When I mention “elders” in a Church of Christ forum, I immediately receive a negative reaction, as though all elders in the Churches of Christ are just awful — troll-like, even — just like in the illustration.
And yet our elders don’t ordain themselves. Every church I’m familiar with requires the members to nominate candidates and to comment on the scriptural qualifications of the elders — and yet it appears that we keep ordaining unqualified men. In fact, I get the sense that there’s a desperate unhappiness within many of our congregations regarding whom we’ve chosen to be our elders.
In short, we picture our elderships as much like the Council of Elders in World of WarCraft — a roomful of trolls who’ve been granted powers that make them into enemies who ought to be defeated — and certainly not submitted to.
I think the primary reason that we often do such a poor job of selecting elders is that we ignore their spiritual qualifications, that is, the working of the Holy Spirit within the men we choose. You see, the standard sermon series on the qualification of elders is usually so focused on Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 that the several verses addressing the Spirit’s role in elder ordination are completely ignored — when they should be paramount.
Part of this, of course, is the traditional Church of Christ bias against an active, personal indwelling of the Spirit, but even in Churches that believe in a personal indwelling, we struggle to escape our traditional mindset. And so traditionally, we ordain any man who is (a) nominated and (b) doesn’t badly fail the tests of Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 — even if he’s among the least spiritual of our members.
The Spirit’s role in ordination
When Paul addressed the elders in Ephesus, he said,
(Act 20:28 ESV) 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Paul credits the Holy Spirit with making these men overseers.
(Eph 4:7-12 ESV) 7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. … 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
In Ephesians 4, Paul refers to shepherds and other church leaders as a gift from God to equip the saints.
This language is strongly parallel to Paul’s teaching in Romans —
(Rom 12:6-8 ESV) 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: … the one who leads, with zeal; … .
Here Paul again speaks of the “grace given” each of us. Paul often speaks of the “grace given” to himself, meaning the apostolic office. He similarly refers to the grace given to various church members, being talents or gifts given by the Spirit, equipping the members for a particular work.
While “one who leads” may be a much wider classification than elder, it certainly include elders.
(1Co 12:28 ESV) 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
In a passage centered on the work of the Spirit, Paul refers to God appointing members to various works, certainly through the Spirit, including the work of “administrating.” I’m not very happy with that translation. The word literally refers to piloting or steering a ship. It’s setting a course. In contemporary terms, it would include (but include more than) vision casting. Hence, the NET Bible translates “leadership,” which I think is better.
And so we see that leadership and being a shepherd/overseer/elder are tasks that God himself, through the Spirit, appoints members to. And so, our task as church and committee members is to discern the working of the Spirit within the congregation.
Discerning the Spirit
And so, how do we discern the working of the Spirit to prepare men to be elders?
First, I think it boils down to something said in Acts, likely regarding deacons —
(Act 6:3 ESV) 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.
The apostles ordained these men based on the congregation’s recommendation as to whom they considered “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” Evidently, being filled with the Spirit should be visible to those with spiritual eyes. Of course, in a denomination that often denies the personal indwelling, we have precious little training as to how to do this. But if the men appointed in Acts 6 had to meet this standard to wait on tables, surely our elders must as well!
So what does it look like to be filled with the Spirit? Well, what does the Spirit do?
(Phi 2:12-13 ESV) 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Among other things, the Spirit moves us to want to do God’s will and therefore to do it. And elders should personify those traits.
(1Co 2:14-15 ESV) 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.
This is an even harder passage, but it tells us that Spirit-indwelled people understand things differently from the world, and someone filled with the Spirit should see things from a spiritual perspective.
(2Co 3:18 ESV) 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the Spirit is to transform us to become like Jesus — and so Christlikeness becomes the standard. Is this man something like Jesus? Not perfectly so, of course, but further down the road than most of us?
The job descriptions in the titles
Next, some of the most helpful instructions for what an elder should look like is found in the titles given the position: elder, overseer, and shepherd.
An “elder” was the ancient world’s equivalent of a city councilman and city court judge. They governed villages and cities, and even held special authority under the Law of Moses. In Numbers 11, God had Moses appoint 70 men as elders, and he gave them the Spirit to help them in their work.
An “overseer” is someone in middle management. That is, an elder must understand that this is God’s church and that he works on God’s behalf to fulfill God’s purposes. The elder owns nothing.
And “shepherd” is a title reserved in the Old Testament for God and the king — except in Ezekiel 34, where it refers to the king and others in power over Israel.
(Eze 34:2-4 ESV) 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
In context, God is condemning the rulers of Israel for leading the people into idolatry and other sins. It’s also a cry against social oppression, the powerful taking unfair advantage of the poor.
The prophets saw God as the true king of Israel and the human king as ruling on God’s behalf, to enforce the Law of Moses and to care for the poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the sojourners — those without political power.
These people are referred to as injured and starving because they are caught up in literal poverty and spiritual poverty — worshiping idols and seeking salvation from Baal and his ilk.
Ezekiel is not asking the king to comfort people going through an emotional crisis — but to lead the people toward the worship of the One True God and to care for those in poverty. Yes, this passage is all about worshiping the One True God and social justice.
I see it as all about being missional — that is, leaving the building and entering the surrounding community to be salt and light, so that that those who worship false gods will worship the True God and so that the church stands against injustice and indeed works for those in need.
This hardly rejects the idea that elders should also provide divorce counseling, attend funerals, visit the sick, etc. It’s just that this passage is not about those things — and the things that it mentions are really important when we talk about ordaining “shepherds,” because we should ordain men who have hearts like the heart of God — and the Old Testament is especially clear that God has a passion for the weak and helpless.
Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 2
Another part of the spiritual discernment process is to consider the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 — in connection with the job descriptions that God provides for elders. That is, it’s not just that a man is “not a brawler,” but would he deal with fellow elders and church members in a pugnacious way? When we consider whether he is “disciplined,” does he discipline himself in his relationships with other members and leaders of the church?
Running throughout all of the above is the idea that elders must be qualified to teach God’s word.
(Tit 1:9 ESV) 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
(1Ti 3:2 ESV) 2 Therefore an overseer must be … able to teach … .
In Acts 20, Paul spends most of his exhortation to the elders of the Ephesian church talking about the importance of the teaching ministry.
The point isn’t really whether the elder has occasionally taught a Bible class. It’s whether he can distinguish good teaching from bad and explain himself well enough to persuade others. Just getting up and asking questions out of a quarterly is not the test. He must be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine” and “rebuke those who contradict it.”
And these passages all arise within a time in church history when the church was fighting against Judaizing teachers who wished to create a legalistic Christianity. If he thinks legalism is a good thing, he’s not qualified.
It’s important to realize that no one elder can bring all the necessary gifts to the table. What you want is an eldership with all of the above gifts, able to work together to lead God’s church. The best teacher may not be the best counselor. The best conflict resolver may not have little church-wide vision. A man with a heart for the poor may be a weak teacher.
Therefore, when a man is up for consideration, ask whether his gifts and maturity in Christ will add to or detract from the whole — not whether he is the ideal shepherd. God doesn’t give us ideal people, just people with gifts from the Spirit.
And if we would do this, we’d have far better congregations, led by men the members respect and want to follow. It would change everything. And there’d be no more trolls in the council of elders.