Recently, discussion arose during a men’s Bible study, here at UCCC, surrounding the topic of the selection of elders in the Church.
Let me preface this post by saying that our men’s Bible study group has been meeting for some time now to study Paul’s writings to Timothy & Titus. This discussion on the mechanism of democracy stemmed from passages which provide the qualities sought in a man referred to as “blameless”… the single ‘qualification’ for a man as elder.
Arising from the discussion came the question of the common method of selecting elders. I have always thought it strange that the American Church is so strongly tied to American political methods, having adopted it’s methods in the selection (or election) of leaders. The evidence cannot be denied… most Churches ‘elect’ their leaders, deacons, elders & ministry staff. As a general rule, these ‘elections’ occur during November, as do most American elections. Churches use a nomination method, employ ballots, require membership (akin to registration) for voting eligibility and even refer to eldership as an ‘office’ and prospective leaders as ‘candidates’. Following the ‘election’ there is an elaborate process of ‘swearing in’ which is often referred to as ordination, yet bears little spiritual influence or impact because, often there is little effort in creating a serious spiritual emphasis… merely a recitation of response by the congregation followed by a generic reading from another leader.
I have always thought it strange that the American Church is so strongly tied to American political methods, having adopted it’s methods in the selection (or election) of leaders.
Please do not misunderstand me… I firmly believe in Biblical eldership and in ordination, or the setting apart for specific ministry. I also would not condone non-members from selecting staff or placing elders/deacons into service to their respective positions. However, I am terribly burdened by the fact that most American Churches seem far closer to fitting the model of the American Political system than the model of New Testament structure found in Scripture. The plea of the Restoration Movement is the inspiration & sufficiency of Scripture… that God has revealed His will through His word and that this model of faith & practice cannot be improved upon, and need not be changed. Having said that, I have to wonder why so many Christian Churches & Churches of Christ are so tied to a flawed method for the selection & ordination of their leadership & ministry staff.
From the pages of Acts, chapter 6, we read a clarification of the ministry of elders in the apostolic plea for help. The Apostles state that “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2b-4, NASB’95)
This passage identifies the primary calling of an overseer (elder) as that of “prayer and the ministry of the Word”. Elders are called as the spiritual leaders and shepherds of the congregation, providing pastoral care and direction to their flock. Deacons, commonly thought to be the seven men identified in this passage, are selected from the congregation and set apart for service. Although there is no election or nomination process described, there is an explicit mention of these men being brought before the Apostles who prayed over and laid their hands on the men. Certainly, doubtlessly, this was for the imparting of a spiritual gift to these servants.
“It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2b-4, NASB’95)
The Apostolic age has passed, however, the spiritual significance of men serving as elders or deacons is as important today as it was in the days of this account. Although I do believe that most Churches place an emphasis upon the significance and serious nature of ordination, I am ashamed to say that I have witnessed very few ordinations which approach this level of spirituality. More often than not, I have witnessed ordination services which smack of little preparation or advanced planning, rehearsal or spiritual emphasis and whose presentations are stale, lacking impact. Why? I’m convinced that it is partly due to the reality that the Church is seldom invested in the effort. Adding to this is the fact that Evangelists (Ministers) are not involved in the selection & appointing of elders within the Church as Paul established with Timothy & Titus.
When I read Acts 6, I see the unmistakable marks of a spiritual effort by the congregation. No small town politics, or selfish motives… the congregation sought godly men & selected suitable servants. And, I will add, the Apostles blessed the selection which confirms that their selection was correct. By contrast, most Churches today suffer under the ‘good-ol-guy’ method of biological selection, by having the present leadership nominate men for positions, who are often inheriting the post from their kin. Am I the only one who has the foul taste of nepotism in my mouth as I consider this present method?
As a result, selection of men for ministry or leadership has often been reduced to a popularity contest. Congregations are not invested in the selection, so we really cannot hold them as seriously accountable for the words they regurgitate at the ordination. If an emphasis of prayer has not been created from the beginning (something significant enough that the Apostles did it) how can we ever expect God’s blessing in the result? Elders, selected by nepotism, circumvent the accountability of an evangelist, thus creating the hierarchy which destroys effective ministry. Deacons, similarly, are chosen from a limited pool apart from congregational input until the token vote.
If an emphasis of prayer has not been created from the beginning (something significant enough that the Apostles did it) how can we ever expect God’s blessing in the result?
Fortunately, I serve in partnership with men who are committed to the New Testament model, and are not swayed by political agenda. These men, and those who served before them have taken courageous steps toward fully restoring the New Testament model of leadership. Our deacons are accountable for areas of ministry, including the oversight of a budget, and they report monthly to our eldership regarding ministry activities & needs. Our elders are each active in pastoral ministry and are given to prayer & the ministry of the Word. Although there is almost always room for growth in any leadership, I am blessed to truly enjoy a partnership with these men… yet, I sadly recognize that such elderships are a minority among our Churches.
Without killing the subject by remaining negative, I’d like to make a few points about God’s model.
1. God’s model for leadership is sufficient. What positive outcome can be produced by messing with God’s model?
2. The congregation must be invested in the selection of their deacons. The nomination method commonly used in most Christian Churches / Churches of Christ is flawed by reason of special interest.
3. Elders must be accountable to an evangelist. True partnership can only occur when there is co-accountability and not an employment of hierarchy.
4. Evangelists must be accountable to an eldership in the local congregation. “Pastor” (as applied to the modern preaching minister) is not Biblical and employs the fallen methods of denominationalism. Evangelists / ministers are not to be ‘Lone Rangers’… the elder is the pastor in the local congregation, not the paid staff minister.
5. Election methods may be employed in certain settings, but are not found to be used in the New Testament for selection of elders. Such methods circumvent prayer, reduce spiritual focus and dedication and lower confidence & involvement by the congregation.
Certainly, autonomy allows for a local eldership to determine methods best suited toward meeting the needs of the congregation so long as they honor the model established by God. I would not suggest that voting should never be employed, however, it must be in proper context. From the New Testament, we find men ‘desiring the ministry of overseer’, not nominated for such. We find a list of qualities identified by the single qualification of ‘blameless’ from Paul’s writing concerning elders. I submit that a man who displays these life qualities, and is qualified as blameless, should be allowed to make known his desire to serve as an elder, apart from a nomination process. The congregation, eldership & evangelist should prayerfully examine such a man to see if his life truly possesses such qualities, and following such examination, they are required to voice concern over areas in question. Should such an individual be found fit, according to Scripture, he should be set apart for service as an elder by the evangelist in cooperation with the elders through a public, spiritual ceremony of ordination. Deacons should be selected from the congregation & similarly reviewed to determine their qualities in light of Scripture. Voting is unnecessary in this process if the leadership & congregation have prayerfully considered & reviewed the man’s life qualities. In the event of concern, issues should be voiced in person by the party raising the question before the leadership (elders & ministers) and accusations should be raised before the man being considered to determine if they have merit. At this point, anyone in the congregation with concerns has the obligation to present them before the proper group, in the proper manner… in person. This raises the spiritual bar, so to speak, be expecting involvement of the congregation in the process through prayer & review of the man’s life qualities. The end result is a higher degree of confidence in the men serving in these capacities. In my opinion, voting should be reserved for matters of lesser concern, and leaders should take the reigns of leadership.
Certainly, autonomy allows for a local eldership to determine methods best suited toward meeting the needs of the congregation so long as they honor the model established by God.
So, what must we do? As evangelists, we must step out of the comfort zone of submission to a flawed method for sake of stomach or shelter and begin providing Spiritual instruction on the Biblical model. As members, we must hold leaders accountable for their ministry and commit to prayer on their behalf. As elders there must be a surrendering of pride for the sake of restoring the sufficient, inspired model of God as revealed in His word. Shed the weight of added fetters by fully restoring the New Testament model for leader/servant selection.
What can we expect by such effort? The blessings of our Lord for obediently following His word. We can also expect greater involvement of interest & participation in ministry by the congregation. We can expect men to rise to the challenge of the ministry with which they have been entrusted, and the removal of the chaff of those who refuse to take it serious.