Sunday, November 11, 2007

Elders in the Church - One, or More?

In the church tradition in which I grew up, it was firm doctrine that each church is to have a multiplicity of elders, as explained in this typical comment from an un-cited source on Titus chapter 1: seems [Titus'] initial duty....was to appoint elders in every town. The word elders here is plural meaning each group of believers had a plurality of elders. To 'appoint' is to 'ordain.' The verb means, to 'set down' or to 'put in charge.' But next is the most important words. "As I directed you." The preacher is commanded directly from the apostle Paul to "appoint elders." So, there we have it.
Here are some of my thoughts concerning this doctrine.


Using this example more exactly, it seems that one preacher, who himself has been appointed by a "higher level of authority", is to appoint the elders in every town within a certain jurisdiction. That's an uncomfortable thought ....


"appoint elders in every town" could be likened to the phrase, "appoint cooks in every family". Would each family therefore need a plurality of cooks?

Granted, in English at least, if a single elder were intended, the phrase would be better uttered as "appoint an elder in every town".

But what if Paul's intended meaning was that each town have at least one elder? The rendering "appoint at least one elder in every town" is somewhat clunky; I suspect most speakers would short-hand this to "appoint elders in every town", which is the form we have in our text.

Note that I'm not saying Paul intends "at least one elder"; I'm merely saying that the text, in English at least, is not clear that he intended a multiplicity of elders, either in each town, or over each group within a town.

In other words, using this text alone, I'm not sure you can support the point that "each group of believers had a plurality of elders".


Does the New Testament actually teach that each group of believers have a plurality of elders? I'm not entirely confident that it does.

Sometimes when Paul writes to a church in a certain city, he implies that there are several churches within the city, such as when he says, "Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. ... Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord." (For an interesting (and perhaps enlightening) exercise, go to and search for "household" in the New Testament, and quickly read how the term "household" is used. It often "feels" like code-speak for "house-church", although I would not press that definition too greatly, especially without having done further research on it.)

If it's true that the early church tended to meet in houses, chances are fairly good that these house-churches would be fairly small, say 12-30 people. With such small churches, I'm not sure a plurality of elders would have been practical.

In a situation in which one city might have four or a dozen house-churches, each with one elder, it still makes perfect sense for Paul to call for the elders in the city of Ephesus to come meet him. Therefore Acts 20:17 also fails to be an iron-clad proof-text for a multiplicity of elders over each group of believers.

It also makes sense that Titus could appoint multiple elders within a city while each house-church within that city may only have one elder. Or perhaps the elders of a town pastored over the churches as a whole, with some house-churches not even having an attending elder (although this seems unlikely to me; it seems more likely that each house-church would have some sort of ruler).

Also, apparently the early church simply converted their synagogue meetings to church meetings. For example:
* Jesus implies that his followers would be worshiping in the synagogues until they were kicked out - John 16:2
* the new Gentile Christians in Antioch are given instructions to allow them to coexist with the practice of reading Moses on the Sabbath in synagogues - Acts 15:20-22
* the Jews who were angry at Christians beat Sosthenes the synagogue ruler, implying that this synagogue ruler was a Christian - Acts 18:16-17
* Saul went to the synagogues to find Christians he could arrest - Acts 22:19, Acts 26:11
* James speaks of both rich and poor people coming into the Christian synagogue assemblies (James 2:2, Young's Literal Translation, or the Greek text)

As I understand it, the synagogue had a single leader, such as Sosthenes above, or such as described in Luke 8:41, Luke 13:14, and Acts 18:8. So without clear instruction otherwise (which apparently was not recorded in the New Testament), former synagogue-attending Jews who had converted to Christianity would continue assembling as they had all their lives, in the synagogue, with a synagogue leader over them.

Again, please do not mis-hear me. I'm not arguing that the New Testament teaches there should be one elder over each church. I am saying that the evidence is less clear for a plurality of elders over each church than is often claimed. Extra-biblical sources, or further comparison with the Jewish concept of elders and/or synagogue/assembly leaders, might enlighten us on the matter, but it seems to me that any conclusion in favor of a plurality of elders over each group of believers, when made strictly using the New Testament as source material, can only be made by reading a meaning into the text rather than reading a meaning out of the text. Perhaps I'm wrong, and there is some clear-cut evidence that I've forgotten or missed. But I'm tending to think not.

1 comment:

Broken said...

I find we are on dangerous ground when we attempt to extract from these passages far too much detail, when we would find it silly nit-picking if it were our own letters. Western lawyering methods of textual analysis were simply unknown in the Early Church. Saying these letters are the Word of God does not make them any less letters between friends, any more than Christ's divinity made Him less human. Frankly, we know precious little about the Early Church habits and organizational methods. Perhaps it's because some of those issues over which we labor so much simply don't matter that much. All organization in that sense is a human activity, and we must be ready to set it aside when it no longer serves the purpose of the Kingdom. It's just a tool, not the Kingdom itself.