Shepherding the flock
Elders cannot be appointed immediately in every church. That's obvious. It is better to have no eldership than to have a bad eldership. On the other hand, the commandment of the Lord is to "set in order that which is lacking, and appoint elders in every church" (Tit 1:5). If we cannot do this right away, we should at least be genuinely working toward it.
At this point in our discussion, it would be well to consider the readiness principle. This is the simple principle that something very important should not be rushed into, nor should it be put off. It should be done just when one is ready to do it, neither sooner nor later.
We all know this principle. For example, when two young people fall in love on Saturday, and want to get engaged on Sunday, we old and wise ones counsel them to wait a while, to make sure they are ready. But when two young people have been going together for a good while, when they seem equipped for marriage and meant for each other, if they are showing signs of... well you know, then we suggest to them that it might be high time they got married.
When an apple is ripe, we pick and eat it. We don't pick it when it's green. We don't wait for it to go rotten. When you're ripe, you're ready. You shouldn't rush into things, but you shouldn't procrastinate either. This is wisdom we all can understand, even if sometimes we find it hard to apply.
If this principle is followed by the congregation, with regard to appointing an eldership, we shan't go far wrong, shall we? Of course, the trick is to decide just when is too soon, when is ready, and when is too late. Apples change colour. They go green, red, brown. When they are green, we wait. When they are red, we eat them. When they are black, we know we waited too long. Unfortunately men in the church don't change colour. But they do change their qualities and we should be able to perceive when they are ready.
When Saul was in Damascus, considering his bright encounter with the Lord, he was urged by Ananias, "Paul, why do you wait? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins!" Paul was ready for baptism. There was no reason to wait (Acts 22:16).
When the Ethiopian heard of his need, he asked Philip, "Here is water! What hinders me from being baptized?" He was ready. So there and then he did what he had to do (Acts 8:36-38).
In a moment, we will consider the idea that a church can be "scripturally unorganized". This is the idea that it is just as scriptural to have no elders as it is to have them.
That is like saying that one can be "scripturally unbaptized." It is like saying that it is just as scriptural to be unbaptized as it is to be baptized. In a certain sense, that is true, but only in that certain sense.
Consider this: Was it ever right for Saul, or that Ethiopian man, to be unbaptized? Was God at any point happy that these men were not baptized?
Someone might say, "Yes, God would not want them baptized before they had faith in Christ and repentance from sin." That is a good observation. But it only shifts the problem back a few notches. Was God ever happy that they did not have faith in Christ?
When can a person be scripturally unbelieving, unconfessing, unrepentant, and unbaptized? That is a weird question, isn't it? Obviously, the answer is only when one is NOT READY to believe, confess, repent, and be baptized. And "not ready" doesn't mean "unwilling" or "not feeling ready." It means not ready in the radical sense —not in need of it, not equipped for it, not ripe for it.
If two young people are not in need of marriage, and not equipped for marriage, we don't recommend marriage. We say, "You aren't ready yet." In the same way, if a young child asks for baptism, but she does not seem to have a conviction of sin or a basic understanding of the gospel, then we say, "You aren't ready yet." The child is innocent, she has no need of baptism, and is not equipped for obedience to the gospel. However, if the child shows the need and the ability to obey the gospel, we dare not hinder her. She is ready, and in that state we encourage her to be baptized without delay.
This readiness principle must likewise be applied to the concept of churches being "scripturally unorganized."
It cannot be denied that a particular church might well be "scripturally unorganized." If a church has no need of elders, and is not equipped to provide elders, then it is not ripe for an eldership. Such a church should not have elders and should remain "scripturally unorganized" for the time being. This assumes, of course, that such a church is necessary, and nothing else is feasible. In Australia some very small churches exist by necessity. Of course these are "scripturally unorganized" and rightly so. However, that fact does not justify any of the following practices:
I want to talk about purism and pragmatism, and to prepare us for the concept let me mention something that has nothing to do with eldership but certainly illustrates how we accept pragmatism in the churches.
Several churches of Christ in Australia have include a number of profoundly deaf persons. These people "sing" with their hands using sign language. The scriptures say nothing of this. A purist approach to the command to sing would have these people not sing at all. It would get picky and say, "They are signing not singing". The pragmatic approach (universally taken) allows the nearest thing to singing that a deaf person can do, and believes that God would rather a deaf person sign than say nothing.
Deaf people are sometimes reluctant to participate in the singing. We teach them that the Bible says three things: "speaking... singing... making melody in your heart" (Eph 5:19). We say, "You can make melody in your heart, but you can also speak and sing with your hands instead of your voice."
Now a purist approach would say that the "voice, lips, tongue" are the scriptural instruments of speaking and singing, and scriptures could be quoted. But I've never heard anyone take that approach.
The pragmatic view is always taken that the deaf should obey the command using a substitute organ of expression, rather than not sing. This substitute is not a "perfect" obedience, but it is as near as a deaf person can get and is better than making no attempt.
Purism is the approach that wants absolute perfection. The purist stands for things in principle, but his approach fails because what he imagines in principle cannot be made a practical reality. The purist has an affection for the "truth" as he sees it, but he can never obey this "truth", because his obedience would not measure up to his ideal. The purist cannot put his principles into practice, because his practice, being imperfect, would violate his principles! Now there's a sticky situation.
This is one of the devil's cunning devices. Beware of it. Another of the devil's cunning devices, however, is to label things as purism which are not. Beware of that too. We do stand for "purity of doctrine and practice". However, this means proper obedience to God's word, not the legalistic failure to obey God's word. Where churches are not complying with the New Testament pattern regarding elders and deacons, it may be that a puristic element contributes to this disobedience. On the other hand, it may be that pragmatism has got out of bounds.
Pragmatism is an approach to getting things done that sometimes seems to meddle with, or sidestep, the truth and to "compromise with error". But in fact it does not. Instead, it arrives at a satisfactory result in terms of obeying the truth. Pragmatism may not result in perfect obedience, but it certainly results in optimum obedience —the best that can be expected under the circumstances, and certainly much better than a failure to obey. Pragmatism is an approach that takes this attitude: "You say you've got the truth and I have not. But you have achieved little or nothing of what your truth requires. I, on the other hand, have achieved substantially what your truth requires. So who has really got the truth? You or I?"
James, for example, employs a hypothetical pragmatist to argue his point for him: But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (James 2:18). There are plenty of people who will talk about faith. Let them show us their faith. How can they, if they do not have works?
Suppose there are two congregations. To one of the congregations, we will give the imaginative name, "Church A". No prises for guessing the name of the other. Church A is without elders. Yet, on the subject of eldership, church A claims to "contend earnestly for the faith" (Jude 1:3). It finds some imperfection in the eldership Church B has installed and opposes it. Church B has elders. On the subject of eldership, church B claims the obedience of faith. Granted, its appointments are, in some points, disappointments. Nevertheless, Church B believes it has done the best it could, to do what God wants done, and to match men to the scriptural profile without violating or neglecting any particular. Which church would you commend for demonstrating a loyalty to the faith and the truth?
Later in this series, we will be asking whether a man may be considered as "having faithful children" if not all his children are faithful. This serves as a good example of the pragmatic versus purist approach. The purist wants a man who has a plurality of children, all of whom are exceptionally faithful. Since such men are as scarce as mushrooms on the moon, the purist churches never ever appoint elders. Of course, even if they do happen to have two men of the kind, the purists will likely disqualify the men on some other point by their purist approach.
The pragmatist asks, "What does God really want?" The answer is God wants elders and deacons in every church (Tit 1:5). God considers a church without elders as a church where things have not been "set in order", a church found "wanting" in the New Testament pattern of church government (Tit 1:5). Church A, the purist congregation, applies the scriptural qualifications in such a manner as to frustrate the doing of God's will. Their ideal eldership may be perfect as a concept, but it is not the Lord's concept, and in reality Church A cannot find anyone to match its profile. Their principles prevent their practice.
Church B, the pragmatic congregation, applies the scriptural qualifications in such a way as to achieve what God wants. Their eldership may not be absolutely perfect, but it is a reasonable best match to the scriptural profile. Church B does not ignore God's word in the Biblical requirements for elders. Nor does it ignore God's providence in giving reasonably qualified men to the congregation who could shepherd and serve it if allowed.
Pragmatism is not an excuse for substituting anything with anything and doing whatever we like. It is the approach that obeys what God says as best it can rather than interpreting what God says in such a manner that what God says cannot be done.
We have been thinking about readiness for eldership, and how we must neither rush into eldership nor procrastinate against it. When we are ready, then we should act —neither sooner nor later. And by "ready" we don't mean "willing" or "liking the idea." We mean ready in the radical sense: in need of it, equipped for it, entitled to it, ripe for it.
We are (or should be) "Working Toward Elders." But at some stage we shall have to stop working toward an eldership, and actually appoint an eldership. We cannot justify "working toward" elders and deacons whilst never actually arriving at having elders and deacons appointed.
My mother used to tell me the story of "Miss Jusgoingto." It was a story about a little girl who was always "Jusgoingto." When her mother would question her about some chore that had not been done, she would say, "I'm jusgoingto." I forget what terrible thing befell her, but she did get into terrible trouble because she was always "jusgoingto" and never actually doing.
We do not want to be like that. We don't want to be "The Jusgoingto church of Christ." We should prepare ourselves properly, and enter into eldership advisedly, but in the fullness of time we should act. The moment we are ready for eldership, that is the moment when an eldership ought to be appointed. If we are ready now, we should do it now. If we will not be ready until next year, we should do it next year. Whenever we need a presbytery and can provide a presbytery, that is the right time to appoint a presbytery, no sooner and no later.
As a child, I used to play a game called "He". Someone would "go he" whilst everyone else ran away to hide. The one who was "he" stood behind a tree and counted to twenty as fast as possible. Then the one who was "he" called out, "Coming! Ready or not!" If you were not ready, if you were not in your hiding place, that was too bad. You were chased, and tigged, and then you yourself had to go "he".
We ought not to "go he" and hurry the church into eldership with undue pressure. We should not say to the church "Coming! Ready or not!" and force an eldership upon the church before it is ready.
However, we should charge the church to make itself ready without dawdling, without neglect. We should charge the church to redeem the time and not waste opportunity or drift aimlessly.
The church should now be desiring a presbytery. The church should be seeking out from among its number those men who may already be serving as defacto elders and deacons, that they may be given due recognition to exercise proper government. The church should be praying in the Holy Spirit that God will bring to full fruition the church's coming of age. The church should be eager to comply with its constitution, and to be governed as the Lord has decreed.
Jesus used to say, "Why do you call me Lord, Lord, yet do not do the things that I say? If you love me, you will keep my commandments!" (Luke 6:46, John 14:15).
The commandment of the Lord is this: "Set in order that which is lacking, and appoint elders in every church" (Titus 1:5).
As the Lord looks upon your congregation with that commandment in mind, how does he see you? How do you see yourselves? Ready or not?
The appointment of elders would not bring about any sudden change. It would not be some sort of revolution. Rather it would be an evolution, a maturing of what has already been going on. You have been following leadership for years, and gradually evolving and growing in that aspect of the congregation's life. The appointment of elders will simply mark your progress and allow you to continue to grow under continued and maturing leadership.
On the other hand, be warned: There will be a revolution if you neglect to appoint an eldership. If you were to resist the appointment of elders for too long, you would only give place to some evil force that will come into the congregation unchecked and take it over. The old saying, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know" is applicable here. You know those who lead you now (1Th 5:12-13). To recognise these men by making the scriptural appointments, only strengthens what you have, which is good though not perfect. If you neglect to do what God says, however, don't be surprised if you weaken what you have and are left to the mercy of wolves.