THE CALLING OF ELDERS
[A matter set forth here that does not seem settled in the minds of some saints, and often becomes a major concern leading to division when conflicts arise in the local Christian assembly. The thoughts shared here concern the work of elders in God's gatherings, rather than the broader subject of assembly government. One may see the paper: Thoughts On Assembly Government for more complete ministry. It is important to understand that we are not talking about denominated sects and other man-made gatherings; rather, a truly Bible-only fellowship.
- R. DeWitt, 2009; add: 08/17]
The calling and work of an elder in the church is important, and little understood among many Christians, and thus the present spirit of Laodicea (people's rights or people rule) is growing (Rev.3). There appears to be a movement toward democratic process, debates rather than discussions, "majority opinion", and loose principles in assemblies; and rejecting the place of elders and the discerning of the mind and honor of the Lord. The unity of the saints as a priesthood of believers in humility before the Lord, with the guidance of overseers, appears to be less esteemed today (Prov. 21:2). This is not speaking of ruling, but judgments and order.
Some believers in the scriptural assemblies see elders like deacons, as only those who do the necessary work of caring for the building, managing and arranging details, handling finances, etc. When it comes to guiding the course of God's testimony and defending God's honor, the democratic process is then often asserted to overrule the elders. On the other hand, some believers at times think anyone who takes charge and asserts his opinion in the assembly is an elder. In some religious places elders are exalted with a title and appointed office, and are allowed to be the supreme authority in church. This is not true to the Word. There seems to always be extremes among believers.
The work of overseers is that responsibility given by God for His testimony, and His elders are called and appointed to the work by Him, not men. He intends that we should "esteem them very highly in love for their works sake" (I Thess.5:12-13).
God has set elders as overseers (bishops) in the local gathering for guidance, judgments, the care of the saints, and to maintain the Lord's honor and His testimony (see Acts 20:17-28; I Tim. 3:1-7; I Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:6-9; I Pet. 5:1-5). The brethren are exhorted to know them and esteem them. God says also to obey them (yield to their guidance) as they "watch for your souls", for they must give account and should be able to do it "with joy and not with grief" (Heb.13:7 & 17). They are to take "the oversight, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock" (I Pet. 5: 2-3). They should not force their will, but take a firm stand for the Lord and speak the Word faithfully. It remains for others to then decide where they will stand and what they will do.
The overseers are those brothers who have years of experience, know the Word of God, and care for the testimony with love. Some are to be counted "worthy of double honor" (I Tim. 5:17). They are not appointed by men, but by God, and they are known by their walk and work. It is not always a gift to preach, but a gift of godly wisdom and spiritual discernment. There are, of course, elderly saints (by age), who are not overseers. Sadly, we know also there are some who assume that role who are not called of God. Godly saints will recognize who are those gifted of God for the work, and they will also be recognized in other assemblies within the universal fellowship. After all is said the elders must make hard decisions before the Lord. Others should be supportive of them and encourage them (Ex.17:11-12), though some might disagree with judgments and should be also heard, and without controversy.
One should understand that the issue in government is not whether the overseers are correct on every thing. The issue is whether or not they have the final responsibility from God to judge, and after much prayer, study, and careful review, waiting upon God in humility, they can act. God says they do have responsibility on behalf of the assembly. They are essentially "the angel of the church" (Rev.2 & 3), it appears, and God does hold them accountable.
In consideration of "the angel", it literally means "messenger", and is not speaking in Revelation 2 and 3 of the angelic beings from God in human form. Messenger refers to the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, the Lord Jesus (Rev.10; Gen.31:11), and in the church the responsible overseers and Godly saints. We see there the apostle writing to the angel (singular as the mind of God), which is the overseers together as one, who have spiritual care and discernment for the collective testimony. Who is that? It could be many, but is often several who are elders set forth by God. They have responsibility to receive the message (which was written) and see that it is administered to uphold the truth and God's testimony.
A local assembly has the responsibility to act in judgment because the Lord is "in the midst" (Matt. 18:20), and judgment is committed to them as knowing a matter among them (ref. I Cor.5; II Thess. 3:6,14-15). Important matters are normally heard and considered first by the overseers (reception, discipline, etc.). It is then brought before the assembly. After the local assembly has heard a matter, considered it carefully and prayerfully together, and shared thoughts, a decision must eventually be made, which is binding universally (Matt.18:18). Every soul should be exercised. Some will stand with the elders, some may not feel able to judge, and some may dissent.
Decisions are not dependent on unanimity or majority opinion, though these are revealing. God honors the final judgment of the elders, and so must the saints to maintain the "unity of the Spirit" (Eph.4:3; I Cor. 1:10). Some saints may not appreciate the decision, but if after all is said they rebel and go contrary to the overseers, there will surely be separations and sometimes division. That is heresy (Titus 3:10) because the "candlestick" (lampstand) remains as God appointed it and until He removes it. Most other assemblies among us will also support the elders, unless there is evil not being judged. The greatest difficulty in assembly judgments comes when the elders disagree and are unable to act on important matters. This is when they might need to seek counsel from other esteemed servants of the Lord elsewhere. Failure to bow to this order and these principles has been the cause of much trouble in the past. Other assemblies must not interfere with local discipline or actions.
In addition to the verses of Scripture stated above, one should also consider the work given to Timothy and Titus, who were local overseers as well as aides to the Apostle, Paul. Their work is now vested much in the elders (though not appointment of elders, which was only done at the direction of Paul for the beginning of the testimony---Titus 1:5). The verses stated below are worthy of prayerful consideration on this subject:
Num.12 and 16 shows the mind of God toward those who assert themselves into the work He has given for His servants whom He has called.
Matt.18:18-20 speaks of even the smallest gathering, and says the "binding" by the judgment of the church (assembly) is "bound in heaven". As in all such renderings given for the local assembly, if the truth is not upheld then the elders must see that it is done for obedience and to maintain the faithful testimony.
Acts 13:1-3 speaks of prophets and teachers (elders at Antioch) who were given certain responsibilities, though one should assume they conferred with the whole church.
Acts 15:22-25 shows the elders had certain duties beside the brethren with them ("the whole church"), which is not speaking about gifts, but their responsibilities.
Acts 20:17-35 is Paul's counsel to the elders about their responsibilities, especially verse 28, and in verse 27 he spoke of the ministry that was given them to minister.
I Cor.1:10 exhorts the saints to "speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you", which also surely means they should not go off contrary to the overseers.
I Cor.5:7-13 is important discipline for the assembly, and the note above as to Matthew 18 applies.
I Cor.14:40 speaks of doing things orderly and properly, and again it falls to the elders to see that it is accomplished.
I Thess.5:12-13 speaks directly of the elders and how the saints should esteem them. The following verses 14-15 apply to all, but again must be maintained by the overseers.
II Thess.3:6, 14-15 gives commandments to the assembly, which the elders must obey. Some might fail in such matters, but the elders are without excuse and "they that must give account" to God.
I Tim.3:1-7 sets forth qualifications of elders, and verse 5 speaks of responsibility to "take care of the church". One might carelessly neglect this, but God does not give personal choice to elders; rather, He gives instruction.
I Tim.5:17 speaks further of the work of elders, and how they should be esteemed.
II Tim.2 is a word to Timothy as an elder, to further the work, and in verses 14-16 he is exhorted to uphold the Word faithfully; also, verses 23-26 sets forth the manner and responsibilities God gives.
Titus 1 is a word to Titus as an elder, to further the work, and in verse 9 it is expected that an overseer should know the Word, and in verse 13 it is expected that he use it to uphold the faith.
Heb.13:7 & 17 is often minimized by a rebellious spirit to avoid the plain instructions, but God intends that elders be esteemed and followed, else some may answer to God. These overseers must do the work God gives them as being accountable, and the brethren should not oppose them, but after all inqury be helpers together with them.
I Pet.5:1-5 is plain about the role of elders, and verse 5 speaks especially to younger believers to not be proud, but submit themselves.
Rev.2 & 3 refers to the "angel of the church", which speaks mostly of God's oversight in the various local assemblies (messengers of God). It is the ministry of overseers and Godly saints, as shown in all other references above.
We need to understand first of all that this all speaks of a true scriptural assembly, for God's government cannot effectively be applied to a sect built on a bad foundation. We need to be established by the Word of Truth.
Sometimes believers want a verse that says: Thou shalt do this or else. That is Old Testament thoughts. One needs to discern the mind of God, rather than demand a verse to prove every point. As we have often said: Assembly government is not found in one verse, for it is a principle, which requires one to discern "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). God sets forth His expectations in the epistles, and if one does not conform to that they will forfeit much now and in a day to come. The saints cannot plead ignorance, for they have elders to help them.
1. Elders must guide the assembly, rather than "being lord's" over all saints (I Pet.5:2-3);
2. They take the lead and must faithfully maintain "the rule" of God over the assembly according to His purposes (Heb.13:7 & 17; Rom.12:8);
3. They "keep that which is committed unto thy trust" (I Tim.6:20);
4. They hold fast the faithful Word and "refute the gainsayers" (Titus 1:9).
5. They work for "the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph.4:11-12).
It is shown in the scriptures that the work of an overseer is "a good work" (I Tim.3:1-7), which speaks of both responsibilities of discipline to self and to the assembly. It is responsibility given to certain ones called by God. The saints may know who is a true elder by a Godly walk and work, and knowledge of the Word; and certainly all the saints are exhorted to walk Godly and do the work God gives us. - RLD: CA05
ADDENDUM: C. I. Scofield stated: "As the churches of Christ increased in number, the questions of church order, of soundness in the faith, and of discipline became important. At first the apostles regulated these things directly, but the approaching end of the apostolic period made it necessary that a clear revelation should be made for the guidance of the churches. Such a revelation is in First Timothy, and in Titus. The key phrase of I Timothy is: 'That thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God'. Well had it been with the churches if they had neither added to nor taken from the divine order". [from Theme to First Timothy - Scofield Reference Bible - KJV].