The Closed Door
Gateway to Spiritual Fullness
It came to our attention recently that there is a need to reconsider
eldership and how it should be practiced in the post “early church” era.
The word "elder" points to a spiritually mature person much more than a
title or an office. Customarily, Paul appointed elders on his return
journeys, as in the case in Acts 14:23, “And when they had appointed
elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they
commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
Some times he would ask his co-workers, Titus or Timothy, to "appoint
elders" in the cities that Paul had preached before such as the case in
Titus 1:5, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order
what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” The
key is that Paul allowed a period of time to lapse before elders were
appointed; and the purpose of it is to give the believers time to grow
and develop in the life of Christ.
The element of time is vital in every believer's spiritual growth. It gives
the Lord a way to exercise His merciful dealings in a believer's daily
circumstances in order to chasten, train, equip and mature His children.
No amount of gifting can ever leap-frog the crucial element of time in
terms of developing and maturing a believer. This is the reason why
Paul only appointed elders either on his return journeys or asked his co-
workers to ordain elders in the cities where he's been before. Their main
duty in appointing elders was merely witnessing and confirming what the
Holy Spirit has been doing in growing the life of Christ and transforming
some of the maturing believers in each assembly.
In other words, the elders were simply believers who have submitted to
the Lord's dealings and grown in their spirit and arrived at a greater
“measure of the stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13) even before they were
"appointed" or "ordained" as elders. It is simply a matter of growth and
maturity in the life of Christ. Paul and his co-workers were merely
observing and confirming what the Holy Spirit has been doing in
transforming and maturing the saints when they selected elders in every
The important thing to remember is the maturity in the life of Christ that
comes from yielding and surrendering to the Lord in our daily
circumstances and situations. The appointment or title only serves as a
It is not too farfetched to consider that the mature brothers have already
been functioning as elders in their respective assemblies before Paul and
co-workers came around to bear witness of the fact. The life which we
received from the Lord is a loving, caring and serving one. The more we
grow in spiritual stature, the more we love, care for, and serve the flock.
Appointment or not, these mature brothers would continue to function as
elders anyway. This is simply the life of Christ at work.
As far as our local gathering is concerned, this is how we view the matter
of eldership, i.e. yielding to the Lord's delicate work of dealings in our
inner-man thereby allowing the Lord to apprehend us and increase His
lowly character and conform us to His image, so that we might have the
wherewithal to function as elders. To us, spiritual reality comes first;
function flows from spiritual reality naturally.
Without spiritual reality, function and office is arbitrary and hollow. In
the spiritual realm, a Christian with title, office and function, but without
reality will suffer certain defeat before a crafty enemy. The “seven sons
of Scevas,” holding on to priestly titles and mimicking apostle's
functions, suffered horrendous defeat, to say nothing of shameful
Balaam’s prophetic office and title also serves as a stark reminder of how
much more vital it is to seek spiritual reality before assuming a title.
Secondly, as the Church passes through its initial stage into a time of
turmoil and declension, as has been prophesied in the Word, there
seems to have been a shift in the outward practice of appointing elders.
The so-called Plymouth Brethren, noted for their careful study of the
Scriptures, pointed out that the "house of God, which is the church of the
living God" recorded in I Tim 3:15 has become the "large house" in II Tim
2:20. The implication is that toward the end of the apostolic era, the
church has started to decline so that "there are not only gold and silver
vessels [in the church], but also vessels of wood and earthenware, and
some unto honor and some unto dishonor."
It is commonly believed that II Tim was Paul's last epistle written just
before his martyrdom. It was a time of apostasy as Paul wrote, "You are
aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me..." (II Tim
1:15). In the time of abnormality of the church, spiritual reality is the
first thing to fall away. Most Christians are aware that the Church has
been in declension and has been in a long period of great abnormality.
Her biggest problem is not the lack of outward forms, deeds and
adherence to scriptural commands, it is rather the absence of spiritual
In almost every one of the "seven churches in Asia," the rebuke of the
Lord was not on their lack of deeds and toils or outward correctness, but
on their absence of inward spiritual reality.
In Paul's very last epistle, eldership is no longer emphasized, rather it is
"faithful men" that are prominently in view. Likewise in the book of
Revelation, the seven epistles were directed by the Holy Spirit not to the
elders, but to the office-less "messengers" of the seven churches. There
is a de-emphasizing of proper scriptural office holders, and an increasing
emphasis of spiritual reality. Again, we notice that Revelation is a book
about the awful degradation and abnormality that was about to take
place in the Church.
Another thing to consider in the post “early church” era is the heart-
breaking division that took place in the Church and the resulting
institutions (yes, and the "house church" brand of institutions). During
the apostolic era it was certainly a time of relative normalcy when there
was but one church in any given city. The believers came together to
break bread, worship and fellowship. The eldership was observed by all
the believers in any given city. When discipline was meted out, it was
meant to humble the offending one into repentance.
Today, the offender needs only drive down a block or two and be
welcomed into another flock with their own set of elders – no repentance
needed. So, which are the elders that represent the church whose
spiritual authority must be heeded? And, which church has the
jurisdiction over the city which she represents? Remember, there can be
but one church in any given city, if we want to get technical about it. O
yes, there is also the question of spiritual reality of many so-called
elders. Some are merely keepers of status quo whose faithfulness is to
a leader, a teaching, a tradition, or an institution….
These are but a few of the questions and issues in times of abnormality
that demand our careful re-thinking regarding practice of post "early
As the Church loses her spiritual reality, her most urgent need is not the
recovery of outward forms, offices or even functions, it is the recovery of
spiritual reality - Christ. The Holy Spirit's call, then as it is now, is for
overcomers to return, not to outward forms, offices or deeds, but to the
Lord who is the spiritual reality.
Allow me to submit that even the "house church movement" has only
paid attention to outward forms of doing church correctly, but neglected
the single most important and urgent need to return to focusing on
Christ who is the spiritual reality of the church.
We firmly believe that by holding fast the headship of Christ and
focusing our gaze upon Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith,
eldership, among other things, is a spiritual reality that can be practiced
without any consternation. It is by the grace of God that we are what
we are, and we are quite at peace about it.
Oliver Peng, with the brethren