Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 3, 1961
NUMBER 13, PAGE 10-11

Some Thoughts On The Eldership Problem

Bill Dudley, Las Vegas, Nevada

Especially in the West there seems to be wide-spread acceptance of the de facto reality of congregations without elders. That is a curious situation, and is approximately equal to claiming that we have businesses but no managers, or organizations without leaders. Such things just do not happen — and all congregations have "elders" whether or not we acknowledge the truth of their eldership. In every congregation, men are functioning as elders and it does not in the long run make a particle of difference (from a practical standpoint) if we give them the title "elder" or not. However, from a religious standpoint it does matter. Try as we will, cannot effectively get around troublesome passages such as Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5. As usual, we find that the Bible throws cold water on our arrangements — whenever we try to do things "our" way rather than following scriptural command and example.

Time and again, we hear it said that "so-and-so" is not qualified to be an "elder" and then we immediately observe him going busily about the performance of the duties reserved for elders in the Book. If a man is not fit to be an elder, then by definition he is not fit to carry on the duties of the office. In the business world, we are not so paradoxical; if a man is unsuited for the job of police officer, then we effectively isolate him from the duties of that office, and do not permit him to go about enforcing the law. We do not permit him to become a police officer in fact, after we have ascertained that he is unfit for the position by law. That would seem absurd to us in the every day, but in matters having to do with our souls we are, as usual, not so demanding.

One congregation in the Golden West has been in existence for about fifteen years, and for the last seven or so has been pretty well guided and controlled by four or five men. Those men are elders (in practice) in every sense of the word, and good ones, too. Their leadership is accepted — almost without question — by the congregation. The only thing lacking is the formal acknowledgment that these men are elders and have been carrying on the business of that high calling for years. Why then do they not get the obvious recognition due them? That is a good question, but unfortunately there is no ready answer. Probably the simplest — and most painful — retort would have to do with the "rebelliousness of the congregation and its "stiff-necked" determination not to give in to clear scriptural authority on the matter. The congregation has "decided" that elders are not needed and prefers to operate with a kind of "Board of Directors." It would appear that the congregation in question does not consider 1 Peter 5:2 to be very important and has agreed to ignore that and other annoying passages.

We always have "elders" because "elders" are nothing more or less than the "natural leaders" of the congregation. Anywhere that a number of the Lord's people come together on a regular basis, some of the group are going to assume the leadership and these should in time be developed as elders. In that way the body can follow the commands of the Master regarding organization. And, every efficient organization on earth follows the Biblical plan. The rise of Godless Nikita Khrushchev to be Czar of all the Russians is due to the working of the principles of natural leadership. When we refuse to follow divine command on the eldership, we are depriving ourselves of the best means of carrying out our primary mission to carry the Gospel to the world. If we are doing a poor job in many places, it is because in many places we have a poor and unscriptural organization in our congregations. If a congregation does not have recognized scriptural elders, then that congregation is to that extent in error.

Certainly there are hypothetical situations that could give us much over which to ponder. What if we were to have a congregation made up only of women? Would then some of the women be elders? What do you think? And the idea of such a congregation is not altogether beyond belief. In the frozen slave camps of the Soviet Union are so-called isolation areas for women political prisoners. The guards are also women, and mere males are involved only in the administration for the Ministry of State Security which nuns the camps. Thus we might have Christian women isolated for many years from any of the brethren. It is possible that today such congregations of the Saints are meeting in that land where "tears turn to ice." Would we deny that their groups are congregations?

You can imagine other complex and weird situations. But one fact remains: we will not imagine any complications that would prevent Christians from following the commands that have come down to us. And let us all be careful about drawing up sets of rules or schemes that will conflict with the Book. This would be especially true in some matter of grave importance, such as the problem of elders over every congregation. If your congregation has no elders, then by whom is the work of the church directed in your area?

We not only need to study the question, a lot of us need to do something about it. How much longer can this or that congregation go hobbling along under a helter-skelter system of leadership and in direct disobedience to the Lord's command? It is strange that we are so sensitive about some errors, and so willing to accept others with nonchalance. We would dis-fellowship a man for playing a banjo as accompaniment to our singing. We are not nearly so excited about men taking over the flock on an impromptu basis and going about "lording it over God's heritage" (1 Peter 5:3) without any scriptural authority for their actions.

In the final analysis, a congregation cannot fulfill its many responsibilities without having elders. There must be men of honor, with the respect of the membership, who can lead, guide, and counsel in the day-to-day struggle to live the Christian life and carry on the work. Besides, it is not up to us by any stretch of the imagination. The Lord has commanded that congregations be led by elders, and has gone into detail as to the qualifications of such men, so that we see and know those within our congregations who possess the traits that fit men to be leaders of God's people.

What must an elder be? See 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-14. Those qualifications may displease and disappoint many of us. That is too bad, because the Lord provided them. The requirement about 20/20 vision has grounded many a budding jet-pilot. How much more inflexible are the rules of God!

The Bible certainly counsels elders to rule wisely (see Hebrews 13:7) but it also makes clear that such men are in charge. In Romans 12:8 the Book uses the word Proistamenos for elders. The word to the un-lettered Greek of today means "Boss" and in the best sense of that haphazardly used word, the elders are the "Bosses" of the congregation.

Elders have a great responsibility and Acts 20:28 cautions them about their conduct. They are to feed the church (Heb. 13:7) and lead in faith. They can only carry out their appointed tasks if given deserved recognition. Only in the church would we attempt to get people to do jobs without even admitting that they were so engaged. As a people, we always have a variety of "reasons" ready to explain our short-comings, and no doubt there are numerous explanations as to how a congregation can follow the Book and still have elders who are unseen and unknown. But as a frustrated chaplain said during World War II, after listening to various soldiers explain why they could not come to services, "Don't ever try the feeble excuses on your first sergeant that you use on your God!"

To carry the gospel to lost and dying men, we need all of the help that we can get. It is tragic to add the burden of unscriptural organization. The Lord's plan is to have elders over every congregation; presumably he was aware that we would have eight thousand reasons for not doing so. Nevertheless, he did not leave any convenient loop-holes; unless we wish to claim that we cannot read. Once there was an applicant for employment who found, on his application, the following question: "Have you ever been arrested?" The man answered "no" and was quite upset when the police turned in an opposite report. After squirming for some time, he stated rather sheepishly that he had "not understood" the question, and had not realized that a mere arrest for "assault and battery" need be mentioned. At that point, the prospective employer indignantly ripped the application to shreds, saying, "In any case, you are too stupid for the job. If you cannot read and understand the application, you obviously could not handle the job."

As someone said long ago, many of us "need an expurgated version of the Bible" with such difficult scriptures as Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 deleted. With help of that nature, we would soon be able to operate more "according to the heart's desire" and with less concern for the wishes of the Lord. But that is not true because we really do want to follow the Lord — even in the eldership problem.