Each Christian has a part in reversing the schism
of Christ’s body where each lives.
Are you familiar with the form of church governance called “eldership?” If not, don’t be surprised. Even though it is described in the pages of the New Testament and in the writings of the earliest church fathers like Clement and Irenaeus, it is still relatively unknown.
Its role in the New Testament churches was that of protecting the flock from dangers and providing a path of unity so every Christian could worship on Sunday with every other Christian who lived near-by.
It is the form of church governance most often adopted by Christians that have gone through painful splits and schisms, all so that they won’t have to experience that agony ever again.
Eldership is what Titus created in every city on Crete when he “appointed elders” (Titus 1:5).
When Paul spoke to the elders from Ephesus he didn’t exhort them to shepherd several churches but just one – “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). This was not a veiled reference to the Roman Catholic Church scattered across the globe, nor a description of the invisible elect among many churches in Ephesus, but the one church in Ephesus led by a plurality of men the apostle knew as “elders.”
Similarly, when Peter wrote to thousands of scattered believers all over Asia Minor he told every one of them, “I exhort the elders among you” (1 Peter 5:1). All of those believers were in churches, each of which was ruled by a plurality of elders.
But for most people reading this article those words of Paul and Peter ring hollow. They have never known a church to have a plurality of elders among them, and to be governmentally ruled by them and them alone. Indeed, the majority of readers of this article have never even known a church fully governed by elders alone.
Thus most Christians have been prevented from being able to obey James 5:14:
Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders
of the church and they are to pray over him,
anointing him with oil in the
name of the Lord.
Most Christians have never had a plurality of biblically qualified elders in their church to even call.
Church history shows that churches departed early on from eldership to a bishop-led system, an ecclesiastical arrangement responsible for the first schism mentioned above. The Reformation is responsible for the only other forms of church governance, Connectionalism and Congregationalism. Thus there are four forms (and only four forms) of church governance: episcopal, connectional, congregational, and eldership.
The first three are so popular that recent books devoted to church governance don’t even include the fourth, eldership. While the authors of these books know that many thousands of churches are governed by eldership, they only give no attention to the first three.Brand and Norman, Eds, Perspectives on Church Government, and Cowan, Ed., Who Runs the Church. Instead, both works lump eldership with what is called “plural-elder congregationalism.” It’s a not-so-subtle attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity of eldership churches while dismissing its foundational elements. At issue is not having a plurality of men, but rather, what is their role granted them in Scripture? Are they to submit to the will of a majority vote? Without eldership there is no hope of curtailing schism, since the rejection of eldership is a lack of trust. In eldership, a group of specially-qualified men rule the church, which makes it immediately suspect. Thus, plural-elder congregationalism is actually congregationalism, and to call it eldership, as Who Runs the Church does, is simply untrue. Even it’s own article on plural-elder congregationalism starts this way, “Plural elder congregationalism is, in the first place, congregational church government.” (Sam Waldron, “Plural-Elder Congregationalism,” Who Runs the Church, 187). Even more dishonest is Perspectives on Church Government, a collection of “five essays offered from what might may be considered as classic positions on the matter of governing the church” (p. 23). However, three of the five “classic positions” are slight modifications of congregationalism, itself a practice of governance the editors arose in the past few hundred years, or the last 1/5th of church history (cf. p. 20). It is hardly “classic,” and relies on something utterly unknown in the Bible to “rule” the church, the quorum.
So representation in Christendom isn’t the problem.
What is? Distrust. And if you find yourself distrusting eldership too, please keep reading.
Hopefully, if I do my job decently and in order, you’ll understand the attraction of eldership. After that we’ll explain why the other forms of polity produce schism, and finally, explain why eldership alone unifies a church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20).
Your Bible and Eldership
Eldership is different than every other form of church leadership in many ways, but perhaps the first is this: eldership is entirely a merit-based system of church leadership. No one may serve in church leadership except those who merit it, and those who merit it are qualified by mature attainment in the things of God.
As such, elders are not qualified for office by the laying on of hands, which extends to them a charism, nor are they made qualified for office by the raising up of hands in a vote, hence, popularism. Those things are actions external to a man and cannot make him morally qualified to serve in the church.
How then do such men get into office if not by vote or the imposition of hands? They must meet all the qualifications for the office spelled out in the NT, and one of those is being “above reproach.” Meeting those qualifications, and them alone, puts them in office.
So for example, when Titus was told by Paul to appoint elders who met all the qualifications in Titus 1:6-9, Titus knew exactly what to do. Find those men who are above reproach (which requires involving as many people as possible for character reference) and appoint those who pass the test on all qualifications.
Add to these qualifications those in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and you have not only the full set of 25 elder qualifications, but the process by which such men are appointed as well. As 1 Tim. 3: 10 says, if after through investigation and testing a man is found not to be above reproach, he cannot either begin serving, or continue serving if already in office. And since elders are qualified by Scripture, they serve in equality, without one man above the others in rank. They must function together, preferring each other before themselves.
Universal Church, Universal Polity
Did you know there is more instruction in the New Testament (NT) on eldership than on all these topics combined: the Lord’s Table, Baptism, Marriage, Child-raising, and Work/Career? In fact, it is one of the largest topics in the NT.
The longer passages on eldership include Acts 20:17–38; 1 Timothy 3:1–7; 1 Timothy 5:17–22; Titus 1:5–9; and 1 Peter 5:1–4. Shorter passages such as 1 Thess. 5:12-13, James 5:14 and Hebrews 13:17 are sprinkled throughout Acts and the letters to the churches. Because of the vast amount of material in Scripture eldership is easy to understand and obey. It is taught in both Precept and in Example in Holy Scripture. God has given us a lot of teaching on it so we get it exactly right, because unity is at stake.
Apostolic Polity, from Beginning to End
The first book written in the New Testament is the epistle of James, a letter sent to every church in the Roman Empire around 45 A.D. That means it was written within fifteen years of the Lord’s resurrection. As mentioned above, James instructed all the Christians in every church throughout Christendom to
“call for the elders of the church,
and let them pray over him”
That means every church in Christendom had a group of elders, and it’s easy to see why this is so. If even one of those churches didn’t have a plurality of elders, then James’ command would have forced every Christian in a non-eldership church to disobey the word of God. “What, we don’t have elders!”
His command in James 5:14 would have been spiritually debilitating since in their case it was impossible to obey. Here was the Holy Spirit in James 5:14 commanding them to do something they couldn’t, and if they remained in that church until they died, they would be forced to disobey the Holy Spirit for the rest of their lives.
We see this frustration again in one of the last books written in the New Testament, 1 Peter. Peter wrote to hundreds of churches over a vast region of the Roman Empire (1 Peter 1:1-2), and to each said, “I exhort the elders among you…” (1 Peter 5:1).
If even one church didn’t have the form of eldership then the Holy Spirit through Peter would have been exhorting non-existent men. Confused, those Christians in those churches would have read his words and said, “Huh?… what elders?”
From the very start eldership was the universal polity of all churches so long as the apostles lived. The only 1st Century churches that didn’t have elders were schismatic or heretical.
This is where the New Testament book of Titus comes in. You might remember, Paul tells Titus, “appoint elders in every city” on Crete (Titus 1:5). Why? The existing churches were either schismatic, or heretical.
The churches on Crete trace their origen back to Pentecost when some men from Crete were gloriously saved (Acts 2:11). Those men took the gospel back to Crete and in time started churches. By the time Paul visited the island of Crete almost thirty years later there was at least one church in every town, as Titus 1:5 shows. But after release from a Roman prison Paul directed Titus to appoint elders in every city because the churches in those cities had become unhealthy places for Christians. He took this step to rescue Christians from the influence of dangerous teachers who had taken control of most churches and produced schisms and heresies (Titus 1:10-16).
At the heart of eldership is a series of moral requirements that comprise all that God Himself requires in those He grants the authority of the elder’s office. If a man meets this list of qualifications detailed in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 then there is no need for the laying on of hands or elections since all character and ministry skill can be judged by the objective measure of Scripture.
But this should not be taken to imply that a church can have a single elder. No church in the NT exhibits such an arrangement but instead every church possessed a plurality of men in the elder’s office. Paul did not tell Titus to appoint a single elder in each church but rather a plurality in part, no doubt, because pastoral ministry is to be shared among mature men. If your church doesn’t have a plurality of elders you are unable to obey the many NT verses that present you with commands on how you should relate to them, including 1 Timothy 5:17: “let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (c.f., Heb. 13:17, 1 Thess. 5:12-13, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:5, etc.). Your church is hindering you from obeying God’s word.
Paul calls each and every elder an “overseer,” establishing the unique contribution of parity to eldership that no man-made polity can match (Titus 1:7, cf. 1 Timothy 3:1). Parity refers to a plurality of elders who are all equal in authority. While one elder typically leads by carrying the majority of the teaching ministry, he possesses no more authority over the church than any other qualified man. Parity preserves the proper structure in which the elders are mutually accountable to each other in an environment of trust, equality, and respect. Your church is made safe if it has a plurality of godly and learned men who can provide scriptural counsel on complex problems. Such men, working together in humility and unity, provide the safety every church needs because they are made qualified by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28).
How then does eldership stack up against the other views of church governance? Take a minute to look at the chart below, which compares the various polities. Only one form of church governance meets the high bar Scripture’s own internal approval test for faith and duty, precept and example.
|Church Polity||Biblical Precept||Biblical Example|
|Ruled by a Bishop||None||Acts 15?|
|Ruled by Representative Synods or Assemblies||None||Acts 15?|
|Ruled by Majority Vote||None||Acts 6?, Acts 15?|
|Ruled by Qualified Elders||1 Tim. 3:4-5, 1 Tim. 5:17, Titus 1:5-9, Heb. 13:17||Acts 14:23, Acts 21:18, 1 Tim 5:17, 1 Thess. 5:12-13|
What is Acts 15? It’s the Jerusalem Council, when the doctrine of “circumcision unto salvation” teaching was formally recognized as heresy. Some ecclesial groups say the Council was led by a bishop (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican). Others say it shows the God wants representatives from churches to rule the churches (Protestant). Still others believe the Council was only ratified when the church voted (Independent).
But they can’t all be right. And frankly, these three views gloss over the non-repeatable nature of the Jerusalem Council. It was led by apostles (Acts 16:4), who now speak to us in Scripture alone . But regardless, only eldership has biblical precepts – commands and directives – that show that eldership is not only superior to all other forms of governance, but a matter of obedience to Jesus Christ as well.
Titus contra Schismatem
When Titus reformed the churches of Crete he not only confronted their culture of schism. He also did something about it. His directive from Paul in Titus 1:5 to appoint elders was not a call for the people to repent but for the church leaders to submit themselves, as leaders of churches, to the apostle Paul. If they refused to submit to those Titus appointed they were in reality disobeying an apostle. As painful as this was for the churches of Crete the command came by Paul who received it from Jesus Christ.
Titus couldn’t turn back. Paul’s words in Titus 1:5 make exceptionally clear that he was handing down to Titus, and by extension, handing down to every Christian on Crete, a decree straight from “God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (Titus 1:4). Neither Titus nor the Christians had any appeal process. Titus could not turn back, and neither could the believers.
Paul’s words of Titus 1:5 did not permit Titus to appoint just one man to be a pastor, a teaching elder, or a priest over a single group of Christians. He had his orders written down in the command language of Scripture. In fact, Titus 1:5 contains two explicit commands, “set in order” and “appoint.” Paul’s reinforcement at the end of the verse, “as I directed you,” is as strong as biblical language gets in communicating authority.
As a result, Titus couldn’t leave a single church in its current polity, no matter how complex, or venerable. Every church had to be dismantled starting with its leadership and rebuilt from the top down.
Ending the Episcopacy
Consider this. Based on Paul’s command to appoint elders it would have been sheer defiance for Titus or the Christians on Crete to set up a “bishop system.” In this form of polity churches at various levels have bishops with an archbishop who rules over a group of sub-bishops.
If we assume the churches of Crete were led by an archbishop with a sub-network of bishops and priests prior to the writing of Titus, we now know what happened. Titus, as compelled by Holy Scripture written by Paul, dismantled the entire system and left none of it standing. Churches in the same locale were merged and all truly qualified men were appointed by Titus, and Titus alone, into a plurality of elders. If any bishop or priest resisted Titus, he was removed from the Church of Jesus Christ, proving he was one of the “many rebellious men incapable of doing good works (Titus 1:10, 1:16, 2:15, 3:10–11).
Nor was Titus allowed to set up a “representative” or “connectional” church system on Crete, a system in which delegates from member churches occasionally gather to take votes.
In a connectional system, also called a denomination, representatives from participating churches attend meetings. Even though many Protestant denominations including Presbyterians, Reformed, and Lutherans employ connectional polity, connectionalism is unknown in Scripture in either precept or example.
Ironically connectional churches of different denominations do not share representatives; hence a region may have hundreds of differing connectional ecclesiastical organizations, all calling themselves “the Church.” But in reality any one synod represents a negligible percent of churches in any region.
Furthermore, the connectional meetings (synods) tend to focus on arcane matters of little interest to 99.99% of the churches of Christendom. The only time anyone outside the connectional group notices them is when they split, which is frequent, or when they ratifying their notorious sins. Recent synods have approved homsexuality as normative human behaviour.
Though connectional institutions do not consult with each other they all claim to base their connectional practices on the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council, conveniently forgetting that its results were binding on all Christian churches.
Now, the connectional system offers features which might appeal to us such as hierarchy and a method for handling rogue churches and teachers. History, however, has proven them inept at these tasks.
More importantly, Paul’s apostolic establishment of eldership on Crete did not include any level of authority above each locale’s elders, such as a presbytery or synod. At no time was Titus commanded to gather representatives from the various churches for decisions. Instead, he appointed full-charge elders in each city to lead each city’s newly merged church and deal with its own unique problems (Titus 1:10).
In fact, any and every church on Crete that had a connectional relationship with other churches was dismantled and merged into a city-wide single church under a plurality of qualified elders. There were no exceptions because elders never were intended by Christ to be the representatives of the people but rather the stewards of God (Titus 1:7). If any ruling elder or teaching elder resisted Titus he was removed from the churches of Jesus Christ (Titus 3:10-11).
Nor could Titus set up congregationally ruled churches with a pastor, an elder board, a deacon board, along with various other boards and commissions, supplemented by congregational votes. Such votes are unknown in the NT and quorum counts, a sub-set of the membership, is a feature of the world’s parliamentary system and militates against Pauline “one-another” koinonia theology. Titus received a supreme command by an apostle to appoint only a plurality of qualified elders who would share among themselves equal and full authority as a single group. The congregation was not to appoint the elders since Paul placed that authority in Titus’ hands.
Every church that featured a democratic approach to power sharing was dismantled and reconfigured by Titus to have its own plurality of full-charge elders with biblical checks and balances. If any pastor or leader refused Titus’ reformation, he was quickly removed from the church of Jesus Christ according to Titus 3:10-11, “knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”
Regardless of the exact form of governance in the churches of Crete prior to Titus’ ministry on the island, all were reformed by a non-negotiable apostolic decree. This form of governance, witnessed extensively in the book of Acts and in the NT epistles, confirms the only polity that can be built on the church’s one foundation of the apostles and prophets is eldership.
But the reason for eldership is not to make churches “better” but godly. Since the qualifications for entrance into eldership limit the office to men who are peaceable and mature, and because they must submit to each other while serving the flock, churches led by elders experience unity and great strength against schism. Elder boards wisely operate on a basis of unanimity in decision making, reflecting the Lord’s commands in passages like 1 Cor. 1:10 and Phil. 2:1-4.
Since each man merits the office by conformity to biblical standards and church-wide recognition for their maturity in both life and doctrine, they only remain in office by applying the Scripture to the life of the church (Titus 1:9). Politics, parliamentary maneuvering, and favoritism are worthless since each elder has the power of refusal on any action so long as he proves his refusal by Scripture.
In all other forms of governance this would create constant impasse but in eldership it empowers agreement and a culture of mutual submission. Godly men are persuaded to action by the concerns of Christ Jesus, not strong personalities (Phil. 2:21).
The effect of this unity of leadership is confidence and unity among the congregation. When problems do occur the elders approach them as a team, sharing ministry and wisdom with a goal to care for people’s spiritual needs. There is no need for an elder to worry about whether he will stay in office since there is no re-election to be concerned about.
We are now ready for the fourth article in this series, Defeating Schism in Your Own BackYard.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Brand and Norman, Eds, Perspectives on Church Government, and Cowan, Ed., Who Runs the Church. Instead, both works lump eldership with what is called “plural-elder congregationalism.” It’s a not-so-subtle attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity of eldership churches while dismissing its foundational elements. At issue is not having a plurality of men, but rather, what is their role granted them in Scripture? Are they to submit to the will of a majority vote? Without eldership there is no hope of curtailing schism, since the rejection of eldership is a lack of trust. In eldership, a group of specially-qualified men rule the church, which makes it immediately suspect. Thus, plural-elder congregationalism is actually congregationalism, and to call it eldership, as Who Runs the Church does, is simply untrue. Even it’s own article on plural-elder congregationalism starts this way, “Plural elder congregationalism is, in the first place, congregational church government.” (Sam Waldron, “Plural-Elder Congregationalism,” Who Runs the Church, 187). Even more dishonest is Perspectives on Church Government, a collection of “five essays offered from what might may be considered as classic positions on the matter of governing the church” (p. 23). However, three of the five “classic positions” are slight modifications of congregationalism, itself a practice of governance the editors arose in the past few hundred years, or the last 1/5th of church history (cf. p. 20). It is hardly “classic,” and relies on something utterly unknown in the Bible to “rule” the church, the quorum.|