In this passage, the Holy Spirit records a pattern of ministry for building up local churches (gatherings of followers of Christ). If we are wise disciples (learners of Christ), we will listen to and think carefully about what he has made known for our benefit. Next, we come to the appointment of elders in the local assemblies. This might seem to be simple and obvious. “Every church needs leadership.” Agreed. But our contemporary situation is complex and difficult. Let me point out some matters that make the question of elders rather problematic in North American churches in our time. Another time, we’ll consider what the Bible says on this subject.
Most churches choose leaders that conform with corporate business models and strategies, rather than the New Testament Scriptures. This attitude is not stated, but drives the ways that churches are “governed”. By the way, the concept of “church government” derives from the nations, not the Lord. Listen to what the Lord Jesus said. But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave” (Matthew 20:25-27 NLT). Many churches wrongly believe in “elder rule” based on a mistranslation (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) of 1 Timothy 5:17. Compare the better translation of the CSB: The elders who are good leaders…. Elders are not to mimic worldly practices, where corporate executives sit around a board room table and make decisions for the organization. Instead, the church is a spiritual body and the Lord Christ is her head (Colossians 1:18; 2:19).
People are content to be passive in churches. “Let someone else handle the business stuff. We just want to attend to fulfill our religious obligation.”
It is impossible to have a proper idea of elders, unless you have a Biblical idea of the local church and how it is to be led. Too many church leaders look at the congregation as a motley collection of immature or wayward or reluctant or obstinate sheep that must be ruled with a firm hand. Some leaders even view some in the church as “dragons”. Do they actually suppose that they are on a higher spiritual level because they are elders or deacons… or pastors? Until elders have a biblical view and respect for their brothers and sisters in Christ, they will be unable to lead and care for them. This requires commitment to biblical teaching about every believer’s identity in Christ.
Church members have wrong views of leadership, such as being content to allow a small group of (usually) men to conduct the “business” of the local church. This might be because of their personal history, in which church “business meetings” were quite contentious and they “just want to go to church” from now on. Others might have attended a church with a “congregational” form of government, in which the leadership was a pastor and deacons. When problems arose because of abuses of power by either the pastor or the deacons or both, they listened to arguments for a plurality of elders and consequent elder rule. Those arguments seemed persuasive because nearly all of the numerous references in the New Testament Scriptures to elders are in the plural. They took the bait without further examination of the teaching from the Bible.
People believe there is a single, mandatory system of church government set out in the New Testament Scriptures. And it is the one that their church teaches. Period. To borrow an illustration, they assume that they have found the black cat on a totally dark, moonless night, in a basement, when the electricity is out, and their eyes are shut while they are blindfolded. People will discuss and debate election and predestination, prophetic schemes, counseling methods, and so on. But to study out from the Scriptures what is actually written about church leadership is taboo. It is far easier to simply accept what they’ve been told or to read books by the experts on “the biblical form of church government as taught by our group.” I should say, it is easier until they are spiritually hurt and wounded by abuses of power in the church.
And then they wonder, “Why did this happen?”
Grace and peace, David