In his classic 1832 work, The Ruling Elder, Samuel Miller penned the following: “The design of appointing persons to the office of Ruling Elder is not to pay them a compliment; not to give them an opportunity of figuring as speakers in judicatories; not to create the pageants of ecclesiastical ceremony; but to secure able, faithful and truly devoted counselors and rulers of the Church—to obtain wise and efficient guides, who shall not only go along with the flock in their journey heavenward, but go before them in everything that pertains to Christian duty.”
Miller’s words are as poignant now as they were in the nineteenth century. We are in a desperate situation wherein the church of Christ has lowered its standards not only in the realms of God-centered worship and biblical exposition, but in the realm of church government as well. As pastors, we have duped ourselves into thinking we have all the right answers and have no need for biblically qualified elders to surround us, encourage us, admonish us, and love us.
Crucial to the gospel ministry of shepherding the sheep of our Chief Shepherd is identifying those from among the flock whom God has gifted to serve as shepherds. Every step of the electing process of elders demands care, and everyone involved in the electing process must be immersed in kingdom-focused prayer. From the beginning of the electing process to the end, the congregation and its elders must consider the weightiness of the matter. Indeed, many Christians are more concerned with following the intricacies of local or national political elections than with electing officers to shepherd the family of God.
The first step of electing elders may be the most critical. In many churches, particularly those within the Presbyterian tradition, potential elders are formally nominated by communicant members of the congregation. According to the book of church order of the Presbyterian Church in America, elders are to be nominated by members of the congregation: “At such times determined by the session, communicant members of the congregation may submit names to the session.” Similarly, the book of church order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church reads, “Such officers, chosen by the people, from among their number . . .” Each book of order is worded with tremendous care and wisdom, and the general assemblies of each ecclesiastical body have taken great pains over the years to make certain their books of order are in precise accordance with their traditions and, what is more, thoroughly biblical. And while each book of order allows for elders to elect potential elders, each book also seems to recommend that potential elders are to be nominated by those who are not elders in the church.
I have no disagreement over the importance and biblical precedent (i.e. Acts 6:3; 14:23) for the congregation’s role in confirming elders. Yet it is ultimately the responsibility of the elders to nominate and elect elders. For it is upon the elders of the church that God has placed the authority and responsibility of shepherding his people (Acts 6:1–7; 14:23; 1 Tim. 5:17–22; Heb. 13:17). In The Deliberate Church, authors Mark Dever and Paul Alexander write, “It cannot be stressed enough that only the elders should nominate other elders, both because they are the most spiritually mature members of the congregation and because they know the lives of the congregation best.” Too often, within churches where men are nominated by the people of the congregation the nomination process becomes a popularity contest of sorts. In those contexts, a man who is nominated is usually sought out by the one nominating him to inform him that he is being nominated for the office. Yet if the elders don’t confirm this nomination handed in by the church member, a nominee is, in some cases, left feeling unwanted, or, perhaps, unqualified, when in fact the individual simply may not have been needed at the time. On occasion, the consequences are devastating.
In either situation, if people from the congregation are nominating potential elders, or if the elders are nominating and electing potential elders, it is ultimately incumbent upon the existing elders of the church to discern who will be nominated, examined, and elected for the office. The integrity of the electing process is inextricably dependent on the integrity of the elders. There must necessarily be, therefore, biblically qualified, faithful men who are nominating, examining, and electing. Apart from such integrity in the eldership, a church will easily apostatize. On this point, Alexander Strauch comments:
So in vitally important matters such as selecting, examining, approving, and installing prospective elders or deacons, the overseers should direct the entire process. . . . If the elders do not oversee the appointment process, disorder and mismanagement will ensue, and people will be hurt. Moreover, if the elders do not take the initiative, the process will stagnate. The elders have the position, authority, and knowledge to move the whole church into action. They know its needs, and they know its people. So they can, intentionally or not, stifle or encourage the development of new elders.
Similarly, John Owen, in his work on The True Nature of a Gospel Church, stipulates:
This is the power and right given unto the church, essentially considered, with respect unto their officers—namely, to design, call, choose, and set apart, the persons, by the ways of Christ’s appointment unto those offices whereunto, by his laws, he hath annexed church power and authority. . . . The wisdom intended is not promised unto all the members of the church in general, nor are they required to seek for it by the ways and means of attaining it before laid down, but respect is had herein only unto the officers of the church.
To the elders of the church, God has given the wisdom and authority necessary to govern the church in accordance with his Word. That does not mean that the elders of the church actually make other elders. It is simply the responsibility of elders of the church to discern whom God has raised up to serve as an elder (Acts 20:28). In his book The Elders of the Church, Lawrence R. Eyres writes, “God makes men elders, and the church’s duty is to discern which men God has given to the church for teaching and ruling.” Eyers point is a good one and should not be underestimated. The principle found within such teaching is brilliantly profound and provides the church with many practical implications.
Among those implications, first and foremost, the elders must always keep in mind that they are not heads of the church; Christ is the only head of the church. This is not merely a statement of supreme doctrinal import; it is a statement of practical consequence. If Christ is understood to be the living head of the church, who died for the church and prays for the church (John 10:11; 17:17–23; Eph. 5:25), the elders of the church will see themselves as under-shepherds to Christ, serving him as the church’s active, living head (Eph. 5:23). As under-shepherds, then, elders possess the great authority and responsibility of electing men to the office of elder whom Christ himself has provided. After all, Christ gives gifts to his people and sets them apart to serve (1 Cor. 12:1–31).
Men who are nominated for the office of elder should be men whom the Lord has already raised up. One may ask, how does the Lord reveal those whom he has raised up? In just this way: The Lord has distributed to his people various gifts to be employed in his church and kingdom (Ps. 68:18; 1 Cor. 12:1–31; Eph. 4:4–16). In distributing gifts, he has given his people the responsibility to employ their gifts for the mutual benefit of the entire body of Christ. Therefore, men whose gifts are manifested in accordance with the Lord’s command (Matt. 25:14–30) and who are responsibly employing their gifts should be recognized by the elders of the church and encouraged to continue in love and good works in accordance with their gifts (Heb. 10:24). In so doing, the elders of the church will be able to discern those whom the Lord has raised up to serve in the office of elder. On this point, Strauch asserts, “So before a man is appointed to eldership, he is already proving himself by leading, teaching, and bearing responsibility in the church.” To that same end, those men who are “proving” themselves to be elders should be involved, as much as is possible, in the care of the people of God. For in so doing, such men are demonstrating their desire to serve the Lord as an elder, which is a noble thing as the apostle Paul asserts (1 Tim. 3:1).
1 Samuel Miller (1769–1850), The Ruling Elder in David W. Hall and Joseph H. Hall, Paradigms in Polity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 428.
2 Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, Sixth Edition, “On the Election, ordination, and Installation of Ruling Elders and Deacons,” Chapter 24, section 1.
3 Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005 Edition, “Ruling Elders,” Chapter 10, section 1.
4 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 157.
5 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 1995), 278.
6 John Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church, ed. William H. Goold, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 16, (first published 1689; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 39–41.
7 Lawrence R. Eyres, The Elders of the Church (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 7.
8 Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 281.