God, in His Divine wisdom, determined that every local congregation of His people be overseen by elders. The apostle Paul commanded Timothy to "appoint elders in every city" (Titus 1:5). When Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch of Pisidia they "appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting" (Acts 14:23).
Some of the responsibilities of preachers and elders overlap -- both are required to be "apt to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24) and they share in the work of "equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12, NASB).
Preachers have the responsibility of ordaining elders (Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 5:22) and the duty to rebuke elders who sin "in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear" (1 Tim. 5:20). Timothy was told to "be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Tim. 4:5). As far as I can determine from the Scriptures, the obligations of a gospel preacher do not change whether there are elders in the congregation where he preaches or not.
The work of elders is limited to the local congregation where they work (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). As good shepherds of the flock, they are to watch out for the souls of the brethren in the congregation they oversee (Heb. 13:17). Elders who rule well are to be "counted worthy of double honor" (1 Tim. 5:17). Contrary to the practice of many brethren, James told the sick to "call for the elders of the church," not the preacher (James 5:14).
There are several reasons why a local church might not have elders. Sometimes a congregation does not have two men who meet the qualifications laid down by Paul in Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7. I have also seen congregations without elders because the local preacher liked running roughshod over the brethren and tried to stop any effort to ordain qualified men. Sometimes brethren are looking for "perfect" men to serve as elders. On the other hand, sometimes qualified men just do not want to serve (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 13:17).
In this article I would like to look at a few of the problems congregations face in the absence of elders.
After more than twenty years of preaching I have just about decided that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was a men's business meeting (I speak facetiously). A business meeting is not a substitute for an eldership -- it is an expedient way to carry on the work of the church in the absence of two spiritually mature men. By default, decisions made in a business meeting are made by a group of spiritually immature men.
How can decisions be made in a business meeting? Sometimes brethren practice "majority rule" (might makes right). Other brethren chose to have "minority rule" (the inmates running the asylum). To me, it only makes sense to have decisions made by a consensus of the brethren -- a way for everyone to "have his say," but no one man to "get his way." "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" (Psa. 133:1).
In a business meeting, as in every aspect of a Christian's life, the younger are to submit to those who are older and wiser (1 Pet. 5:5). It is not fitting for the opinion of a twelve year old boy to carry the same weight as a mature man who has taught Bible classes for forty years. Let's be honest -- baptism does not turn a boy into a man. Picture a situation where a congregation has more teenagers than older men -- should these "babes in Christ" be able to override the consensus of mature men? I have known of cases where men would bring their young sons into a meeting just to get another "vote" of their side of some issue.
In the absence of qualified men, preachers are often pressured into appointing unqualified men as elders. Preachers must exhibit the backbone necessary to resist this temptation. Paul told Timothy not to "lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people's sins" (1 Tim. 5:22). Preachers who help appoint unqualified men to the eldership certainly "share in other people's sins" and damn their own souls.
Occasionally you will hear someone say that it is better to have unqualified men serving as elders than to have no elders at all. If this is the case, we might as well start appointing women to serve as elders. I know some godly women who meet all of the qualifications -- except for being the "husband of one wife." If you throw out one qualification, such as having faithful children, why couldn't you throw all of the other qualifications out? Ordaining unqualified men can harm a congregation for generations to come.
When a morally good but spiritually unqualified man allows himself to be appointed as an elder he ceases to be a good man -- his very action proves that he has no regard for Bible teaching and authority. Not only will the congregation be overseen by the spiritually immature, but it is nearly impossible to remove such men from the eldership.
In the absence of elders, some gospel preachers will practice the "clergy system" while condemning it in others. Though the preacher is in the spotlight more often than the other men, he has no more authority than any one else in congregational decisions. Unfortunately, some decisions in a congregation have to be made in a short amount of time. However, preachers must not become the "Shell Answer Man" and make decisions for the brethren without their consent.
Lazy preachers will sometimes substitute "visiting" for the God-given work of "reproving, rebuking and exhorting." I suppose this is easier to do in the absence of elders. As one brother said, in such cases sermons become sermonettes, the study becomes an office and the preacher becomes a religious bellboy.
Without elders to "shepherd the flock," the teaching program of a congregation can quickly become helter-skelter. Such does not have to be the case.
When goals are not set and things do not work out there are almost always some brethren who are ready to get rid of the preacher (the "fire the coach" syndrome).
One of the hardest things for a preacher to do is to try and determine when it is time for him to "move on." It is very tempting for a preacher to start looking for "greener pastures" at a congregation where good elders can be found. It is also possible for a preacher to stay too long at one congregation -- thinking that current problems will magically disappear if brethren are given enough time to grow spiritually.
Without elders a preacher can easily have twenty to a hundred folks trying to "oversee" his work -- it will be impossible to him to please everyone. As a servant and steward of Jesus Christ he must strive to please his Master. As Paul told the Corinthians, "it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself" (1 Cor. 4:3).
However, to "provide things honest in the sight of all," preachers need to let brethren see the fruits of their labors. Home Bible studies, sermon handouts, overhead charts, tracts, bulletins and classbooks let brethren know how the preacher has been using his time. When a preacher starts quoting USA Today more than the words of the apostle Paul, brethren can get a pretty good idea of how he has been "studying."
It is not uncommon to see a "Sermon Suggestion Box" in the vestibule of meetinghouses. I have always thought these were little time-bombs waiting to explode. I simply refuse to preach a sermon based on an anonymous suggestion. Experience has taught me that folks sometimes want a preacher to give a lesson just so they can "get even" with another by using the pulpit -- I refuse to allow myself to get involved in such matters.
One of the best things a preacher can do for a congregation without elders is to help younger men prepare for that great work. Most of us recognize that one cannot become "elder material" overnight. Obtaining a "good testimony among those who are outside" requires years of righteous living (Titus 1:9).
Let us encourage young men to study the Word of God, instruct them to deal honestly with all, teach them to love their wives and bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Show them how to hold "fast the faithful word" as they have been taught, that they "may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). In the process, the congregation where you preach will be grow and be blessed and the Lord, "the Chief Shepherd," will be glorified (1 Peter 5:4).