Does a congregation have to have elders? If yes, why? The answers to these questions are more important than many congregations might realize. Many congregations of the Lord’s church do not have elders. Some of these congregations have been established fairly recently, others have existed for many years. Our focus in answering these questions should be to make sure that we conform to the image of the church portrayed in the Bible.
Does a congregation have to have elders in order to be scripturally correct? It is obvious that a congregation can exist and function scripturally for a period of time without elders. As Paul and Barnabas finished their first missionary journey, it appears that on their way home they revisited the congregations they had helped to established on that journey. As they did, they strengthened the members in those locations through further teaching, and they appointed elders in each congregation (Acts 14:21-23). Those congregations existed and functioned without elders from the time they were established until Paul and Barnabas revisited them and appointed elders. There is no indication that they were unscriptural during the time that they were without elders. We conclude, then, that a congregation can exist and function faithfully without elders, for a period of time.
The obvious follow up to this question provides the second part of the answer. One quickly gets the sense that appointing elders “in every church” was an important step in the development of those new congregations. Else, why would Paul and Barnabas so soon go back to each congregation and appoint elders? This understanding is further emphasized by Paul’s instruction to Titus to appoint elders in every congregation in Crete (Tit. 1:5). Paul indicated that doing so was at least part of setting “in order the things that are lacking.” It seems clear that even a half-way serious Bible student is to conclude that a congregation that does not have elders is “lacking.” It is not complete, as God intended in the design of the New Testament church.
Now, if we have clear example from scripture that a congregation can exist and function for a period of time without elders, then how does Paul’s description of a congregation not having elders being “lacking” relate to that? It would seem that the key is in the period of time that a congregation goes without elders, the reason for their not having elders and the attitude of the members in relation to their not having elders.
A congregation cannot appoint men who are absolutely not qualified to be elders. At the same time, not having elders should be a serious issue in their conscience as a congregation. They should not take lightly the fact that they do not have elders. They should continually strive to develop men who can be qualified. They should not, for a second, harbor the attitude that not having elders is no big deal. And, they should not be so knit-picky in their scrutinizing that no brother could possibly qualify.
Every congregation is supposed to have elders. Period! That’s the way God designed the church. That should be enough of a reason for any congregation to be serious about appointing elders. It’s God’s will, and He certainly knows better than do we…
Gary L. Hutchens