EN article: Why only a few good men?

I have been asked to write a regular column for Evangelicals Now. The latest article (my original, unedited version) is below.

In my church, there are three elders. Of the three of us, I am the youngest by some considerable way. Both of my fellow elders are excellent men, but both are retired from secular work and one a good while longer than the other. I’m sure they won’t mind me saying this (and, if they do, I hope this gets to print unedited so it’s too late to retract), unless the Lord grants them Methuselaen longevity, we have a problem on our hands. It is a problem they have noted themselves – we need to raise up some other elders.

There are two passages that broadly outline the qualifications for eldership (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Timothy 3:1-7). Don Carson has said, ‘with only a couple of exceptions, all of the qualifications listed here are elsewhere in the New Testament demanded of all Christians.’ Even the exceptions – ‘not a novice’ and ‘able to teach’ – whilst not demanded of all believers, aren’t where we ought to stay – nobody should remain a novice. Carson has noted, ‘the list is remarkable for being unremarkable.’ Essentially, a qualified elder is a godly bloke who can teach the Bible.

Given this, why do we frequently hear of churches finding it almost impossible to appoint suitable, qualified men? Let me suggest three possible reasons.

Misapplication of qualifications

If we cannot find qualified elders within our church, might we be loading eldership with demands, or interpreting the qualifications, in ways the Lord doesn’t? If all your elders happen to have the same background, education and culture, this may be the case. We can be quick to apply our cultural values and, if not interpreting the qualifications through cultural lenses, add our own criteria to them altogether. I am reminded of the pastor who asserted that the biblical criteria, ‘are not exhaustive; they are a base minimum.’ Perhaps we are asking elders to have skills and character traits that the Lord simply doesn’t?

Failure to train

If we accept that the biblical criteria essentially define a man of godly character who is able to teach, yet we can’t find suitable elders for our church, we are led to one of two unfortunate conclusions. Either we have failed to lead any of our people toward godliness or we have failed to train anybody to teach adequately. It’s less a measure of your people as an indictment on the failure of your church. Plants and revitalisations will require time to train and disciple people into leadership roles, but established churches who cannot find qualified elders may be failing in their task of discipling their people in godliness and passing on the faith as it was delivered to them. There may be lots of reasons why that is the case – some more legitimate than others – but if those who have been with us many years are never finding their way towards eldership, might it have something to do with our failure to train them?

Lack of trust in the Lord

Sometimes our inability to appoint elders has less to do with the qualification of the people in front of us and more to do with our own personal fear. We may fear appointing somebody with whom we don’t have a great rapport. We might fear appointing a person who will not simply rubber stamp whatever we want, rejecting plurality and wishing the Lord had included ‘always agrees with me’ as one of the qualifications. Otherwise, we may fear how church members will respond. Perhaps there are people who (wrongly) feel that time served as a deacon, or in the church generally, should lead inexorably to their appointment as an elder despite their qualification; to appoint somebody else would be viewed as a snub.

But none of these things are Biblical reasons and speak to a lack of trust in the Lord. The eldership criteria were given to protect the church. The Lord cares far more about his church than we do and yet, if we deem his criteria too low a bar, we are effectively saying we do not trust God’s ability to protect his people. We add criteria because we fear that the Lord’s simply won’t cut it, however we happen to justify it in our particular instance.

Our approach to eldership can belie our Evangelical commitment to the authority of scripture and the sovereignty of God. Rather than take the Lord at his word and appoint elders meeting his qualifications, we add our own and insist those that the Lord deems able aren’t appropriate for us. We imply scripture is not sufficient on this matter, the Lord hasn’t adequately protected the church and that we know better. This leads us to struggle finding elders to appoint and causes us to worry inordinately over those we do consider.

Perhaps, rather than wringing our hands, we might stick closely to the Biblical eldership criteria, actively training our members – of whom any man is a potential elder – and trust the sovereignty of God to protect the church that he cares about far more than we do. Let us appoint those the Lord deems appropriate rather than finding extra-biblical reasons why we can’t find anyone at all.