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Who chooses bishops/elders/pastors among the church?

Posted by on Jun 18, 2013 in church history, elders, scripture | 11 comments

Who chooses bishops/elders/pastors among the church?

Before you jump on me for my title, I’m using the traditional nomenclature. I’d prefer to simply use the term “elders,” which is the normal term in Scripture. However, for many among the church today, “elders” are different than “bishops” and both of those are different than “pastors.” So, if you feel they are different, then you can assume that I’m talking about all three in this post.

In Scripture, there are only two passages related to “choosing/appointing” bishops/elders/pastors:

When they [Paul and Barnabas] had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 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 14:21-23 ESV)

This is why I [Paul] left you [Titus] 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)

On the surface, it looks like Paul and Barnabas personally chose “elders” among the churches of Galatia (in Acts 14:23) and that Paul instructed Titus to personally choose “elders” among the churches (in each town) in Crete. And, that would definitely be a valid interpretation.

When we turn to later Christian writings, the interpretations become muddled:

Therefore, choose for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord… (Didache 15:1)

Those [elders] therefore who were appointed by them [apostles], or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole church… (1 Clement 44:3)

In the Didache, the author(s) definitely expected the church to choose “bishops” for themselves. There is no mention of bishops, elders, or deacons being appointed by others for the church.

Clement, meanwhile, seems to say that apostles and then later others appointed “elders.” However, he adds that little phrase “with the consent of the whole church,” which again muddles the answer. Was the just the apostles who chose “elders”? Was it later just “other men of repute” who chose elders? What does it mean that the whole church consented?

(Interestingly, while Ignatius has alot to say about “the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons,” he does not mention who appointed or chose them. Likewise, Polycarp mentions “elders,” but he does not say who chose them.)

Of the four texts above (Acts, Titus, Didache, and 1 Clement) written by four different authors, is there any way that all four authors related the same way of choosing “bishops” and “elders” (or “pastors” if you prefer, although that term wasn’t used until much later).

If Acts 14:26 and Titus 1:5 indicate that ONLY Paul and Barnabas and ONLY Titus picked people to be “elders,” then we have to conclude that the Didache strays from that position.

Is it possible, though, that Luke did not intend to indicate that ONLY Paul and Barnabas were involved in appointing elders for the churches of Galatia? Is it possible that Paul did not intend to indicate that ONLY Titus was to appoint elders for the churches of Crete?

(By the way, within about 100 years of the texts listed here, the standard practice was for ONLY bishops to appoint bishops and elders, a practice which became known as successionism. But, as you can see, it was not that clear in the earliest Christian texts.)


11 Comments

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  1. 6-18-2013

    What was the end of this sentence:

    “Of the four texts above (Acts, Titus,”

    ?

    Thanks!

  2. 6-18-2013

    David,

    Oops. I fixed it. Thank you!

    -Alan

  3. 6-18-2013

    we can see there are clear indicators within scripture for the Body, the 59 ‘one another’ passages make for a foundation to use as we gather.

    just as The Lord raises up His body in a local area, He will see to it that His will is accomplished.

    the key as I see it is not so much in the text that you have referred to (for it is rather unclear), and I think it could be for a reason. the reason is His desire to be the Head over His body. so when we gather we are constantly doing so under His headship, constantly seeking His ‘way’

    to use our physical body as an analogy, our hand has the ability to serve the body, eating, grooming, opening doors, etc. the had does not appoint its self, the hand move under the heads authority. and this authority is to serve and strengthen the body.

    thanks Alan for posing this question, looking forward to the responses.

    grace and peace to you and yours

  4. 6-18-2013

    I’m not convinced that we should so much appoint leaders as recognise them. The Greek certainly seems to allow such an interpretation. χειροτονήσαντες can be taken to mean ‘having chosen’ (it literally means ‘reaching out with the hand’ and was used for voting as well as commissioning).

    Paul, I believe, pointed out the older and wiser people as those that could best solve disagreements and advise wisely. And we should consider picking out elders in much the same way. Who has the most fruit of the Spirit? Choose those people!

  5. 6-20-2013

    I have some questions. Paul asking Titus to appoint elders – would infer that church plants existed and even thrived for some period of time in Crete without any elders. And It seems that Paul’s qualification for elders (specificially elders not being a new convert) would need some time differential between getting saved and becoming an elder.

    Also – appoint elders in every city is a far cry from appoint elders in every house – or on every street corner as is our usual practice.

    So the logical questions are:

    1. At what point in time does a church (gathering of believers) even need elders?
    2. Is this need for elders related to the size of the gathering?
    3. If we pratice “one anothering” – then what can elders give us that’s lacking in “one anothering”?

    Thinking about all of this – I’ve come to the conclusion that elders should be more like a grandpa/grandma to the group of believers – not governors, decision makers, or rulers. The “elders” made decisions in Acts 15 – but they didn’t seem to have any executive/governor type of teeth to say to the group – stop trying to get the Gentiles circumcised. There were no executive orders that came out of that meeting – just a “you would do well not to….”.

  6. 6-20-2013

    Jim,

    I think that’s a great point, and I agree. The instructions to the body as a whole are foundational to any discussion of leaders among the church.

    Chris,

    I agree that the verb can (and should) be translated “recognize.” Some prefer the translation “appoint.”

    Jerry,

    You’re absolutely correct. Acts 14:26 is another example where the church obviously exists prior to elders. I would say that the existence of elders is not related to numbers, but is instead related to the spiritual maturity of the people who are recognized as elders. The elders then primarily serve as examples to others as they live in a way that all believers should live.

    -Alan

  7. 8-27-2013

    How to choose? How to nominate? I am at great odds within my baptist church because I see a need to actually follow scriptual precedent, and not just go around saying we follow scripture when we actually do not. During the 20th century, Southern Baptist theologians, instructors, and preachers have all but taken a pair of scissors to scripture and cut out even the mention of elders. I believe the damage caused is far reaching, especially in personal families and also church families. Pastors who have not reached, lets say 60… show no respect for Gods work of maturing Elders. Sure, they pay lip service to the wise old man, but their actions rarely actually heed truely wise advice… and old wise men know this. Peter and John referred to themselves as elders, but even these apostles did not call themselves Elders until they had reached an age where they knew it was appropriate. Even they did not “think of themselves more highly than they should”.

    1. A council of elders, age 60 and up should lead each local church. Acting as advisors to the flock, and giving the flock a place for a redress of grievances, as well as open, discusionable input to the direction of the church programs. A one person, even if he bears the title Pastor, is not appropriate and has amounted to many dictatorships.

    2. A potential elder should be self nominated but not prior to attaining the age of 60. The existing elders have the responsibility to evaluate his qualifications, explain the functions by hands on action and training, and make the appropriate recommendation to the general assembly when agreement between the council and the candidate
    is reached.

  8. 8-27-2013

    Joe,

    I think your ideas are definitely a step in the right direction over the traditional pastor-led organization. Just wondering… why did you pick the age 60? Was there something in Scripture that let you to that age?

    -Alan

  9. 8-28-2013

    60? How many times have I heard… just because someone is older doesn’t mean they are spiritually mature. Like a first year student at a cooking school telling the instructor “everything they never knew”.
    I’m 65 now, and see things a bit differently than in my younger years… but to your question.. 60? This is an ongoing quest.. and the most asked question.. How do you determine an Elder?

    From scripture, as no other authority amounts to a hill of beans!
    -Here we go-

    Romans 9:12 – Elder serve/teach the younger. ‘respect’

    1Ti. 5:1 – Treat elder as a father. ‘respect’

    1Ti. 5:2 – Treat elder women as mothers. ‘respect’

    1Ti. 5:19 – Careful with loose tongue, allegations, accusations. ‘respect’

    1Pe. 5:1 – Elder ‘respect’ for other elders.

    1Pe. 5:5 – Peter defines elder ‘respect’ to be an ‘AGE’ issue.

    2Jo. 1:1 – John reaches the age of being an Elder. (sidenote: John had a rich relationship with Mary and her family, from the time of Jesus declaration at the cross. Behold your mother/son. She alone would he refer to as the ‘elect lady’, as Gabriel said, ‘you that are highly favored’ or Elizabeth’s voice saying ‘blessed are you among women’.)

    3Jo. 1:1 – John tells younger Gaius to continue in his good deeds and right thinking. Avoid the lack of respect shown by men like Diotrephes. Let God grow you into a good Elder through the practice of respect.

    In today’s world, many, especially in the churches, have taken age out of the definition of the word elder. Just another case of abuse of scripture, take a pair of scissors to it to make it what you want. The SBC did this with their ‘recognized offices’ in their Faith and Message. Disgusting.

    Chap. 5, 1Ti. – Elder men, Elder women. Earning respect by serving/teaching those younger. When cornered on the subject of widow being church supported, Paul finally said “60”. Did God give us a ‘safeguard’, an instruction in rightousness to help us. Do we have enough faith to rightly divide the word of truth and trust in the scriptures, to have eyes that see, to let the mind of Christ be in us? The age of ’60’ is certainly a leap of faith. Imagine being taught as a youth, young man, father, middle aged, grandfather, etc., that your whole life was a designated love effort on the part of God to grow you into an Elder of His church, the one He alone is adding saints into; that mankind can’t corrupt. The elders of John’s vision in the book of Revelation…… Are they US ?

    We have a fight on our hands to regain the faith that was once delivered to the saints. The respect of ‘age 60′ seems a honored place to go…. right after the blood of Jesus.

    Joe

  10. 8-31-2013

    Joe,

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard that passage in 1 Timothy about widows uses as a definition of “older.” You may be interested in a little book by David Alan Black called “The Myth of Adolescence.” He proposes a similar “3 age” theory: children, adults, older adults.

    -Alan

  11. 8-31-2013

    Thanks Alan. I certainly will locate that info soon. Joe