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Who Selected Elders?

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Years ago I saw a book of trivia in which could be found the assertion that the United States has never discount code united pharmacy lost a war in which mules were used. This statement appears to say something useful about mules and warfare—until one pauses to reflect that the United States claims never to have lost a war at all (Vietnam was, by congressional resolution, a “conflict” and not a “war”). A country that has never lost a war can hardly have lost one in which mules were used. The statement is tautologous and, consequently, trivial.

Sometimes theologians make similar assertions. They seem to be saying something, but upon closer examination the content of the affirmation simply vanishes. Their claim turns out to be meaningless, and trying to reason from it is like trying to drive a dump truck over thin air.

One such statement affects the debate over church order. Not uncommonly, proponents of Plymouth Brethren ecclesiology will utter (sometimes with significant emotion), “The Bible nowhere shows sheep electing their shepherd!” What they mean is that Scripture does not depict congregations selecting elders. This seems like a meaningful and even persuasive statement until one realizes that the Bible never depicts any actual mechanism whatever by which elders were selected. One might as well say, “The Bible never shows bishops appointing pastors,” or, “Scripture nowhere depicts elders choosing other elders.” Since all of these propositions are true, none carries any real force as an argument.

The New Testament definitely does reveal the apostolic requirement that churches should have elders. It even depicts apostles exercising the initiative to ensure that the churches had elders. As part of their first church-planting journey, Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in the churches (Acts 14:23). At a later date, the apostle Paul instructed Titus to ordain elders in every city (Titus 1:5). These passages surely indicate the importance of the office of pastor-bishop-elder, but they do not describe the process by means of which the elders were chosen.

Even if they did—even if the apostles or their delegates actually chose the elders and imposed them upon the churches—the pattern would not be binding. Everyone acknowledges that apostles actually did possess the authority to command. But the apostles are dead, and they appointed no successors. No one today can claim status as an apostolic delegate. Apostolic authority is mediated only through the New Testament and not through any individual.

Nevertheless, these texts stop well short of showing that elders were imposed upon churches. Neither Acts 14 nor Titus 1 necessarily disallows congregational selection and approval. In fact, quite the opposite is true, as a brief glance at the passages will show.

When Paul instructed Titus to “ordain” elders in every city, he used a form of the verb kathistemi. This is the same verb that the apostles used in Acts 6:3, when they instructed the congregation at Jerusalem to choose seven men “whom we may appoint over this business.” In Acts 6, the congregation did the selecting and then the apostles ratified the choice. Apostolic appointment was based upon congregational election. The “appointing” in Acts 6 not only allowed for congregational selection, but was actually based upon it. Thus, kathistemi does not describe how individuals were selected, whether in Acts or in Titus. It simply denotes the ratification of the selection, however it is made. Consequently, nothing in Titus 1:5 is inconsistent with congregational selection.

Much the same is true in Acts 14:23. When Paul and Barnabas are said to ordain elders, the Greek text uses a form of the verb cheirotoneo. This verb means literally to “lift up the hand,” and was used in secular Greek for voting. What is the force of this verb in the narrative of Acts? Citations from the commentators are revealing. Writing in Lange’s commentary, Lechler (a Lutheran) stated, “the apostles may have appointed and superintended a congregational election.” The New School Presbyterian, Albert Barnes, commented, “probably all that is meant by it is, that they [Paul and Barnabas] presided in the assembly when the choice was made.” Likewise Alford (Anglican Dean of Canterbury) wrote, “The apostles may have admitted by ordination those presbyters whom the churches elected.”

Here are three classic commentators, none of whom was a Baptist or a congregationalist. None has an interest in defending congregational polity. Yet all three agree that Acts 14:23 is fully compatible with congregational selection of elders.

Neither Titus 1:5 nor Acts 14:23 provides a description of the process by means of which elders were chosen. Neither text requires congregational election, but neither text excludes it. Both passages emphasize the apostolic interest in seeing elders chosen, but neither rules out congregational choice.

New Testament congregations are competent to govern themselves under Christ. New Testament congregations did in fact make a variety of decisions for themselves. Never does the New Testament depict any decision being imposed upon a congregation without its consent, whether by bishops, elders, councils, synods, or any other external or internal authority. Even the ordination of elders in Acts 14 and Titus 1 is fully compatible with congregational polity. The preponderance of evidence in the New Testament is decidedly against churches being governed by self-perpetuating boards of elders, and in favor of government by elder-led congregations.

Perhaps one other question ought to be answered. The New Testament clearly speaks of elders “ruling” or leading. It further commands Christians to obey those who exercise this leadership. Does not the command to obey necessitate an authoritative, decision-making body of elders? We will address this question in the next Nick of Time.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Arise, O King of Glory, Arise
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Arise, O King of grace, arise,
And enter to thy rest!
Lo! thy church waits with longing eyes
Thus to be owned and blessed.

Enter with all thy glorious train,
Thy Spirit and thy word;
All that the ark did once contain
Could no such grace afford.

Here, mighty God, accept our vows,
Here let thy praise be spread;
Bless the provisions of thy house,
And fill thy poor with bread.

Here let the Son of David reign,
Let God’s Anointed shine;
Justice and truth his court maintain
With love and power divine.

Here let him hold a lasting throne;
And as his kingdom grows,
Fresh honors shall adorn his crown,
And shame confound his foes.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

2 Responses to Who Selected Elders?

  1. Very good article. One comment on this section:

    “New Testament congregations are competent to govern themselves under Christ. New Testament congregations did in fact make a variety of decisions for themselves. Never does the New Testament depict any decision being imposed upon a congregation without its consent, whether by bishops, elders, councils, synods, or any other external or internal authority.”

    I agree with this, but there is nonetheless an expectation that individual congregations will conform to the wider church, including decisions by councils, and even fairly small matters of order in worship, cf. Acts 16:4, I Corinthians 1:2; 11:16; 16:1. I think you are right that this conformity must be voluntary, but these verses remind us that there should be a formal, voluntary connectionalism and conformity to the wider church; and that this mitigates against the unhealthy American individualism we see in many of our churches which has in part stemmed from congregationalism. Then again, I write as a presbyterian. :-)

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