Leadership in the Christian assembly of the first century was provided by the more mature men in the congregation called elders or overseers. In the New Testament, this fact is never presented as one of several options, but is clearly the norm. The origin of elder rule can be traced back to the wisdom and experience of the elders of Israel and to the elders of the synagogue in our Lord’s time.
By design, the whole idea was to spread the work load, bring different gifts to the table, provide safety in numbers (to protect against the concentration of power in one man), to ensure a smooth transition within leadership, and most of all to reflect the truth that those in authority are also accountable, not only to God but among themselves.
But where do elders come from? How do they emerge? Most would answer that they are called by God and recognized by the people – in principle that is true. But whether one is laboring in an established assembly, or planting in a new field, the question as to how elders are actually obtained is central to providing quality care for God’s people and thus for the success of the work.
We will search the NT in vain for a simple list of steps. There are no examples given in which an elder is added to an already established and functioning leadership. Clearly, we must seek out the principles for obtaining qualified leaders in a congregation and try to understand what help can be rendered by those who already have some responsibility among God’s people.
A General Pattern
A quick reading of the book of Acts will yield three observations:
First, a transition in the leadership of the church took place from apostles at the beginning, to apostles and elders in the middle of the book, to elders alone in the newer works, as required by the growth of the church and the passing of the apostles.
Second, there is both a divine work in this process “…the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers…” (Acts 20:28) and a human side “And when they had appointed elders in every church….” (Acts 14:23).
Third, in agreement with the general tenor of all Scripture, God works first and man responds in obedience to what God is doing. Thus there is more to the expression “the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers” than simply saying that God ratifies man’s choice. Rather, God initiates the process in accord with His purposes and promises to meet the needs of His people.
In I Tim. 3:1- 7 we find two important criteria for men who would serve as elders: there must be a desire for the work (vs. 1) and certain character and family qualifications must be met (vss. 2-7). Putting these together with Acts 20:28 we have the following progression:
God works in the heart
Desire to serve grows in the individual
The desire manifests itself in the life both in character and in work.
But what about the response of the congregation to all of this? From Paul’s charge in I Thess. 5:12 “…know them who labor among you and are over you in the Lord…,” we understand that the congregation has a responsibility to “know” (i. e. to observe, learn about, recognize) their leaders. But how does this work out practically?
Acts 14:23 is a help. Paul and Barnabas were on a return visit to new assemblies. The elapsed time would have allowed the saints to note the spiritual work of some in their number. One can picture Paul pointing with his hand to indicate those who clearly were functioning as shepherds in the flock. The word in Greek means “to appoint by lifting the hand.” Considered in context, this cannot support either an elaborate ordination ceremony or a congregational vote, as the reference is clearly to Paul and Barnabas. As Wm Hoste observes; “There is something grotesque in the idea of Paul and Barnabas electing by a show of hands.” (Bishops, Priests and Deacons p. 48).
Our teaching must be clear that God works first and then His people respond. This is true not only for those who are being prepared to lead – in desire, in qualifications, and in seeking to do the work – but also as we help the saints through the eyes of experience to recognize the ones God is fitting for service. The exact method through which such pointing out takes place is not the point. That practical help is provided surely is.