Here are the general guidelines for developing elders in a new work:
- A work of God in the heart. “the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers” Acts 20:28: God works first.
- A desire in the heart of the individual. I Tim. 3:1: The individual in question senses a work of God.
- Evidence in the life that the individual is suitable. I Tim. 3:2-7: Spiritually minded believers begin to take note.
- Recognition of all three of the above by the saints. I Thes. 5:12: The matter is now of public record.
*Note how the work begins with God, involves the individual God wants to use, and becomes evident to the saints.
How recognition of elder(s) works:
The first three steps mentioned above being completed, i.e. God has done a work of grace, the brother has responded with desire and obedience, it is now necessary to consider in greater detail the actual recognition process. There are so many variables as to timing and approach that we must avoid making certain details mandatory. However, there are certain underlying principles which must be preserved and these merit careful attention.
- The authority of the elder comes from God, not from man. Voting violates this principle. The goal of recognition is to publicly state what all those in the fellowship have already become aware of. Public recognition confers no authority!
- Individual recognition leads to collective recognition. A qualified brother will have been doing the work of an elder for some time. Through his love for the Lord, handling of the Scriptures, cooperation with others who are recognized as leaders, relationships with the people, and general work among the flock, it will become evident in time to the sheep that God has provided shepherds for them.
- There is no substitute for time in getting ready. The people will want to discuss names among themselves, asking questions both formally and informally of those who seem qualified. Doing some Scripture studies on the qualifications of elders and the nature of elder work will raise new questions. Let no one rush this important process.
- The actual timing of a public announcement as well as who makes it are of lesser consequence. If the work of preparation has been done well, the public announcement will not come as a surprise to anyone.
How do we know that elders should be recognized publicly?
The Scriptures are written with the assumption that they provide a handbook which is relevant for all cultures and periods of history, rather than simply a historical record of something that took place long ago but is now unattainable. What Paul instructed Titus to do (Titus 1:5) he would expect God’s servant today to do also. When James instructed those who are sick to call for the elders of the church (James 5:14), he wrote as though his readers would know whom to call. Likewise when Paul sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church (Acts 20:17), he did not send a list of names lest his idea of who were elders might differ from that of the messenger he sent. Everywhere, the perspective of the NT record is that the elders of a given local church are known to those in fellowship, and there is no thought of a discussion to identify the group.