In the history of the Lord’s church, at certain times in a particular geographic area, all of the local churches had elders. That was true in at least some of the places where Paul and Barnabas traveled and preached (Acts 14:23). At other times in history, however, in a specific region not even one congregation had overseers. The most common situation is that some congregations in a territory have an eldership, while others do not.
In the language of the New Testament, those who served as church elders in the first century were also known as overseers (Acts 20:28), bishops (Titus 1:5,7), pastors (Ephesians 4:11), and shepherds (1 Peter 5:1,2). Such designations are still appropriate today. What is true about a local church of the Christ which has elders?
When a congregation has faithful brothers serving as qualified elders, it is following the New Testament pattern for the church’s organization. The church in Philippi had overseers-bishops (Philippi 1:1), the church in Ephesus had elders (Acts 20:17), and it was God’s will for there to be shepherds over local flocks across the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). There is a scriptural “ring” to the sound of the term “the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17; James 5:14).
If a congregation currently does not have elders, it ought to be working toward the goal of appointing qualified brothers to serve as its pastors. Again, early congregations had them, and in a number of cases, they did not wait for generations to appoint them (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 16:5; 20:17; 21:18). A congregation can exist and function scripturally without having elders; but, no congregation can please the Lord if it prefers to remain without elders and has no intentions of laboring to train men to serve in that capacity. God’s Spirit knew what He was talking about when He gave the charge via Paul to “appoint elders” (Titus 1:5).
A second undeniable truth is that when a congregation has elders, it has imperfect men leading it. God calls on these leaders to be blameless (Titus 1:7), but not perfect. The Lord requires that overseers be men “of good behavior” and have a good reputation among those who are outside the church (1 Timothy 3:2,7), but that does not mean that they must be sinless. Simon Peter was an elder (1 Peter 5:1), yet he clearly was not a perfect person. Like the rest of the flock, the shepherds must “take heed” to themselves (Acts 20:28). Just like all other members of Jesus’ body, pastors need to grow by adding virtue to their faith, along with knowledge, self-control, and other matters (2 Peter 1:5-7). The task of serving as an elder certainly requires that one be held up to a lofty standard of conduct, but let us be reasonable and be patient with these men as they strive to mature in the Lord and grow in their capacity as leaders.
When a local church goes from having no eldership to having shepherds over it, that is a major change, a change that will require the best efforts of all involved to make it a smooth and fruitful transition. Despite such a huge change, though, when a church appoints elders, there are a number of matters which do not change. For instance, even though a congregation appoints overseers, Jesus remains the sole Head of the church (Ephesians 5:23,24). Elders have no authority to try and replace Jesus on the throne and cast aside His rightful preeminence (Colossians 1:18).
In addition, the Lord’s requirements for acceptable worship remain in place. Worshipping Him in spirit and in truth is still what He desires (John 4:24), and no individual pastor or pastorship has the right to overturn or deviate from God’s will for the worship of His church. Furthermore, the church’s mission and work are not altered simply because a congregation has appointed elders. All of the church’s actions must be authorized by the New Testament (Colossians 3:17), and that will be the case as long as the world shall stand. The Lord’s church is in the business of trying to help souls be saved through the Lord Jesus (Luke 19:10). It is to that end that we preach the gospel, build up the saints, and reach out to the needy.
It is God’s desire for each member of His church to be steadfast in His service and abound in His work (1 Corinthians 15:58). That was true if I was a member of a congregation before it appointed shepherds, and it is still true after their appointment. The church is the Lord’s vineyard. In our Lord’s Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), what did the vineyard owner hire people to do? To go work in His vineyard! That is what the Lord expects from us, whether we have brothers serving as bishops and watching out for our souls or not. We are co-laborers with the elders, “common” Christians, and the Lord Himself. Every soldier in His army needs to step up and give his/her best effort. It is wrong, completely wrong, to think, “Hey, now we have overseers, so I guess we will just let them do all of the church’s work.” With such an irresponsible, immature attitude in the heart of certain members, we can understand why some brothers may be a bit reluctant to take on the task of serving as elders. No, brethren, with elders or without them, we work. We all work. We all work together. We all work together for His glory.
When a local church has elders, its work has the potential to flow and grow. What duties do the elders and congregation have to one another? Let us meet right back here next month and continue our study.
— Roger D. Campbell