Everyone wants to fellowship in “a good church,” one that is large enough to meet their needs, but small enough to provide a sense of belonging and ownership. Most people love the joy and intimacy of a new meeting where everyone knows everyone, and everyone seems involved. Trouble is, what we like, others like too. And as they join with us in fellowship, the church grows and we may hear it said that “something has been lost.” People accustomed to a certain quality of fellowship and care struggle with the feeling of being pushed out into the fringes of the group. It takes hard work to feed and care for a growing flock, which in turn requires more shepherds to keep up with the growing needs, and careful delegation of peripheral tasks to younger believers. There are a number of reasons why a local church may want to add one or more elders to the existing number. Two obvious reasons are that the work is growing or that some elders have moved away (or been called home).
A Parenthetical Thought
This raises the question as to the duration of eldership. Some say that eldership is for life; others say a man should step down if he no longer qualifies (e.g., if he can no longer do the work of an elder). The Scripture doesn’t address the question directly, but we do have the example of men who had been called by God to a work, using their own judgment about the length of service. In Acts 13:2, we read of God’s call of Paul and Barnabas to an assignment which seemed open ended; there is no record of any length of service given. Yet, after some months of travel and preaching, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch having “fulfilled” the work to which God had called them (Acts 14:26). True they went out again later, but that was a new journey, the first mission having been completed. It would, therefore seem reasonable for elders to use this as a model for their own status. That is, the scripture does not specifically mandate the length of service for elders – the duration may vary depending on the Lord’s leading as situations require.
Finding Them. . . . .Adding Them
We have already mentioned that there is no Biblical example of an existing assembly adding elders to those already functioning. How then do we proceed? First we should recall the steps by which elders were obtained at the beginning, as outlined in the last issue of ESN: God works first in the heart, a desire to serve grows in the individual, qualifications of character and family are met, and there is public recognition by the believers in the church. Now, is there any good reason to seek a different plan than this? I think not. In fact, herein lies the probable explanation as to why Scripture does not provide additional revelation on the subject. Whether an assembly is new or longstanding, the same process will work if applied carefully and prayerfully.
This means that we should expect God to anticipate our changing (or growing!) needs, and move in hearts to provide help. If elders are working together in harmony, the saints will know it and can expect that younger men will respond with a desire to share the burden. This will manifest itself in the life and spiritual activity in the assembly. But those already so recognized must be watching for these evidences and inviting younger men to join with them in whatever shepherding activities will serve as training tools.
A good rule of thumb may be to add another elder for every 20 or 30 people received into fellowship. Happy is the church that moves through this process of adding to, or change, within the leadership without trauma to the work This is one of the greatest differences between God’s pattern of a functioning plural leadership and the tragic case of the “empty pulpit” seen in many churches today.