“What factors should be borne in mind when selecting and appointing elders in your church?”
The role of the elder or leadership team is one of great significance and importance in the local church. Although God always chooses one man, or woman to be His designated authority, or ministry gift person in the local church, it is vital that that person works alongside, serves and submits to a team of leaders or elders. Likewise, the members of the church must recognise that this team has been appointed by God and must submit to them as their spiritual leaders: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13v17).
The role of the elder is the be a shepherd of the flock, (“Be shepherds of the church of God – Acts 20v28); this includes guiding the people in the ways of God, receiving and implementing the spiritual vision of the church, and being an example of Christ to the church and community. Sometimes being an elder also means correcting and disciplining church members. Being an elder also involves overseeing the practical out-workings of church life such as finance, building repairs etc. Above all else an elder is there to serve the church and in doing so follow in the footsteps of Jesus: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve (Mark 10v45).
Because of the importance and public nature of elders it is vital that the right men and women are put in place. The choosing of the wrong people to a leadership team can lead to all kinds of problems in the future, resulting in much hurt both to the church as a whole, individuals and even damage to the reputation of the church in the community. Of course only God knows what is men’s hearts and even people who are Godly and faithful at the time of appointment can go astray in the future. However, there are some pointers from the Word of God that can help us in choosing the right people for this important role.
In Paul’s epistle to Titus, he gives the qualifications of an elder. This is a great place to start and should give us a solid biblical base for choosing the right man or woman.
Paul says a) “an elder must be blameless”. Of course no one is perfect and even the most spiritual and godly leaders have areas that they struggle with. However my interpretation of this verse is that an elder must be someone who strives to live a holy and righteous life. There must be no known immorality in his life. There must be no known “secret sins” that will be brought up after the persons’ appointment. Even his way of life before conversion should be known to the rest of the elders before his appointment. Paul for example was very open about his way of life before he was saved by the grace of God.
b) “the husband of but one wife” This does not necessarily mean that the person has to be married, however it does mean that there should be no areas of sexual immorality, and that if he is married he should be faithful to his wife.
c) “a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient”. Paul tells us why this is important in 1 Timothy 3v5 “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?”. This does not mean that his children must be perfect, but the emphasis is on the parent, to make sure that they have brought up their children in a Godly and right manner.
d) “not overbearing”. One of the major qualities of a leader is that he must see himself as a servant. Although strong leadership and decision making are important, he is not there to force his opinion on others or act in an aggressive or dictatorial way.
e) “not quick tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain” This refers to the persons moral character. He must control his own emotions and not be excessive when it comes to alcohol and finance. His motives must be pure.
f) “he must be hospitable” He must have a love for people and make time for people.
g) “one who loves what is good” Must love things such as prayer, church, the Bible and of course God Himself. He must be “a man after God’s own heart “ (1 Sam 13v14)
h) “self-controlled and disciplined” as opposed for example to being lazy and a glutton (Titus 1v12)
i)“holy” Christ like. Can we say like the apostle “Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Corin 4v16)
j) “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”
In other words the elder must know the Word of God, know why he believes what he does and be able and willing to discern and rebuke false doctrines.
This concludes the list of attributes that Paul says an elder must posses. A similar list is found in 1 Timothy 3. Noteworthy additions to this list are that the person must not be a recent convert, and that they must have a good reputation with outsiders and be respected in the church (see below). Also in 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives his qualifications for deacons. Although this is a different role, it is noteworthy that one of the things Paul says is that a deacon must be “tested”. This is surely the same for any leadership position. Before anyone is appointed their life must be observed over a period of time. Questions should be asked such as “how does this person react under pressure?” “How does this person respond through difficult circumstances and trials?” “Does this person pass on gossip?” “Does this person submit to authority?” “Do they work well in a team?” “Have they been faithful in serving behind the scenes?” etc. These are all questions that need to be answered before it can be said that the person has “passed the test”.
There are other verses that show us the qualities of a leader plus negative characteristics too, however we don’t have room to comment on these now. These lists of Paul’s however are a good starting point. It seems that the emphasis all the while is not gifting or natural ability but on character. It seems that still “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16v7). It should be noted however that there is the gift of leadership as mentioned in Romans 12. This shows us that although character is vital, the people we appoint should also be competent and gifted as spiritual leaders.
As well as natural character it is also vital that we choose men and women who are full of the Spirit of God and have been anointed by Him. The church is a spiritual organization and therefore we must choose spiritual leaders. Moses chose Joshua because he was man who “had the spirit” (Num 27). David was anointed by the Lord before he became king (1 Sam 16). When the apostles were looking to appoint deacons they choose men who were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6v3) If this was the case for deacons, how much more so for elders? It says of one of these men, Stephen that he was “full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (v8). Vital questions I believe when appointing elders is to ask “Is this person full of the Spirit?” “Is the power of God at work in their life?” “Do they hunger for more of God?” “Are they people of the “Word?” “Are they people of prayer?”
Perhaps the most important thing of all when choosing an elder is to hear from God and find out whether they are his choice! We know that we are safest when we know that we are in the will of God, and are not choosing because of natural wisdom or popular choice but because we have heard the voice of God. Jesus spent a whole night praying to God before he chose His twelve disciples (Luke 6v12). Saul and Barnabas were sent off as apostles, not because it was a good idea but because the Holy Spirit said so! The Spirit spoke after the leaders had set time apart to fast and get into the presence of God (Acts 13). It is vital that the senior pastor and his current leadership team, hear from God before appointing anyone as a leader.
All of these things that have been mentioned will of course take time. One thing that is important is not to rush an important decision such as the choosing of elders. Many leaders have rushed into appointments only to regret them at a later time. Once someone has been appointed it is very difficult to remove them from that position, so although we must be decisive we must also take time in choosing the right people. Paul told Timothy “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5v22)
Finally I believe that when there is a current leadership team in place, there must be a unity when it comes to appointing a new person to that team. If one or more of the team has a serious issue in appointing someone, then that can lead to problems. Remember that God bestows his blessing when people are in unity (Psalm 133). When it comes to the elder being accepted by the congregation, it is important to remember that even the most spiritual and Godly leaders were often rejected by the crowd. Even Jesus was not accepted by his own. So although disagreements of appointments are not ideal, they can sometimes take place (that is why it is vital to go for Gods choice and not the Absaloms of this word – 2 Sam 15v6) . However Paul does tell us in 1 Timothy 3 that an overseer must have respect and have a good reputation with outsiders (v2,7). This means, that the majority of the people, and certainly those that are considered spiritual and mature, will recognize that this person is of godly character and someone they can look to for guidance and help.
In conclusion, choosing the right elders is of vital necessity. Getting it wrong can be a disaster. Although sadly this does happen, if we go by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and take our time listening to heaven and observing the character of the people, we should appointed people that will be a blessing to us, the church and the lost.