Church 2.0: Part 10.12: Selecting Elders, Part 1

Church2When 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?

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  1. Frequently elders are hindered in their attempts and desires to address the spiritual needs of the congregation by their reluctance, or perhaps inability, to turn over to deacons the physical needs of the congregation and the business of the church, and consume themselves with the administration of the church and its components. The handling of the physical church and its activities can be a major task, and requires a major commitment to the work of God, which, unfortunately, is not always found among deacons – or sometimes among elders.
    As a result, congregations often nominate as elders men who are not great spiritual leaders, but who possess the capability and will to see to the continual existence of the congregation. Since each congregation is autonomous and cannot look to a larger entity for financial, structural, or physical assistance, we have to make do with what we’ve got.

  2. It would be difficult for me personally to be involved with an organization that did not believe in an active and indwelling HS, much less to endure leadership that believed they were empowered by themselves and personal performance. I was of the opinion that this type of thinking was becoming a remnant.. Not so ?

  3. The only thing sadder than a congregation without elders is a congregation with poorly qualified / badly qualified elders. It can and will and has killed congregations.

  4. “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.”

    I read Foy E. Wallace’s ‘The Mission and Medium of the Holy Spirit’ as a young Christian and was astonished to find someone arguing that the Holy Spirit does not actually indwell believers. It struck me, like a lot of CoC books I read, as an instance of pure rationalism. The passage from John that invalidates his argument is this:

    “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-7).

    John begins his gospel by identifying Jesus as the word of God. So it is clear that, by Wallace’s reasoning, the disciples already had the Holy Spirit. But Jesus promises them a future helper and draws a distinction between the Spirit being WITH someone and actually being IN someone.

  5. I have only seen one cofC congregation that had committees instead of deacons but how one got on any committee was a secret. Even in large, flagship congregations, I have never seen one that publicly asked for skilled people to contribute effort toward the secular side, e.g. Finance, engineering, buildings, law. Too often, a married man with the requisite children was made a deacon and put in charge of something about which he knew little to nothing while a highly qualified single female was making koolaid.

  6. I think this is an important topic indeed. Several have made helpful comments, and surely Jay does well to point to possible improvements. Shouldn’t the business of the congregation be handled by deacons rather than elders? Money matters are not usually spiritual matters. Yet most of the time in elders’ meetings, it may be chiefly money matters which are considered for decision. I ask as one who has never served as an elder OR a deacon, having remained single so therefore not qualified to serve. That’s why my advice is so helpful, no doubt. Perhaps.

    But I’ve read testimony of elders who learned that treating the church just as a business is not the work of elders. I like what Jay points out. I like what John McAfee suggests. Happy is the church which is led by Spirit-filled and Spirit-led men and women. I’ve read the writing about how one large Church of Christ (in Texas) is led and I liked what was written. Because a congregation IS a business now, I think it best to NOT have the preacher serve as an elder since the elders normally decide on keeping or not keeping the preacher.

    The church where I’m a member recently had a congregational business meeting where we were asked to vote on whether or not to retain certain elders and whether or not to add suggested elders to the board of elders. I wonder if every church shouldn’t do this at least once a year. Our elders especially should be our teachers, as I understand it. They should be encouraged by members who are praying for them and who have learned to love them. And shouldn’t deacons be recognized and honored as well? And class teachers if the church has separated classes?

  7. Christopher applies to all disciples what Jesus promised to His apostles. Many Bible readers fail to realize that chapters 13-16 of John’s gospel is Jesus talking TO HIS APOSTLES, not to others. Do some not realize that the apostles were SPECIAL servants of the Lord Jesus and that HE picked them and trained them and empowered them, and not US?

    Apostles had tremendous jobs to do to create a new world-wide organization “out of scratch.” They were specially empowered. Once they were gone, they were not replaced, with the exception of Judas Iscariot. When James was killed early in the life of the church, no new apostle was named to replace him.

    Paul, as apostle to the Gentiles was added. He also got special training, as had all the apostles, but his was just Jesus and Paul and not a group of trainees.

  8. To me the fact that we have things that we have to keep up with is a hinderance to what we are supposed to keep up with…the people. The elders were supposed to watch other the spirituality of the people and not the things that housed the people for worship. This is Temple upkeep.
    The deacons were supposed to serve the saints when needed by providing them with food, etc. and not oversee toiletries or yard duty. I was a deacon, but never more, as I was placed in charge of the yard. I helped no one. I served no one. All I accomplished was make the yard look nice.
    Before we have elders and deacons to serve, we need to understand their roles and position of service…in servicing the saints.

  9. “Christopher applies to all disciples what Jesus promised to His apostles. Many Bible readers fail to realize that chapters 13-16 of John’s gospel is Jesus talking TO HIS APOSTLES, not to others.”

    First, I take it you concede that the Holy Spirit actually indwelt at least some believers (I cited John 14:16-17.to prove that the Holy Spirit actually indwells people) Then the question becomes which believers receive that indwelling – the apostles only or all believers?

    There are scores of verses speaking about the Holy Spirit in relation to believers. One in particular I should think people like Wallace will have a hard time explaining (once they have conceded the Holy Spirit actually indwells at least some people) is the promise articulated by Peter in Acts 2:38:

    “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”

    It is clear from this verse that all believers receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Wallace viewed this gift as a possession of the Holy Spirit, as a kind of implied universal blessing (manifested in various material ways) on all believers. The Holy Spirit is poured out on the world and He blesses believers as they seek God. His argument in this case, like Jesus’ refutation of the Sadduces belief in there being no resurrection but in a far less compelling manner, hangs on grammar. He simply does not make the kind of irrefutable argument Jesus does. That is, his grammatical construction of this verse is not logically necessary as is Jesus’ reference to the present tense (“I AM the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob”) in relation to people long dead – it is chosen construction (where others are possible).

    But I can see no reason to not suppose that if God was willing to indwell the apostles with the Holy Spirit, He is also willing to indwell all other believers. Certainly there can be no physical or logistical reason to limit His indwelling. And, personal experience, I can say that once I had been baptized, three things happened. First, when I came out of the water and for days afterwards, I felt for the first and only time in my life what Paul characterized as a “peace that surpasses understanding”. It was other worldly and indescribable. Secondly, it was like a light had been turned on in a dark room. Suddenly I was aware of all of my evil thoughts I had been oblivious to before. Thirdly, I came to have a love and longing for my brothers and sisters I could never imagined having with essentially strangers.

  10. Seems Peter felt that ALL would receive the HS… And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Act 2:38 ESV]
    For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” [Act 2:39 ESV]

    Paul said that He was the seal of our salvation…and in Rom 8 says that if you don’t have the indwelling Spirit you don’t belong to Christ… I’d say there is some teaching that apparently needs to be done on this subject if there remains any doubt as to the promise…

  11. Speaking of indwelling…we are called Temples because God dwells within us. Now having said that the question is of how and on what level? Just by the word being in us or God actually being in us or both. In this reference I think we must look at the Temple and how God dwelled in it. God didn’t physically dwell in the Temple, but rather the presence of God did. Even in the OT it is noted that God dwelt in heaven. So God’s presence dwelt in the Temple, but this meant that the Temple was glorified by God’s presence to the point that to have his presence was to have God Himself there.
    This may or may not have bearing on the HS and it is possible and probable the indwelling of the apostles was not the same as the dwelling of the general populace. One might have been working in and through, while the other is working on and through.
    The thing we cannot deny is that the HS is there and we ought to make use of it as it was given to us to make use of.

  12. Dwight, there are some things that I’m not sure any of us could precisely explain.. How God dwells in people… is probably one of these things. All we can know if that He said that He would…and that it was a promise. A seal of our salvation.. and if we don’t have the Spirit, we don’t belong to Christ… Not sure “how” but totally convinced that He does.

  13. Using the member-sheep metaphor, sheep follow the ones that regularly feeds them. If Elder-Shepherds want the sheep to see them as spiritual Shepherds that they will follow they should be personally very active and leaders in teaching. Otherwise, the preacher is seen as the spiritual “Shepherd.” Luther referred to the book of James as a “strawy” epistle. The scripture I see as “strawy” is Elders are “apt to teach!” Surely there must be a “scribal dictation” error in translating this from the original manuscripts?? Can churches that do not believe in and teach the doctrinal importance of the personal indwelling and leading of the Holy Spirit be seriously considered Christian?

  14. Jim H asked,

    Can churches that do not believe in and teach the doctrinal importance of the personal indwelling and leading of the Holy Spirit be seriously considered Christian?

    Tread lightly in these parts. We are saved by faith that Jesus is the Messiah, not faith in baptism and not faith in the personal indwelling.

    A congregation that denies the personal indwelling is not a good student of the scriptures and will be denied unspeakable comfort and understanding — but damned? I don’t see why.

  15. There is a problem I see in the churches and primarily the coC as the more conservative you get. And that is in applying A Value of Sin to everything. Sin is what God commanded us to not do and he told us what sins were. God is not vague. And he told us what we should do. God is not vague.
    Deut.29 God relayed the law so we could follow the law. Anything not law is not law.
    But when we get to other things we start calling it sin despite God’s comment on it as such and then we start dividing along those lines.
    If you don’t believe in a certain way you are sinning, despite it not being called sinful. But we make an effort to control how people think and shut them down. They must think like we think, providing that what we think is correct.
    But there is a difference in believing in something that is essential and believing in something that isn’t essential. All things are not essential for salvation or justification.
    We are told what is essential to believe and to do.
    And it is a personal journey.
    Our job isn’t to convict others of sin, but be convicted by the Word of God.
    How and on what level the HS dwells isn’t sinful and was never called sinful depending if you believe one way or the other. One way leads to a better understanding, but not damnation.
    But you must believe the HS dwells and acts as that is clear.

  16. This gets back to choosing elders based on how they think at the time of final selection. This leads to enforced group think, which will sink any organization that gets a case of it. I have been condemned to hell numerous times for a different, unvoiced opinion.

    I still want to know the vote to pass a motion in a elders meeting. I have heard simple majority, supermajority, and unanimous, are all used. I have also heard that votes can be reversed or ignored by the most powerful elder, regardless of the vote tally.

  17. Where in scripture we’re “elder meetings” commanded? Only one I can find was when Paul called the Ephesus elders together to worn them of pending wolves from within the church. The “norm” seems to be that independently, or two at a time, the apostles “gave instruction”? I would conceed that the Gentile conversions led to a “group meeting”, but this hardly depicts an “elders meeting” like we see today.

    Any thoughts would help.

  18. As the elders of a town were spread out over the town and even in the OT the elders had to be called together, they probably acted independently of each other in their service.

  19. Do you mean the “located” preacher, or a “minister” that is not normally part of that community?

  20. JES does bring up a valid thought. The evangelist was one who basically evangelized or went from pale to place and spread the gospel. The evangelist, Titus, was left in Crete, but was supposed to appoint elders in every city. This presumably as he traveled through them teaching. An interesting thing is that if he came to a town that was just being evangelized was he supposed to appoint an elder there as well? It appears so. We expect an elder to be trained in the word, but his character might be the point if they were all new converts.

  21. Charles M wrote,

    The only “biblical” way to select elders is to have the evangelist choose them…

    (Tit. 1:5 ESV) This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you–

    But then there’s —

    (Acts 6:3 ESV) 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.

    “Appoint” is the same Greek word in both cases, but in one case the appointees were nominated by the church and then appointed by the apostle. Titus may have used a similar method.

  22. I think Jay and Charles are both right since they use scripture and yet the qualifications help in the selection as guided by the Holy Spirit. .

  23. Charles M,

    There’s an argument that the men appointed in Acts 6 were elders.

    First, as we covered several weeks ago regarding the recent research into the meaning of diakonia (and will soon cover again), the new understanding is thatdiakonos refers to an assistant or envoy for the elders (or apostles, in this case), especially in their role as teachers. Hence, a new translation of Acts 6 has been proposed in which the Seven were appointed to assist the apostles in their ministry of teaching the word.

    If so, then the men may well be elders, since we read about the apostles and elders thereafter and Stephen and Phillip are soon seen teaching others. If that’s so, the church itself selected the elders. There was no evangelist such as Titus for the Jerusalem church. The Jerusalem members nominated the Seven, and the apostles appointed the men nominated.

    And it makes better sense that Luke would record the ordination of the first elders, who show up again at the Jerusalem Council in chapter 15. So it kinda fits.

    Just an idea I’m playing with.

  24. Perhaps we could back up and look behind some of these passages and try to discern why things happened, and not be satisfied with batting around what happened. Jay’s idea that the Acts 6 appointees were elders should be considered in the sense what “elders” were in the Jewish context of the day. The appointees in Acts 6 were administrators of a single part of the ongoing work of the local church. I do find it telling that Peter’s idea of being qualified to administrate Meals on Wheels was based on character and spirituality. Hardly our modern “business” approach, but not how the Jews of the day would identify elders in the city. I do see a confluence of popular input and apostolic action here which very likely repeats in the problem-solving found in Acts 15, and in Titus’ work of appointing elders in Crete. Peter in Acts 6 asks the church to point out demonstrably godly men, but held their actual appointment for the apostles. I would suggest that this is what Titus was doing in Crete. Note the emphasis on a Cretan elder’s local reputation and track record, which would have been best known by the Cretan believers themselves. But the choice was not left to popular selection, especially in an area where the church was fairly young. That job was given to Titus, and I would suggest this was an apostolic work. Titus was an outsider to the Cretan church. This is one aspect of elder selection that we seem to have moved beyond, that is, the assumption that we need qualified, godly outside input in selecting elders. “Calling an evangelist” has long past having any reality. When is the last time you heard an evangelist actually come to a congregation and spend days or weeks talking to the community about the reputations of the elder candidates? No, the idea of getting an outsider to come in and actually select and ordain elders has long ago became a mild symbolic gesture.

  25. Jay,

    Interesting. The Jerusalem saints were to pick men whom the apostles would then appoint.

    Yet, it seems in a cursory look that the work done by these new appointees fits better the deacon role (service) than the apostolic/shepherd role of teaching and “ministry of the word” that we might more associate with an eldership.

    So. Were congregations then set up as mini-Jerusalem churches?

    And how much does the synagogue leadership model influence them/Paul?

    AND, does it matter what organizational structure a group uses? Is the NT model cultural? Would an American/democratic/Board of Directors model fit us better?