Can a church be scriptural without elders?


I'm having a problem reconciling attending a church without elders. The Bible doesn't lay out an alternate plan for church leadership. What does a church do in lieu of leaders? Can a church be scriptural without them? Who is responsible for the growth and protection of new members if there are no elders?


I too have had problems reconciling brethren's practice with the Scriptures. Obviously there can be congregations without elders, else Timothy and Titus would not have been given the job to appoint them. But, for the life of me, I cannot find any command, example or necessary inference of a "men's business meeting."

After much diligent study here are my conclusions:

Congregational Meetings are the way the church should conduct its business in the absence of elders.

I base my "congregational meeting" stance on:

  • Jesus instructions for restoring a brother in Matthew 18:15-17,
  • the appointment of the seven in Acts 6,
  • the circumcision controversy in Acts 15,
  • and the instructions to discipline the man who had his father's wife in I Corinthians 5
  • and the instructions on giving in I and II Corinthians.

"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:15-17).

Notice verse 17,  "...tell it unto the church: but if he neglects to hear the church..." The church is to be told and the church is to take action.   It is my personal conviction that if a congregation has elders, they should be the two or three that are taken with you because the "spiritual shepherding" is their work.

"And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:1-6).

Notice particularly the following focus:

  • Verse 2   “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples...”
  • Verse 3   “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you ... “
  • Verse 5   “And the saying pleased the whole multitude:...”
  • Verse 5   “and they chose Stephen, ....”
  • Verse 6   “they set before the apostles...”

In the above, the Apostles made a decision, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the apostles received revelation about how to conduct the work and passed it on to the congregation. The church, receiving the instructions, then made the decisions about whom.

The Bible stands in place of the apostles for us today.  We read the revealed instructions, then as a congregation, make the decision as to how to implement the instructions.

In the circumcision controversy, we observe a similar pattern.

"And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth" (Acts 15:1-27).

  • Verse 4   "And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, ..."  (Note " received of the church")
  • Verse 6   "And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter..." This consideration obviously took place in the presence of the whole congregation because of "when there had been much disputing" which took place due to the presence of the "Pharisees" among them.
  • Verse 7   “And when there had been much disputing, …”  This indicates that there were those present who were not inspired, ie the rest of the church.
  • Verse 7  "...Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren..."   (Note "Men and brethren")
  • Verse 12   "Then all the multitude ..." (Note "all the multitude")  The inspired men presented the evidence on the issue and announced God’s will concerning the question.
  • Verse 22   "Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church,"  (Note " with the whole church")
  • Verse 23  "... The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting ..." (Note " and brethren")
  • Verse 25   "It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, ..."  (Note "being assembled with one accord")

As I read the above account, I see Paul addressing the whole congregation with the question, I see the Judaizing teachers protesting Paul's position, then the other apostles presenting evidence as to the correctness of Paul's position.   Once truth as to how the gentiles should be treated was determined by revelation, the church determined how to remedy the situation, ie, a letter to be delivered by Paul and others.

"In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Corinthians 5:4-5).

The above is a decision made by inspiration that is to be implemented by the church "when ye are gathered together."  The decision as to when to implement the inspired instruction is to be determined by the congregation.

"Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem" (I Corinthians 16:1-3).

"But thanks be to God, which put the same earnest care into the heart of Titus for you. For indeed he accepted the exhortation; but being more forward, of his own accord he went unto you. And we have sent with him the brother, whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches; And not that only, but who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace, which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord, and declaration of your ready mind" (II Corinthians 8:16-19).

Again, we see inspired instructions, but the decision as to the implementation of the instructions is left to the church.

In all of these, there is a pattern.

  1. Instruction is given by revelation to perform a particular action or work.
  2. The whole congregation comes together to discuss and determine the means of implementation of the instructions.
  3. The discussion ends in a consensus of the church for the implementation of the action.

You do not see any "voting" take place.

You do not see any "eldership decisions" take place.

You do not see a "board of directors" making decisions for the congregation.

Achieving consensus requires:

  1. Spirituality on the part of the congregation.
  2. A spirit of mutual submission
  3. Astute leadership of the discussion.

There is more scripture teaching congregational meetings for decision making than there is teaching the necessity for the confession of Christ to be saved.

When the congregation determines a job or work needs to be undertaken,  we should do like they did in Acts 6. Select men that we have confidence in and turn it over to them.

If we need to buy a lawnmower, select the man or men who have the most expertise in small engines and machines and tell them to buy us one that will meet our needs.

If we need a curriculum for children's classes, select someone or ones who has good credentials as both a teacher and Christian, and give them the responsibility and authority to get them.

If we need someone to take care of the building, select someone who has the best qualifications to do the job and let him do it.   If the air conditioner breaks down, he gets it repaired.   He should not need to call a business meeting to do so unless he feels that the expenditure is more than he is comfortable making a decision about on his own.

In reality, we are appointing people to serve the church and giving them both the responsibility and authority to act.  Some might call them deacons or deaconesses, but whatever you call them, they are fulfilling the work assigned to them.

The above can and should be implemented both with or without elders.  Let the elders tend the sheep.

Again, congregational meetings require:

  1. Understanding and implementation of the Christian's character
  2. The principle of mutual submission must be willingly applied."Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another" (Romans 12:15).

    "Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (Ephesians 5:21).

  3. Astute leadership

Finally, even in the presence of elders, each member is responsible to see to the well being of every other member.

Ney Rieber

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