The Problem with Elders…

Probably one of the most significant developments in evangelical churches since the 1970’s has been the reëmergence of “elders” or “elder-rule” in local churches. Before that time “elders” were something “Presbyterians had” or perhaps you had friends who were Plymouth Brethren who also had elders. Most churches, especially in America, followed a more Congregational and Baptistic tradition of a single elder, that is the pastor, supported by a board of deacons; with members exercising their input by congregational voting.[1]

With the emphasis on “elders” the key passages of 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9, where the qualifications for elders are detailed, are naturally foundational starting points in discussions of church leadership.

Now, first of all what I don’t want to discuss is polity or how a church is to be structured. My own views on church polity are fairly straight forward, I think the New Testament teaches two fundamental principles: (1) That the structure of the system be done “decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40) and (2) regardless of the structure, godly men be doing it; which is the point of the instructions to Timothy and Titus. The actual nuts and bolts of polity are, I believe, entirely open. Having an “elder-rule” system is no more “biblical” than a congregational system. Congregationalism certainly has support in the New Testament and even the Episcopal system has its strong points to commend it. I heard Warren Wiersbe once say, “God has even blessed the Anglicans.” One noted Anglican agrees with my position here.

Bishop J. C. Ryle (1816–1900), the noted Anglican scholar stated this about church polity,

Furthermore, no visible church has a right to say, “We alone have the true form of worship, the true church government, the true way of administering the sacraments, and the true manner of offering up united prayer; and all others are completely wrong.” No church, I repeat has a right to say anything of the kind. Where can such assertions be proved by Scripture? What one plain, positive, word of revelation can men bring forward in proof of any such affirmations. I say confidently, not one. There is not a text in the Bible which expressly command churches to have one special formJohn_Charles_Ryle_Vanity_Fair_26_March_1881 of government, and expressly forbids any other. If there is, let men point it out. There is not a text which expressly confines Christians to the use of a liturgy, or expressly enjoins them to only have extempore prayer. If there is, let it be shown. And yet for hundreds of years Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Independents have contended with each other, as if these things had been settled as minutely as the Levitical ceremonies, and as if everybody who did not see with their own eyes was almost guilty of a deadly sin! It seems wonderful that in a matter like this, men should not be satisfied with the full persuasion that they themselves are right, but must also go on to condemn everyone who disagrees with them as utterly wrong! And yet this groundless theory that God has laid down one particular form of church government and ceremonies has often divided men who ought to have known better. It has caused even good men to speak and write very unadvisedly.[2]

So, if I have one piece of advice for churches, it would be to abandon any hope that changing your polity will somehow revitalize your church: it won’t. Your structure and organization may need tweaking to make it more “orderly” but there is no such thing as a “biblical” church polity wherein all other forms of polity are “unbiblical.” Worry more about orderliness and godliness and quit the fruitless efforts to stop the congregation from voting. In nearly a quarter-century of working with local churches and consulting with their leaders, I have never once seen polity be a root cause of problems in a local church.

But, as I said, polity isn’t the point of my discussion today; examining the qualifications for elders is. When teaching about the qualifications for elders the tendency is often to conflate the lists in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 or, more often than not, prefer the list in Timothy and just mention Titus in passing. But in so doing, subtle and I believe important distinctions can be glossed over; and glossing over those distinctions can cripple a church. While the lists Paul presents are similar they are not identical.

Church polity often comes down to whether the main leadership board of a local church will be comprised of “elders” or “deacons.” The only real distinction between elders and deacons is found in 1 Tim 3:2 in the last phrase where elders are to be “able to teach.” This is an unusual word (only used again in 2 Tim 2:24). The idea is more than a person who can teach, practically anyone can teach something at some level; it is rather someone who is actually good at it. This distinction is the key difference between the two lists. In Titus not only is the word not used, there is no reference to teaching at all. In Titus 1:9 elders only need to be able to “exhort” and “refute.” They aren’t called particularly to teach, but rather to “hold fast” the word, which is in accordance with “the teaching.” Most likely this refers to the teaching of Paul while on the island as well as the expansion on those themes by Titus. In this case elders aren’t expected to do “original” teaching so much as to be able to discern the difference between true and false.

The question is why the difference? If the key issue for elders is to be able to teach, why isn’t that required in the qualifications Paul gives to Titus? The answer is to be discovered in the other difference between the two lists: their preambles. In 1 Tim 3:1 Paul notes that if a person “aspires to the office of overseer” he seeks to do a good thing. However, in Titus 1:6 Titus isn’t looking for people who “aspire” or volunteers at all, he is to “appoint” elders.

The difference here is not a question of polity[3], but rather a difference in the depth of the candidate pool. In writing to Timothy, Paul is dealing with the well-established church in Ephesus, a large metropolitan center. The church at Ephesus was well on its way to being the flagship church of not only Asia Minor but really all of Christendom at the time. The Ephesian church had been the center of Paul’s operations for nearly three years. Not only Timothy was working there, but strong church tradition states that the Apostle John would later make Ephesus his base. In his list of elder requirements for Timothy he could require skillful teaching as a requirement because they were able to provide such men. For Titus, the pool was no only shallow in many ways it was a mirage. Crete was the home of pirates and mercenaries. It was a populated by those Paul called “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (1:10). While Christians had likely been on the island since shortly after Pentecost, there was still only a church that still had to be “set in order” (1:5). Paul could hardly require skillful teachers in his qualification list to Titus, since beyond him they likely didn’t exist.

I recall an individual who, because of his profession, moved to a new area and began attending a large church. He had been an elder in his former church for nearly 20 years and after a few years of faithful service in his new church he inquired about being considered to be an elder. The long and short of it is that he was essentially laughed at and it was clear that he would never even be considered. That he was qualified was beyond question and although he was treated shabbily, the truth was this church had such depth of qualified men, he would likely never been considered (undoubtedly to the large church’s loss). I advised him to move on to another area church that could use his experience and wisdom and he did so. Within about a year he began serving as an elder and prospered.

As churches mature, so to the elders (and hopefully so does the pastor). It is important when looking at the pool of available men you are not using the Ephesian standard when you may only have Cretan depth. Paul was able to recognize that there is a spectrum of churches and varying degrees of godly men to choose from in different situations. A church assuredly needs godly men, those lists are identical in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 and those qualifications are inviolable. But as you are planting a church or building up a young church, pastors should not handicap themselves by expecting what the geography cannot provide. Don’t reject men to be elders just because they don’t meet your Ephesian standard of being able to teach. Take what godly men you have, strengthen them up as you are building up the rest of the church and you and your church will be better for it.

 

Notes:

[1] It is indisputable that throughout history church polity has tended to mirror the structure of the political environment in which it finds itself, pluralism notwithstanding.

[2] J. C. Ryle, Knots United: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion from the Standpoint of an Evangelical Churchman (Moscow, ID: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2000), 234–35. Form this quote it’s also obvious that he was not a supporter of the so-called “Regulative Principle of Worship” and I would whole-heartedly agree with Ryle on that as well.

[3] Some use this verse as justification of the practice of “self-perpetuating” elders; where the elders select the new elders. This is also used in the Episcopal system where the bishops select the new bishops. Again, my purpose is not to discuss polity, but the self-perpetuating practice is fraught for abuse and can put too much distance between the congregation and the leadership.

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Dennis Swanson

About Dennis Swanson

Dr. Dennis M. Swanson is currently the Dean of Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Formerly was the VP of The Master's Seminary Library, Accreditation, and Operations for 24 years. He also oversaw the production of The Master's Seminary Journal, and is an experienced writer and editor. Prior to the he was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.