Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 3, 1961
NUMBER 13, PAGE 4,13b

De Facto Elders


On another page in this issue brother Bill Dudley suggests some thoughts on a common, and growing, practice in many sections of the country — the development of de facto elderships. The phenomenon is by no means confined to the Golden West. We have observed its spread over many years and in many regions. And while the matter of determining exactly when a congregation has men in it qualified for the eldership is of necessity a thing of human judgment, there are certainly some clearly defined Bible teaching which must not he ignored. Permitting a congregation to drift into a "de facto" eldership composed of certain ''leaders" while ignoring the scriptural injunction for the appointment of scripturally qualified men can only further aggravate and compound an unhealthy condition.

It will take only a few minutes of serious thought to understand that there are four distinct and sharply defined positions in which a congregation may exist relative to the question of eldership. Two of these positions are right and proper; two of them are wrong and sinful. Consider first the positions that are right:

I. Scripturally Organized

It is God's plan that there shall be "elders in every church." (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) When men who possess the scriptural qualifications (as set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) are duly recognized by the congregation as elders, and are functioning within the scriptural bounds of their authority, we say that such a congregation is "scripturally organized."

2. Scripturally Unorganized

Only rarely, however, does a congregation begin its existence under such conditions as to make it possible for that "scriptural organization" to prevail from the very first day. Certainly we read of no apostolic congregations (unless it be, of course, the Jerusalem church) starting under such favorable circumstances. Most of them started as did the congregation of Acts 14 and Titus 1, by groups of untaught people hearing and obeying the gospel, and beginning immediately to worship and live and work in harmony with apostolic guidance.

Such must have been the case at Antioch in Pisidia, at Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and wherever else these groups of believers came into being. These new congregations were obviously not "scripturally organized" (i. e. set in order with scripturally qualified elders and deacons) immediately by the men who had planted them, for we find Paul and Barnabas returning to these very same congregations some months later to "appoint for them elders in every church."

From the time these churches began to function until that day in which elders were appointed they were scriptural congregations, but "scripturally unorganized." Until they had reached maturity, and were of sufficient age and size to have qualified men among their number, they could fulfill God's will, functioning and worshiping in harmony with apostolic teaching without elders. Such would be the case with a congregation composed entirely of women. We suppose a congregation like that might continue for years (or forever, for that matter) faithfully serving God, and completely acceptable in his sight. Paul's charge to Titus was that he should "appoint elders in every city .... IF." In the absence of men possessing those qualifications, no elders were to be appointed.

3. Unscripturally Organized

If Titus had gone ahead, contrary to Paul's instructions, and appointed men to serve as elders who did not have the qualifications listed, then the church would have been organized all right — but unscripturally organized. Probably no one would question that such has been the case in far too many tragic instances. Men have been "ordained" as elders who were sadly lacking in the qualifications. They have served with incompetence, and sometimes with arrogance; and the congregations have become the victims of those who were "lording it over God's heritage."

Such unscriptural elders have more than once led congregations into bitter internecine struggle, ruthlessly ignoring and trampling under foot the consciences of godly men and women. The sad battle over instrumental music and the Missionary Societies was a case in point in the last century; the equally sad story of incompetent elders splitting churches over their orphan-home hobby is a like case in point in our generation.

4. Unscripturally unorganized There is a fourth state in which a congregation may exist and function — that of being unorganized, but unscripturally so. This is the situation prevailing when a congregation has within its membership men who fulfill the Biblical qualifications, but where congregational affairs are managed by a "business meeting" or by "leaders" rather than elders. These "business meetings" or "leaders" constitute the de facto eldership of our title. A dictionary definition of de facto reveals that it means, "in fact; used of a government actually in power and functioning whether by legal right, by force, or otherwise." That is exactly what these "de facto elderships" are doing; they are in power and functioning, otherwise than by legal (scriptural) right. For by scriptural right the congregation with qualified men should have elders, duly ordained and recognized, in control of congregational affairs.