SELECTING ELDERS AND DEACONS
How are elders selected, or actually put into their office? This question has plagued many congregations, and there is by no means unanimity among the people of God on this subject. The reason for this circumstance is quite simple. The word of God has not spelled out a specific procedure whereby elders are selected and assume the "office of a bishop" (1 Tim 3:1). If such a thing was clearly stated in Scripture, it would be an end of all controversy – but a specific procedure cannot be found in the Word of God. That means we have to employ wisdom nd knowledge in this matter: wisdom that comes from God, and a knowledge of His Word and purpose.
Paul told Titus to "ordain elders in every city"(Tit 1:5). Note, he does not say every church, but every city. More recent versions of the Bible read, "appoint elders in every city" (NKJV, NASB, NIV). To "ordain" means to cause to be in a certain position, set in an elevated position, of put in charge. When Paul and Barnabas visited the churches from Lystra and Icoinum to Antioch, they "ordained them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). It appears that Paul was telling Timothy much the same thing when he wrote, "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (2 Tim 2:2). Some affirm the proper way is for knowledgeable men simply to select elders and put them into office – but that surely appears too simplistic.
At this point it is important to remember how real elders originated in the first place. The Holy Spirit appointed certain as overseers within the church – men whom He obviously endued with abilities appropriate for the work (Acts 20:28). Also, such individuals are "gifts" that Jesus has placed within His church (Eph 4:11). This being the case, selecting elders involves recognizing those appointed by the Holy Spirit and given to the church by Jesus. Selecting our favorite people, or those who have been long-time members, or those who have an authoritative appearance is out of order in this matter.
The Example of the Disciples
In this, we have the example of the Christ’s disciples selecting a man to fill the Apostleship vacated by Judas. Peter first drew attention to the necessity of such an appointment, correlating their circumstance with Scripture (Acts 1:16-20). He then laid down the broad qualifications for an Apostle. Such a person must "have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that He was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of His resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22). It was not sufficient for a man to simply have a good grasp of things – like Luke (Lk 1:3). The qualified person had to have been with them from the very beginning, and "all the time" – a consistent follower of Jesus. Too, they must have seen the resurrected Christ. Having placed the matter before the brethren, they "appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias" who obviously met these qualifications (Acts 1:23).
Now this introduced a certain dilemma. There was one office to be filled, and two men who met the qualifications. What should they do? Some might suggest replacing Judas’ position with two men instead of one. But that was not proper. They knew only one Apostolic office was vacated. How were they to know which one to choose. Here is where genuine faith comes into play.
After they had chosen two qualified men, they prayed. They were persuaded the Lord had already made a choice, and thus asked Him to let them know which man should be chosen. Here is what they prayed. "And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two Thou hast chosen, that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place" (Acts 1:24-25). But how will the Lord make such a thing known to them? Will He speak out of heaven to them?
The Scriptures declare, "And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles" (Acts 1:26). What was giving forth, or casting, their "lots?" This was a case where each person cast, or gave forth, their "lot." A "lot," according to McClintok and Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, was "literally a pebble, used anciently for balloting . . . strictly a small stone, as used in casting lots." Solomon refers to this practice, affirming that the outcome of it was the Lord’s doing. "The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the LORD" NKJV (Prov 16:33). Other versions read, "A thing may be put to the decision of chance, but it comes about through the Lord." BBE The New Living Translation reads very crudely, but gives the general idea. "We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall."
There are two possible meanings to this text on the casting of lots. One is that each of the two men who were chosen had a "lot," or some stone or article that stood for him. Both were put into some form of vessel. When shaken, the first one out was the person to be chosen. The other meaning is that each of the disciples cast a lot, like a ballot, and the one with the most "lots" was chosen. In either case, he principle is the same. The disciples knew God was in charge of things. They know Jesus was the head of the church. They could not chose an Apostle, and they knew it. Therefore, it remained for them to simply know which one Jesus had chosen. They chose to depend upon the Lord to work this out in what we might call a "vote," or some activity of chance.
In my judgment, this is a procedure than can be followed in the selecting of elders and deacons.
First, it must be established that there are men among the congregation that are suitable for the office. If none can be found, earnest prayer should be made to God for further direction. Perhaps they have lacked some insight into the people themselves. It is also possible they have no need for additional elders or deacons at that time.
Second, if suitable men are found (and it is assumed they are willing), the will of the Lord must be sought. If Jesus is really the Head of the church, and the purpose for the church has been established by God, the will of the Lord must be sought. This must not be a mere formality, but a very real effort to do the will of God.
Then let the congregation proceed with the form of "casting lots" they have chosen. It may be by ballot, the raising of hands, the drawing out of name, etc.
Remember, it is not the will of the people that is the issue here. It is not their church, it belongs to Jesus. It is the will of the Lord that is sought. When this is the quest of the people, and they are actually trusting in the Lord with all of their heart, He WILL direct their path as promised (Prov 3:5-6).
How long are they in office?
The matter of the term length of elders and deacons has proved to be a hot topic – and there are numerous views on the subject. If we are speaking of deacons, it should be at least as long as the business over which they have been appointed. Let us consider for a moment how the Lord makes His choices of leaders.
If the leader proved disobedient or unworthy, they were removed from their office. Examples are king Saul (1 Sam 15:23; Hosea 13:10-11), Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 5:20), and Judas (Acts 1:20). In this case, the matter must not be left to a scheme of chance – like the casting of lots. No person is justified in continuing to occupy a God-ordained office if he is not doing the work.
Where holy men of God continued serving the Lord faithfully, they remained in their role. This included prophets (i.e., Elijah), priests (i.e., Aaron), kings (i.e., David), and all of apostles except for Judas. An elder that is doing the work, whose heart is in the matter, and who is bringing spiritual benefit to the people, should not be moved out of office because of a voting policy of the church. If the Holy Spirit makes men "overseers" (Acts 20:28), what person, or group of persons will take it upon themselves to remove such people from their work? If a Kingdom worker is pleasing God, it is the business of the people to be pleased by his work also. I do understand that is not always easy to determine. However, matters that are not clear are to be brought to the Lord BEFORE they are brought to a vote.
Others, like the tabernacle servants, served in the tabernacle from ages of thirty through fifty (Num 4:3,23,30,35,39,43,47). The Levites, on the other hand, served from twenty-five through fifty (Num 8:25). This is not intended to establish time limits for elders and deacons. It merely shows that God did use various means of determining the duration of one in a particular office.
I understand some would prefer an iron-clad rule in this matter, but there simply is no such rule in God’s Word. I believe there is a reason for this. God intends that His people trust in Him, and depend upon His guidance. Where matters are not clear, we do not need someone dictating policy to us. Rather, we need someone who is conscious enough of the presence and will of God to lead us in seeking His mind – just as Peter let the disciples in the matter of replacing Judas. If the church is godly in making their choices, they will not face as many blunders or disappointing leaders.
One More Thing
One further matter on this subject. I have seen congregations who tried to stack their vote for leaders by bringing in former members, members who did not attend regularly, and even children who had confessed Christ and been baptized into Him. God is not honored by such procedures, and ungodly people are exposed by them. When Peter rallied the disciples to choose the Apostle to replace Judas, he appealed to spoke to one hundred and twenty disciples – the ones who had proved devoted to the Lord (Acts 1:15). There were more disciples than that, for the resurrected Lord had appeared to "more than five hundred brethren at one time" NASB (1 Cor 15:6). But only the one hundred and twenty were involved in the casting of lots for the one to fill the vacated bishopric.
Should you choose to vote men in or out of the offices of elder and deacon, be sure only those with a proven interest in the work of God are included in the vote. You should make clear to your people that having a role in determining spiritual leaders is not a task for the disinterested. God does not value the views of such people, and neither should His people. I know that some will not be able to receive this, and it is not intended to be a cause of strife in the body of Christ. However, somewhere in the experience of being a Christian, the individual must decide to "seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matt 6:33).