Q&A: Too Few Elders?

Too Few Elders?

Question

Would you say that elders are responsible for taking on a select number of families within the church to shepherd directly? If the elders can't properly shepherd the flock (through assigned families) due to a growing congregation, what is the biblical solution? Adding elders? If so, when does that stop, or does it? Finally, in light of above, would it be biblically correct to have non-elders shepherd families to pick up the slack (see Exod. 18:25)? Wouldn't this water down the role of elder as it is described in the Bible (by limiting its emphasis to Sundays and prayer)?

Answer

Scripture does not present exhaustive descriptions of what an elder ought and ought not to do. The general picture we have in Scripture is that elders minister to people through teaching and through governing the church. "Shepherding" is a rather vague term that has been applied to a variety of practices, so I'm not sure precisely what you are asking. For example, shepherding God's people as Moses did was good and biblical. But doing it in the way that the Boston Movement / International Church of Christ does it is frighteningly unbiblical.

It is sometimes said that the office of elder was established in ancient Israel, where it grew out of the actual leaders of the Israelites (Num. 11:16-17). These elders seem to have been appointed to help Moses deal with complaints brought by the Israelites against Moses and God. They seem to have been selected from among those who were already leaders of families, and perhaps also from the judges established in Exodus 18:13-26.

Essentially, then, the elders were the first line of "go to" people in Israel. If you had a problem, you took it to the elder. He may or may not decide the matter, perhaps dismissing it, perhaps passing it on the judges for further review, etc. If you had a legal problem, you could also go straight to the judges. But there were only 70 elders for the whole nation. That indicates that they did not involve themselves in the mundane matters of the daily lives of their people very often. They were like a combination of a grandfather, a judge and an ombudsman. Insofar as some may have been selected from the judges, it is possible that they were assigned to particular families, as the judges were. But insofar as the Bible speaks of 70 elders collectively for all of Israel, it seems more likely that they collectively served Israel as one body, without particular families being assigned to each one. The New Testament parallel is the Sanhedrin.

Later, in the Promised Land, there were elders in every town, so that each elder had fewer people under him, and was able to be more directly involved in his people's lives. Such elders acted as the local government of each town. The elders in the towns seem to have served the town collectively, without particular elders being assigned to particular families. The Bible regularly instructs "the elders" to act; it does not assign tasks to an individual "elder," such as one might expect if each elder were responsible for a particular set of families.

In the New Testament, church elders seem to have continued to resolve judicial disputes (1 Cor. 6:1-5) and to manage the normal workings of the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5), much like their counterparts in the Promised Land functioned in their towns. Only some of them preached and taught (1 Tim. 5:17). Again, we don't have evidence that elders acted individually. They ruled as one entity ("the elders") composed of multiple individuals.

Now, pragmatically speaking, it may be wise in some instances to assign a group of families to a particular elder, just as the judges in Israel were assigned to particular groups of families as a pragmatic solution to Moses' problem. But the general pattern is that all the elders collectively are responsible for leading the church. So, although I think it is permissible to assign families to specific elders, I do not think it is necessary, nor do I think it is always wise. It may be a good idea to have a "point man" for each family, but the elders' authority comes only in their plurality. They may determine to delegate certain authorities to themselves individually, but the source of the authority is in the plurality. The wisdom of the elders collectively should exceed that of any elder individually, making the collective preferable to the individual.

The church should not appoint more elders than it needs (Num. 11), and it should not appoint elders who are not qualified (e.g., 1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1). For example, the church should not appoint elders just because it needs them to make its shepherding model work. If the existing elders can handle the shepherding under the model, then the model can be used. If not, it seems more likely to me that it is the model that needs to change rather than the number of elders. The more elders there are, the harder it is for them to work together. Again, consider that there were only 70 elders for the nation of Israel. Their numbers increased by necessity when the nation split into towns, but we should not imagine from that fact that the elders represented a huge percentage of each town population.

With regard to lay participation in shepherding, I think this is a reasonable idea, so long as it takes place under the direction of the elders. This is essentially how the nation of Israel worked. Parents taught children and grandchildren, clan leaders ruled over clans, and the elders and judges of the nation handled matters that the lower leaders did not or could not handle. The same appears to have been true of the New Testament church. In fact, it has been suggested by some that the groups of elders in each city actually ruled over multiple churches. There may sometimes have been multiple churches within towns (cf. Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15), and there is at least some indication that the pattern was to appoint elders for towns rather than for churches (Tit. 1:5), as in Old Testament Israel.

Perhaps it should go without saying, but I'll make this point explicitly: Neither the Old nor the New Testament suggests that only elders may teach or offer spiritual leadership. In fact, quite the opposite is true. We find many teachers endorsed by Scripture, most of whom were not elders. We find many who ministered to others in spiritual ways, most of whom were not elders. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Jesus himself — Scripture gives no indication that Jesus was an elder. Again, parents are instructed to offer elder-like leadership to their families (1 Tim. 3:5). Moreover, Paul's letters regularly exhort all believers to minister to one another in spiritual ways. And Paul did not associate the gift of teaching exclusively with the gift of leading (Rom. 12:6-8). Besides this, there is the practical problem that a man is not qualified for the office of elder unless he has already demonstrated that he has the gifts and character of an elder, which gifts and character he must demonstrate prior to becoming and elder (1 Tim. 3:5).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.