In the early Restoration Movement, Thomas Campbell and Alexander Campbell were both elders of their congregations. In their minds, the roles of elder and preacher were much the same, as the Bible plainly anticipates that some elders may preach —
(1Ti 5:17 ESV) 17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
However, by 1840 or so, according to the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, “Elders,” some congregations began to hire men to preach. This was a controversial innovation — a controversy that lasted for 100 years.
In the churches that later became Christian Churches, the preacher was often considered one of the elders. However, the a cappella Churches of Christ came to largely follow the views of J. W. McGarvey, who considered the preacher a mere employee of the elders.
Daniel Sommer founded a branch of Churches of Christ that rejected the idea of a “hireling minister” altogether, insisting that each congregation should raise up its own preacher, who should be unpaid.
The view of Sommer died out sometime in 1950s or so. My view is that churches that failed to hire a well-trained preacher died or became so small as to be irrelevant to the larger Movement. That is, the theory so utterly failed that those churches rejecting the hiring of a minister simply ceased to exist. The churches of the Sommerite movement that survive have preachers on their payroll.
Meanwhile, beginning after the Civil War (well after the deaths of the founders of the Restoration Movement) David Lipscomb and others opposed the office of an elder altogether. Lipscomb, as long-time editor of the Gospel Advocate, wrote —
Whenever a man or set of men . . . assume to exercise authority in a church by virtue of some official appointment, or to assert, they have rights and authority as officers above others and assume to exert their rights without the full consent and approval of the members, they should be resisted even to the disruption of the body. They are lording it over God’s heritage, and are exalting their authority at the expense of the authority of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. One man, in the assertion and maintenance of the Divine will, has as much authority as another, more than a thousand ordained ones in disregard of that will. The only reason we have seen from Scripture for appointing certain individuals to special work was to see that neglected work was performed. The seven at Jerusalem were appointed to see that the Grecian widows, neglected in the daily ministration were fed. Titus was sent to set in order the things “wanting,” and to place Elders in their proper work.
Whenever a man in the church of Christ claims authority or exercises power merely on official ground, he is essentially a pope and claims the prerogatives of papacy as fully as does he of Rome. He may be a smaller one, his sphere of action may be more limited, but the principle is the same. All the evils of the papacy arise out of the claim of the Pope and his council to decide questions by virtue of official position.
Gospel Advocate, 1877, page 232 (emphasis in original).
However, this attitude largely failed to catch on. Lipscomb was hugely influential among the Churches of Christ in the southeastern U.S., but today virtually no congregation follows this teaching.
Why not? Well, in my view, largely because churches without leaders having positional authority die. I can’t imagine any Church that adopted this viewpoint doing well at all — especially in a denomination that considers ministers as employees of the church.
Also, it’s because Lipscomb’s views are simply not defensible from scripture — for the reasons seen in the earlier posts. The scriptures are filled with references to the positional authority of elders. As a result, while many individual Christians — and even a few ministers — consider elders to have no authority, it’s rare — nearly unheard of — for a Church of Christ of any size not to have elders who’ve been invested with the oversight of the church. We are a people of the text.