Setting the Standard Why elders, the biblical model, provide the best government
A slightly eccentric, elderly Christian woman often used to say to me: “John, people are funny cattle!” Given the context of our conversation in which I, as a young pastor was feeling annoyed by cantankerous behaviour within our church, I think she meant: “People never do what you expect, so don’t get disappointed by their behaviour.”
The simple fact is that there are too many sinners in the church for things to run smoothly. That’s why every church needs good leadership — it can’t run without appointed leaders. God knows what is best for the church and he has declared that every church needs elders. The Old Testament spoke of leadership by elders as early as Exodus 3:16: “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them...”, so it’s hardly a novel practice of Presbyterianism! The Presbyterian Church didn’t invent the concept of leadership by elders.
There is continuity in the pattern of leading a church. The New Testament confirms this practice to be appropriate in the era of the Christian church. The pattern demonstrated in the book of Acts should be taken as normative for the continuing church; i.e. when the apostles planted churches in Antioch, Lystra and Iconium they “appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23).
The pattern is simply stated: elders of the church should lead and members of the church should encourage, respect and follow their elders (as far as they lead in a godly and biblical manner). “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).
However, not just any elder will do. It’s no good having people elected as elders just to have “elders in the church”. Some of our Australian state churches have (by theological commitment) restricted formal leadership in the church to males. The statement is often made “only men should be elected as elders”. However, I think we need to be even more precise. We should say: “only qualified men should be elected as elders.” The one elected to the office of elder must be gifted and recognised as gifted by the church.
Even at this point we’re hardly saying anything new. The Old Testament required leaders to be “wise, understanding and respected men”, and “capable men ... who fear God, trustworthy men who fear dishonest gain” (Deut. 1:13; Ex. 18:21). What excellent characteristics by which to measure “qualification”:
- devotion to God
- hating corruption
Wouldn’t this list be a suitable New Testament standard for the election of elders in the church today? Well, yes, which is why this list represents the New Testament standard. The words might be different, but it’s all listed for us in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. Qualifications for elders focus on three important aspects of a person’s life: moral behaviour, understanding of Christian doctrine and family life. Bear in mind that these are minimum qualifications:
the morality of an elder must be of such quality that he is above reproach and without any taint or suggestion of public scandal, and,
knowledge of sound doctrine is required because duties include teaching God’s truth and refuting error, and,
stability of family life is essential because, as Paul says: “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?”
None of these three qualifications can be rushed. So it’s not at all surprising to read that an elder should not be a recent convert (1 Timothy 3:6). Again, Paul wisely warns the congregation not to be in a rush to set a man apart as elder (1 Timothy 5:22). Kevin Reed, in his essay “Biblical Church Government” (1983), draws attention to common grace wisdom in that one qualification for the President of the United States is that the person must be at least 35 years old.
Best practice leadership in a church is by elders (plural) working together as one. In every church there is to be more than one elder. “Appoint elders in every town...” (Titus 1:5). There are good reasons for joint leadership:
- it prevents tyranny by a religious dictator who might rule with an iron fist and a hard heart; no single individual can make a binding decision on the church, and,
- it provides a system of checks and balances and prevents as many mistakes being made; even a godly individual needs the “check” of fellow elders to guard against sinful and selfish desires, and,
- it spreads the work load over a number of differently gifted elders — some taking teaching roles, others visiting, still others evangelism, etc.
Since the Reformation in Scotland, Presbyterian churches have enjoyed congregational participation in the process of electing elders. John Knox, pleased with what he saw in Geneva (“the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the time of the Apostles”), offered to the 1560 Church of Scotland the concept of elected elders. He introduced to the congregations the right to carefully select from among their own: “men of best knowledge in God’s words and cleanest life, men faithful and most honest conversation that can be found in the church”.
This was radical reform. The Church of Scotland — corrupt and ignorant through decades of medieval Catholicism — was used to having leaders foisted upon them, regardless of congregational opinion or suitability. From the Scottish Reformation onwards, the congregational members were to take seriously their role of discerning and choosing their own leadership. So, although the congregation is not to rule and make binding decisions on the life of the church, it is the members of congregations that choose, vote and set apart those leaders who will make such decisions.
The Presbyterian Church today is wise to revisit these rights and responsibilities, praying and looking for elders with these qualities (as described in the First Book of Discipline, 1560, X:1) ... those who have:
- best knowledge of God’s words
- cleanest life
The Bible recognizes that the gifted pastor-teacher among the elders is worthy of his hire (“the worker deserves his wages” ... 1 Timothy 5:17). The church should gladly provide a stipend for him. The implication of this is that most of the elders of a church (the other elders) are not paid a wage and do their work as volunteers.
By this we do not want to diminish an elder’s sense of vocation and calling by God into the ministry of eldership. However, we do need to recognise that the church is led by elders who usually have other vocations and interests to attend to as well. The pastor-teacher (minister of the church) needs to be able to work cohesively and cheerfully with a group of volunteer workers who attend to church leadership at times before and after “work”.
The Bible doesn’t restrict ministry to the elected elders. They are not the only people exercising leadership in the church. An effective church has many others (non-elders) who lead in particular areas of appropriate ministry. Biblical leadership, then, works alongside of and works to encourage and equip the whole ministry of the church. Paul had a whole band of co-workers who did not “hold office” — and he mentions some in Romans 16. Priscilla and Aquila (fellow-workers), Mary (works hard in the church), Andronicus and Junias (outstanding among the apostles), Urbanus (fellow worker in Christ) and Tryphena and Tryphosa (women who work hard in the Lord) ... just to mention some out of many.
We need to promote a leadership that works smoothly with the deacons who serve the social needs of the needy, others who teach and lead, but who do this without holding an office, the managers who oversee the finances and care of property, and the music team.
As well as regular session meetings with our elders, we need to also meet regularly with the wider leadership team and include men like Urbanus and women like Tryphena and Tryphosa to sit with the elders, to pray, to plan together and to share the load.
David Dickson, in his fine work The Elder and his Work (Presbyterian & Reformed reprint, 2004), expresses his deep conviction that the scriptural standard of the ruling eldership — though always maintained and defended by Presbyterian churches — “has never been worked out in practice so as to do the good it might do”. He was reflecting on his church, the Free Church, of the 1860s and 1870s. Australian Presbyterians need to have the courage to re-examine our local church leadership so that it can do all the good it was designed to do in our day and generation.