When I mention “elders” in a Church of Christ forum, I immediately receive a negative reaction, as though all elders in the Churches of Christ are just awful. There’s a desperate unhappiness within many of our congregations regarding whom we’ve chosen to be our elders.
And yet our elders don’t ordain themselves. Every church I’m familiar with requires the members to nominate candidates and to comment on the scriptural qualifications of the elders — and yet we keep ordaining unqualified men.
I think the primary reason that we often do such a poor job of selecting elders is that we ignore their spiritual qualifications, that is, the working of the Holy Spirit within the men we choose. You see, the standard sermon series on the qualification of elders is usually so focused on Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 that the several verses addressing the Spirit’s role in elder ordination are completely ignored — when they should be paramount.
Part of this, of course, is the traditional Church of Christ bias against an active, personal indwelling of the Spirit, but even in Churches that believe in a personal indwelling, we struggle to escape our traditional mindset. And so traditionally, we ordain any man who is (a) nominated and (b) doesn’t badly fail the tests of Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 — even if he’s among the least spiritual of our members.
The Spirit’s role in ordination
When Paul addressed the elders in Ephesus, he said,
(Act 20:28 ESV) 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Paul credits the Holy Spirit with making these men overseers.
(Eph 4:7-12 ESV) 7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. … 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ … .
In Ephesians 4, Paul refers to shepherds and other church leaders as a gift from God to equip the saints.
This language is strongly parallel to Paul’s teaching in Romans —
(Rom 12:6-8 ESV) 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: … the one who leads, with zeal; … .
Here Paul again speaks of the “grace given” each of us. Paul often speaks of the “grace given” to himself, meaning the apostolic office. He similarly refers to the grace given to various church members, being talents or gifts given by the Spirit, equipping the members for a particular work.
While “one who leads” may be a much wider classification than elder, it certainly include elders.
(1Co 12:28 ESV) 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
In a passage centered on the work of the Spirit, Paul refers to God appointing members to various works, certainly through the Spirit, including the work of “administrating.” I’m not very happy with that translation. The word literally refers to piloting or steering a ship. It’s someone charged with setting a course. In contemporary terms, it would include (but include more than) vision casting. Hence, the NET Bible translates “leadership,” which I think is better.
And so we see that leadership and being a shepherd/overseer/elder are tasks that God himself, through the Spirit, appoints members to. And so, our task as church and committee members is to discern the working of the Spirit within the congregation.
Discerning the Spirit
And so, how do we discern the working of the Spirit to prepare men to be elders?
First, I think it boils down to something said in Acts, likely regarding deacons —
(Act 6:3 ESV) 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.
The apostles ordained these men based on the congregation’s recommendation as to whom they considered “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” Evidently, being filled with the Spirit should be visible to those with spiritual eyes. Of course, in a denomination that often denies the personal indwelling, we have precious little training as to how to do this. But if the men appointed in Acts 6 had to meet this standard to wait on tables, surely our elders must as well!
So what does it look like to be filled with the Spirit? Well, what does the Spirit do?
(Phi 2:12-13 ESV) 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Among other things, the Spirit moves us to want to do God’s will and therefore to do it. And elders should personify those traits.
(1Co 2:14-15 ESV) 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.
This is an even harder passage, but it tells us that Spirit-indwelled people understand things differently from the world, and someone filled with the Spirit should see things from a spiritual perspective.
(2Co 3:18 ESV) 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the Spirit is to transform us to become like Jesus — and so Christlikeness becomes the standard. Is this man something like Jesus? Not perfectly so, of course, but further down the road than most of us?