|Volume 22 Number 2 February 2020||
Louis Rushmore, Editor
If not now, when will congregations lay the groundwork for and progress to the appointment of elders and deacons in the Lord’s church? Every generation in every place where the church assembles, doubtlessly, Christians have faced the challenge of attaining spiritual growth. Such was the case in the first century, too.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. (Hebrews 5:12-6:2 NKJV)
First, we need to determine from Scripture if it is necessary for congregations to have elders and deacons. If God’s Word instructs congregations of the Lord’s church to appoint elders and deacons, then it is not optional.
Admittedly, the early church for a time did not have elders and deacons. The first mention in the New Testament of the presence of elders pertains to the church in Jerusalem. “This they also did, and sent it [benevolent contribution] to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:30). Possibly for the first 10 years after the establishment of the Lord’s church, there were no elders in local congregations. Furthermore, even after that, newly begun congregations existed for a time without elders. However, within a year or so, they, too, appointed elders and deacons. “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). Many passages thereafter mention elders in the churches (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:8; 1 Timothy 5:17; James 5:4; 1 Peter 5:1). Notice the address to elders and deacons in an epistle addressed to a New Testament congregation. “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops [elders] and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).
So far, though, we have examples of elders and deacons in the first century church. However, were churches then and are churches now required to have elders and deacons when qualified men and their wives are present in a congregation? There is no doubt at all that God expects fully organized congregations of the Lord’s church to be guided and served by elders and deacons. The apostle Paul wrote by inspiration, “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). Churches without elders are “lacking,” which means, “to not possess something which is necessary” (Greek-English Lexicon). “Lacking” also means “destitute”; churches without elders are destitute of biblically prescribed leadership. It is absolutely necessary for churches of Christ to appoint elders when men and their families exhibit conformity to biblical qualifications.
Two passages (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) specifically describe the qualifications that each man must possess who is under consideration to be an elder. In addition, a man’s wife and children must also possess specified qualities in order for the man to be qualified for appointment as an elder.
Summarized, the qualifications relative to the appointment of elders are these: desire, does not deserve to be rebuked, married to one woman, able to manage on behalf of God what belongs to God (i.e., souls, biblical teaching, property and money), exercises self-control, well-balanced and uses commonsense, shows good behavior, hospitable or benevolent, able and experienced in teaching God’s Word, not under the influence of intoxicants (e.g., drugs, alcohol), not quarrelsome, not a brawler, not hot tempered, not greedy for money, not abrasive, not a new Christian, respected by even non-Christians, has faithful children, not determined to have his own way on non-doctrinal things, loves what and who is good, fair and impartial, and right with God.
Likewise, especially two passages provide insight into the qualifications of deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13; Acts 6:1-6). Summarized, the qualifications relative to the appointment of deacons are these: honorable, not hypocritical, not greedy for money, having a morally clean conscience, experienced in serving, not worthy of rebuke, has an honorable wife, not a slanderer, abstaining from intoxicants or not acting as though intoxicated, faithful, married to one woman, controlling one’s children, and ruling his own home well.
Elders have responsibilities pertaining only to the congregation of which they are members and that appointed them to the eldership. Not individual elders but collectively as the eldership of a church, elders act and serve together. First, elders must police themselves (Acts 20:28). An eldership is responsible to God for the flock of God’s people over whom they have been appointed (Acts 20:28). Elders must “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:1-2 KJV). The eldership must take the oversight of the local church (1 Peter 5:2). They must present themselves as good examples to the church (1 Peter 5:3). The eldership must protect the local church from false teachers (Acts 20:29-30; Romans 16:17-18), and it must stop the mouths of idle talkers and deceivers (Titus 1:11). Elders need to support spiritually weak Christians (Acts 20:35). Especially elders ought to pray for and visit sick Christians (James 5:14). The eldership makes decisions for the local church (Acts 15:6). It is up to elders to select and appoint congregational teachers and preachers (1 Timothy 4:14). Importantly, elders must give an account to God for each soul of their congregation (Hebrews 13:17). An eldership is to a local congregation what a husband and a father is to his family. God organized both the church and the family to be guided by men who are accountable to Him.
The very nature of the work of deacons is in the Greek definition of the word translated as “deacon”; a deacon is a servant. Every Christian can and should serve in what ways he or she can, but deacons in the Lord’s church are especially appointed to serve the congregation. The first appointed servants in the early church about whom we can read appear in Acts 6:1-6. Deacons serve in physical matters concerning the local church, but they can also serve as teachers, too (Acts 6:5; 8:26-40).
Elders and deacons are not self-appointed. Instead, they are selected and appointed by members of the congregation that they will serve (Acts 6:3). The officiation of the selection for appointment may be conducted by a preacher (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Details or specifications regarding the method of selection or officiation of the appointment do not appear in Scripture. Therefore, a local church is left to its own decision on the process of identifying and officiation of the appointment of elders and deacons.
There are hindrances to the appointment of elders and deacons. First, if more than one Christian man and his family in a congregation does not prepare to acquire the desire and the qualifications regarding the eldership, the local church will never have qualified elders. Having unqualified men supposing that they are approved of God guiding a congregation is a sure recipe of spiritual disaster.
Secondly, some male members of a congregation may not want to have elders since they do not qualify for appointment as elders, and they do not want to lose their influence or control over the local church. Jesus told Peter once, “…Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23 NKJV). Attempting to resist for selfish reasons the biblical instruction to install elders in a congregation warrants the same rebuke by Jesus—“Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
Thirdly, preachers may be reluctant to groom men and their families for the appointment of elders and deacons. In the absence of elders, the most influential person in a local church is often the preacher, and he may not be willing to submit himself to an eldership. After all, the preacher may be the one who planted the congregation or at least was responsible for its spiritual and numerical growth, and so, he may find it difficult to surrender decision-making, etc. to others. Remember, though, Jesus said, “…Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
However, a preacher isn’t submitting to another man, even if he was responsible for the spiritual maturity of men appointed as elders. Rather, a preacher ought to sense rightful pride and a degree of success when he has led a local church to the maturity level of appointing qualified elders and deacons. Furthermore, he does not submit himself to a man but to the eldership—a plurality of biblically qualified men. Most importantly, he submits himself to God Himself when he contributes to the appointment of qualified men in a local congregation to be elders and deacons.
If not now, when will congregations lay the groundwork for and progress to the appointment of elders and deacons in the Lord’s church? A congregation is not completely organized in a biblical way without the appointment of elders and deacons. God requires fully organized congregations to appoint their own elders and deacons according to biblical qualifications.
Just as some planning is necessary to go on a trip, churches that would have elders and deacons must make some plans for the future appointment of elders and deacons. No one can arrive at some anticipated destination without first planning ahead to go there. Likewise, no congregation will have biblically qualified elders and deacons unless Christian families and the churches of Christ make adequate preparation.
Grow up in Christ. “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).
Greek-English Lexicon Based on Semantic Domain. CD-ROM. New York: United Bible Societies, 1988.