Titus: Paul, how could you leave me here in Crete, to pastor this church all alone?
Paul’s response: no, Titus – there is to be no lonely leadership
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—” (Titus 1:5 ESV)
Titus is to set things in order. Why? Because everything tends toward disorder, whether your garage, your closet, or your heart and life. But notice the difference. When you come to the back door, disorder in the mud room is obvious. What you don’t see is that the disorder in my soul, and your soul, is insidious. We can read the remainder of this little letter as Paul’s ordering instruction for a disorderly church.
Now I understand that, while there is great satisfaction to bringing order to segments of life – a desk, or a drawer – I understand that it is intimidating and threatening for someone else to say that they are going to restore order to something that touches your world. That seems invasive and intrusive.
But remember, we are talking about the ordering of a household of faith; our household; our community of believers. And some people are anxious for some order to take place. Others are saying, “what’s wrong with things the way they are?” But we must admit, that if the household is going to work properly, and help bring about the well-being of its members, then order is helpful; it’s healthy.
Paul wrote to Timothy in a similar vein in 1 Tim 3:15 – he talks of “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and foundation of the truth.” So as the church is properly ordered, the truth is properly honored. And the truth works, so long as the truth is applied to our lives. It brings about change and growth in our spiritual lives, change and growth that we desperately need. But when there is lack of order, the truth lies unattended, out of place, and change and growth are lacking.
But you might argue that Baptist don’t do elders. Well, that’s an uncomfortable question. If the role of elders is Biblically mandated, why haven’t we done it? I think there are at least four reasons.
The first arises out of how we use our Bibles. We have favorite texts, and we ignore others. Everybody does. The Bible is a big book, and we can’t hold the whole thing in our heads all at once. And our key text for church leadership has been 1 Timothy 3, in which it talks about bishops, or overseers; and deacons. Not elders. Now in other texts, like Titus 1:5,7, the words “overseer” and “elder” are used interchangeably so that we conclude that they refer to the same office.
The other reason I think that Baptists have tended toward the pastor/deacon model is because of our historical emergence. Baptist churches proliferated in the U.S. in frontier and backwoods communities. There was rarely a ready pool of leadership from which to choose elders. In fact, not only would there be one leader, but a single, itinerant pastor might exercise a primary leadership role over several congregations.
But having had time to absorb the Biblical teaching, and to grow and mature beyond our historical roots, why have we still avoided this term “elder?” And I think the hard answer is “tradition.” Tradition trains our eyes and our minds so that we see what we are used to seeing, and we gloss over what does not fit. Tradition coaxes us to rationalize, saying that our deacons act like elders, or to compromise, saying that the specific offices do not matter. This leads to the fourth reason: sin – that is, an unwillingness to change in accordance with the Bible’s teaching.
So we aren’t taking a vote – we are trying to follow the Bible. And here is what Paul says: “Titus, I need you to restore order to this church, and you are to begin with the leadership. Appoint elders to the congregation.” Why? Because there is to be No Lonely Leadership.
The Old Testament gives a great foundation for this theme. In three passages: Exodus 18; Numbers 11; and Deuteronomy 1, we are given a backdrop for our thinking about elders.
In Exodus 18:18, Jethro says to Moses in the face of his responsibilities with the people, “You are not able to do it alone.” It reminds us of what God says, recorded in Gen 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone,” or of Elijah’s dejected words in 1 Kgs 18:22, “I alone am left.” And Jethro, a brand new believer, can clearly see that this is not a desirable situation.
What’s so bad about “lone leadership?” As Jethro said, “It’s bad for you, and it’s bad for the people.” No one person has the breadth of person and experience and resources to serve the needs of the people well.
So Exodus 18 teaches that capable men are to be chosen to come alongside Moses. In connection with what we will find in Numbers 11, these are men who are made capable by God’s Spirit. They are spiritual men. Their capability is not primarily in their reliance upon natural or physical resources, but in spiritual. They have specifically forsaken foolish “valiancies,” like “holding their liquor” (Is 5:22); or hitting home runs. Further, our understanding of this capability is enhanced by the next phrase: “men who fear God.” This could be a study on its own. But suffice it to say at this point that they are more intent on pleasing God than pleasing men.
Another couplet is used in Exodus 18 to describe the men who would be chosen as assisting elders: they are reliable men who hate unjust gain. They are “amen” men; men of whom you can say, “and it was so.” What you see is what you get. And these men have strong passions. They fear God. They hate unjust gain. I love these verses from Psalm 119: “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” (Psalms 119:36-37 ESV) They don’t seek to find their meaning for life – what makes life worth living – in stupid things.
Numbers 11:10-17, 24-30
In Numbers 11, the Spirit who has been given to Moses is given to seventy elders (vv. 25,29). It reminds us of Jesus sharing the Spirit with the disciples after the resurrection, by breathing on them (Jn 20:22). The point I want to make from this passage is in the prophecy of v.29: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
(Numbers 11:29 ESV). This prophecy was further detailed in Joel 2, where it says that both young and old, sons and daughters would prophecy. This has been fulfilled at Pentecost, and, in Christ, we are indeed all prophets, and priests, and kings.
That is why, when I see how the Bible talks about elder ministry in the church, I do not conclude that it is elder rule, or elder government. I still believe that there is a biblical basis for congregational involvement in the decision-making of the church. And one of the key reasons is that the Spirit of God is not possessed by the pastor alone, or by elders alone, but by all believers.
In Deuteronomy 1, the story is told once more. “Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’” (Deuteronomy 1:13 ESV). The wisdom mentioned should be that of a heavenly perspective on practical issues. Understanding means the ability to exercise discernment, to sort out difficult issues. Experienced means knowledgable, that is, knowledge gained from a life experience of walking with God. These terms are enhanced by another qualification: “no partiality.” Favoritism is not to be shown to insiders over outsiders, nor to the great over the small. “You shall not fear man” (v.17). I think Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in John 7 get at what is needed: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24 ESV)
We need to understand that the appointing of a council of elders is Biblical, even while we recognize that it is a bit counter-cultural. All around the country today, churches are being formed that are reflecting a very different trend. On the one hand, there is a great priority being placed on youthful leadership. The church seems convinced today that, in order to catch our culture, we have to be cool. And one thing is clear: old men are not cool.
Another pattern is that of staff leadership – not the men of the church, but a staff of men brought in to design and lead the pre-planned organization.
In all of this, there is still the constant pandering to the magnetic personality of the single leader – the one who, when he speaks, we will heed his words, and follow his lead. The Bible identifies that person as Jesus.
So in summary, what is the case for a multiple leadership of elders, properly qualified?
More sets of eyes to see beneath the surface of things, to avoid reactions based on deception and lies
A pool of wisdom, discernment and experience, since no one person can embody these in fullness, save Christ (and we are not claiming that even a group of elders measures up to Christ)
A representation of God’s Spirit – though neither the pastor alone, nor the elders together, have a monopoly on the Spirit. The Spirit has been given to all believers, and we remain thus firmly committed to congregational government, though with elder direction (group) as opposed to pastor (individual) direction.
These should be capable men who fear God; and reliable men who hate unjust gain – who serve together to avoid the perils of lonely leadership, so that the household of faith might prosper spiritually and grow.