Without Elders, Who’s “In Charge” Of The Local Church?
In Paul’s epistle to Titus, we learn there were some things “lacking,” or still left undone, that needed to be “set in order” (Titus 1:5). One of these things was the ordaining of elders. In Acts 14:23, we learn that Paul and Barnabas, while returning from their first preaching journey, “ordained … elders in every church.” Obviously, then, the ordaining of elders in every church was something the Holy Spirit considered to be extremely important to churches of Christ. If elders were simply to be thought of as “options,” as some seem to think, then surely they would not have received the attention afforded them by the Holy Spirit. Ordaining (or appointing) elders in a local church of Christ was, according to an inspired apostle, nothing less than setting in order the things that were lacking.
What this all teaches is that although a local church may be scriptural without elders, it cannot really be complete until such elders are ordained. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that elders are “gifts” given by our Lord Jesus Christ “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:7-13). But in truth, even when two baptized believers begin to meet at a certain place for the purpose of New Testament worship, they compose the church in that locality. As such, they are as scriptural as a well established church with elders. But, and here is my point, they definitely have a problem, and sooner or later this problem is going to manifest itself. As the congregation continues to grow in number, its members will eventually come to appreciate their need for some type of oversight. Of course, in their scripturally unorganized form, the very thing they need (viz., “oversight”) is the very thing the Bible says is “lacking” (cf. Titus 1:5 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7).
In the absence of elders, no single person (or group of people, for that matter) has the scriptural right or obligation to assume or exercise any “oversight.” When a situation arises where a decision needs to be made, the church must discuss the situation, be of the same mind, and then act accordingly. There is absolutely no scriptural authority for any form of voting so as to establish majority rule. The church of Jesus Christ is not a democracy. If more brethren understood this, there would not be so many attempts to substitute “leadership” or a “men’s business meeting” for a scriptural eldership. Churches that do so, do so to their own detriment.
The Bible informs us that a church without scriptural elders is definitely working with an impediment. Inevitably, congregational decisions will have to be made; but if, in the absence of elders, no one (or group) has the rule, then how are final decisions going to be made? I believe the Bible provides guidelines for Christians who find themselves in such circumstances. But some, seeing this as an insurmountable problem, hastily (or at least prematurely) appoint men who are scripturally unqualified. This is a mistake and, interestingly enough, demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s plan for the local church. How?, you say. Because those rushing to be “scripturally organized” due to the pressure of congregational “business” neglect the Holy Spirit’s instructions as to the absolute qualifications that must be in place before a man can be scripturally appointed an elder. True faith, the kind that trusts in and relies upon God, will seek a “thus sayeth the Lord” for the things it believes and practices. Consequently, we must turn to God’s word for the answer of what is, admittedly, a thorny issue.
Scriptural authority for a church meeting to discuss business is found in Acts 6:1-8, where we are told that certain widows were being neglected in the “daily ministration.” Responsibility for these widows fell within the “business” of the Jerusalem church. Having “called the multitude of the disciples unto them,” the apostles said, “look ye out among you seven men…whom we may appoint over this business (emphasis mine).” The word translated “business” in this passage means “Necessity… need … duty or… business” (Vine). After receiving such apostolic instruction, the “multitude of the disciples” (the ASV says “congregation” and the NRSV says “the whole community”) then took care of the business at hand, that is, they selected seven men to minister to the neglected widows. Therefore, “business meetings” are authorized by an approved apostolic example. However, many of the “business meetings” I have been a part of during my 48 years as a Christian have not reflected the approved apostolic example mentioned above. I say “most” because I have been in a few meetings of the whole church where pressing business was discussed, like the need for the church to look out among itself and appoint elders, for instance. But these occasions have been exceptions rather than the rule.
I believe an argument can be made for a “men’s business meeting” on the grounds that a meeting that is called to take care of business that includes both men and women in today’s cultural environment may not be expedient, and I’ll further expound on this point later. But the point I’m trying to make now is that a business meeting involving the whole church, and this would usually include both men and women, is, in point of fact, lawful. By lawful, I mean scriptural. In other words, I am arguing that an apostolically approved example (viz., Acts 6:1-7) teaches that a meeting of the whole church called to take care of business is Biblical. If this is true, and I don’t see any way it can be effectively refuted, then it is wrong to believe or teach that it is somehow unscriptural for women to be in a meeting of the church called to take care of business. But this is exactly what some brethren argue:
If a woman has authority with men in business meetings, she then has authority over men in the church. Remember, that business meetings are decision making meetings that involve the leadership of the church. If women have the same authority as men in these meetings, then they are exercising authority over the church (which includes men as well as women).
Those who take this position go on to say:
Leadership in the local church belongs to men. A decision making business meeting is in itself a ruling entity. The role of women is that of subjection. … Just as it is men (not women) who are to conduct the worship of the assembly, it is men (not women) who are to conduct the business affairs of the local church.
Now, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that men (not women) are to exercise leadership in the local church, and there is no doubt that such leadership involves authority. Otherwise, Paul’s instruction that a woman must not usurp authority over a man in 1 Tim. 2:12 would make absolutely no sense. Anyone who knows me or has listened to my preaching and teaching over the years knows that I believe and teach that a woman, in order to be pleasing to God, must be “under authority” or “in subjection” both in the home and the church. Consequently, I do not believe a woman can “teach or usurp authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). I further believe that a woman is to “keep silent in the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34), that is, when the church is assembled.
However, the only men that the N.T. identifies as having the “rule” or “oversight” are elders/bishops/pastors (1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Pet 5:2; Acts 20:28). Therefore, and here’s my point: The only “ruling entity” in the local church is a plurality of men (elders/bishops/pastors) who meet certain specific and extensive qualifications set down by the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, and this ought to be quite clear, if such an eldership presently existed in a congregation, then a “men’s business meeting” would not and could not be viewed as a “ruling entity.” However, in the absence of elders, the Bible does not teach that a “men’s business meeting” is the de facto “ruling entity” for the local church. In fact, and this is my point, in the absence of elders, there is no ruling entity that exists in the local church; namely, it is one of the things that is lacking.
Consequently, decisions that are made — and decisions will have to be made — are to be made by consensus. According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, consensus is “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.” In other words, “UNANIMITY.” Some think that such is impossible, but they are wrong. It is not impossible for a congregation to come to a unanimous decision about some piece of business. In fact, if all members are Christians, and this is what a local church is supposed to be, then it ought to be a simple matter to arrive at a consensus of opinion, and to do so without someone or some group being “in charge.” It is unfortunate that such a process can be, and often is, quite difficult, and this is particularly so when those involved in the process don’t have the right attitude about what it is they are doing — namely, demonstrating their faith and trust in God and those He has redeemed with the precious blood of His Son.
Admittedly, this whole process is made much easier when elders, who are in the God-given position to exercise “oversight” or “rule,” are in place. However, it must be remembered that even elders do not exercise themselves as “lords” over those who have been “entrusted” to them, but as “examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). When these men set the right example, it is assumed the congregation will follow. There are, of course, exceptions (i.e., the unruly, et cetera) and elders have the authority to deal with such members. If the elders are unsuccessful in leading such to repentance, then they will ask the congregation to “withdraw” from such individuals (1 Tim. 3:6). So, even with elders, the local church is expected to be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). In closing his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church to be “of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor. 13:11-12).
You will recall that when the letters were sent out by the church at Jerusalem concerning the Judaizers, who were troubling the Gentile Christians concerning matters of the Law, it was in the name of “the apostles, the elders, and the brethren” (Acts 15:23). Some, trying to argue that only men were involved in the process, say that “brethren” means only men. Such a claim manifests total ignorance of the text and the context. Yes, adelphos, translated in the verse as “brethren,” can refer to men, but it is frequently used to refer to kinsmen (male and female), those of the same nation (male and female), those in the same group (male and female), and those who are Christians (male and female). Besides, that men and women are included in the term “brethren” in verse 23 is established by verse 22, which says, “Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church [emphasis mine], to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.” In other words, they were all of the “same mind” and “same judgment” in the matter. Notice, further, that this was all done without any woman teaching or usurping authority over any of the men, be they apostles, elders, or any other male member of the congregation.
In the next article, the plan is to deal with church business meetings in view of the feminization of our culture, a circumstance that must be factored into this issue.