Leadership Principles III; Elders – How are They Recognized?

In previous articles, we have seen that church elders are the result of a cooperative work between God and His people. Elders are “made” by the Holy Spirit, they have a desire to serve, they exhibit certain qualities, and they become a known group within the church. But how do they become known?

In this article we want to zero in on one very specific aspect of the “human responsibility” side; recognizing elders. Since no Scripture provides a formula or official ceremony by which elders are added to a “board,” we will need to gather the clues that can help us understand the process.

Gathering the Clues 

In the first place, it is significant that there are no biblical instructions for electing or “installing” church elders. Normally, arguments from silence are not compelling, but the very fact that two extensive lists of qualifications (or character qualities) for elders are preserved (I Tim. 3, Titus 1) but no details of how to make things official seems an eloquent silence. Unless, of course, the intent is a quiet, spiritual process that emphasizes a growing discernment of what God has been doing all along!

Second, we read that Paul, in writing to the young church at Thessalonica, exhorts the believers to “recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (I Thess. 5:12 NKJV). Such an instruction would be meaningless if men became elders by official public action such as majority vote or by belonging to the ruling family. The language used reminds us of the Lord’s words to Moses when, needing assistants, Moses was told to gather men “whom you know to be the elders of the people…” (Num 11:16).

Another important clue comes from the actions of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:23 where we read that they “appointed elders in every church.” It is easy to read modern day politics into the word “appoint.” Space forbids a detailed study of the various Greek words for appointing people, but the particular word used here is a combination of two words “to lift” and “hand,” i.e., “to lift the hand.” Based on this, some have suggested that the reference is to a vote being taken in the congregation by the raising of hands.

However, it is important to note that in the original text of Acts 14:23, the subjects doing the action are clearly Paul and Barnabas. A more literal rendering of the Greek would be, “And having appointed for them in every church elders….” William Hoste, in his book “Bishops, Priests and Deacons,” remarks that, “There is indeed something grotesque in the idea of Paul and Barnabas ‘electing by a show of hands.’ “ More likely, the meaning would be captured by our common expression “pointing out” those who were suitable.

A study of the context shows that this action by the apostles did not take place when the assemblies throughout the region were first planted, but on a later, return visit through the area (Acts 14:21). This would allow time for capable men to exhibit some of the qualities necessary and apply themselves to the care and feeding of the flock. Understandably, men like Paul and Barnabas who were older in the faith and more experienced in the work of God would discern those who should be considered elders, and it would be a great benefit to a young church to have help in the recognition of elders before the “missionaries” left the area.

The fact that Paul reminds Titus, a young man laboring on the island of Crete to do the same, i.e. to appoint elders “in every city” (Titus 1:5) shows that this role was not limited to original apostles.

In view of all this, we ought not to read something highly structured and official into the word “appoint,” but rather something less formal—a discernment which would be not only shared through pointing out, but accepted and honored.

Supporting Observations 

Before moving on to consider the public aspect of elder recognition, a couple of related observations may be helpful.

1) It is interesting to note that no Christian worker in the NT ever appointed elders on a first visit. As already noted, Paul waited until a return visit to the young churches in Galatia before appointing or pointing out elders. If the process was simply an arbitrary “official action,” he might have taken care of the matter while still with the Thessalonians, but instead he sends them an exhortation to exercise discernment (1 Thess 5:12).

The same may be said of the note to Titus mentioned earlier. Paul might simply have appointed elders while he was at Crete, but instead, he leaves Titus there and later reminds him of the connection between church order and good leadership.

2). How important is it to determine the nuances of words like “appoint,” “know,” recognize? Far from splitting hairs, it will be seen at once that the underlying issue is the ultimate source of elders’ authority – God or men? 

3) While chosen persons such as “the twelve” (apostles) or the seven chosen in Acts 6 to serve tables are clearly identified, there is nevertheless considerable emphasis placed on testimony and reputation. Expressions such as Paul’s description of James, Cephas and John, who “seemed to be pillars,” and the corresponding discernment of the apostles who “perceived the grace” given to Paul (Gal 2:9), underscore the importance of spiritual discernment of God’s workings among men.

Thus, all that we have seen lends support to the idea of godly men recognizing and responding to a divine work rather than a sort of power play engineered by influential men to make official the will of the people.

Making Things Public 

Throughout church history, various groups have tried to follow the idea of an “unrecognized, spiritual leadership.” These efforts for the most part have not gone well. People need to know who is in charge, and there are few areas where clear communication is more important.

Since Scripture does not specify any “ordination” procedures, it seems reason- able to assume that the church must have liberty to handle the matter as best meets the need, without impugning on any biblical principles. In a new church, older and experienced believers may help both in the recognition process and in public announcement. Obviously, once an initial group or board of elders has been formed, adding others will simply mean repeating the process.

Preliminary announcements of tentative candidates can give the people time to ask questions, share viewpoints or register concerns. Simple interviews, question and answer times or open discussions can be very helpful. All of these can be kept simple if we remember that the normal NT pattern is not introducing the saints to strangers who are being imported from other areas to serve in the church. Rather, it is a recounting of what has become increasingly obvious; be- loved brothers have been laboring among the flock, and are now being publicly accepted by all as having been raised up by the Lord.

It will be helpful if public announcements are timely and clear, and use the word “recognize” as a synonym for spiritual discernment rather than official ordination marking the commencement of spiritual authority. It is true that one of the definitions for the word “recognize” is “to approve formally,” but the public aspect is best seen as the natural and in- evitable fruit of the greater work that has preceded it.

The amount of weight any church places on God’s workings to supply leadership as compared to its own response in discernment, recognition and public communications will probably vary from one church to another. But the safest route may be to apply the general principle: “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16).

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