Does the Bible Really Say That About Selecting Elders? (April 2013)

By Matt Dabbs

by Craig Cottongim

Our heritage proudly claims to be people of the Book and we always turn to the Bible for guidance in every practice. Having served in a few congregations on both sides of the Mississippi, I’ve noticed oftentimes we share a common practice in our churches — an American/Democratic process for selecting Elders; not a process we found in the pages of the Sacred Script.

Most every congregation I am familiar with, either through personal experience or through communicating with, employs some sort of democratic-election process for selecting their elders. This is neither Biblical nor prudent. Here’s where things can get uncomfortable: There is a Biblical example for how we should select elders and it’s not what you might expect. Before we go further: In none of the examples in the New Testament do we have a vote being taken or do we witness a popularity contest.

Since we do take liberties in how we select elders, we should take a step back and ask: Is the Bible silent/ambiguous on how to place shepherds and elders in a leadership role? No, it’s not.

So what does the Bible say? In other words, ask yourself, what does the Bible really say about selecting elders or shepherds? In the New Testament, we have three, maybe four good passages that give us instruction and encouragement on how we should select the elders who lead, teach and protect the local congregation.

That being said, what do the Scriptures teach? The Bible teaches the local evangelist/minister is charged with the important responsibility of guiding the church to ordain their elders and shepherds.

Why? For starters, who knows the congregation the best and who has been privileged to spend time in prayer and study on their behalf? Typically, we’d say the preacher, and hopefully this is true the majority of the time. It makes sense from a logical stance that the preacher would play a major role in this process of selecting elders.

The instant we recommend the preacher is responsible for selecting shepherds, some people raise an objection: He’ll pick a “good ol’ boys club” or “he’ll put his cronies in place.” If those are suspicions are accurate, then I certainly wouldn’t trust that preacher to open the Bible and feed people from pulpit… Beyond this making good sense, we have Scripture to support the notion the local minister analyzes the congregation and recognizes the people who are qualified to serve as shepherds.

Paul and Barnabas take the responsibility, as missionaries, for selecting elders as they followed up with churches they planted and preached to. An example of this is in the Book of Acts, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:23). But, weren’t they Apostles? Beyond their example in Acts, we have clear instructions that Paul gives to the local ministers, in two Epistles, i.e., First Timothy and Titus on the selecting of an eldership.

Scripture is very clear that Paul expected Titus to select the elders in the local congregation, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—” (Titus 1:5 ESV) Titus is serving as an evangelist, ministering in Crete, yet their churches were without elders. Paul gave Titus instructions on how to find the right men to serve, and Paul left it in Titus’s hands on how to execute the process.

We see the same idea in First Timothy. Here it seems there are already men serving as shepherds in Ephesus. Timothy will be given instructions on how to relate to these shepherds, and how to also correct elders who sin. It seems that nearly the entire letter of First Timothy is handbook on how a local minister should serve a congregation. Paul gives Timothy guidelines on what the character of the shepherd should be, and after laying these out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul adds later on that Timothy needs to be patient when he ordains elders, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” (1 Timothy 5:22 ESV)

Why am I convinced it’s the best way to go for the local church, for the preacher to select elders/shepherds? For one, I see this clearly in the Bible. Secondly, I know it works. I served as the preacher for a Midwestern church that had been without elders for 20 years prior to my arrival. I felt my first responsibility to this church was to make a difference in the lack of an eldership, and guide them through a process to install an eldership. I had no idea how it would work out or what direction we would take, as we started. I read and studied. Alongside the Bible, I relied heavily on Strauch’s Biblical Eldership And Lynn Anderson’s They Smell like sheep.

I taught the adult Sunday school class for 6 months on the subject of elders and then I preached a series for a month, on elders. The conclusion I drew from our study, was the preacher held the responsibility for finding elders

I shared this openly with our class and from the pulpit. I then asked the church if they trusted me, and if they trusted the teaching I presented. With plenty of positive affirmation, the congregation said they did trust me. I then shared the names of the men I observed who smelled like sheep, and asked the church to enter into a discernment process — which meant we prayed and fasted together for forty days.

That was over 10 years ago, and though I’m no longer with them, we stay in touch. By the way, those godly men are still serving as elders, lovingly shepherding the flock. I didn’t act in a dictatorial fashion or as a dominating preacher, and I was open to feedback all along the way. We followed the example we discovered in the New Testament, we waited on God, and we felt God blessed us along the way, each step.

Maybe our churches could reduce the amount of conflict they dealt with, if we turned to the Bible for a guide on ordaining our elders. Placing the right people in leadership is one of, if not the most important steps in the life of a congregation. If the elders and ministers vie for competition or lack the ability to collaborate, then there’s so such conflict that the local church flounders. But. If the right chemistry is in place, then the sky is the limit and your congregation can truly flourish!

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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