Was the office of an elder only for apostolic times (similar to the office of an apostle) or is it an ongoing office?
The premise of this article is that the office was introduced at the beginning of this age and is applicable for the whole period. In the epistles there are at least six references to elders. The references are as follows: Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-20; Titus 1:5-9; James 5:14; and 1 Peter 5:1-4. To these could be added Acts 20:17 and 28, though Acts is narrative and not necessarily normative. Paul is giving a discourse that includes doctrine. There are also four verses that reference those who rule or who are in authority: 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13; and Hebrews 13:7, 17.
Those who hold that the office is not for today would discount the references to the churches in Ephesus (Acts 20) and Philippi as being in the apostolic age. The instructions in 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 may be dismissed as being for that time or being the ideal but not attainable. The problem with discounting all of these passages is that it may leave a person with the question, “What truths do apply today?”
In Acts 20:28 Paul speaks of the church and its relationship to God; it is His possession by virtue of the price that was paid. The reference to the Holy Spirit’s ministry is instructive in terms of the direction and leadership of the church. This reveals that those who lead and are appointed to do so by the Spirit must be shepherds of the flock. The fact that Paul called the elders to come to Miletus (Acts 20:17) indicates that they and the assembly knew who Paul was summoning.
1 Timothy 5:17-20, this passage addresses the subject of elders who rule well and who also labor in a teaching ministry. The passage also deals with accusations against elders and the seriousness of known sin in their life. Elders who sin are held to a higher standard in that there is the call for a public rebuke. If this passage were discounted one could ask, “What about the teaching that precedes this with regard to widows or what follows to do with the conduct of servants?”
Paul speaks in 1 Thessalonians 5: 12, 13 of those who labor among the saints but are also over them in the Lord and who give a word of warning. The saints are to recognize these men and value them for the work they do. It may be argued that since the word “elder” is not used that these are merely leading brethren. This again sounds like semantics as these men are functioning as elders, teaching, shepherding, and watching.
Hebrews 13:7 and 17 mention those who rule or as the ESV puts it “your leaders.” These believers were to remember them as their leaders and respect how they lived but were also to be submissive to these men. If there is to be obedience and submission, it follows that the leaders must be men who are known in the assembly and who function in leadership.
In James 5:14 regarding those who are ill, the context suggests that unconfessed sin is the root cause and they are to call the elders. The elders must be known if they are to be summoned. The elders are part of this process where healing is guaranteed upon confession of sin.
A plurality in leadership, elders or overseers is the most likely expectation of the reader of the New Testament. Most individuals reading through the Bible would assume that the pattern seen and the topic spread thoughout the New Testament would be visible today. It may be true that the church in the Western world is far from the simplicity and spirituality of the early church, but that is not necessarily true in the entire world. In addition, there is no scripture either stated or implied that indicates the office of elder is to cease.
J.N.Darby proposed a theory referred to as “The Church in Ruins.” His full discussion on this subject, his views, and reasons are available online. In simplistic terms he said that the church of today is so far removed from the first century church that it is in ruins, and due to the flesh, far from what Christ intended. He believed that a practical implication of the state of the church meant that the office of elder could no longer apply.
Various groups of assemblies have adhered to this perspective and some other of Darby’s conclusions. A number of exclusive groups have operated under the conviction that the office does not apply to the church today. This view would also be held by some “open assemblies”, usually ones that have had a strong “exclusive influence.” This was true in the assembly in which I grew up. I have encountered the same view over the years in ministering in various assemblies.
It is difficult to characterize what someone else believes without erecting a “straw man.” It seems to me that there are underlying perspectives that propel this view. One is that no person can fulfill the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Another is that those who are doing the work will be recognized without a specific designation. Along with this is the belief that the Holy Spirit will direct individuals to the man they can approach with a question or a need.
Experientially I have found that with or without recognition someone has to take leadership. Regardless of the size of the assembly and the mechanics of decision making, someone or a plurality has to take the lead. In assemblies without designated elders either the majority of the men take leadership or only certain men are invited to be in leadership. It seems to me that in many ways it is merely a matter of semantics – there are men in leadership but the word “elders” is not used.
There may be other reasons for having this view such as those of E.W. Bullinger. Bullinger, the author of the Companion Bible, saw an extra dispensation that could be referred to as the Jewish Church, the extension of which is that there are certain practices only applied at that time in history. His views are referred to as “Bullingerism” or “hyper-dispensationalism.”
After much study, it is clear to me that the office of eldership is clearly mandated in Scripture and that it is indeed still relevant today.