to them – Referring to their responsibility toward the elders, the Hebrew writer instructed his readers, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). As the elders’ duty is to oversee the congregation in spiritual matters, the members of the congregation have the responsibility to submit to them. Of course, this submission is dependent upon the elders’ first submitting to the Lord. Paul told the brethren in Corinth that they were not to follow him unconditionally; rather, he said, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). As Paul followed Christ, others could follow him. In the same way, as the elders rule in accordance with the word of God, the brethren in that local church are to submit to them.

However, we must not follow elders who will lead us away from the Lord. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that there would be some even among them that would do this: “From among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). This same thing can happen today. Paul told the brethren in Philippi, “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). However, if elders depart from the pattern found in the New Testament, we are no longer to follow them. In this case, Peter’s words before the Council apply: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

The congregation must honor them – Paul told Timothy, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Those who serve as elders in a local church have spent a lifetime developing the character and ability necessary for that work. Furthermore, they have willingly agreed to fulfill that role and carry out a work that is for our spiritual well-being. Because of this, we should honor these men. As Paul told the brethren in Thessalonica regarding those who “have charge over [them] in the Lord” (the elders), they were to “esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

However, as with the previous point, there is a disclaimer given in the Scriptures. Honoring elders does not mean we ignore sin that exists in the life of an elder. Paul was very clear in his instructions to Timothy that he was “not [to] receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). Because of the nature of the work, those who do the work of an elder will have people get angry with them and falsely accuse them. Therefore, we are not to hastily believe any accusations made against an elder because these accusations could possibly be coming from a disgruntled and bitter individual. However, there may be occasions when there is a legitimate charge brought against an elder. In those cases, if there are “two or three witnesses,” Paul said, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Paul explained why this was necessary – to keep others from following the erring elder into sin. Because of his position of influence, he could easily lead others astray if his sin was ignored. The responsibility to honor elders does not mean we ignore sin when it arises.

The congregation must pray for them – Prayers are to be “made on behalf of all men” (1 Timothy 2:1). However, it is especially important to pray for those who are doing work in the kingdom. This is why Paul told the Ephesians, “Pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). After the Hebrew writer said we are to obey and submit to our leaders/elders (Hebrews 13:17), he immediately requested prayers in carrying out God’s will (Hebrews 13:18). The need to pray for those involved in the Lord’s work is not limited to apostles or preachers – it is also necessary to pray for the elders. If our desire is that the elders would capably and faithfully carry out their work, then it is appropriate for us to pray for them in their work.

The congregation must work with them – Elders have an important work to do, but they are not to be the only ones working. All members are to be involved in the work of the church. Paul told the brethren in Ephesus, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Notice that the various “offices” in the church were designed to equip the saints to do the Lord’s work. A few verses later, Paul wrote, “From whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). Notice that Paul said that “each individual part” is to be working together to help the body to grow. Elders have their work to do. In doing their work, they serve as “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Those in the local church among them are to “imitate” them (Hebrews 13:7).

When a Congregation Does Not Have Elders

After considering the responsibilities of a congregation with elders, let us now notice the responsibilities of a congregation without elders.

The congregation must recognize that the church is lacking – A church can exist without elders, but it is not an ideal situation. Furthermore, the church is not complete without elders. This is why Paul told Titus, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you” (Titus 1:5, NKJV). If a church does not have elders, this should be a temporary condition, not a permanent one.

The congregation must desire to have elders – If the church is lacking without elders (Titus 1:5), then we should not be content in that state. It is God’s will for churches to have elders; therefore, it should be ours as well. Before His death, Jesus prayed to the Father, “Not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). This is an example for us showing that we must have the will of God as our highest priority. Not only that, but it is also for our benefit that the church has elders. Part of the elders’ responsibility is to “watch over your souls” (Hebrews 13:17). Elders are there to help us in our spiritual lives so that we can be what the Lord wants us to be. For these reasons, we should desire to have elders if the local church is currently without them.

The congregation must encourage the growth of each member – This should be done anyway, whether there are elders or not. Paul wrote, “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). But it is particularly important when a congregation does not have qualified men to serve as elders. In order to develop elders, Christian men who are husbands and fathers must continue to grow and mature. Local churches should work together to facilitate and encourage this growth so that these men may be qualified to serve as elders in the future.

The congregation must appoint elders when there are qualified men to serve – The qualifications for elders that are given in the New Testament are not suggestions; they “must be” met (1 Timothy 3:2). Therefore, elders should not be appointed hastily. Paul warned Timothy about doing this: “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others” (1 Timothy 5:22). It will be spiritually damaging to a congregation to appoint unqualified men to serve as elders. While we should desire to have elders, we should not appoint elders too quickly. At the same time, we should not delay unnecessarily when there are qualified men who can be appointed.

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