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.
From the perspective of this writer, the arrangement described above is scriptural and should be practiced by Christians everywhere. In Acts 20.20, the apostle Paul summarized his work with the congregation at Ephesus in these words: “I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house….” In verse 31 he adds that this work was ongoing for “three years.”
A word is in order about the meaning of Acts 20.20. In recent years there have been a few efforts to re-construct the meaning of this passage from the historic, commonly accepted understanding, especially regarding the phrase “house to house.” Some suggest that this refers to worship services in house churches and is contrasted to preaching in an open square. Others say that the word house should be read as “household” or “family” and thus conclude that Paul is limiting the scriptural parameters of a private study to people who are biologically related, or in some way, members of the same family. Neither of these interpretations enjoy logical or scholarly support.
J. B. Rotherham translated the verse, “publicly and in your homes.” Today’s Christian New Testament says, “teaching you both in public and in private.” Beck says, “in meetings and in homes.” The contrast is simply this: Paul taught in public gatherings (assemblies of the congregation, gatherings in the open square, etc.) and in private gatherings (intimate meetings in the homes of Christians that were apparently confined to a closed group).
If Paul continued this practice for three and one-half years, it was clearly “regularly recurring,” and as Paul was very familiar with the attribute of God, that He desires things to be done decently and in order, in a way that avoids chaos and confusion, it is only reasonable that they would have been pre-planned. Therefore, the scripture authorizes pre-planned, regularly recurring, invitation-only Bible studies. If apostolic examples are a pattern, as this writer believes they are, Christians should learn from this example that much good comes from gathering for private studies outside the regular assembly. In places where no such studies occur, bible knowledge is generally lacking among the members.
[Note: We should point out the major differences between the arrangement defended above and the popular Sunday School or Bible Class system of modern religion. In churches that use Bible classes, the gatherings are open to the public, advertised on the marque, and arranged by the elders or leadership of the church. Leslie Thomas called “the Bible school… the church at work” (What the Bible Teaches, p. 150-151). The Sunday School or Bible Class is unscriptural. Private bible studies, like the ones described in Acts 20.20 must be individually arranged, and reasonable efforts must be taken to ensure they fit the description of “private.”]
Thayer’s Lexicon defines artos (the Greek word translated bread or loaf in the Lord’s Supper passages) as: “food composed of flour mixed with water and baked; the Israelites made it in the form of an oblong or round cake, as thick as one’s thumb, and as large as a plate or platter…” (p. 75). This description has led some to conclude that flour and water are the only ingredients permitted in unleavened bread, such as should be used in the Lord’s Supper – no oil, no salt, etc.
Thayer’s comments receive strong support from Jewish tradition. In the JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, Rabbi Dr. Nahum Sarna says this about the preparation of matsot (the unleavened bread used in the Passover): “Extraordinarily stringent regulations govern the manufacture of matsot. Their sole ingredients are flour and water. The flour may be made only from grains that are susceptible to fermentation. These are listed in Mishnah Pesaḥim 2:5 as wheat, barley, emmer, rye, and oats, although in practice only wheat is used. The water to be mixed with the flour is first left standing overnight. Matsah shemurah, “carefully guarded matsah” which many Jews use to fulfill the obligation to eat matsah on the first night of Passover, is made from flour milled from wheat that has been scrupulously supervised from the time of the harvesting on. Regular matsah is baked from wheat flour that has been specially milled for the purpose and has been carefully supervised from the time of milling through the baking. The entire manufacturing process from the kneading to completion must take no more than eighteen minutes, during which period the dough is continuously manipulated in order to retard fermentation. As a further precaution, perforation is applied to allow any bubbles of air to escape” (p. 57-58).
One may notice an absence of scripture in the explanation of these rules. The aforementioned recipe and preparation process is based solely on Jewish tradition and is not found in the Law of Moses. In fact, the idea that matsot or artos must consist of only flour and water is not supported by the scripture. In Exodus 29.2, God instructs how Aaron and his sons were to be consecrated as priests. The common English version says: “And this is what you shall do to them to hallow them for ministering to Me as priests: Take one young bull and two rams without blemish, and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil (you shall make them of wheat flour).” This punctuation indicates that there are three kinds of bread: unleavened bread (matsot), unleavened cakes with oil mixed into the dough, and unleavened wafers with oil poured on them after being baked. Many commentators follow this reading. However, the Septuagint (the Old Testament in Greek) lists only two varieties of unleavened bread – matsot and wafers – and clearly shows that oil was mixed into the matsot (at least on this occasion). “And unleavened bread, kneaded with olive oil, and unleavened cakes, basted with olive oil, you will prepare them from pure wheat made of fine wheat flour” (Exodus 29.2, Lexham English Septuagint). Furthermore, the Greek word used by the Alexandrian scholars to describe this unleavened bread made with oil was artos, the same word used in the New Testament to identify the loaf used by Christ in the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
Based on this evidence, it is impossible to sustain that oil is scripturally forbidden as an ingredient of unleavened bread. From the perspective of this writer, the scripture does not give an absolute recipe for the loaf (other than the prohibition against leaven). It is likely that salt was usually included in loaves baked for religious purposes (Leviticus 2.13). Oil may or may not have been used. Therefore, the inclusion or exclusion of oil is a matter of liberty, left up to the preference of the individual preparing the loaf.
Question: Can you comment on the first verse of the song “God is So Good To Me” from the new Legacy song book, "Wonderful Name"? I’ve heard several people say it is not scriptural and should not be sung.
Answer: Before getting into the particulars of this song, it seems necessary to point out a fundamental fact about song lyrics – but one that seems lost on many people. Song lyrics almost always involve poetic language. This is true of the massive collection of song lyrics in the Old Testament we call The Book of Psalms. Some of the poetic features used in Psalms include: personification (where inanimate objects like trees, rocks, and water are said to do things that only intelligent beings could do (Psalm 98.8)), metaphor (where a person, like God, is said to be something in a figurative sense in order to describes some aspect of His character or nature (Psalm 18.31)), anthropomorphism (where spiritual beings, like God, are describes as having physical characteristics (Psalm 17.6)), anthropopathy (where God, who being omniscient would not actually experience some of the emotions of men, is said to have those emotions (Psalm 74.22)), etc.
Because of the figurative and symbolic nature of poetic language, there are several occasions in the Book of Psalms when taking the words literally would result in false doctrine. For example, in Psalm 58.3, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” If taken literally, this teaches that infants (at least some of them) are separated from God even in the womb. However, it is absurd to take this statement literally: no one speaks as soon as he is born, lies or otherwise. This is a poetic hyperbole – an exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis. It means that those who become heinous sinners usually begin their criminal career early in life.
It may be that some people are not comfortable with poetic language and would prefer instead wooden literalism. However, scripture clearly shows that God has authorized the use of poetry in worship (Colossians 3.16; Ephesians 5.19), and has used poetry Himself in His revelation! Consequently, it is altogether inappropriate to brand an expression as unscriptural, simply because it is poetic, figurative, or accommodative. While there are certainly some unscriptural songs, we should be prudent before taking our penknives to the hymnal and ask if there is perhaps a poetic meaning that we are missing in these words.
With these thoughts in mind, let us consider the verse in question from the song, “God is So Good to Me” by Videt Polk.
The first verse begins: “From up in heaven one day God looked down, saw that the souls of men downward were bound…” Some object that this statement impugns the omniscience of God. They challenge that God knows all things, so it is wrong to speak of Him “looking down one day.” Let the reader consider Psalm 102.19-21: “For He looked down from the height of His sanctuary; From heaven the LORD viewed the earth, to hear the groaning of the prisoner, to release those appointed to death, to declare the name of the LORD in Zion, and His praise in Jerusalem...” Also, Psalm 14.2-3: “The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, no, not one.” One responds, “That is just poetry!” Indeed, and so is the modern song lyric. In fact, it seems obvious that the song writer had a better familiarity with the scripture than his critics and borrowed the expression straight from the pages of the Bible.
The song in question continues: “It made Him so sad, He wanted a way that saved they might be…” Some challenge that this expression depicts God as unprepared for the sin of man and denies the eternal foreordination of the gospel. However, let the reader note Genesis 6.6-7, “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” Also, 1 Samuel 15.10-11, “Now the word of the LORD came to Samuel, saying, ‘I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.’” One responds, “That is accommodative language!” Indeed, and so is the modern song lyric. As stated above, it is most likely that the lyricist borrowed the expression from the Bible.
Finally, the song states: “After all else had failed God sent His son….” Some challenge that this makes the mission of Jesus a last-ditch effort, rather than the consummation of history. Yet, once more, the reader should note Matthew 21.33-39: “Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.” One responds, “But that is the figurative language of parables!” Indeed, and the lyric is the figurative language of songs. Once more I suggest that the writer borrowed his expression from the Bible itself.
I find nothing harmful in the lyrics of this song. With all due respect to the conscientious and concerned whose only desire it is to please God, we need to realize that God has chosen the language of poetry as a part of His system, and He has included it in worship! If you find a song lyric that seems disconcerting, seek out a knowledgeable brother – perhaps the brother who edited and published the song book, and ask for guidance in how to sing that song with the spirit and the understanding. Your worship life will be richer and better for it.