The Beginnings of Christian Reform (21)

The Necessity for Church Elders                                                                                                                          

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you… (Titus 1:5)

Elders are the fundamental local church government in the Bible. With deacons at the second tier of government, the elders are responsible for the church and its activities.

The New Testament is predicated on the idea that local elders will rule the local church (see Mat.18:15-20; I Cor.6:1-7; III Jn. 9-10). Biblical leadership has always been about corporate responsibility under God, since Jethro advised Moses to “select out of all the people able men who fear God…” (Ex.18:21). This practice was confirmed when God said to Moses, “Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads” (Deut.1:13).

Because God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, complexity is not a threat to Him. He can decentralize authority to man without any fear of losing His sovereignty. The same pattern is mandated for man: the willingness to decentralize, to delegate authority. By delegating authority, men reap the benefits of the division of labour. Others are given opportunities to serve in a leadership capacity. The talents of more men are called forth by a system of rules that allows those with skills to rise in the hierarchy.[1]

The pastoral “one-man-band” so common today (and frequently a means of inefficiency, neglect, nepotism and abuse) is an historical anomaly, not a scriptural pattern. In my experience, these pastors frequently rush from one half-finished challenge to the next. They are experiencing the very problem Moses encountered, and need to quickly accept Jethro’s ancient advice (see Ex.18:12-27). Elders are to function in corporate transparency and accountability, “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21). 

Moses agreed to accept Jethro’s suggestion. He must have recognized the truth of Jethro’s warning. There was not enough time and not enough Moses to provide justice to the entire nation. The burden of delayed justice would oppress the people. Meanwhile, Moses would waste away. And after he was dead, where would the people receive justice? Who would then render perfect justice? Better to train up a generation of judges in preparation for the transition. Better to establish a tradition of imperfect judges rendering imperfect justice on a widespread basis. Swift imperfect State justice is preferable to delayed perfect justice.[2]

Scriptural ambition among elders (I Tim.3:1) is legitimate, but those who seek autonomous power and position in the church for their own sake are to be avoided, to protect the church from wolves. This is selfish ambition (see James 4:16; Ro.2:8) and is forbidden. Those willing to accept responsibility can be safely given it, for power flows to those that take responsibility.

What distinguishes Biblical dominion religion from satanic power religion is ethics. Is the person who seeks power doing so for the glory of God, and for himself secondarily, and only to the extent that he is God’s lawful and covenantally faithful representative? If so, he will act in terms of God’s ethical standards and in terms of profession of faith in the God of the Bible.[3]

Elders should be elected and chosen by those they represent. Paul’s instructions to Titus to ensure that elders were selected, did not preclude them being chosen by local congregations. Descriptions of elders’ qualifications and motivation are found in I Tim.3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9, and I Pet.5:1-4.

The office of elder has, among its qualifications, the ability to teach, and the ability to rule (I Tim.3:2-5). Significantly, the tie to the origin of the office remains. The elder was originally and always a man who ruled a household; hence, in Israel, a ruler (and all rulers were in a real sense elders) had to be a married man, a man tested in authority and government. St Paul restated this qualification as an inescapable fact, “for if a man not know how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (I Tim.3:5). The office of elder required a family-centred society.[4]

Preaching and teaching, church administration, the oversight of the tithe monies and wages, property and buildings, evangelism, missions, charity and care for the poor and needy (see Acts 6), relationship with other churches and countless other duties, are all part of the elders’ or deacon’s tasks.

The pastoral work of the church must be overseen by the elders, and a pastor’s authority must never place him above the elders. Some or all of the elders in the church may function in a pastoral capacity.

The 5-fold ministries of Eph.4:11-12, who may be trans-local or international in their scope, are commonly elders in subjection to their local brethren, for at the elders’ door is a sign: The buck stops here.

Two general areas must be addressed if the church is to regain her role in society. These are the areas of government and worship. The church must once again become a genuine government, with her own courts, but for this to have any social impact the various churches must recover a genuine commitment to catholicity in practice.[5]

Church courts (which Paul seems to hint at in I Cor.6:1-7) are an essential part of what the elders must oversee. The function of these courts is to primarily oversee, administer and mediate disputes between believers and churches, to prevent them having to seek judgment from unbelievers.

The fact is that there are differences between believers: there always have been.

Greek Christians struggled with Hebrew Christians (Acts 6). The New Testament church dealt with serious conflicts at a conference at Jerusalem (Acts 15). Paul challenged Peter over his prejudice in Galatians 2, and Paul and Barnabas disagreed so seriously over John Mark that they separated (Acts 15). Tribes, brothers, cities, religious subdivisions, disciples-all had conflicts.[6]

The Bible warns us that “because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil” (Eccles.8:11). As Matthew Poole wrote, “justice must not be denied or delayed.”[7]

There is every reason to believe that church courts could also take responsibility for rendering judgment between unbelievers, using Biblical law as a guide. This is particularly the case when the wheels of justice in society’s courts are slow, expensive, corrupt or unjust. There would also be opportunity to render judgment between unions and employers, and in many other aspects of civil life.

Many times, society’s court cases can run to phenomenal expense, and time. I know of one expensive libel case that recently ran for fourteen years, and the outcome was only a public apology. The only beneficiaries were the lawyers. Most protagonists would appreciate a quick settlement at minimal cost. Criminal cases however, would need to be heard in criminal courts.

Those seeking the judgment of the church’s court could be required to sign a document requiring them to accept the court’s decision, beforehand. There should also be an appeals mechanism; no court system has ever been infallible.

When the church is being called upon to consistently render justice in the community again, its authority will become significant indeed. This is an aspect of the Lord’s promise of Isa.2:3, and means the church has an opportunity to use Biblical law as a means of evangelism and dominion.

God established a law in Israel that would be a beacon to the nations: “So keep and do [the statutes and judgments], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear these statutes and say, ‘surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the Lord our God whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” (Deut.4:6-8).[8]

Conclusion:                                                                                                                                        One of the ways that the authority of Jesus Christ can be seen in the world, is through the sound government, pastoral care and administration of the church, through competent church elderships.

After God, the elders’ first responsibility is to the church, and to “shepherd the flock of God among you…” (I Pet.5:2). But the role of the church is a manifold one, including ministries of evangelism, teaching, charity, welfare, hospitality and justice in the community. Thus the elders on behalf of the church of Jesus Christ, have an almost unlimited opportunity for influence in the world.

Because the saints were called to manage or govern the world, very quickly it became their purpose to move into positions of authority and power…the elders, as officers of a law, God’s law, are thus called to apply the law of God to every sphere of life.[9]

[1] Gary North, “Inheritance and Dominion,” 1999, ch.3

[2] ibid.

[3] Gary North, “Moses and Pharoah,” 1985, p.2.

[4] Rousas Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law,” 1980, p.741.

[5] James Jordan, “The Sociology of the Church,” 1987, p.1.

[6] Buzzard, L. 7 Eck, L., “Tell it to the Church: Reconciling out of Court,” p.22. Quoted in Gary DeMar, “God and Government,” Vol.3, 2001, p.179.

[7] Poole, M., “A Commentary on the Holy Bible,” Vol.1, p.384.

[8] Gary DeMar, “God and Government,” Vol. 2, 2001, p.210.

[9] Rushdoony, p.742.