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This is not a new view, but a representation of one long held by many across the social, ethnic, generational and denominational divides. The following brethren are in broad agreement with what is said: Michael Powell (Bromley), Derek Woodcraft (deacon, Camberwell), Philip Venables (elder, Feltham Evangelical), Thomas Seidler (Streatham), Colin Butler (Battersea).

Where are all the elders?


Article first appeared in Evangelicals Now

In 2007 Tim Keller (New York) addressed Evangelical Ministry Assembly (EMA) thus:

If people are saying conservative evangelicals don't know how to preach and don't know how to minister in a way that reaches the working class or the poor, then I'm not able to tell you how to change that, but why in the world aren't you talking about it incessantly?

You need to think biblically and theologically on race and class. You're way behind on being able to integrate your congregations racially. But why aren't you thinking about it? Why aren't you talking about it? Why aren't you writing papers about it? Why aren't you producing books about it? 'Ah', you say, 'we've got to deal with all these doctrinal issues...'.

Considering the title question will show that doctrinal issues regarding eldership lie at the bottom of quite a few problems, not least that raised by Keller.

The heart of the matter: common practice is adrift of God's

There is a tragic dearth of elders in the Church of Christ. Unbiblical thinking in the area of 'appointment to eldership' is a root cause of this. This biblical consideration is threefold: what role exactly we desire to be populated, how this should occur and who we should be looking for. It isn't a comprehensive study, just selective of key problem areas.

WHAT? - the job

  • elders not juniors

      Within a local church the New Testament (NT) has two 'officials': elders1 and deacons. The myriad extra-biblical titles now used should be rejected as exactly that. Folk who are not suitable as elders can just be employed as workers in the church - cf. Barnabas, Timothy and Paul at first, yet by time they wind up as elders - they never appear as 'assistant' elders. Not giving such titles helps avoid related pride and hierarchy.2 Appointing an elder is the creation of a fully fledged leader, not a lower ranked junior.

      Paul 'empowered' these new leaders. He gave them ownership, and thus lost a lot of control. This is a huge barrier for churches... Ministers are also afraid of giving away glory... An additional problem - that when you let go, you lose direct control, but you can't really avoid responsibility for problems. It is like being the parent of an adult child. You are not allowed to directly tell them what to do...

      Tim Keller on church planting

HOW? - the method

  • 2 by 2 not 1 by 1

      Christ sent out the twelve3 and the seventy4 in twos. The successes of the NT church: Antioch with its five elders, then send out Paul & Barnabas, later Paul & Silas, who having benefited from the Antioch pattern 'appointed elders in every church'.5 'For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.'6 Obvious and irrefutable, yet largely ignored.

      one man leadership problems

      The following points can easily harm good 'one man leaders' and their churches.

      • lack of fellowship

        It is not good for man to be alone. God is not alone. Yet many a man is sent out in splendid isolation, making it hard for anyone to really help bear his burden should it prove heavy.

      • lack of counsel

        Iron sharpening iron, our inevitable imbalance being compensated for by another's perspective. Comfort and assurance that you are not just being 'pigheaded', but are collectively coming to decisions about forward motion for the Kingdom, thus your mistakes are shared, as well as the blessings. So both depression over perceived 'failure' and pride over success are softened.

      • potential puffing up

        Man naturally likes to put a mediator between him and God, and replace God's appointed Man. We are to call no one Father or Teacher. All men on earth can only be 'under-teachers'. Yet it is inevitable if they dominate the leadership that they will both feel (and be) revered by some.

      • feeling threatened

        If he is opposed, yet feels he must be the 'leader', then he feels his whole position and placement is under attack rather than merely a particular action. If you are alone at the top you may feel you have to be right all the time, or leave, lose employment! So every such decision may become much more serious, more bitterly fought over than it should be; and too personal, not sufficiently reflective...

      The Bible is very realistic about the inevitability of good men appointing bad men. It will happen. Jesus did it (deliberately). Paul did it. The principle of plurality of elders, with no 'dominant' pastor, is a huge and wise damage limitation mechanism.

      For the one man system unusually amplifies problems in the case of an 'unsuitable' (not qualified for the task) or 'bad' (positively gone astray) elder. Such elders will stumble, particularly at the points above, and may multiply problems by appointing other elders.

      • training up/choosing others in his image

        The 'unsuitable' elder will quite possibly appoint elders who are perhaps more 'unsuitable' or even 'bad'. Thus a return to sanity and health for a church becomes a challenge for those who seek it.

      • getting 'yes' men in & independent thinkers out

        A serious 'bad' man will not appoint anyone who does not align with him and all his views, only 'yes' men to do his bidding and strengthen his position. He is not looking for Christ to be ruler of the church, but himself. An 'official' hierarchical system would be favoured by him.

      It is worth just briefly noting that 80% of Paul's letters he states he wrote in co-operation with others (I'm excluding the 3 pastoral ones - 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). Heavy co-operation and inter-dependence is clearly the way forward.

  • elders appointing not men volunteering

      In the NT model:

      • a good elder is one who trains up others, who disciples
      • a bad elder is one who fails to pass on the baton, has stayed indispensable

      Passing on what you have learned to trustworthy men cannot be done entirely from the pulpit. Being an imitator of Christ means you will not simply preach but also seriously disciple. One of the two times recorded where Jesus prayed all night was just prior to the choosing of the twelve disciples (the other being after the feeding of the 5000, where the crowds had wanted to make him king). If Jesus gave that much thought, time and priority - at the very beginning of his ministry - to the discipling of future leaders, then we should probably also make it a key part of our ministry (to reflect the ministry pattern he left).

      Let us also stop the misdirected, miserable moaning, 'Where are all the men?' Misdirected - for we are to "ask the Lord of the harvest", not plead with the men of the church from the pulpit. Where do you see the godly in Scripture issuing guilt/shame/need based pleas into extreme ministry/servanthood? Miserable - for we talk of the failure of men to 'come forward' (not their biblical responsibility) rather than the failure of elders to actively discern, appoint and train new ones:

      Where are all the men? God is good and has given us all the men and gifts we need in our churches, all that remains is for us to identify, appoint and train them.

      Richard Underwood, General Secretary FIEC, introduction to Pwheli Conference booklet

      Suppose all our churches were immediately to 'set apart' every suitable man for the work of the gospel: within five years a large proportion of churches, now pastorless, would not be so!

      Clifford Pond, Grace Baptist author, letter to Grace Magazine

      While welcoming an enquiry into 'the lack of men coming forward for pastoral ministry', I wonder if too many of us are looking at this problem from the wrong end? In the New Testament young men did not 'come forward' or 'offer themselves' as a result of an inward conviction, a pulpit appeal, or even a survey. They usually seem to have been chosen by the local church. ...although much has changed in 2,000 years, it is to our great loss that we sideline or ignore the role of the prayerful congregation and its local leadership.

      Chris Idle, Anglican hymn writer, letter to Evangelicals Now

      Tim Keller observed7 another problem with 'awaiting volunteers' as against 'proactive discernment' of gifts — the volunteers will be the folk who feel most able to approach the current leadership. Hence:

      If I don't target and don't go after people of other races and try to cultivate them as leaders, in a sense I'm not really creating a level playing field for the development of leadership across the ethnic spectrum.

      Tim Keller, EMA, 2007

      Many see theological college training as essential, which also alters the playing field - unless a church both chooses and funds the man (and family) - and even then you may have people so involved in their locality they feel it wrong to go.

WHO? - the character

    A plurality of idiots who preferred quarrelling, getting their way or keeping traditions (rather than gospelling to the glory of God) would be highly unproductive. Thus we arrive at the biblical controls on the crucial character of an elder.

  • gentle oaks not young striplings

      1 Timothy 3 is not talking about younger men, but those who are of an age where they could have raised a family that's old enough to observe behaviour traits in their children which will indicate the competence of that man to lead. It is a curse when 'mere children govern' and 'youths oppress my people'.8

      Spurgeon said that men who make no use of the free pulpit should not enter the paid pulpit. If they don't bless folk in casual conversation, but seek to from the front, one asks, "Is that a shepherd's heart or a desire for pre-eminence?"

      Natural hierarchy not forced hierarchy: he who is greatest among you will be least. Foreman of the church is a wrong view (the Gentiles lord it) - friend in church, stable solid guy, and servant is right view - a servant king - for no servant is greater than his master. The sceptre did not pass on until he came to whom it belongs. The king is gentle, and rides a donkey.9 He lived & died entirely for the service of others, never called himself King or Lord, but demons, diseases, disciples and waves obeyed him. It will be visibly obvious if sheep do or do not discern their Shepherd's voice in a prospective under-shepherd. To appoint someone elder is to recognise what God has already given to a man.

  • been with Jesus not been to college

      We tend to look for a man with a piece of paper from some man-made institution saying he knows about God - an ability to 'teach' according to the forms of our day. That's neither enough nor required. The Scriptures have a deeper standard.

      taught by God, not by men10  |  gifting of God, not learning of men

        The sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue,
          to know the word that sustains the weary.

        Isaiah 50:4

        Teaching is a spiritual gift given by God, not learned at college. If there were a few more Christians who had prayerfully read the whole Bible a good few times, morning by morning had their ear opened by God11 - then every group of local churches might become a heavyweight chamber of discipling (Latin for 'learning'). It is often thought that taking learning of God (discipleship/theology) to the next level you must be 'called' and go to a college. Whereas the NT roots learning in fellowship with God and the brethren through the Spirit in the ordinary world (not out of it).

      skilled in knowledge, not in speech12

        An intimate (not an abstract) knowledge of the Holy One13 produces an inimitable love of the gospel and joy in Christ:

        Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent and the successful, but what you most need in a leader is someone whose been broken by his or her sin and even greater knowledge of Jesus costly grace. So the number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses ('cos you don't need any now), the most easily without bitterness, the most publicly and the most joyfully - they know their standing isn't based on their performance.

        Tim Keller, EMA 2007, full quote14

      a Spirit sword, not a clanging cymbal

        He made my mouth like a sharp sword...
        he made me a polished arrow;

        Isaiah 49:2

        In a man prepared by God don't look for eloquence, superior wisdom, or wise and persuasive words (according to the world's idea of teaching), but a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.15 For the word of God is sharper than a double edged sword, and in the hands of a man gifted in its use, your heart will be pierced and penetrated as you feel the sharp edge of iron striking iron, for the Kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.16

        By contrast the loveless will, at best, be able to deliver a blunt sword stroke like a clanging cymbal - and it'll only go that loud if they have lots of knowledge to harshly or entirely mis-apply - else it'd be pure empty speech.17

      rough 'n ready, not prim 'n proper  |  unschooled & ordinary, not academic

        Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marvelled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.

        Acts 4:13

        If a college trained elder is looking for leaders like him, he'd pass these two by.18

        Peter had been with Jesus for three years, yet remained armed and distinctly dangerous (ask Malchus).19 What kind of mentor could have so failed to impact a man given that time, and not only continued with such an inappropriate candidate, but built plans on him, called him 'Rock', and within two months had him leading the fastest growing church in history. Foolish God or Discipler of men?20

        Preaching is too precious, you have to be whiter than white according to the traditions of the elders. We doubt Peter would have got a chance. John Bunyan, the tinkerman, wouldn't be able to preach in many churches. What about that gift of God in carpenter's clothing from Galilee of the Gentiles? 'Got a good heart, but over uses illustrations, a bit too populist, and doctrine light (why he doesn't even use one 4-syllable word) - needs to go to college…'. Of course, Paul was academic and perhaps prim 'n proper; however, to make a point, over-emphasis is legal.21

  • pleasing pagans not pharisees

      Jesus people, not church people

        Sinners gathered round him. Pharisees plotted to kill him. The people heard him gladly; they stopped up their ears and ran to stone him. It's always been like this. Pharisees, not full gospel ministers, vex & burden pagans. The true gospel is wild and radical, lost people love it when they hear it, yes they will oppose, but growing in favour with God and man when you walk in the true path is as inevitable as suffering persecution. Persecution most commonly comes from the religious & officious. Gallio and his type can rarely be bothered.

        He must be of good reputation outside the church. If his name produces a 'look', or people think him a freek, then he isn't your man - he can't get on with ordinary folk. His 'godliness' is alienating, not trust gaining.

      people of their times not their fathers' times

        We need men who can uncage the gospel from hampering traditions to make it freely available and easily understood in the culture of the next generation. Men who have learned well how to sermonise in 'church language' are not who we are after. They will cage the gospel. It is inevitable there will be some legalists who will be upset by the life and teaching of a good candidate.

        We get tricked into believing formalism and ritualistic styles are good, instead of the accessibility of God, of the carpenter, of the shepherd, and do not allow for the diversity of the messenger's character that God has always shown.

  • representative not elitist

      All of the above, taken together, tend to put people on a much more level playing field where it's just about godliness and gifting not about class, wealth, or fitting in with cultural systems - but here are two more specifically on this aspect:

      dominance of the foolish not the wise

        For you see your calling, brethren: not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

        1 Corinthians 1:26

        Yet conservative evangelicalism has arrived at a situation where it seems often dominated by the academic and the middle class. We know God is no respecter of persons and gives gifts liberally to all men. Thus, given the nature of our calling, we would expect to see a dominance of the disregarded. Yet there are few 'London' accents among the many London pulpits.

      from among them not above them

        Their leader will be one of their own;
          their ruler will arise from among them.

        Jeremiah 30:21

        You are after one of the people - his character is known well, his knowledge of the flock deep, because he is known to them he will also be more approachable. Can we say of our leadership: 'there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all - for the middle wall of partition has been broken down'? Or are our elders monochrome and quite unlike the diversity of our communities and churches? The NT elders were appointed 'from among them', whereas now standard practice is to bring in both the 'top guy' and 'little guys' (yoof workers, curates, etc) from outside the church. What madness, the exception has become the rule!

Conclusion

    You may not be in total agreement, but surely we have at least some truths here that need addressing? Reforming in the light of these in our varied situations is a complex and challenging task we cannot ignore - as part of the armies of God in the raging war against satan. God didn't leave a structure of leadership there for a joke. Is Jesus Christ Lord over our churches in deed as well as word? Perhaps we ought to ask another question: 'where is the Lordship of Christ in the appointment of elders?'

Appendixes

  • Other fine articles on eldership & solving our problems

  • Why bother fighting to change? Why not just start a new one?

      ...especially since:

      New churches are by far the best way to reach 1) new generations, 2) new residents, and 3) new people groups. Studies show that newer churches attract new groups about 6-10 times better and faster than older churches do. It is because when a church is new, younger and newer people can get in to its leadership faster. It is because when a church is new, it has no tradition and can experiment. It is because when a church is new, its main goal each week is not to satisfy the desires of the long-time members (there are none!) but to reach new people. As a result new churches are enormously better at reaching new people in a city.

      Tim Keller

      Tempting, quite a few crews are wretchedly troubled like the Pharisees, and partly one feels Paul-like (in Acts 28): let them debate it and while they have their complex arguments to maintain their position, just move on to the perishing world that will hear this gospel. A lot of work still, but maybe better return on invested effort?

      However, if you are in a relatively solid gospel church then there are bound to be friends and real family in Jesus Christ who you just can't leave without trying to put things on an even keel. And God would open up the paths and guide you. He stayed walking amongst crazily sick churches after all, and never called the brothers or sisters to leave them, just to keep on following him personally (check Revelation chapters 2 and 3). Yeah, definitely there comes a time when just planting must be the way forward. The classism, culturalism, long-term chaining of the gospel we see - rejecting of the gifts of God in the congregation, it does vex one; and forward motion might be the best spent energy... But then again, the heavy 'remain as you are' principle of 1 Co 7. Oh, its a difficult issue and not simple - get counsel from godly people in Christ around you and from other places b4 u do anything hasty - you may be the change Christ thinks your church needs. Retain graciousness, don't grow bitter, keep praying and walking in the Light and wisdom will be justified by her children.



footnotes

    Links in footnotes were correct at time of writing. If you find dead ones, please let me know. In a number of cases I have saved a copy of the linked page/file, and can make this available on request.

  • 1: ^   In the NT, pastor/shepherd, overseer/bishop and elder are equivalent terms. This is particularly clear in verses & passages where the terms are used interchangeably:
       'Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him...'
       Acts 20:17 & Acts 20:28:
       '"Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers..."'
       'So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly...' 1 Peter 5:1-3 [elders, tend the flock (shepherd the sheep), your charge - derived from episkopos]
       'This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you - if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be avove reproach.' Titus 1:5-7
       Similarly of Christ you see these terms used interchangeably:
       'For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the shepherd and overseer of your souls.' 1 Peter 2:25

  • 2: ^   Scripture asks that 'the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching' - thus not all 'elders' may have quite the same responsibility or honour, but still no division in official rank is made. Timothy was simply to give more respect to those he can see rule well. This is a kind of unforced and natural hierarchy.

  • 3: ^   Mark 6:7

  • 4: ^   Luke 10:1

  • 5: ^   'And when they had appointed elders for them in every church...' Acts 14:23

  • 6: ^   This quote from Matthew 18.20 is generally understood to be in the context of church discipline by leaders, and thus a fine argument for plurality of decision makers. He categorically does not say, 'Wherever one of you agree to bind or loose anything, I'm with you.'

  • 7: ^   Full quote: "A good friend of mine who's a Korean pastor in Boston. We both have congregations that are approximately half Asian half white. I'm white, he's Asian. And we noticed something. If we don't do anything. If we just wait for leaders to pop up, to be elected, to volunteer. He finds that almost everybody that gravitates towards him is Asian and he can't get any Anglos. I find that almost everybody that gravitates towards me is Anglo and I don't get any Asians. And we both came to realise that unless we actually deliberately go after people of other races, and say, 'I like you, I want you, I want you to at least consider being a leader...' unless we make them feel welcome in a very deliberate way they don't feel that welcome. Whereas people of your own race do feel welcome, just because, there you are. And therefore if I, in a sense, don't target and don't go after people of other races and try to cultivate them as leaders, in a sense, I'm not really creating a level playing field for the development of leadership across the ethnic spectrum." For more serious observation along this vibe please read Tim Chester's article: http://timchester.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/replacing-racism-with-social-class-division/

  • 8: ^   'Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child' Ecclesiastes 10:16
       'I will make boys their officials;
        mere children will govern them.
       Youths oppress my people,
        women rule over them.
        O my people, your guides lead you astray;
        they turn you from the path.' Isaiah 3:4,12

  • 9: ^   Zechariah 9:9

  • 10: ^   'They shall all be taught by God' John 6:45

  • 11: ^   'I did not send these prophets,
        But they ran.
        I did not speak to them,
        But they prophesied.
       But if they had stood in My council,
        Then they would have announced My words to My people,
        And would have turned them back from their evil way
        And from the evil of their deeds.' Jeremiah 23:21-22

  • 12: ^   'unskilled in speaking but not in knowledge' 2 Corinthians 11:6

  • 13: ^   Brilliant excerpt from 'Preparing for the Underground Church' by Richard Wurmbrandt:
       How much each one of us can suffer depends on how much he is bound up with a cause, how dear this cause is to him, and how much it means for him.
       In this respect we have had in Communist countries very big surprises. There have been gifted preachers and writers of Christian books who have become traitors. The composer of the best hymnal of Romania became the composer of the best communist hymnal of Romania. Everything depends on whether we have remained in the sphere of words or if we are merged with the divine realities.
       God is the Truth. The Bible is the truth about the Truth. Theology is the truth about the truth about the Truth. A good sermon is the truth about the truth about the truth, about the Truth It is not the Truth. The Truth is God alone. Around this Truth there is a scaffolding of words, of theologies, and of exposition. None of these is of any help in times of suffering. It is only the Truth Himself Who is of help, and we have to penetrate through sermons, through theological books, through everything which is 'words' and be bound up with the reality of God Himself.
       I have told in the West how Christians were tied to crosses for four days and four nights. The crosses were put on the floor and other prisoners were tortured and made to fulfill their bodily necessities upon the faces and the bodies of the crucified ones. I have since been asked: "Which Bible verse helped and strengthened you in those circumstances?" My answer is: "NO Bible verse was of any help." It is sheer cant and religious hypocrisy to say, "This Bible verse strengthens me, or that Bible verse helps me." Bible verses alone are not meant to help.
       We knew Psalm 23 - "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want... though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...." When you pass through suffering you realize that it was never meant by God that Psalm 23 should strengthen you. It is the Lord who can strengthen you, not the Psalm which speaks of Him so doing. It is not enough to have the Psalm. You must have the One about whom the Psalm speaks. We also knew the verse: "My Grace is sufficient for thee." But the verse is not sufficient. It is the Grace which is sufficient and not the verse.
       Pastors and zealous witnesses who are handling the Word as a calling from God are in danger of giving holy words more value than they really have. Holy words are only the means to arrive at the reality expressed by them. If you are united with the Reality, the Lord Almighty, evil loses its power over you; it cannot break the Lord Almighty. If you only have the words of the Lord Almighty you can be very easily broken.
       For full article check: http://members.cox.net/wurmbrand/prepare.html

  • 14: ^   Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent and the successful, but what you most need in a leader is someone whose been broken by his or her sin and even greater knowledge of Jesus costly grace. So the number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses ('cos you don't need any now), the most easily without bitterness, the most publicly and the most joyfully - they know their standing isn't based on their performance. And therefore all of life is repentance and repentance increases joy, in other words if you understand the gospel repentance isn't occasional and wounding but its constant and its healing.

  • 15: ^   1 Corinthians 2:1-4

  • 16: ^   1 Corinthians 4:20

  • 17: ^   Robert Traill commented well on this in 1682: "What can be the reason of this sad observation, That when formerly so few lights raised up in the nation, did shine so as to scatter and dispel the darkness of Popery in a little time; yet now when there are more, and more learned men amongst us, the darkness comes on apace? Is it not because they were men 'filled with the Holy Ghost, and with power;' and many of us are only filled with light and knowledge, and inefficacious notions of God's truth? Doth not always the spirit of the ministers propagate itself amongst the people? A lively ministry, and lively Christians. Therefore be serious at heart; believe, and so speak; feel, and so speak; and as you teach, so do; and then people will feel what you say, and obey the word of God."

  • 18: ^   Paul would probably get passed by too: http://www.acts17-11.com/snip_rejected.html

  • 19: ^   Thank you Steve Cattell for pointing that one out!

  • 20: ^   Jesus just seems a whole lot more tolerant of sin (than His current day church), though he neither ignored it nor abandoned intentions of bringing such a disciple into leadership. Consider further the anger of the sons of thunder in wanting to call down fire on the Samaritan villages etc. Consider Peter's ongoing massive theological problems, even after the corrective of Acts 10 - what would rightly be regarded as heresy, did not disqualify him from coming round to a sounder view, and later writing 2 letters that would become part of the very oracles of God. Man - imagine that kind of turnaround in our circles today.

  • 21: ^   Luke 15 is perhaps a fine example of this.