Scripture is surprisingly silent on the mechanics of assembly life. There are almost no instructions on how to meet as to format and the flow of the meetings. There are no words about Sunday School, singing, hymnbooks, instruments, seating arrangements or the order of meetings. People often have strong views on these issues based on practices in Acts, inferences or conclusions drawn outside of the context, or even the silence of Scripture. There is not even an example given in the New Testament as to how a group did function on a weekly or monthly basis.
Some would be strongly assertive about the process of recognition of new elders and the propagation of the office. Such opinions are based on adherence to a pattern or preference and not supported by Scripture. Absent from Scripture is any instruction on how the office of an elder is to be perpetuated.
The pattern assemblies have adopted is that ultimately the existing elders decide what man or men are to join the oversight. This will usually include an announcement to the assembly or some means of official recognition. This pattern has been followed for generations and is now generally accepted as having scriptural support.
What does have some scriptural support is that there should be a plurality of elders. This is gleaned from several passages that use the word “elder” in the plural. In Acts 20:17 Paul called for the elders from Ephesus – though it should be remembered the book of Acts is narrative and not necessarily normative. Also in Acts, Paul appointed elders in every church he and Barnabas visited on their return to Antioch, (14:23). When Paul got to Jerusalem in Acts 15, he met with the apostles and the elders. Peter mentions elders in 1 Peter 5:1, but he is writing to a large group of converted Jews spread abroad and not to one assembly.
What would seem to be more conclusive is that Paul addresses the Philippian epistle to the elders and deacons at Philippi. Also Titus is given instruction to appoint elders in every city. Plurality is also expressed in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13 and in Hebrews 13:7, 17 by the word “those” referring to the leadership.
What the Scriptures do not mention is what happens in a new assembly that starts with very few men or a declining assembly down to one or two brethren. There is an example of Paul appointing elders and instruction for Titus to do the same. What is not addressed is what takes place in the next generation as far as appointing or recognizing new elders.
In Acts 20:28 Paul tells the Ephesian elders that it is the Holy Spirit who made them overseers. Again, for us, what is missing is any practical indication of how this truth is worked out in assembly life. Leadership is a spiritual work and the Holy Spirit equips and enables men for this function, but no instruction is given on how the Holy Spirit makes this known.
Even in the lists of qualifications in 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 there is no word on the mechanics of recognition and perpetuating the office. Both Paul and Peter address the importance of desire in the heart of those who would serve but again no direction as to recognition.
Much more could be said on this topic but these thoughts are designed to stimulate reflection and discussion. In the absence of a “thus says the Lord” there must be a pragmatic and principled way of addressing the issue. Just perhaps, there may be a better and more pro-active way than the pattern of the past one hundred and fifty years.
Practically, one of the problems has been aged men holding on to the office too long and becoming, due to tenure and age, “lords” over the flock. Ideas and initiatives are rejected because they vary from the approach of former years. Often men in this position are afraid of and thus resistant to any change in that they view the mechanics of assembly life as having scriptural support. Assemblies too easily become stifled because of fear of change and control by a strong personality. (editor’s note: See Chuck Gianotti’s article on Why People Resist Change)
Older brethren need to be aware that the assembly belongs to the Lord and be willing to relinquish control. They should consider that if the Lord called them home tomorrow, the work will either die out or be carried on by others. These others may not be as experienced, as wise, or as spiritual but if the work is to carry on, they are the material the Holy Spirit has supplied.
Pragmatic, according to the dictionary, means “dealing with the problems that exist in a specific situation in a reasonable and logical way instead of depending on ideas and theories.” I would add to “ideas and theories” old patterns – ” because it is the way it has always been done.” A pragmatic approach can be the death knell of a local church as “what works” overrides the Scripture and “thus says the Lord”. So in speaking of “being pragmatic”, I am not thinking in terms of church life in general but with regard to this specific issue.
Pragmatically it is better to start the process sooner rather than later. Younger men could meet with oversight on a regular basis without being recognized as elders. In this format there could be opportunity for discipleship. The one danger is older men who want to clone themselves rather than letting the younger men develop and make some mistakes.
Perhaps it is time to consider that the pattern now followed, though not unscriptural, does not have direct endorsement in Scripture. The principles are unalterable, but the process and practice can be addressed. Is there more that can be done to draw men into assembly life and to have them take responsibility at a younger age?
As I travel in various assemblies this is one of the most pressing issues. For a few assemblies it may be too late as there are no middle-aged men to take over the leadership. For others this is a critical time – with an aging population and little prospects for growth, it is important to start the process as soon as possible.