by Al Maxey

Issue #203 ------- August 10, 2005
Thought is not free if the profession of certain
opinions makes it impossible to earn a living.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

Shepherdless Sheep Folds
Are Churches Without Elders Scriptural?

Within the past few weeks I have received a couple of emails from readers who have sought advice with regard to local congregations devoid of men serving as elders. Specifically, they wanted to know if such a scenario was "Scriptural." In other words, can a congregation of believers in a certain location truly be acceptable unto God, and even considered a part of the universal One Body, if it does not have elders in place?

Without question, the ideal of the "Chief Shepherd" (1 Pet. 5:4) is for every gathering of disciples in a given geographical area to have godly men capable and willing to provide spiritual leadership, guidance and counsel to those sheep within the local fold. The reality, however, is much different. A great many congregations throughout the land are "shepherdless." Indeed, percentage wise, assemblies with elderships are much fewer in number than those without. This most certainly is not the way things should be in the church of our Lord Jesus, but it definitely is the way things are. Which raises the vital question: in the absence of such shepherds, is a congregation so far removed from the ideal that God does not recognize it as a part of the One True Church? Will such a group of disciples only truly become part of the One Body universal when they appoint elders? Indeed, can a congregation even function effectively without such recognized leadership in place? These are questions that trouble many saints.

In an article titled simply "IF," which appeared in the December 4, 1984 issue of Firm Foundation, the author, brother Jim Stutts, observed, "A common notion in our brotherhood is that a congregation is not a church of Christ unless it has elders." This writer then went on to describe a situation that occurred in an elderless congregation with which he had previously been associated. "A good intending brother moved in from an area where most all congregations had elders. Before long this former elder informed the men of the congregation that we were not the true church without elders and that he would go elsewhere if we didn't rectify the situation soon. We replied by informing him that not one man was qualified. He replied that we should merely appoint the best in the congregation, to which we replied, 'The best are women, should we appoint them?' The brother went elsewhere!"

Some congregations, no doubt, in order to be regarded as "Scriptural," have probably gone ahead and "appointed the best we have" so as to appease those who proclaim them outside the parameters of the "one true church" due to lack of an eldership. Such an action hardly makes them "Scriptural," however. Indeed, one may legitimately argue that appointing persons who do not exemplify the qualities necessary for spiritual leadership is far less "Scriptural" than having no elders at all. Would such men truly be regarded as genuine shepherds in God's eyes? I think not! It is the Holy Spirit who makes men overseers (Acts 20:28), not an act of desperation by unenlightened congregations seeking to become "Scriptural."

"The appointment of name-only, unauthorized men must be avoided" (Jim Stutts, Firm Foundation, Dec. 4, 1984). I couldn't agree more! Considerable damage has been done to congregations throughout the church of Jesus Christ by men serving in positions for which they are completely lacking in ability. However, we are still faced with the question of how God perceives such congregations. Can a group of devoted disciples devoid of elders still be regarded as part of the One Body, and can they still function and serve effectively before their heavenly Father? I believe there are several insights provided in God's Word that will lead us to answer in the affirmative.

A Large Little Word

In Titus 1:5-6a the apostle Paul issues the following charge to Titus: "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 Titus must perceive in those who would serve the Lord and His people in this position within the church. Thus, shepherds are to be appointed in each city IF there are those who can be identified as possessing the qualities 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. That extremely large little word IF makes this whole statement a conditional one. Before the desired result can be attained, conditions must be met. If those conditions can not be met, then the desired goal must be deferred until such time as the conditions can be met.

The commission given by Paul to Titus was to "set in order that which is lacking." The phrase "set in order" comes from a Greek medical term -- epidiorthoo -- which referred to setting broken bones back into place or straightening those which were crooked. It was a restorative term; something was out of place and in need of being put into place. This Titus was to do. That which was "lacking," at least in part, was spiritual leadership! Following the guidelines given by Paul, Titus was to appoint or ordain only those men to the eldership who evidenced those specific qualities. Titus was not given carte blanche to appoint whomever he willed, but was to ordain men to this position only IF they were clearly conditioned for that ministry by the Holy Spirit. "Vincent says: 'The meaning of the injunction is, that Titus should appoint out of the number of elderly men of approved Christian reputation, certain ones to be overseers of the churches in the several cities'" (Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies of the Greek NT, vol. 2). This little word IF, therefore, "has a bearing on the appointment of elders! Thus, elders were to be appointed in every city having qualified men, not in every city" unconditionally (Jim Stutts, Firm Foundation, Dec. 4, 1984).

Paul & Barnabas Appoint Elders

Near the end of Paul's first missionary journey (45-47 A.D.), he and his companion Barnabas "returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, ... And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed" (Acts 14:21-23). This is often cited as "proof positive" that elders must be appointed "in every church." Indeed, Titus 1:5 speaks of appointing elders "in every city." However, as previously noted, there is a condition attached to the latter statement. They are to be appointed in every city only IF they evidence certain spiritual qualities in their lives. One would think the same condition would apply in the current account before us in Acts 14.

That this may well be the case seems to be validated by the fact that Acts 14:21 appears to strongly suggest that the only cities previously evangelized by Paul in which elders were appointed at this time were Lystra, Iconium and Antioch of Pisidia. There were five other cities evangelized at this time about which nothing is said with regard to the appointment of elders. Dr. F. F. Bruce alludes to both of these facts when he writes, "In these cities they strengthened the young churches which they had so recently planted, putting their administration on a firm basis by appointing suitable members as elders, who would be true spiritual guides to their brethren" (Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 296).

Could there be some legitimate reason why only three of eight cities evangelized during the first missionary journey had elders appointed for them? One possible explanation may be that the other five simply didn't have men who had attained to the proper level of spiritual maturity. After all, these were fairly recently planted congregations, and 1 Tim. 3:6 makes it clear that an elder must not be a "new convert." Exactly what is meant by "new" in this context is often debated, but most likely it had to do with spiritual maturity, a quality some disciples, to be sure, develop more quickly than others, but a quality which, nevertheless, does not occur overnight. Some of the cities evangelized may simply not have had the necessary development of spiritual maturity among the men of the congregation for Paul and Barnabas to feel comfortable in appointing any of them to the eldership.

The Church in Antioch of Syria

The Lord's church in the city of Antioch of Syria was established in the year 42 A.D. (Acts 11:19-26), "and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" (vs. 26). Three years later they still apparently did not have elders, although we are informed in Acts 13:1 that "there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers." It was this congregation that sent forth Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (45-47 A.D.) at the direction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2). Here was a congregation functioning quite effectively, apparently, without the presence of an established eldership. Surely one cannot say they were not a legitimate part of the One Body of Christ! Surely one would not dare to call them "unscriptural." The Holy Spirit was clearly at work among them.

In the year 50 A.D. (eight years after their establishment) they were still seemingly without elders. Judaizers had come to them from Judea and were teaching, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas, now back in Antioch following their first missionary journey, "had great dissension and debate with them" (vs. 2). Elders are commissioned with the grave responsibility of "exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). There is no evidence that "elders" were doing this in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas were! Therefore, in order to deal with this problem, the brethren in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas "to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue" (vs. 2). When they got there, "the apostles and elders came together to look into this matter" (vs. 6). If there had been elders in Antioch, they should have dealt with the matter. That it was appealed to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem seems to imply to most biblical scholars that Antioch had still not developed enough spiritually mature men to form an eldership.

Are there any who would dare to suggest the church in Syrian Antioch was NOT a part of the universal One Body? Was this group of disciples "unscriptural" in the eyes of God? Like all congregations of believers, they were certainly lacking in some areas. But, unscriptural?! Not even remotely! This was a functional, mission-minded body of believers who were converting large numbers within their community to the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:21). The hand of the Lord and the grace of God was upon them (Acts 11:21,23). All of which is clear evidence suggesting they were approved and utilized by God, even though the strong implication of Scripture is that they were without elders during those early years.

First Mention of Elders

Elders are mentioned for the very first time in Acts 11:30. A contribution was collected from the saints in Antioch of Syria for the relief of the brethren living in Judea who were experiencing a famine, and these funds were placed in the charge of Paul and Barnabas who delivered them "to the elders" in Jerusalem. This was about the year 44 A.D. -- approximately fifteen years after the establishment of the church in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. One has to wonder how many of those fifteen years were without elders? I am aware of no reputable biblical scholar who suggests the church in Jerusalem had elders in place immediately after the establishment of the church on Pentecost. Most scholars admit that at least many months would need to pass before anyone would have attained to the necessary spiritual maturity, and most likely this process would take several years. Did the church in Jerusalem only become the "one true church" when they appointed elders? If so, how long were they NOT the "one true church"? Five, ten, fifteen years?!


Elders are "made/created" by the Holy Spirit. This is not the work or will of man. It is the indwelling Spirit's work within these men that brings them to the point of personal readiness to serve, and it is their desire and submission, and our encouragement of them, that allows the Holy Spirit to do His powerful work of transformation. To set a man in place as a shepherd who has not been transformed into such a servant by the Spirit of God (Acts 20:28), is to act where we have been granted no authority to act. It is not our place to appoint any man to a position of servant leadership to which the Lord has not clearly called him. Our responsibility is simply to recognize those whom He has called. Conversely, to refuse to appoint one to the eldership who has been called and equipped by the Spirit, perhaps because of church "politics," personality clashes, or petty differences, is equally contrary to the will of God.

How do we know when the Spirit has performed this work in a man's life? How do we know when a man is Spirit-filled and Spirit-equipped for this service as a shepherd to the flock? We look out among us and seek to perceive within the attitudes and actions of our brethren those qualities of life and heart enumerated by Paul in the pastoral epistles. IF these qualities are in evidence as a clear characterization of the focus of his life, then appoint him to the position for which the Spirit has called and enabled him .... and not before. If no one within the congregation has yet reached this level of spiritual maturity, then appoint no one. Your congregation is still very much a part of the Lord's universal One Body. Not yet having men capable of serving as shepherds does NOT make a congregation "unscriptural" --- appointing unqualified men to serve DOES!!

Down, But Not Out
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by Al Maxey
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Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in England:

Bro. Al, In your last Reflections you wrote, "Abuses by King John caused a revolt by nobles who compelled him to execute this recognition of rights for both noblemen and ordinary Englishmen." No, not "ordinary Englishmen." Ordinary Englishmen remained in serfdom, and hence slavery, with no rights for many moons to come! It was the local squire, wealthy landowners, gentry, clergy and aristocracy who had "recognition of rights," not the workers! Workers, "ordinary Englishmen," remained slaves, worked hard, remained silent, and got used to being abused. The common Englishman got his vote in the late 1800's, and the common Englishwoman in the 1900's.

From a Minister in Russia:

The dear brother! Thank you for sending out. Regrettably, I do not know English. Do you plan to translate your book into the other languages? Possibly translate materials sending out? I think that much people, which know the Russian language, would have much profit from this.

From a Minister in Penumarru, India:

Dear Brother in Christ, Cordial greetings to you from the Church of Christ, Penumarru, Guntur District (Andhra Pradesh), in southern India. I am the preacher for the church here. We would like to learn more from you and want to correspond with you, because of the wonderful material that you send out from the United States. Your spiritual help will be a great asset for us to work for the Lord's church which He has purchased with His own blood. You can guide us by giving good suggestions which help us to do more and more good works in the Lord's vineyard. Our mother tongue here in Andhra Pradesh is Telugu. We have good version of Telugu Bible. We have religious freedom in our State Andhra Pradesh to hold meetings and preach the Word. By the grace of God, we have no anti-conversion law in our State. If you are interested to know more about the local church here, we are always ready to correspond with you, dear brother.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Thanks for your Reflections. I have finally "come out of the closet" about all the issues we have in Churches of Christ, and I now feel free!! Recently, we had Mladen Jovanavich from Croatia here to report on his work in that country. Afterward, we met to eat, and at the end of the meal someone asked him how they got along with members of other churches in Croatia. His reply really struck a chord with me. "We do not spear them. If we have differences, they come to us and ask why we do what we do, and we do the same with them. Then we get our Bibles and study and pray together about the matter." I thought: this is what we need to be doing, instead of "spearing" each other! Not only with other churches, but also among ourselves. He stated that they learned from each other also! Keep up the good work, Al.

From a Prison Minister in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Al, My sincere appreciation to you for your excellent, thought-provoking Reflections articles. I use them as a means of feeding myself, since so much of my time is spent in preparing lessons to feed others that I have little time for much else. Through your generous efforts I have had some very good meals, and even some feasts, at your table!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, You did a great job on the background of Galatians. I really don't have much of an opinion whether it was "Ethnic" Galatia or "Political" Galatia. However, your detailed analysis was very interesting! I felt one thing was lacking, though -- Who are the Judaizers today? What law-bound practices are being yoked around our necks by these false teachers? I know that this could really kick up some sparks, but it would surely shine some much needed light on a lot of spiritual despotism that is pervasive in our brotherhood. Maybe you could have a "Galatians Part 2 -- The Judaizers Today!" Once again, thanks for such a good article!!

From a Doctor in Kentucky:

Bro. Al, My wife and I are giving "home schooling" a try. With that in mind, we have decided to incorporate a "day of service" every week. What my wife has chosen to do is to take them up to the church building and let them help clean up some of the classrooms, wash toys, wipe off tables, etc. Yesterday, my mom decided that she might want to go with my wife and children and help them, in order to "be with the grandchildren" that day. I may not have told you, but my step-dad is currently the full-time preacher at a very small Non-Institutional Church of Christ here in Kentucky. The fact that my mom was going with my wife and our children to clean out the classrooms at the "liberal" church caused quite a stir. He said my mom would be "aiding them in their message" or "helping to support them" if she helped the grandchildren clean their church building. She would be, in effect, helping to support "our error." You know, Al, I used to be just like my step-dad. Couldn't see the forest for the trees! When you step back and look at these things, they all seem so silly now -- a grandmother "supporting error" because she helped her grandchildren clean a classroom. Oh, the joy of legalism!!

From a New Reader in Alabama:

Bro. Al, I came across some of your writing completely by accident while doing some background research on the life of Fanny J. Crosby (Reflections #188). I'm a song leader at ----- Church of Christ, a lifelong member, and an alumnus of Harding College (mid-1970's). Due to the topic of our sermon for this coming Sunday morning ("The Son is Shining and I'm Blind"), I thought I'd use songs by her for the entire song service. I wanted to forward the information I got about her to our minister so he'd have some background, and when I came across your Reflections I was intrigued, since it sounds as though you and I are of the same mindset regarding legalistic, dogmatic teachings that have, in my opinion, hampered the growth of the church and damaged our reputation in a world that desperately needs Truth. We live in an area of Alabama that is dominated by the autocratic, condemnatory theology taught by graduates of the Memphis School of Preaching -- "If you ain't sendin' 'em to hell, you ain't preaching the truth! Let's weed 'em out!" Would you please add me to the mailing list for your Reflections? I'd love to read more of what you have to say!

From a Minister in California:

Al, I think you hit it right on the head in your discussion of Galatians. While the book is certainly a sharp condemnation of using law as the defining mode of pleasing God, Paul also attacks the moral laxity of the Gnostics. It is about as "fair and balanced" as one can possibly get in defining what it truly means to follow Christ! I agree that it should be a staple in every congregation's spiritual diet. As far as the popularity of the Reflections from Readers section, I think you accurately perceived that this whole Reflections ministry of yours is far more than just about "Al Maxey." This ministry has created a genuine global fellowship that transcends your writings. I guess that's just what happens when we turn ourselves over to the Lord. He makes us more than we could ever be on our own. By the way, the patternists should all pool their money and build a statue of Al Maxey somewhere. The main reason is that you are the greatest unifying force these legalists have encountered in years!! They can't seem to agree on anything except that they don't like Al Maxey!!

From a Reader in Texas:

My dear brother Al, Let me thank you for a very good introduction to Paul's letter to the churches of Galatia -- the most "edge of the seat" of all of the apostle's writings, in my opinion. I recently taught a Wednesday night class on this epistle at my home congregation. In order to help the class to understand the desperate tone of the letter, I told them that when Paul wrote this letter he was absolutely "hitting the panic button" because of his absolute belief that by forsaking the gracious gift of Jesus, in exchange for adherence to law keeping (an "I can -- and MUST -- do it all myself" form of legalism), his newborn Christian brothers in Galatia were doomed (Gal. 5:4). Paul was literally scared to death for them. Again, thank you for your brief (but excellent) introduction, and for all your "Reflective" work! I will borrow the phrase of our esteemed brother Leroy Garrett, and say, "Soldier on!"

From a Youth Minister in Florida:

Al, Thank you for taking a stand for truth and the freedom Christ brings to our lives. I work with teens and they need to know that freedom and grace are found in Christ and not in a legalistic standard they can never measure up to. Thanks again!

From a Reader in Illinois:

I am a seminary student in Chicago who just returned from a tour of Asia Minor. Your web site gave me wonderful insight into the Nicolaitan heresy, and has broadened my view of the "big picture" of life in 1st century Pergamum. Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Reflections #202 -- "Epistle to the Galatians" -- was a good one. I thought it was interesting and most beneficial. I am now going to do an in-depth study of the book of Galatians. I wish you would provide the same type of information on other books of the Bible. Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication. I feel sure you don't realize just how much you help so many of us through these Reflections.

From a Reader in California:

Our Brother in Christ, May God bless you richly as you stand for Christian unity and love. Continue the good work, and God's blessings on you and Shelly!

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