The Absence Of Elders
by Alan Bonifay
The following article is written by Alan Bonifay and is an excerpt from the 1991 Preacher's Study Notes. This article was originally a sermon delivered at the Study and has been transcribed for the edification of future generations. This article is rather lengthy, but has also been provided in a downloadable pdf format for those who would like to print a copy or share it with others. Thanks and enjoy.
by Alan Bonifay
We have reached a point of crisis in our churches. One of the identifying marks of a New Testament church was its system of governance. The Bible's teaching is clear - God intends for congregations of Christians to be governed by duly qualified, specially selected, and officially ordained bishops. Yet, by and large, we do not have the mature congregations such an arrangement stipulates. The vast, overwhelming majority of our assemblies do not have elders, and most are not likely to have them in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, a high percentage of the few congregations who do have overseers are experiencing grave difficulties in maintaining New Testament organization. Consequently, we are hindered in our labors for the Master's cause as decision making degenerates into an arduous, unhappy, and ineffective enterprise. Leadership, direction, guidance, and training are skills which are profoundly lacking among us.
Decision-making among us most often derives from one of three unscriptural mechanisms. A few of our congregations operate on what Alexander Campbell called an American system of "wild democracy (Millennial Harbinger, 1835; p. 493). Decisions are made on the basis of majority rule. In some cases, even the necessary margin of majority has been legislated. Such a system has absolutely no biblical basis upon which to rest, and its fundamental principle of rule is rooted in pragmatism, which teaches that whatever the most say is best is best. Nothing could be farther from the truth of God's Word.
However, most of our brethren realize that such an approach is wholly without biblical authority, and these usually opt for a consensus method. If anything, this is worse than the democratic method, because it not only lacks biblical support, it is also woefully ineffective, since virtual unanimity must prevail before anything can be done. As a result, what becomes everybody's business ends up being nobody's business.
Still a third method is employed more often than we like to admit. It is rule by one man who often represents the largest family of the congregation. The principle driving this leadership style is that control lies in the hand of whoever gets the maddest, the loudest, the longest. Needless to say, this alternative is not scriptural either. In view of this state of affairs we need to begin again. We must discover a biblical system of church government which will sustain our congregations, and enable them to function effectively and peaceably during the interim when they are developing men to receive the eldership. This system should be a temporary one which actively encourages the development of shepherds for the flock. "God is not the author of confusion" (1 Cor. 14:33), and confusion prevails now. Therefore, we must search the Scriptures for a Bible plan.
In beginning we once more remind ourselves that ultimately all authority in heaven and earth rests in the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, and is expressed to us in the written Word of God. In all of our activity the Word of God must be exalted to the position of absolute preeminence. The New Testament reveals to us the entirety of God's will for us. Therefore, any plan of church government must be authorized by God's Word. Furthermore, any member of the body of Christ who can teach us the truth of God's Word must be given an opportunity to do so within the confines of biblical limitations. The supreme authority for all our action must ever be the teachings of the gospel.
As 1 mentioned, "God is not the author of confusion" (1 Cor. 14:33) – He is a God of order and precision, and has given us a detailed plan for the government of mature churches. Is it consistent with God's character that He has left immature congregations bereft of any plan for governance? Has God left churches who do not have men qualified to be elders under the authority of mob rule? We believe that He has not done any such thing. In His Word, God has given us a plan whereby congregations are to be governed by the teachers until leaders can be developed who qualify to be elders.
Many, if not most, of our churches have corrupted this plan. We have allowed the principle of democratic government, with its emphasis on the rights of the individual, to hold sway in our congregations. Chiefly, we have derailed God's plan for teachers in two areas.
First, in our drive to encourage mutual edification, we have created a monster by insisting that virtually every male member who can be cajoled into doing so must become a teacher. However, in all too many cases we have provided no more training than to say, "Here is a Bible, and here's Zerr's commentary. You take the chapter next Wednesday." Or what is even worse, "Here is a sermon outline book. Work something up for the third Sunday night." Not surprisingly, we have many teachers who have difficulty edifying the body.
Second, we have compounded the problem by equalizing every male member and expecting them all to participate in the final decision-making process of the congregation. Don't misunderstand! Good leaders consider the thoughts and views of all the membership. Even elders should stay in close touch with the desires of everyone in the congregation. There is no question that every brother and sister should have some method of input. However, when all of that has been considered, teachers, operating under the authority of God's word, should be the leaders and decision-makers in a congregation which has not yet attained elders.
The Scriptures teach that in the absence of men qualified to be elders, a congregation's teachers should be its leaders. In the demonstration of this concept we shall consider several New Testament congregations which had rulers who are not designated as elders in the record. We shall then inquire whom these rulers may be. Discovering that they were unmistakenly the teachers, we shall endeavor to delineate the distinction between teachers and speakers that must prevail. Finally, we shall proffer a few suggestions concerning the implementation of this Bible plan.
Congregations of the New Testament Who Had Rulers Who are Not Called Elders
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
In verse 12 we note that the congregation was exhorted to recognize the authority of those men who were over them in the Lord that is, those who were their admonishers. In verse 13, these leaders were to be respected highly for their work's sake and the congregation was to be governed by peace. These verses describe the congregation's relationship to its leaders.
Then in verse 14, in what Conybeare and Howson call a postscript, Paul addresses those who are the admonishers. As Chrysostom noted, those who are directed to admonish are the same who are described immediately before (v. 12) as giving admonition (p. 310).
In verses 14b-28 Paul details the responsibilities of the rulers to the congregation, and in verse 27 he charges the leaders to have this epistle read to all the holy brethren.
But who are these leaders? It is often assumed that they were presbyters, but that is purely an assumption. The record does not refer to them as elders at all. In fact, due to the chronology of events, it seems evident that they were not elders.
According to Conybeare and Howson, 1 Thessalonians "was written not long after the conversion of the Thessalonians (1:8-9), while the tidings of it were still spreading through Macedonia and Achaia and while Paul could speak of himself as only taken from them for a short season (2:17). St. Paul had been recently at Athens (3:1), and had already preached in Achaia (1:7-8). happened soon after St. Paul's first arrival at Corinth (Acts 18:5)" (p. 304). In their chronological table they date both Paul's first visit to Thessalonica when he established the church and his first epistle to them as occurring in the same year – 52 A.D. (p. 833).
Peloubefs Dictionary of the Bible states first that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians "a few months" after leaving Thessalonica, and then later narrows this time factor to "probably within three or four months" (p. 686,687).
A. T Robertson's "New Testament Chronology" deviates from these dates by about one year, dating Paul's initial visit in 50 A.D. and his epistle in 50 or 51 A.D. However, Robertson does recognize the short span of time between the two events (The Master Bible, p. 143).
The point to be registered is that conservative scholarship widely attests that this letter was written only a few months after the church at Thessalonica was established. Accordingly, it is not surprising that we encounter no mention of the presence of elders in this congrega- tion. It seems evident, even by New Testament standards, that the time between the church's inception and the writing of Paul's missive was too short for the congregation to have had men qualified and ordained as elders. In addition, we should recognize the predominantly Gentile nature of this congregation: these were not "Gentiles of the gate," for they had turned from idols to serve the true and living God (1:10). The likelihood of there being men among former idolaters who had attained the moral height expected of presbyters was remote. Nevertheless, the congregation did have recognized leaders the congregation knew them and Paul knew them, but they are nowhere designated as elders.
Finally, it is well to note that 1 Thessalonians 3:1-3 reveals that during this time when a congregation is being ruled by leaders who are not elders they may find it advantageous to work with an evangelist from time to time.
1 Corinthians 16:15-16
Nowhere can bishops be found at Corinth. As far as the record is concerned, the congregation had no elders, yet they were instructed to submit to Stephanus and to men like him. The word "submit" (hupotassesthe), means "to place under; to subordinate . . . to submit one's self, render obedience, be submissive (Lk. 2:51; 10:17; Rom. 10:3; 13:1)," (Bagster, p. 418). If the congregation was instructed to submit to Stephanus and men like him, then Stephanus and men like him who had addicted themselves to the ministry were to be regarded as the congregation's rulers or leaders. Notice that the men under consideration were men set for or devoted to the ministry. In verse 18, the church was to acknowledge men like Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus. That is, they were to recognize and show respect to such men.
Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24
It has been generally assumed that the word "rulers" in these verses was a reference to presbyters, but such a view cannot be sustained by the Word of Cod. There is no question that elders are rulers in the congregation, nor that they are included here in this passage. But the point is that the reference is broader than an exclusive reference to elders. The word means "to lead the way, to be chief, to preside, to govern, to rule" (Bagster, p. 184). It is translated "a guide, a leader, a chieftain, a prince, and a Roman provincial governor" (Bagster, p. 184). In many English translations it is given as "leaders." In Luke 22:26, it is used by Jesus to show that church leaders are to be recognized by their servitude.
In verse 7, where Paul instructs the brethren to "remember their leaders," his reference is to the example of Christianity set by those who have been martyred for the faith. No doubt he has in mind Stephen, a servant of tables and the church's first great debater; and James, the brother of John and an apostle of Jesus Christ, as well as others who were swept away in the fires of persecution. He particularly stresses their teaching of God's Word and their faithful example.
Obviously the meaning of the word "rulers" in these verses is broader than a reference to elders. The church at Jerusalem had apostles (Acts 11:1; 15:6); elders (Acts 11:30); prophets (Acts 11:27); evangelists (Acts 6:5; 8:5; 21:8); teachers (Acts 5:42, et. al.) and leading men (Acts 15:22).
By the time the book of Hebrews was written, the church in Jerusalem was in danger of a mass apostasy, and they were commanded to call to remembrance their former great leaders who had spoken to them the Word of God, and who had set the example of faithful endurance to the end. A congregation's leaders are those who instruct the congregation in the Word of God and set the example of faithful, diligent service.
In verse 17, the apostle counsels the believers to submit to their leaders and to obey them. He further admonishes leaders concerning their grave responsibilities they are to watch for the souls of their brethren and give account to the Lord for their leadership.
Finally, in verse 24, Paul tells the Hebrews "metaphorically to welcome to their heart or understanding" their leaders (Bagster, p.56). Here there are two points to be gained: (1) the congregation is to remember, to obey, to submit, and to mentally embrace its leaders and (2) the leaders are to speak to the people the Word of God, to set the example of faithful Christian service, and to watch for the souls of the brethren as men who must account for their leadership to the Lord. These leaders may be elders, evangelists, or teachers, depending on the circumstances of the congregation.
Having now established that there were congregations in the New Testament who had rulers who were not designated as elders, let us now see whom these rulers might be in our non-miraculous age. Specifically, let us consider the office of the teacher.
It is true that in New Testament times, evangelists were leaders of congregations that did not have presbyters, and they are leaders of similar congregations today – particularly of those they have planted. However, we have many congregations which were not established by an evangelist, or if they were, they are no longer working closely with him. It was no different in New Testament days.
The dispersion in Acts 8:1-4 is evidence of this type of situation thousands of Christians went everywhere preaching the Word and establishing congregations (Acts 11:19-26). Such congregations are to work under the leadership of their teachers until such time as they have attained the maturity to have bishops directing them. The New Testament recognizes the office of the teacher, and this fact is one that has been minimized, and at times, entirely overlooked among churches today. The office of the teacher is one of legitimacy and importance. It is the forgotten office of leadership.
The Forgotten Office of Leadership: The Teacher
This passage lists teaching as one of the gifts given to the church. The word used for gifts in verse 6 designates spiritual gifts. During the age of revelation, men were given gifts which enabled them to teach by inspiration the Word of God and to exhort men to obey it. Alexander Campbell said, in the Millennial Harbinger, October 1835:
"A teacher and an exhorter may sometimes be found in the same person; but they are not the same office, nor the same work. The establishment and the development of truth is the work of the teacher . . . a teacher ascertains and develops truth, and supports it by arguments... It would greatly enhance the value of their public services if they would always have some point or points in view when they arise to speak."
1 Corinthians 12:28
In his discussion of spiritual gifts, Paul declares that God "set" some in the church to be teachers. The word "set" is etheto, which means "to set, fix, establish, to make, appoint, to make, set or appoint for oneself" (Abbot-Smith, p. 445). It is used in several interesting passages. For example, in Acts 20:28, "the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers"; in 1 Timothy 1:12, "And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry"; in 1 Timothy 2:7, "Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle . . . a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity"; and in 2 Timothy 1:11, "Whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle and a teacher of the Gentiles" [emphasis mine – AWB].
It seems to be in accord with the usage of this word "set," that the congregation which does not have men who qualify to be elders should appoint men who are qualified to be teachers to be their leaders.
Spiritual gifts were given to these men to enable them to fill these offices during the age of revelation. Verse 13 states the limitation of the miraculous powers – until we come to the unity of the faith." Miraculous gifts were given to these men so that they could equip the saints to do the work of the ministry and edify the body until the revelation was completed.
However, after the completion of the record, the saints still need to be equipped for the work of the ministry and the edification of the body. The roles of apostles and prophets have ceased because they are by nature miraculous ministries; but evangelists, pastors, and teachers continue to equip the saints, by using the completed revelation as their basis for instruction.
Five offices are described here. As Beet notes, "The pastors and teachers are grammatically closely joined as describing either the same office or offices closely allied" (J. Agar Beet, Commentary on Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, p. 337). In view of the fact that in both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, the rulers or governors arc separated from the teachers, it is apparent that these last two offices share the same article because their work is so closely aligned. In other words, it seems evident that the elders and teachers here share the same article because both work so closely together in the local congregation. Godet says, "In the enumeration, Eph. 4:11, the teacher is at once associated with and distinguished from the pastor (Godet, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 432).
The following two passages clearly indicate that there was the office of the teacher in the New Testament church:
In this passage the church at Antioch is reckoned to have prophets and teachers. No elders are mentioned here, yet the congregation had a scriptural system of government. Evidently, these men were gathered in session together either discussing or doing the work of ministering. They were doing the work of leadership. The teachers and prophets ordained Barnabus and Saul and sent them out. Teachers are accredited a position of equality in authority with the prophets in this matter. This passage illustrates all that we have been teaching to this point.
2 Timothy 2:2
This passage clearly carries the work of the teacher beyond the age of miracles. Paul writes to Timothy who is laboring with the elders at Ephesus and assigns Timothy, the evangelist, the duty of training teachers so that the work of instructing the body can be carried on by the next generation of leaders. The word “commit” is para thou and means "to inculcate, to deposit, commit to the charge of, entrust, to command" (Bagster, p. 306).
The office of the teacher was to be continued throughout the Christian age. But who are the men who should fill this office today? Is every speaker in the congregation a teacher? How should the brethren choose their teachers? These are vital, pressing questions that must be answered so we can begin to correctly implement God's for our congregations. The Scriptures clearly delineate who is a teacher.
Who is the Teacher?
2 Timothy 2:2; Romans 12:7
A teacher is a man who has demonstrated by his life that he is a faithful, dependable, trustworthy man. Furthermore, he is a man who is capable of instructing others in the doctrine of God's Word. Not all who understand the doctrine are capable of teaching it to others, and not all who are capable of teaching it to others are dependable and trustworthy men. Both qualities are essential in the life of a teacher.
The aim of evangelists, pastors, and teachers must be the full development of the church. They are to equip the church for the work and battle of the Christian life. The first preposition translated "for" is pros; the other two are eis. As Beet notes, they are used for the further and nearer objects in view (p. 338). In other words, the officers are to equip the saints (which is the nearer object in view) so that the saints can do the work of the ministry and edify the body (which is the further object in view). "God designs that, through the agency of the officers of the Church and through the consequent progress of the Church as a whole, each individual Christian, standing as he does in special relation to God, may attain his full development," (Beet, p. 338). Where there are no evangelists and pastors then, this work of equipping the saints falls into the capable hands of teachers.
Teachers are thoroughly conversant with the fundamental truths of the gospel. They are men who have grown beyond the dependence immature or newborn Christians have upon basic simple teachings. These fundamental doctrines have become so ingrained they are automatic. Teachers are men who desire the strong meat or difficult teachings of God's word, who have become skillful or experienced in the word of righteousness. They are sound in doctrine – mature Christians, not newborn babes nor slow-learning children. They are of full age, and their senses have become well-trained by constant practice in distinguishing good from evil. These men can read and understand the Word. They can examine the trends of the world and rightly apply the knowledge they have learned. In summary, they are wise men.
The word rendered "having been exercised" is from gegumnas- the training an athlete undergoes, and is suggestive of the tremendous self-discipline an athlete must exhibit in order to develop his muscles. Just as the athlete practices in order to develop his skill, the teacher is an avid spiritual exerciser. He is not dull or sluggish. His training is by habit rigorous.
All of these are the characteristics of mature men properly exercising the office of the teacher.
The work of the teacher is not for every one. We have many good speakers who are not mature enough to be teachers; we need them and they should be encouraged to continue in their development, but they are not teachers. Teachers are mature Christians who are willing to shoulder a grave responsibility – training the brethren in the Word of God. This passage (Jas. 3:2-12) is usually interpreted to inveigh against backbiting, tale bearing, whispering, and the like, and by legitimate extension it does. However, the direct application must not be missed. Specifically, the object of the passage is the teacher and the grave responsibility that he assumes when he accepts that office. The writer's point is that it is through the power of the spoken word that men's lives can be turned around (3:2-5), and it is the duty of the teacher to do it correctly. It is very easy for the simple and un- suspecting to be led astray by persuasive but incorrect purveyors of God's Word. Manifestly, the office of the teacher involves far more than making a talk once a month. God's teacher should be guided by the principle of the watchman on the wall which God gave to Ezekiel. The watchman's obligation was to sound the warning promptly and accurately. In so doing he delivered himself from the blood of his hearers. This is precisely the principle to which Paul referred when he told the elders at Ephesus that he was "pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:26-27).
How Shall Congregations Implement This Plan?
Perhaps you are thinking, "How can I go back to my home church and put this system into action?" Implementation of this scriptural plan should be slow but sure. It will not be easy. It will take time. We are not advocating the ouster of current leaders and speakers instead, let us begin by teaching and training the members the truth on this matter. Give people time to think about it and opportunity to study and question the parts they find unclear. If you are a teacher, begin to do the work of a teacher if you are not already doing it. Begin to train men to teach others.
When the time is propitious, allow the congregation to choose and appoint its teachers. Remember, the New Testament church often set apart men for special works with fasting, laying on of hands, and prayer. Examples are found in Acts 6 (the seven who waited on tables); Acts 15 (Judas and Silas); 2 Corinthians 8 (the messengers to deliver the money to the needy saints). These are all works of lesser significance than the instruction of the local church in the doctrine of God's Word.
Having set these men apart in the office of teachers, continue to practice mutual edification, but make it essential to train those who participate. Continue to encourage your speakers to develop into teachers. Stay in touch with all of the members. Begin to study and prepare for the eldership.
Remember, God is not the author of confusion, and confusion is what we are experiencing now in many churches. God has left us a plan for immature churches; if we use it we will develop mature churches with biblical and effective elderships. We cannot allow the difficulty of achieving this to deter us. Let us begin where we are and grow from there into mature congregations.
Why are so many of our current elderships experiencing such grave difficulties in carrying on the work? I believe we overstress a few qualifications – husband of one wife; faithful children; not given to wine; apt to teach to the neglect of other, equally important qualifications. “These ought ye to have done and not left the other undone." What of the characteristics of holiness, justice, soberness, vigilance, and not being self-willed?
We have not discussed enough the function of elders. Eldership is a life work. It does not start happening the day a man is ordained. It began when he was a teacher and even before. Men do not become leaders when they are old, if they have not been developing that skill virtually all of their lives.
We have also overlooked the need for elders to be able to resolve the differences among their own number amicably and scripturally. Most of all, we have overlooked the God-given maturation process. Consequently, we should not be surprised if Acts 20:28-31 comes to pass before our eyes.