Can a Congregation be "Scriptural,"
Acceptable unto God, A Part of the Body,
and Functional Without Elders?

by Al Maxey

Without question, the IDEAL for every congregation of the Lord's church is to have a qualified group of men (elders) to provide spiritual leadership and guidance, and to set an example of maturity in Christ. In the absence of such qualified men, however, is a particular congregation not recognized by God as being a part of the Body of Christ? Is this group of believers and disciples completely unable to function in any way until such time as they acquire elders? Does a group of Christians only truly become the "Church" when they appoint elders? Prior to that point in time, are they "unscriptural"? Some have actually made these assertions. However, notice the following:

#1 --- In Titus 1:5-6a Paul says to Titus, who is on the island of Crete, "For this reason I left you in Crete, in order that you might set in order that which is lacking, and that you might appoint elders, as I directed you, in each city IF anyone is....." Paul then lists the qualities of an elder. Elders are to be appointed in each city "IF" there are men who meet the standards enumerated by the inspired apostle. The implication is unmistakable: Those who do not possess these qualities are not to be appointed; and if none possess these qualities, then none are to be appointed!! Some scholars believe this is what Paul may have in mind (at least in part) in I Timothy 5:22 when he instructs the young evangelist, "Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for their sins." In their interpretation of this passage they see Paul cautioning evangelists: If you install a man who is not qualified, and that man fails as a spiritual leader, you yourself may share in the responsibility for that failure, and for any harm which may befall the congregation as a result.

#2 --- At the end of Paul's 1st missionary journey, he and Barnabas went back through the cities they had evangelized and "appointed elders for them in every church" (Acts 14:23). This is often cited as evidence that every congregation of the Lord's church must have elders in order to be "Scriptural." However, notice carefully what is and is not said here!

Verse 21 makes it very clear that the only cities in which elders were appointed were Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia. There were five other cities evangelized at this time which did not have elders appointed for them by these evangelists/apostles. Why? Perhaps because only three of the eight cities evangelized were ready to have elders. These were cities where tremendous growth (specifically: spiritual growth) was occurring; in fact, Timothy was a product of the spiritual climate of Lystra. The year was 47 A.D. --- only two years had passed since these congregations had been established! Obviously, there had been some tremendous spiritual advancement in these particular congregations for Paul to find men who were, after only two years, qualified to be elders!

But, were these growing congregations of disciples not "Scriptural" during the two years they were without elders?! Were the other five congregations, in which Paul and Barnabas did not appoint elders, "UNscriptural?" If so, where is the evidence to substantiate such a claim?

#3 --- The congregation of the Lord's church in the city of Antioch of Syria was established in 42 A.D. (Acts 11:19-26). Three years later they still did not have elders, although they did have prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1). This congregation also sent out Paul & Barnabas on their first missionary journey at the direction of the Holy Spirit. Here was a congregation functioning very effectively, and doing great things, without the presence of elders! Surely, one cannot say they were not a legitimate part of the Body of Christ at that time!

In 50 A.D. (eight years after their establishment) they still did not have elders. When a problem arose in connection with some false teaching, they appealed to the leadership in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). In the reply which was sent back to Antioch, it is very clear that they were without those who were serving in the position of elders: "The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch....." (vs. 23). When the letter was delivered, it was delivered to "the congregation" as a whole, and not to any specific men recognized as the spiritual leaders (vs. 30). Verse 34 points out that Silas felt he ought to remain in Antioch rather than return to Jerusalem; perhaps his leadership was needed at this time in Antioch much more than in Jerusalem.

We certainly can not suggest that the church in Antioch was "UNscriptural" in any way (it is never so characterized in Scripture), or that it was not functional. They were extremely mission-minded; they converted large numbers within their community (Acts 11:21); the hand of the Lord and the grace of God was upon them (Acts 11:21, 23) --- and yet all the while the biblical evidence suggests they were very likely without elders.

#4 --- Elders are mentioned for the very first time in the New Testament documents in Acts 11:30. These were probably either the elders in Jerusalem, or elders in various locations around Judea. This was the year 44 A.D. --- some fifteen years after the establishment of the church in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost!! How many of those fifteen years were spent without elders? Were these congregations of believers in some way NOT truly a part of the Lord's church during these years? Did they only become the "true church" when elders were installed?

Again, it is obvious that God's plan --- God's IDEAL --- is that every congregation have spiritual leaders, and that those without spiritual leaders should be working toward that goal. But, it is absurd --- and contrary to the biblical evidence --- to declare a congregation "unscriptural" or "lost" or "living in a sinful condition" (as some have done) because it does not yet have men who are qualified to serve as elders.

It is also extremely dangerous, based upon the misconception that a congregation must have elders before it can be a functioning part of the Body, to appoint "the best in the congregation" (even though they aren't qualified) simply to be able to declare the congregation "Scriptural." In so doing, one has actually become less Scriptural. Such a congregation still does not have an eldership! They merely have a group of unqualified men serving in a capacity for which they are unequipped --- a formula which generates only disaster!

Elders are "made/created" by the Holy Spirit. It is His work within them that brings them to the point of readiness to serve, and it is their desire, and our encouragement, which allows the Spirit to effect within them that transformation. To set a man in place as an elder who has not been transformed into such by the Spirit of God (Acts 20:28), is to act presumptuously where we have been granted no authority to act. We are only allowed to install as elders those who have been "made" an elder by the Holy Spirit. Conversely, to refuse to install one who has been "made" an elder by the Holy Spirit (because of "politics," personality clashes, petty differences & jealousies, etc.) is also to act contrary to the will of God.

How do we know when the Spirit has performed this work in a man's life? Examine the man by the standard of the qualities and qualifications enumerated by Paul in the two passages in the Pastoral Epistles. IF these qualities are a true characterization of this man's life, THEN appoint him.....and not before.

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