I am not trying to write a doctoral dissertation or even a comprehensive doctrinal analysis, but since we’ve been discussing this, I thought I would give a quick review of the biblical evidence about elders. I’m going to present the findings of an in-depth, intense (I’m kidding) search of Logos and the use of the term in the NT.
1) All 24 instances of the use of the term elders in the gospels (Matthew-Luke, there are none in John) as well as 8 of the 18 uses of the word in the book of Acts refer to the “chief priests and elders” of Israel. In Israel, the rule by a body of elders was standard practice. It is my understanding that it was also standard practice in towns and organizations in the Gentile culture. So, the early church, in using elders, was just adopting the standard governmental practice that was used in the world in which the church was born – governance by a body of mature men.
Question: In my earlier post, I referenced an article by a friend of mine, published in a book years ago, which argued that elders were not a mandated or divinely ordered form of government, but just the common form of the day. That is why the focus is on the need for character and maturity, and not structure. The early church just adapted the form of government everyone was familiar with and made it work by inserting mature, godly and spiritually capable men at the reigns.
2) In the book of Acts, there is little doubt that the Jerusalem church was governed by the Apostles with the help of elders. What is not clear to me is whether elders is a descriptive term (spiritually mature men) or whether it is a designation for an official office. (Acts 11:30, 15:2,4,6,22-23, 16:4, 21:18).
3) The evidence seems to lead to the conclusion that Paul appointed elders in the churches he planted. Acts 14:23 tells us that Barnabas and Saul appointed elders in every church in the Galatian region. There were elders in Ephesus in Acts 20:17, whom Paul gathered and addressed.
The evidence in Acts could be argued two ways. There isn’t that much mention of Elders or of forms of church governance on one hand, while on the other hand, every mention of church governance seems to include what we call today a plurality of elders. So, there isn’t a lot of evidence, but it all does run in one direction.
4) I find it interesting that there is not a single mention of elders in any of Paul’s epistles until his last books, the Pastoral Epistles.
This is in line with a working theory I have that church government was an evolving thing throughout the early church era, from Jerusalem to the post-apostolic era, gradually becoming more formalized as time went on. Early on, perhaps the terms elders referred only to mature believers who gave leadership, much as a deacon was simply a servant. As time went on, the ministries evolved into offices.
Before someone points it out, Philippians 1:1 refers to “overseers” (bishops) which is a term closely related to the term elders. And this is the term that is used to describe the office in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Question: If having a plurality of elders is such an important issue in the governance of the NT church, why are there no such commands or greater evidence? I will agree that what evidence there is leans to a plurality of elders – which is why if I were starting a church or if I complete freedom I’d probably use some kind of form of elder-led congregationalism. But it seems to me to fall way short of any kind of mandate or universal authority for elders.
I know that “one verse is sufficient on which to hang heaven or hell” – or whatever that quote is. But if something is so important, as I’ve been told it is by some, shouldn’t the NT evidence be clear and convincing?
5) Titus 1:5 would seem to be the strongest evidence of any kind of mandate.
6) I would also say that while elders and overseers are given authority and are to be respected, even followed, their authority is hardly unfettered. In Acts 15, the church gave assent to the decision of the Apostles and Elders. There are other scriptures in which elders judgment seems to be affirmed by the body as a whole. Elder authority in the church does not per se negate congregationalism.
So, based on the biblical evidence, I have more questions than conclusions. I would make the following observations:
1) It would seem clear that leadership in the early church was not left in the hands of a single man, but that a plurality of spiritually mature men led churches.
2) While churches were led by the spiritually mature, there was no specific structure given.
3) The key teaching about church leadership is about character and maturity, not structure, my point in the last post.
I don’t have a lot of time to finish this off. I should probably edit it some more, but I’ll just let the readers have their crack at it. Make your observations from the text.
The question of the day: Doe the textual evidence mandate elder governance as some in the SBC are claiming?