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On Selecting Elders

by Tim O'Hearn

Have you ever been told to do something new, but not told how to do it? How do you react? Some people panic in such a situation, because they are afraid that if they don’t do it exactly the way the person who assigned the task would do it, they will be wrong. Others jump in and do it their way, figuring that if nobody told them how, they had a choice in method. In between are an infinite number of options. Some people like to have freedom to experiment. Others like to be taught first, and then always do it that way.

These latter are like the guys on the side of the road. One fellow came along and saw them working. The first worker used a post-hole digger to prepare a hole. Then both would sit for a moment, and then the other guy would fill the hole. When the observer asked what they were doing they said they worked for the city, putting up fences. The guy watching said he didn’t see a fence. The first fellow explained. “You see, I dig the holes. Then Fred puts in the posts, and Jerry, here, fills in the dirt around the post. Well, Fred called in sick today. But Jerry and I don’t see why we shouldn’t get paid just ‘cause Fred’s sick.”

If we are told exactly how to do things, then when situations change, we have difficulty adapting. God sometimes gives specific instructions. At other times he tells us to do something and lets us figure out the best way. Perhaps that is how he dealt with the selection of elders in congregations.

Paul makes it clear in 1Timothy and Titus that congregations were expected, whenever possible, to have elders (also called pastors/shepherds or bishops). He told both of these men the qualities that an elder must have. We know that Peter was not just an apostle, but also an elder. (1 Peter 5:1) So, possibly, was John. (2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1, although he could be referring to his age, not his office) In most places, though, we are not told how congregations get elders.

In my 60+ years, I have seen several methods used by congregations to select elders. Some are better than others, but all seem somewhat effective. Many congregations make a list of men that appear to qualify, then tell the congregation who the nominees are and ask if there is any reason these men should not be elders. While this seems to be the most common method in the Churches of Christ, it has its downside. On the one hand, some people who might know disqualifying factors remain silent, afraid to upset the apple cart. (This is how we get elders who are family abusers.) On the other hand, someone might bring an accusation (false or not) that will subsequently destroy the reputation of a man. Some have called this method “deselection by shaming.”

Other congregations use an election method. In one such, a slate of potential elders is presented to the congregation, and they elect a certain number of men, less than the number presented. In another variation, each member of the congregation is asked to list all the men they think should be elders, and those that are listed on a certain percentage of signed ballots, if any meet that percentage, are given the option to become elders.

Interestingly, the one option for choosing elders mentioned in the Bible is the one I have never seen. Paul’s commission to Titus was to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city.” (Tit 1:5) Apparently Paul thought that, at least in Crete, the best way to select elders was by use of an outside consultant. Since reputation outside the congregation is one of the qualifications (1 Tim 3:7), perhaps this is a good way to judge that quality. It is just strange that a group of people known for arguing that a capella music is the only acceptable music because it is the only kind specified in the New Testament should not also argue that choosing elders from outside a congregation is the only method, for the same reason.

Some congregations limit the eldership to a certain number of men. Others feel that anybody who is qualified should be named an elder, even if that is a majority of the men in the congregation. While scripture doesn’t say which is correct, it seems that it would be wrong to deny a qualified man the opportunity to serve as an elder.