The Selection and Appointment of Elders in Christ’s Church

The church Jesus said, “I will build,” (Matthew 16:18) has been in existence on earth since A.D. 33. The government He gave it is one where He continues to rule as the supreme head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). Through His apostles, He executes government. Their authority was resident in His word, not in themselves. By His authority, they formed the disciples of Christ into local groups called churches of Christ (Romans 16:16). These local groups were then placed under the loving oversight of men called elders, bishops, presbyters, or pastors. Deacons were also selected to minister to the local church under the general oversight of the elders. But how were these men selected and appointed? This study will investigate this Bible topic.

The work of elders in the church Jesus built is one of the most important works in this world. Their work involves superintending the grand mission Christ gave His church, the worship and service His church is to offer, and the personal lives of the members of His church. We will study this in a later lesson in this series. But just how were these men selected and appointed? What kind of men did Jesus intend to fill this great function?

The apostle Paul called the elders of the church of Christ in Ephesus to meet him in Miletus. There, he visited with them, did some reminiscing, warned them of imminent dangers to the church. This visit is recorded in Acts 20. Verse 17 reads, “And from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.” Here, these men are called elders. His charge to them is given in verse 28. “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” These are the elders he called to him, and here they are called “bishops.” The terms are synonyms. They refer to the same men with emphasis on two different aspects of their position and work. These men are elders in that they are mature Christians. They are bishops in that they oversee the flock where they are appointed.

They were made elders or bishops by the Holy Spirit. There is no question at all that the Holy Spirit makes elders in churches of Christ. Does this mean that by some direct contact, the Holy Spirit selects a Christian and reforms that individual into what the Bible calls a bishop? Some may incline to that view, but there is nothing in this text, or any other, that would even suggest such a thing. There are no mysterious shades of such a thing in this passage. The Holy Spirit makes elders in the church Jesus built just like the Holy Spirit makes Christians. The Holy Spirit has revealed what is required in becoming a Christian, what a Christian should do, and how a Christian should act. The Spirit does this through the medium of the revealed word of God. It is the Holy Spirit that “bears witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16). Note that this is not a witness to our spirits, but with our spirits. Those who obey what the Holy Spirit has witnessed through the gospel of Christ become Christians. Those who order their lives in accordance with the gospel standard for Christian living receive a joint witness of the Holy Spirit that they remain Christians.

Elders are made by the Holy Spirit in the same manner. The Holy Spirit, through revelation has made known the office and work of elders. Through this revealed gospel, the Holy Spirit describes the character and life on one who is allowed to serve in this high and holy calling. Brother Waymon D. Miller wrote, “The fact that elders are ‘made’ by the Holy Spirit is no different from the fact that Christians are ‘made’ and matured by the Holy Spirit. This idea does not bestow upon the elders superior powers, endow them with infallibility, or install them permanently into the office. It simply means that men become elders because the Holy Spirit has revealed that those properly qualified should hold such an office and render such a service.” (The Role of Elders in the New Testament Church, Plaza Press, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1980, page 95.)

The qualifications of an elder are listed in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. The first passage reads, “It is a trustworthy statement; if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, apt to teach, not addicted to wine, or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” The list in Titus is essentially the same.

A man who aspires to this office must have the qualities in the list. One might desire to be an astronaut, but lack any of the necessary skills involved in space technology. His aspiration might impel him to develop himself sufficiently so that one day his dream could be a reality. Until such time as one does develop the qualities of elders, as revealed by the Holy Spirit, he cannot be considered as qualified for the work. The qualifications are both restrictive and inclusive.

That Paul said certain men who aspire to be elders must possess certain traits and abilities removes this from the realm of mere suggestion. Any good dictionary will tell us that the auxiliary verb, “must” is used especially to express a command, obligation, or necessity and always involves something necessary.

One who is “above reproach” lives in a positive way to quiet any justified criticism of his morality. If one is the husband of one wife, that person is not a wife, nor a bachelor, nor a widower. The late and beloved W. Curtis Porter was once asked what he thought “husband of one wife” meant. His reply was, “It means he has one more than none and one less than two wives.” In our generation we hear of women being made “pastors,” or “bishops,” in religious organizations. Those who respect the Bible as the authoritative word of God, while respecting women to the fullest, cannot condone such a thing. A woman cannot be the “husband” of anything -- morally or scripturally.

Men were selected who demonstrated these qualities. They were to be vigilant, watchful, and alert to the work of overseeing Christ’s church. They were to be sober or serious minded and sensible. They were to conduct an orderly life and be hospitable. One of their chief functions involves teaching and so the Holy Spirit requires them to have the ability to teach the word of God faithfully. In their teaching and training of Christians under their charge, they were to demonstrate patience.

These men also were to have shown themselves to be good fathers, good family men.  They were to manage their own households well, as sort of a proving ground for their work in the local church. Paul argues that if they cannot manage their own children in the family, they cannot be expected to rule well in the local church of Christ. Elders are to be men who are fair in dealing with others and pure in their own lives. They cannot be addicted to drugs or alcohol (wine), nor can they be pugnacious or covetous. When men who meet these qualifications are found within the membership of a local church, the Holy Spirit’s work has been done. The Holy Spirit has made these men fit to be elders in Christ’s church.

They are then selected and appointed by the church they are to superintend. We have an apostolic command for an evangelist to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). There is no specific procedure by which an evangelist appoints elders. We have an apostolic example of the selection process. Discord rose early in the church Jesus built. Acts chapter 6 tells us that early on the church experienced difficulties over discrimination. There were widows being cared for by the church. Some of them were of Jewish background; others were Grecian. The complaint was that the Grecian widows were not being provided for as well as the Jewish widows. So the apostles, in order to bring peace, “The twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables, but select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task” (Acts 6:2-3). They left it in the hands of the congregation to select men who met the specific qualifications they gave. There is nothing that indicates just how the congregation did the selection. That falls into the realm of good common sense.

It is quite obvious from these facts that no ecclesiatical body has the right to select and appoint men to oversee local churches. Only the congregation, from within its own membership, has that power.  Furthermore, it is plain and clear that the selection is not to be made on the basis of how popular, or how influential a man may be. Sometimes wealthy and prominent men are put in as elders when they lack nearly all the true qualifications the Holy Spirit gives for scriptural elders. Churches that do such things instantly declare they care little or nothing for divine authority, demonstrate disrespect for the head of the church, Christ Jesus, and insult the Holy Spirit who gave the qualifications.

Evangelists merely appoint these men. They do not select them. There is a vast difference in the selection process and the appointment. Titus was to appoint these men as elders in every city. No formal ceremony was involved. The late H. Leo Boles wrote, “The term ‘appoint’ does not carry with it, either in English or in the original, the idea of ‘selected’ elders. In the case of the seven men selected at Jerusalem, the apostles did not ‘select’ them -- the apostles only ‘appointed them. They did not choose these men; they only ‘appointed them. The disciples at Jerusalem selected or chose the men and the apostles appointed them.”

This, then, covers what the New Testament tells us about the selection and appointment of these good men to this great office. I know of no more serious obligation than that which is committed. The Hebrew writer bids us to obey and honor them. “Obey your leaders, and submit to them for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).

If you have a question about this, or any other Bible topic, please let us know. We may be able to help you.

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