NOWHERE IN SCRIPTURE are we given the qualifications for the minister of a church. The reason is plain. God does not envisage the existence of such a person.
Many people at present worshipping in circles where it is traditional to acknowledge one man as the minister, are fully aware that the New Testament reveals a totally different pattern. As Bible students they have discovered that a local church should have elders and deacons. They look around to find such a church. Strange as it may seem to some, they often fail to see the scriptural pattern in assemblies which claim to have returned to it. Tradition means nothing to them. They are breaking free from their own traditions and have no wish to be enmeshed in the net of other people’s. They demand elders in the scriptural sense.
False, unbalanced attitudes exist in this matter of elders. There are those who assert that it is not possible to have elders today because there are no apostles or apostolic delegates left. This is an extraordinary attitude. Clearly it limits the Holy Ghost. No one can deny, of course, that originally, apostles or their delegates indicated the men in a local church whom the Holy Ghost had called to be elders. Detailed instructions were given to Timothy for his guidance in this matter. But these instructions are preserved for us i Tim. 3, and in this way God makes it clear that elders were to continue after the first century. They arc an essential part of that order which is to characterize our behaviour in the house of God. Apostles were pioneers and founders, and so they were unnecessary after the earliest times. But elders deal with the day-today needs of local assemblies and can never be dispensed with. The Spirit of God still raises them up, and it is the duty of every church to recognize them when they appear.
An opposite extreme, foreseen in 1 Pet. 5. 3, is that of elders assuming the position of lords over the heritage. This does not refer to a case where godly men stand firm for the Word of God against the pressure of unspiritual elements in a meeting. Then they are acting as guardians of the heritage, which is their proper duty. But elders may be self-willed, obstinate, obstruct¬ing the carrying out of God’s will in the assembly. In such a case they create a position in which the local believers are required to accept their authority instead of the authority of Jesus – the lordship of elders rather than the Lordship of Christ. But the plurality of elders generally acts as a safeguard here, unless the others are intimidated by a Diotrephes.
It will be seen from all this that a local church will be imperilled either by democracy or dictatorship. A position where all the brethren govern the assembly cannot be reconciled with such passages as the following:
‘Obey your leaders, and be submissive, for they watch for your souls as those that shall give account; that they may do it with joy, and not groaning, for this would be unprofitable for you.’ Heb. 13. 17 (J. N. D.’s translation).
The flesh will welcome democracy (if only as a reaction against the vicar and the squire) and it accords with prevalent ideas in the western world, but it is utterly out of place in the Church, and productive of much mischief. No one need leave denominational circles to find democratic church government. And dictatorship, whether of one man or of a committee, has a familiar and ominous ring in the ears of those who become exercised about their ecclesiastical position.
What is an elder? Is he merely a member of a committee which deals with church business? No. The passage already quoted defines the work of elders: ‘They watch for your souls’. Note that it does not say ‘They administer your funds’ or ‘They keep your fabric in order’ – all very important work, but belonging to the sphere of deacons. Elders are concerned with souls. They have to tend and feed sheep. Therefore it is essential, not only that they should know the Scriptures, but be able to teach them to others, 1 Tim. 3. 2, for the Scriptures are food for the soul. Whilst no sensible person would maintain that this supposes great gift for pulpit ministry, it is clear that it does demand a capacity to handle the Scriptures lucidly, and to pass on to others, either in public ministry or in private conversation, that which will feed and build up.
Elders who function only as a committee can scarcely be said to function at all in God’s sight. The idea of an ‘oversight’ whose sole purpose it is to cope with assembly business is not a scriptural one, and the thing is nothing more than a ‘church council’ or ‘deacons’ meeting’ masquerading under another name. Such pretences will not appeal to a believer who is exercised about his church allegiance. He is looking for true shepherds, and expects them to stand comparison at least with the most godly pastors he had met in his denomination. He probably knows men who (despite a false ecclesiastical position) watch lovingly over the Christians among whom they work, mark signs of declension and seek to arrest it, visit the flock, encourage the young, comfort the sad, and teach the Word of God effectively. He will ask ‘Why should I exchange all this for the “oversight" of half-a-dozen men who have nothing to give me and apparently take little interest in the spiritual state of their fellow-saints?’.
Two evils, at least, lie behind the multiplication of elders. (1) The traditional idea of elders as a mere committee, and (2) The fear of offending someone who fancies himself in the position. (But what of offending the Holy Ghost, whose sole prerogative it is to make elders?)
A member of the ‘oversight’ may test himself in a very simple way. All he need do is to watch himself between one ‘oversight’ meeting and the next. If he finds himself feeding the sheep and watching over their spiritual interests, he may humbly accept his position as a true elder. If he finds himself doing only routine business he may humbly conclude that he is a deacon. If he finds himself doing nothing he should be humble enough to act as his conscience directs. There is no dishonour in not being an elder. The dishonour lies in pretending to be one when he is not.