I was at a Labour Day conference a couple weeks ago (you know... on Labour Day). I met some lovely new people there, which is always a joy. One of the gentlemen I met is a brother with whom I chatted for several hours. I think I freaked him out a little when I mentioned that elders aren't for today.
I wasn't trying to freak him out.
So I thought I'd write something about that. Not to prove to you, my one reader, that I'm right; but so that I can refer to this in the future. Now, here's the problem: this is a really big subject. It's a big subject, and it deserves careful consideration.
What Scripture commands
The first consideration whenever we think about an issue of church order is, "What does Scripture command?" Now, a lack of a Scriptural command isn't the same as Scriptural prohibition. We can't say, for example, that since Scripture doesn't command potluck dinners, they're forbidden. Similarly, if Scripture doesn't command us to appoint elders, it doesn't follow that it's a sin to do so. On the other hand, if Scripture positively commands something, then the question is settled.
So we ask, what does Scripture command concerning elders? The answer is simple: there is no command in Scripture for any church, assembly, or gathering to choose elders.
Don't let's forget that a lack of command is not the same thing as prohibition. We can't say that it's forbidden for an assembly to choose elders, but we can say positively that it's not commanded.
But it does raise a very important question: when Scripture doesn't command something, should we do it? Or, put another way, if Scripture is silent on something, why would we think we ought to do it? This is a question we'll try and answer in more detail. Let's leave that as an open question for the moment.
The gentleman with whom I spoke at the conference doesn't believe an assembly ought to appoint a pastor. (I mean here, not "pastor" in the sense of "shepherd", but "pastor" in the sense of a clergyman.) So I asked him, why not? Scripture doesn't actually forbid appointing a pastor, just like it doesn't actually forbid appointing elders. What is the difference? Why do you think one is acceptable but the other isn't?
Because, he said, it doesn't fit the New Testament pattern.
So let's discuss the "New Testament Pattern".
The "New Testament Pattern"
There are a great many Christians who talk about the "New Testament Pattern". By that they mean there is a pattern in Scripture for how the church was to function. So they search through Scripture, looking for how the church operated. We commend them for searching the Scriptures, but they make a dangerous assumption: they assume what Scripture describes about the early church is a de facto command for us today. They confuse the descriptive with the prescriptive.
This is essentially an appeal to precedent. If they see the New Testament church doing something, then they see a precedent for us to do the same thing. In fact, I've actually heard one preacher talk about "the mandate in Acts 2:42". Let's consider that for a minute: what's the mandate in Acts 2:42?
And they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers. Acts 2:42Simple answer: there is no mandate in Acts 2:42. There is no command given in this verse, it's simply a statement of what the early church did. But this preacher has taken the statement of what the early church did as a command for what churches today ought to do. Obviously there are some pretty huge hermeneutical problems with this approach.
What is the precedent?
But for the sake of argument, let's assume we can treat the early church as a precedent. Let's examine what Scripture has to tell us about the appointment of elders in the early church.
We see the appointment of elders exactly once in Scripture:
21 And having announced the glad tidings to that city, and having made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, 22 establishing the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to abide in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. 23 And having chosen them elders in each assembly, having prayed with fastings, they committed them to the Lord, on whom they had believed Acts 14:21–23In this case, it was Paul and Barnabas who chose elders "in each assembly."
There is also the case of Titus in Crete. Scripture doesn't record that he chose elders, but clearly he was told to do so:
5 For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou mightest go on to set right what remained [unordered], and establish elders in each city, as *I* had ordered thee: 6 if any one be free from all charge [against him], husband of one wife, having believing children not accused of excess or unruly. Titus 1:4–5We might notice a difference here from the events recorded in Acts 14. Titus was told to appoint elders "in each city", Paul and Barnabas appointed elders "in each assembly". This isn't a contradiction: Scripture uniformly presents only one gathering in each city. I don't take that to mean there was only one place the Christians gathered, but that all the Christians in a city were seen as one gathering, regardless of how many places they gathered.
What we don't see in Scripture is that any gathering chose their own elders. Either the Apostles appointed them, or they sent someone to appoint them. The idea that a gathering would choose elders for itself is entirely foreign to Scripture.
So the "pattern" isn't that assemblies chose elders for themselves: the "pattern" is that outsiders came along and appointed elders in each assembly. In every single case in Scripture elders are appointed by outsiders to an assembly. It's difficult to argue that we're following "the New Testament Pattern" in having elders unless we have Apostles coming through town, appointing them, and leaving. That's the New Testament pattern.
Choosing and recognizing
"But wait!" someone says, "we don't choose elders, we recognize the elders the Lord has chosen! That's what Acts 20:28 teaches!"
Let's consider that:
28 Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, wherein the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the assembly of God, which he has purchased with the blood of his own. Acts 20:28At first glance that seems like there might be something to that claim. If the Holy Spirit put the elders in the assembly, then maybe Paul and Barnabas didn't actually choose them: maybe Paul and Barnabas just pointed out the elders the Holy Spirit had already put into the assembly.
There is a compelling reason to reject this view: the Word of God explicitly says that Paul and Barnabas chose the elders (Acts 14:23). It doesn't say they "recognized" elders, it says they "chose" them. The fact is that "recognizing" elders has absolutely no Scriptural basis. There isn't a single place where Scripture says anyone "recognized" elders. Paul and Barnabas "chose" elders, Titus "established" elders.
So no, Acts 20:28 doesn't teach that God put elders in the assembly and Paul and Barnabas just "recognized" them. Acts 14:23 explicitly contradicts this interpretation. And it sure doesn't imply that God put elders anywhere else, just waiting to be recognized.
To whom is Acts 20 written?
I've noticed people who talk about the "New Testament Pattern" like to talk a lot about Acts 20:17–38. That makes a certain amount of sense: Paul's discourse to the Ephesian elders gives us a lot of insight into his relationship to them, their relationship to the assembly in Ephesus, and their responsibilities to the Lord. But in the end, Acts 20 isn't a discourse on proper church order. Acts 20:17–38 is Paul's farewell address to the elders at Ephesus. It's not Paul's address to the elders in Philippi, or the elders in Lystra, or the elders in Chicago.
In Acts 20:28, Paul states "the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers" in the assembly. There are many who'd try and apply that verse to elders in an assembly today, but that's nonsense, and demonstrably so. Let's consider the verse in context. Paul begins his talk with the Ephesian elders by reminding them of their relationship:
18 And when they were come to him, he said to them, *Ye* know how I was with you all the time from the first day that I arrived in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all lowliness, and tears, and temptations, which happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I held back nothing of what is profitable, so as not to announce [it] to you, and to teach you publicly and in every house, 21 testifying to both Jews and Greeks repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 20:18–21Now, can we honestly say that applies to any elders in any assembly, church, or congregation in America? Of course not! And yet the "you" in these verses is exactly the same as the "you" in v. 28. If we can't apply the "you" in these verses to elders in a gathering today, then we can't apply the "you" in v. 28 to them either.
What about the verses after v. 28?
31 Wherefore watch, remembering that for three years, night and day, I ceased not admonishing each one [of you] with tears. Acts 20:31Do we really think Paul spent three years, night and day, with the elders of any assembly today? Of course not!
Paul was speaking specifically to the elders from Ephesus, whom he called to Miletus to see him off. Whatever he said about the Ephesian elders, there's no reason to believe it's true of any other group of men. This is obvious if we consider v. 31, where Paul says he spent three years among them. If v. 31 isn't true of the elders in my city, why should I think v. 28 is?
Now, let me make an important point: if we were to say that Paul's commands to the elders in Ephesus apply to elders today, that might be arguable. But to say his statements about elders in Ephesus apply to someone today is a stretch.
There's no reason at all to believe that Paul's words about the Ephesian elders are applicable to anyone other than the Ephesian elders. He was specifically addressing a group of men that he knew personally. There is a lot we can learn from Acts 20, but to imagine that verse 28 (or any other verse) applies to anyone other than the elders in Ephesus is ridiculous.
1 Timothy 3
"But what about 1 Timothy 3?" someone might interrupt, "Doesn't that give us criteria for appointing elders?"
That's a good question. Before we consider 1 Timothy 3, let's remember to look at the context of the chapter. How does 1 Timothy start?
3 Even as I begged thee to remain in Ephesus, [when I was] going to Macedonia, that thou mightest enjoin some not to teach other doctrines, 4 nor to turn their minds to fables and interminable genealogies, which bring questionings rather than [further] God's dispensation, which [is] in faith. 1 Timothy 1:3–4So Paul is writing to Timothy, and Timothy is in Ephesus. Ephesus... didn't we just read about Ephesus in Acts 20? Didn't we just learn that Paul had spoken to the elders in Ephesus? Yes he did... so why does 1 Timothy contain "qualifications" for elders, if there were already elders in Ephesus?
This isn't a trivial question. This is a really, really important question. This is a question that I've never heard anyone, anywhere ask. If there were already elders in Ephesus, why does Paul send Timothy the criteria for elders?
The general assumption seems to be that he was telling Timothy how to choose elders. But there were already elders in Ephesus! So if we take 1 Timothy 3 as being written so that Timothy could choose elders, then we have to conclude that even where there were existing elders, there was a need for an outsider to appoint their replacements. Even though there were elders in Ephesus who were appointed by the Apostle, it was Timothy who was given the criteria to choose elders in Ephesus.
But I suspect the general assumption is wrong. I suspect that 1 Timothy 3 wasn't written to tell Timothy how to choose [more] elders: I think it was written so that Timothy would know how to exhort the elders in Ephesus. Timothy was left in Ephesus to "enjoin some not to teach other doctrines" (v. 3). He was left there to make sure the Ephesians didn't depart from the Apostolic teachings. I think chapter 3 was given so that he'd be able to correct the elders in Ephesus.
No matter how you look at it, it's a really long stretch to think that 1 Timothy 3 gives us the green light to appoint elders. Timothy, an Apostolic appointment to Ephesus, was sent to an assembly where there were already elders, and given the qualifications (or "characteristics", if you prefer) of an elder. It's difficult to imagine how this might give us the authority to appoint elders today.
The New Testament pattern, revisited
We've considered several passages about elders. What is interesting, though, is what those passages tell us about the practices of the New Testament church.
I mentioned earlier that I was speaking with someone who said it's all right to appoint elders, but not clergymen, because of the "New Testament Pattern." That's an increasingly difficult point to argue... let's consider it. 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Corinthians present three very different "patterns" to us.
1 Timothy 1:3–4 tells us Paul left Timothy in Ephesus (where there were already elders) to ensure they didn't veer from Apostolic doctrine. So what does that pattern look like? The pattern in 1 Timothy is something like this: there is one person (an outsider) and the elders of the assembly report to him. His job is to make sure the locals don't depart from the Apostolic teaching, and he is (individually) given the criteria for elders. Maybe he appointed more elders, maybe he didn't. But that's the pattern we can deduce from 1 Timothy.
The situation in Titus is a little different: like Timothy, he was an outsider sent to take care of problems in the assemblies. But unlike Timothy, he was sent not to a single city, but to an island with several cities. So the pattern we might deduce from Titus is that there ought to be a single person over several assemblies.
Corinth is an interesting case study: there are two Epistles written to Corinth, and neither one mentions elders at all. There were some real problems at Corinth: there were problems of church order, there were moral problems, there were personal problems. But there's not one mention of elders. They are completely silent on the subject. They talk about a lot of things: they address the Lord's Supper and excommunication and who can talk in the meetings. But they don't mention elders.
So we might find a third pattern in the Corinthian epistles: there the pattern is an assembly without elders. Perhaps there were elders in Corinth and the epistles simply don't address them. We really don't know for sure, but if we're looking for a pattern, 1 Corinthians entirely omits elders.
Now, I don't point this out simply to be contentious. There are at least three "patterns" in Scripture, and there are genuine, sincere Christians who have attempted to model churches after all of them. We might say that Titus provides the pattern for episcopalianism, where a bishop is over the clergymen in several cities in a region. We might consider 1 Timothy as a pattern for presbyterianism, where there are many elders in an assembly, but one takes the lead over the others as the "teaching elder".
But of course there is a problem with these approaches: they each look in Scripture to find a pattern, and they attempt to follow them. But they find different patterns. I'm suggesting this is because the Lord never intended us to find a pattern. Scripture contains ample instruction in its explicit commands: there's no need to look for a pattern. There's no need to look to implication and inference when we've explicit instruction.
So what about elders, then?
When we look in Scripture, we don't see a very consistent pattern. The assembly in Jerusalem had elders, but we have no record where they came from. We can assume they were men of stature and renown in the Jewish community before they converted to Christianity, but we just don't know for sure. We're sure there were elders in Ephesus (Acts 20 makes this very clear), and we're sure Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in Iconium, Lystra, and Antioch. Titus was sent to appoint elders in every city in Crete, but Scripture doesn't say he actually did it (I assume he did). But there are other assemblies with no mention of elders at all, like Corinth.
I don't think it was ever intended that elders should be a fixture in the assembly. Elders were a temporary provision for the church until the canon of Scripture was completed. There aren't Apostles anymore: the Apostles were strictly a transitional feature of the church. Elders are exactly the same, a transitional provision for the church in its infancy.
I oppose appointing elders in the assembly for the same reason I oppose appointing clergy. Scripture doesn't actually condemn appointing clergy, just like it doesn't actually condemn appointing elders. But it was an Apostolic function to set up authority in the assembly: it wasn't a democratic process. We ought not take to ourselves the right to appoint authorities in the House of God.
The Apostles didn't follow a very consistent pattern, because they were following the Spirit of God. We notice Paul paid a lot of attention to Ephesus in particular: he spent three years there himself, then he gave the elders there severe warnings when he left, and then he sent Timothy to take care of that assembly. Interestingly, Ephesus is also the first assembly that's addressed in Revelation 2. It's one assembly (along with Laodicea) we know for sure received epistles from both Paul (Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy) and John (Revelation 2). Ephesus seems to have been the center of the church on earth, in a way. It's significant that Paul predicted apostasy would arise among the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29). And it's in Ephesus that the judgment of the House of God begins (Revelation 2–3).
We observed already that 1 Corinthians makes no mention of elders. This is interesting insofar as 1 Corinthians deals with an assembly with very serious problems. But at no point is there the suggestion that the solution to the problem is leadership. If there were elders in Corinth, the epistle doesn't tell them to demonstrate leadership in the assembly. If there weren't, it doesn't suggest the Corinthians appoint (or even "recognize") elders to help them solve their problems. There seems to be a lot of people who are prescribing "strong leadership" as a solution to assembly problems, but at least the epistles to the Corinthians do not.
What should we take from this? Very simply, there is no reason to believe that elders are a necessity in an assembly. In fact, there is no reason to believe that elders are the solution to assembly problems. Let's consider that Paul told the elders in Ephesus:
32 And now I commit you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build [you] up and give [to you] an inheritance among all the sanctified Acts 20:32When elders were being appointed in the New Testament, the canon wasn't complete. But even then, it was to "God and the word of His grace" that Paul committed the Ephesian elders.
Now we have the completed Scriptures: we have what the Ephesian elders didn't have. But we have what Paul said was the appropriate resource for believers in the face of trouble.
What do others think?
It's obvious that the vast majority of Christians don't take this view on elders. The majority of churches practice some form of clergy or another, and even those that don't generally practice some form of appointed eldership. The gentleman I spoke with the other week thought it would be wrong to have a "pastor", but was convinced an assembly should have elders. I think this is a common take on the subject.
But let me point out that I am in good company. William Kelly, C. H. Mackintosh, and J. N. Darby all held the same view on elders I've laid out here. That doesn't mean I'm right, but it does mean what I'm about to say was held and argued by careful and respected students of the Word of God.
William Kelly argued the case persuasively in his comments on Acts 14:
(William Kelly, Introductory Lectures on the Acts, available at STEM Publishing)
It is vain to deny or parry the importance of this decision of scripture on the subject of presbyters. Not infrequently there is an attack made on those who really desire to follow the word of God, by men who ask, "Where are your elders? You profess to follow scripture faithfully: how is it that you have not elders?" To such I would answer, "When you provide apostles to choose elders for us, we shall be exceedingly obliged for both." How can we have elders appointed according to scripture unless we have apostles or their delegates? Where are the men now who stand in the same position before God and the assembly as Paul and Barnabas? You must either have apostles, or at the very least apostolic men such as Timothy and Titus; for it is quite evident that merely to call people elders does not make them such. Nothing would be easier than to bestow the title of elders within a sect, or for the law of the land to sanction it. Any of us could set ourselves up, and do the work in name, no doubt; but whether there would be any value in the assumption, or whether it would not be really great sin, presumption, and folly, I must leave to the consciences of all to judge.
Thus we know with divine certainty that the elders were chosen for the disciples by the apostles in every church. Such is the doctrine of scripture, and the fact as here described. It is evident therefore, that unless there be duly qualified persons whom the Lord has authorised for the purpose, and in virtue of their most singular relation to the assembly, — unless there be such persons as apostles, or persons representing apostles in this particular, there is no authority for such appointment: it is mere imitation. And in questions of authority it must be evident that imitation is just as foolish as where it is a question of power. You cannot imitate the energy of the Spirit except by sin, neither can you arrogate the authority of the Lord without rebellion against Him. Notwithstanding, I do not doubt that this is often done with comparatively good — let us conceive the best — intentions on the part of many, but with very great rashness and inattention to the word of God. Hence those are really wrong, not to say inexcusable, who assume to do the work that apostles or their delegates alone could do, not such as content themselves with doing their own duty, and refuse a delicate and authoritative task to which they are not called of the Lord.
What, then, is the right thing? All that we can say is, that God has not been pleased, in the present broken state of the church, to provide all that is desirable and requisite for perpetuating everything in due order. Is this ever His way when things are morally ruined? Does He make provision to continue what dishonoured Him? So far from contrariety in this to the analogy of His dealings, it seems to me quite according to them. There was no such state of things in Israel in the days of the returned captives, as in the days of the Exodus, but Nehemiah was just as truly raised up of God for the return from Babylon, as Moses was for the march out of Egypt. Still the two conditions were quite different, and the mere doing by Nehemiah what Moses did would have been ignorance of his own proper place. Such imitation would have possessed no power, and would have secured no blessing.
And Kelly points out what really is at stake here: we don't want to play church. We want to gather as closely as we can to what we see in Scripture. The problem is, imitating the historical record of Acts is not really gathering according to Scripture. It has a good appearance, that's true. But there is a world of difference between having a "correct" form and having godly power. Scripture warns against having form without power (2 Timothy 3:5), but that is what modern appointment of elders amounts to.
J. N. Darby's rejection of the appointment of elders is much more difficult to read, but is very similar (although not identical) to Kelly's. I'd recommend starting with "On Gifts and Offices in the Church", if you're interested. His rejection of the idea that we have elders today is more fully developed in "Examination of a few passages of Scripture, etc.", but I'll caution you that it's a lot harder reading:
(J. N. Darby, "Examination of a few passages of Scripture, etc.", available at STEM Publishing).
Whence comes the authority you pretend to in the house of God? How would you exercise it towards any one who might dispute it? When such men as Paul, Timothy (if it was so in his case), and Titus had with apostolical authority established elders in the churches, if the authority of these elders were disputed, it was disputing the apostolical authority that had placed them there. But as regards you, who made you elders? Except it be with revolutionists, authority flows from authority. Thus it was in the Church. Christ named apostles. The apostles named elders. Who is it that named you? Who is it that communicated to you your authority? You know, and you cannot deny, that the apostles and their special delegates established elders at the beginning. You ask for proof "that this was forbidden to any others." Is it thus that one can assume authority? If the right of naming public functionaries was exercised by the king in a state of which he was the sovereign, could each one name as he chose, over a small portion of the citizens, because there was nothing in the laws declaring that none else had a right to make them? Who would listen to such nonsense? Well! it is much more serious and much worse to do so in the things of God. One would not dare to say or to do such things in human society. Alas! one dares everything in the Church of God.
Now, I don't in any way wish to give the impression that Kelly, Darby, or anyone else is the test of truth. Scripture is the test of truth. But I want to illustrate that I'm in very good company when I say that elders aren't for today.
The subject of elders isn't a simple one. There is some disagreement about what the correct practice is for us today. I am convinced the practice of appointing elders today is based on faulty exposition of Scripture. I'm convinced when we look at Scripture in context, it doesn't at all teach we have the authority– or the need– to appoint elders.
But I would hasten to add this caution: the path of the Christian is a path of submission. There is a tendency for us to want to throw off all authority, and no doubt the idea that we ought not to have elders today appeals to the flesh for this reason. We might like the idea that there's no authority in the assembly. But that's a wrong idea: there is a divine Head over the church, and we are to submit to Him.
Elders or not, we are "legitimately subject to Christ" (1 Corinthians 9:21). We're not called to lawlessly go about, not bowing to anyone. We're called to be subject to Christ. We're called to submit to one another. It would be much, much better for a believer to submit to elders– or even clergymen– than to adopt a high-handed attitude that "you're not the boss of me!"
Self-will is sin.
The problem with the appointment of elders is that it's effectively usurping authority in the House of God. If we reject the one usurpation only to replace it with another (our own self-will), we're worse off in every way.