by J. W. McGarvey
Sentry Magazine, September 2002
There is no proposition in reference to the organization of the primitive churches upon which scholars and critics are more perfectly agreed than that every fully organized church had a plurality of Elders. So nearly universal is this agreement that a man betrays an ill-balanced judgment or a want of common information, if he denies the proposition. Such an agreement could not well exist without a foundation in statements of Scripture so unambiguous as to leave no room for doubt. We will notice a few of these.
In the first place, after Paul and Barnabas had passed through Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, and established a church in each, they returned through the same cities, and Luke says: "When they ordained them Elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed" Acts 14:23.
From this it appears that they ordained Elders in every church which they planted on this tour. We find also that the church at Ephesus had a plurality of Elders, also called overseers; Acts 20:17-28; that the same was true of the church at Philippi (Philippians 1:1); and that Titus was left at Crete to ordain Elders in every city, which is equivalent to ordaining them in every church, because there was but one church in each city.
We are now aware that efforts have been made at times, by eccentric writers to throw doubt upon these statements. It has been assumed that there were a plurality of congregations in Ephesus, Philippi and the cities of Crete, and that the single Elders of these separate congregations made up the plurality. But this assumption is totally without foundation in the Scriptures, and is in direct conflict with the earliest uninspired history which represents but one organized body of believers as existing in one city. It is true that in these cities the disciples often had several meeting places, but there is no evidence of separate and independent organizations. The assumption in question also conflicts with the positive declaration that Paul and Barnabas ordained Elders in every church. What they did in one district they did in all; for they had but one gospel to preach, and but one system of government and order to establish throughout the earthly kingdom of God.
There is abundant evidence that this plurality of Elders in each congregation continued after the close of the Apostolic history, and that it existed in some churches of whose organization nothing is specially said in the Scriptures. For example, there is nothing said in the New Testament of the Eldership in Corinth, yet the epistle of the church in Rome to the church in Corinth commonly called the epistle of Clement, written about the close of the first century, proves that there was a plurality of Elders in Corinth. The writer says to the Corinthians "It is a shame, and unworthy of your Christian profession to hear that the most firm and ancient church of the Corinthians should, by one or two persons, be led into a sedition against its Elders." The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, written in the early part of the second century, shows that the Eldership continued in Philippi as Paul left it, and that there was a similar Eldership in Smyrna, whence the epistle was written; for Polycarp writes in the name of himself and "the Elders that are with him," and gives advice to the Elders in Philippi as to the discharge of their official duties. He says, "Let the Elders be compassionate and merciful toward all, turning them from their errors, seeking out those that are weak, not forgetting the widows, the fatherless and the poor, but always providing what is good both in the sight of God and man." But it is needless to multiply evidences of a fact which is already established to the satisfaction of candid minds. We proceed, therefore, to the consideration of another eccentric view of the same subject. It is sometimes argued that the plurality of Elders found in the primitive churches is to be accounted for by the fact that the gifts of the Spirit caused those churches to abound in men possessed of the proper qualifications; but that we should not expect modern churches, which are devoid of these gifts, to always possess a plurality of members thus qualified. It is therefore concluded that modem churches need not have a plurality of Elders.
Now, we freely admit that churches are found at the present day without a plurality of members qualified for the Eldership; and some, perhaps, without even a single member thus qualified. And we admit that such churches need not have a plurality of Elders or any Elders at all. Indeed, they must have none until they can have more than one who is qualified. But this admission, which the nature of the case requires, by no means excuses any of the churches from establishing an order of church government entirely different from that established by the apostles; especially does it not excuse such churches as have the qualified members for neglecting to call them to the office.
The argument in question is also based upon premises unduly assumed. It is not true that gifts of the Holy Spirit qualified men for the Eider's office, except in the one matter of imparting to them the information necessary for teaching and government. They gave no men the moral, social and domestic qualifications which the apostle prescribes. Indeed, if miraculous gifts had supplied the requisite qualifications, there would have been no need of prescribing them so carefully; it would only have been necessary to say to Timothy and Titus, Ordain men who are filled with the Holy Spirit.
It is true that Paul and Barnabas found a plurality of qualified men in the churches of Asia Minor, in a comparatively short time after these churches had been planted, probably in from two to three years, four years being spent on their first missionary tour. But it must be remembered that in all the Jewish synagogues, which formed the starting point of Christian Churches, there were men already holding an office almost identical with that of the Christian Eldership, and that when these men came into the church, as did Crispus the chief ruler of the synagogue in Corinth, they brought their qualifications and experience with them. Moreover, other aged, pious and experienced Jews who were not in office, were found competent to fill the office of Elders as soon as they received the gospel; and Gentiles, who, like Cornelius and the Centurion of Capernaum, had become devout worshipers of God through Jewish influence, were often possessed of all the qualifications for the office as soon as they were fairly established as members of the church. These facts are sufficient to account for the ordination of Elders in churches so newly planted, without supposing the imaginary fact that qualifications for the office were imparted by miraculous endowment. The intellectual qualifications, which alone were thus imparted, were then, and are now, the qualifications most easily found. I can go through the churches today and point you out two men, at a moderate estimate, with mind enough and speaking talent enough for the Eldership, where one can be found with the other prescribed qualifications.
We conclude, then, that in as much as the primitive churches, so many as had Elders at all, had a plurality of them, so it should be now; and that any church which departs from this rule, departs from the only model of church organization which God has given. Until a plurality of Elders could be ordained, the primitive churches did the best they could without Elders. So let it be now, and God will bless us in following the guidance of his word.