Sometimes we encounter an assembly that is limping along with little in the way of pastoral care or leadership effort, and hope is about gone. Inquiring about the elders, we hear a sad story of advancing age, absence due to travel, etc., and then this comment: “But you know, ‘Once an elder, always an elder.’” Is this a Bible truth or a man-made tradition? The question is worth some thought, because it ultimately brings us back to the nature and authority of assembly leadership.
First, some cautions. There are many fine elders who pass through times of reduced activity for reasons too numerous to list such as health, family and employment constraints. These things are part of the normal course of life; and long-term faithfulness despite trials is heart warming. Others believe that although advancing age prevents their involvement in the meetings of the elders, they can still provide advice and counsel, and add their voice in time of crisis such as when doctrinal or moral error threatens the church. This too is commendable.
But what about those situations where an elder has lost all desire to do the work, or is unable to do the work because of increased inflexibility or declining mental faculties that sometimes accompany advanced age? Perhaps a man no longer qualifies according to the guidelines given in I Timothy and Titus, or becomes increasingly absent for long periods of time? Also, what about a brother who moves into the area from a distant city and proclaims that since he was an elder “back there,” he is still an elder here? Is he an elder wherever he goes? Are there biblical precedents for limiting the duration of a ministry for which no limits are spelled out? Is it wrong to expect an elder to “step down” under certain situations?
Turning to the Old Testament instructions about ministry in Israel, it is interesting to note that the Levites were permitted full involvement in their sphere of work only until age fifty (Numbers 8:25, 26). After that, they could function in a supportive role among their brethren, but the days of active duty were over; the work was to be passed along to younger men. In the New Testament, there are no instructions about the duration of eldership. Certainly where Scripture is silent, we have liberty to decide. So we are really seeking to understand what is best for the church.
If we study the call of Paul and Barnabas for missionary service in Acts 13, we find no hint about time limits. Yet when these men had labored in the work for some time, we read: “And from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled” (Acts 14:26 KJV). Apparently Paul and Barnabas felt the freedom to decide how long they should remain on the field before returning home. This has nothing to do with “quitting,” since Luke refers to the work as being “fulfilled.”
In I Timothy 3:1-8, Paul instructs Timothy on the qualifications for elders. The literal rendering of verse 1 is helpful: “If any man aspires to oversight, he desires a good work.” It does not say that if anyone aspires to oversight, he desires a good position. This is because the basis of eldership in the New Testament is recognition of work, not the attaining of a titled position. Writing to the very young assembly at Thessalonica, Paul exhorts the believers: “Know them who labor among you and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you …..and to esteem them very highly in love for their works sake” (I Thess. 5:12,13). It would be pointless to exhort people to know who their leaders are if it were simply a matter of knowing the names of those upon whom a title had been conferred!
Back in I Timothy 3, Paul goes on to show how Timothy (and we) might recognize elders at the local level, and he repeats this in Titus chapter 1. A careful study of these passages would show that a man’s character, his family life and his spiritual capacity to function must all be prayerfully evaluated. A summary conclusion seems reasonable: A man may function as a elder in the church if he desires the work and meets the qualifications. If he loses the desire or becomes disqualified, he can not be considered an elder, and should give place to others who can do the work.
Because the matter of recognition by the congregation is at the heart of the process, it stands to reason that a brother must not expect to be recognized in one place because he was once recognized somewhere else. This is in keeping with the autonomy of the local church; the authority of its leadership (humanly speaking) does not derive from any place outside of the local congregation.
Over the years, I have had the privilege to visit a large and healthy assembly in the Southern US in a Christian retirement community. Christians have come to live there from all over the USA and Canada. Many of the men had served for years as elders in the assembly “back home.” But when they come to a new area and a new assembly, they humbly take their place under the watchful care and work of the elders in their new assembly. Of course, some may aspire to eldership, and in time become recognized by the local congregation, but this will only be because they have again taken up the shepherding work of the elder and earned the respect and recognition both of the flock, and of those already in leadership. Over the years there has been a lovely display of God’s grace and humility in this biblical plan for renewing of church leadership.
In conclusion, we can be confident that there is no biblical authority for the statement “Once an elder, always an elder.” Rather, an elder is one who is known by his work, and it would be good for the church and a mark of humility if elders would turn over the work to younger, qualified men when they themselves are no longer able to carry it on. This will encourage the development of the younger men of the assembly, and protect the church from that unseemly professionalism found wherever men grasp at or seek to retain titles and honor which they no longer merit.