Churches Without Elders
Every student of the New Testament knows, or ought to know, that the apostles and early disciples of the Lord established churches without elders. The presumption is strong that that is the only kind of congregations they did establish. It was their practice to establish congregations, let them grow and develop over a period of some months (Acts 14) or perhaps years (Titus 1:5), and then appoint elders who had developed or grown up within the congregation. It should be apparent to any thinking student that prior to the appointment of such elders these churches were working, worshipping, and serving God as faithful New Testament congregations. The lack of elders in no way prevented their carrying on the functions and fulfilling the obligations of "churches of Christ."
In spite of this clear New Testament precedent, however, there is an idea prevalent in our day, and a very mischievous one, that no congregation of Christians can properly function without elders. Even though it is theoretically acknowledged by all that certain churches of the New Testament DID get along for a time without elders, there is still a feeling that we must have elders to oversee (or "sponsor") congregations in our day.- So deeply imbedded has this idea become that in some cities it is almost impossible to start a new congregation unless some eldership of a nearby church will agree to "sponsor" the new work. This in turn has led to the denominational concept of "missions" of congregations; congregations are established having 50, 75, or maybe a hundred members, yet because they do not have an eldership, are regarded as "missions" of the establishing or sponsoring congregation. In some instances the older congregation actually retains control and ownership of the property until such time as elders are appointed for the new congregation. Unless we are misinformed, the Broadway Church in Lubbock, Texas, even at this late date retains control of most of the church buildings in Germany in which the various congregations there are meeting. These are "missions" in reality, regardless of how much emphasis is given to their being "churches" in public statements and pronouncements.
The New Testament knows nothing about "missions." The disciples of the Lord established congregations, not missions. A church of two or three members is A CHURCH, not a mission. According to New Testament teaching it has absolute equality with every other congregation of Christians on the face of the earth. There are no first-class, second-class, and third-class churches of Christ. The Post Office Department of the United States Government may rate and classify its post-offices; but the Lord has made no such provision for classifying congregations.
This is one factor that has lain behind all the long discussion these past several years over "sponsoring" churches. Many brethren have seen, or thought they were seeing, in the "sponsoring church" idea the beginning of a departure from the New Testament pattern of equality of the churches. The concentration of resources, power, and authority in one congregation far above that of hundreds of other congregations contributing to the one central church has been a dangerous and ominous development. Regardless of how noble and lofty the aims and motives of those promoting the project (and who has questioned them?), the end result has been a pretty definite step away from the simple pattern of church equality as set forth in the New Testament.
There are four possible ways or conditions in which a church may exist — two of them right, two of them wrong.
1. A congregation may have scripturally qualified elders who have been appointed and who are serving. This is right; this is the goal which every faithful congregation eventually will reach.
2. A congregation may have no men within their membership who possess the scriptural qualifications to be elders. Such was the condition (at first) of the congregations mentioned in Acts 14; such was the condition of the churches in Crete (Titus 1) in which Titus was to appoint elders "IF" any man could be found having the qualifications Paul lists. If no such man could be found, the congregations would continue to function, serve, worship, and work as faithful churches without elders.
3. A congregation may have men who are recognized and serving as elders, but who are not possessed of the scriptural qualifications. This is wrong.
4. A congregation may have within its membership men who do possess the qualifications, but who, for one reason or another, are not serving; and hence the congregation is seeking to function without elders. This is clearly wrong. No congregation can be faithful to God and exist without elders IF qualified men are present within the congregation.
We have seen a few instances in the nation in which a church "swarmed" and started a new congregation and appointed elders for the new congregation from the very start. Sometimes this appointing has actually been done by the elders of the old congregation (which is always wrong), and sometimes it has been done by the members of the new congregation even before they begin meeting in their new place — which is usually wrong. It is far better to follow the New Testament example; let the congregation begin to meet, go along for a few months entirely free and independent of all outside influences, and then from within her own membership, select qualified men to serve as elders. She is no less a NeW Testament church before the selection than she is afterward. Her equality with other congregations of the Lord throughout the world is exactly the same before she has elders as it is after she has elders. The presence or absence of an eldership does not modify in any way the equality of congregations before the Lord. A human being is a human being at three months of age just as surely as one is a human being at thirty years of age. The fact that the younger of the two is without teeth or hair and is unable to stand alone or to talk does not make him one whit less a human being. In the eyes of the law of the land, and in the eyes of God, he is entitled to respect and honor as a human being just the same as is the older. He has not matured physically as has the other, but in time he will do so.
So it is with congregations. There is an EQUALITY among them that must be recognized and maintained. And no eldership ever has any authority over the affairs of another congregation, regardless of how weak and young and helpless the new group may be or appear.
— F. Y. T.