Over the course of the last year I have dedicated a great deal of writing and preaching to the theme of elderships and their essentiality in every congregation. I have spoken and written in as passionate, direct language as I could muster to express the pressing importance of this matter. Cheerfully, I report that dozens of church leaders, teachers, and concerned members have reached out to me acknowledging the biblical truth and seeking some direction on how to move forward. The tragic condition of many congregations is one from which having elders in the foreseeable future seems utterly hopeless. What can churches do if they have no young people? What can churches do if all of the men have lost their children to the world? What can churches do if they have limited resources and cannot support a preacher to work with them? Even for congregations in the most grim and challenging circumstances three things can be done to practically improve the situation.
First, every congregation can prioritize teaching and studying on the subject. After commanding Titus to “set in order the things that are lacking and appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1.5), Paul gave him practical instruction on how to accomplish that lofty charge: “But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine...” (Titus 2.1). Related studies may include: the concept of the local congregation in Scripture; the essentiality, blessings, and responsibilities of local congregational membership; the relationship between members of the local congregation, with an emphasis on differing levels of spiritual maturity; the Old Testament background for the office of an elder; the different names and titles for the office of an elder; the qualifications for eldership; the roles and qualifications of elder’s wives; the work of elders in ministering to those who are spiritually weak; the role of elders in teaching; the priesthood of believers; the importance of a plurality of elders; the biblical imagery of sheep and shepherding; the Biblical pattern for church government in the absence of elders; the role and qualifications of teachers in the local congregation; church discipline; the concept of the local church as a body; the significance of the corruption of church government in the historic apostasy from New Testament Christianity; and much more.
Might it take years to develop an eldership at your congregation? The above topics and the large sections of scripture dedicated to them could provide years of material for teaching — publicly and from house to house. The teaching will not get old. Even if developing elders is a slow and long process, these studies will undoubtedly make a stronger congregation right now and have immediate positive benefits.
Private Bible studies will be an essential part of any viable plan. Often times, private studies are reserved for the young or those who are new in the faith. In this matter, it would be very helpful for the leading families to study together — especially in regard to controversial issues — so that challenges, questions, and confusions can be effectively met and resolved. Sometimes it will be prudent for these studies to involve simply two leaders, working through the scripture together in a non-threatening atmosphere. Paul said that important matters ought to be addressed “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20.20). To this end, I would recommend families and groups within congregations read through books like Scriptural Elders and Deacons by H.E. Phillips, Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch, The Eldership by J.W. McGarvey, and The Church and its Elders by J.B. Meyer. Something disagreeable will be found in all of these books, but they will certainly challenge deeper study and more thoughtful consideration of the subject.
Demand preaching on the eldership and related issues from preachers who come for gospel meetings. In a recent visit, brother Ronny Wade informed me how brothers Homer King and Homer Gay made a pact to preach at least one night of every meeting they held on the cup question and another night on the Bible Class question. Those issues were threatening the church and the preachers and congregations saw the importance of them and demanded to hear God’s word on the matter. If we see that the lack of elders is a crisis facing the church of today, we ought to make the same commitments and demands. If a preacher will not preach on the eldership, then he is not the preacher you need. It would not be unreasonable for a congregation without elders to insist that some teaching be done on the matter at least four times a year (once each quarter) and at gospel meetings besides.
Second, every congregation can pray for God’s help in the matter. Recently, I spoke with brother Richard Bunner about the plight of east African congregations that are unable to obtain grape juice. Some of these congregations have gone years in the highly undesirable condition of being incapable of observing the Lord’s Supper. At present, no long-term solution has been developed or discovered. However, brother Bunner was disturbed to find that many of the churches had effectively given up and accepted the situation as normal: they were not even praying for circumstances to change. From our position we might be quick to judge these brethren, but is our situation not parallel? For various reasons — sometimes no fault of our own — we are incapable of having something that Jesus made an integral part of His church. Have we accepted this as normal? Have we given up? Are we praying and inviting God to work in the lives of our members and our congregation to see His will accomplished? Praying for the Lord to see His will accomplished in us has great precedent in the Scripture (see Ephesians 1.15-21).
In addition to calling on the power of God to transform the situation, prayer on the subject can help the congregation keep the right perspective of urgency. Brother Bunner has warned leaders of the African churches that, under the present condition of things, if grape juice becomes available some churches will go on failing to observe the Lord’s Supper because they have gotten used to life without it. Certainly, the same danger is real for our congregations in regards to the eldership.
Another value in congregational prayer on the matter would be the opportunity to confess our sins before God if our situation is in part or in whole due to our own negligence of the Lord’s teaching for one reason or another. This would be very appropriate. Daniel, who was among the most righteous men who ever lived, confessed the sins of his people which led them to their unfortunate captivity, and took ownership of them as a part of the whole (Daniel 9.3-19). Now is not the time for parsing out blame and self-justification, but for pushing forward in obedience to the truth.
Israel prayed for the coming of Messiah (Luke 1.10). The early church prayed for the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom (Acts 1.12-14), and for the work of the Holy Spirit to continue for the benefit of the gospel (Acts 4.23-31). Let us pray for God to raise up elders in our congregations, to strengthen and bless those that exist, and to protect us from seasons of leaderlessness in the future.
Third, every congregation can work with those who are not qualified to get them as close to the qualifications of an elder as is possible. At the 2019 Preacher Study, brother G.V. Ayers mentioned that when he was a young man he did not desire the work of an elder, but he always purposed to meet the qualifications. It may be that most in our congregations could never serve as elders, but what if most or all one day reached the moral and spiritual qualifications? The qualifications (other than the requirement for marriage and fatherhood) are not extraordinary but rather describe the character God expects of every disciple.
Paul’s command for Titus to ordain elders everywhere on the island of Crete was followed by an acknowledgement that “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1.12). Yet, from this sordid culture, Titus was charged only to appoint men as overseers in the church who were "...blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination... blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict (Titus 1.6-9).
How could this be expected? Titus would have to work for it. He would have to teach older men to be “be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience....” He would have to teach older women to be “reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things....” Where there were younger men, he would have to solicit the aid of those who were older to teach them “to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you” and where there were younger women he would have to help train the older women and encourage them to “admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2.1-10).
Paul outlined the formula for every congregation to follow. Every church will either have older men, older women, younger men, younger women, or some combination of these. God has specifically identified the areas of moral and spiritual development for each class in the congregation in order to move toward maturity, orderliness, and perfection.
The unfortunate truth is that in many congregations, instead of development and training there is only discouragement and criticism. Congregational leaders are quick to identify all the things that are wrong with the members (young and old) that would disqualify them from service and especially from leadership. However, God’s charge is not merely to identify problems but to actively pursue correction. As with the general teaching on the eldership and church organization, this will involve teaching from the pulpit, but as older men and women and younger men and women are individuals with unique personalities and specific talents and challenges it will also involve personal Bible study with each one in the congregation, as well as with families. This kind of study will not only cause individual growth, it will cultivate a spiritual, familial relationship in the church that will only increase once scriptural leadership does come.
These are all divinely ordained steps in the right direction. If any congregation will put them into practice, that congregation will be making progress toward an eldership.