A Treatise on the Eldership
J. W. McGarvey  (1870)


      While the moral and religious traits of character requisite for the office of Elder are numerous, and some of them are demanded by the apostle with great emphasis, only one qualification of an intellectual character is mentioned, and this is expressed in general terms. This fact is significant, and admonishes us not to mis-adjust the divine balance, by making the most of what which is made the least of in the Scriptures.

      This one intellectual qualification is represented in the Epistle to Timothy by the expression, "apt to teach." The Greek for this expression is didaktikos, which I prefer to render "capable of teaching." The Elder, then, must be capable of teaching; but this expression represents a variable quantity. One might be capable of teaching some persons, and utterly incapable of teaching others. It becomes a matter of necessity, then, that before we can form a judgment as to a man's possession of this qualification in the requisite degree, we must know who it is that he is to teach. A person capable of teaching children might be incapable of teaching adults, as one capable of teaching an academy might be incapable of teaching the classes in a college. So an Elder might be capable of teaching a congregation in one community, and not in another near by. What is the standard, then, by which each individual candidate for the Eldership is to be judged in this respect? Undoubtedly, it is to be found in the attainments of the congregation which he is to teach. He is to be their teacher, and theirs alone; consequently, if he is capable of teaching them, he has the capability required by the Scriptures. From [61] this it appears that properly qualified Elders may possess capability of teaching in as great variety of degrees as characterizes the intellectual and religious attainments of the various congregations. Furthermore, it must be evident that each individual congregation is the best judge of the capability of an Elder to be its teacher. So long as they receive instruction from the Elder, and are satisfied with him, he is qualified according to the Scriptures to teach that congregation, however much he may fall below some other Elder in some other congregation.

      But this capability of teaching has a special direction given to it in the epistle to Titus. It is there said that the Elder must "hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able by sound teaching both to exhort and to convict the gainsayers." Here, both the source of his information, and one of the specific objects of his teaching are mentioned. The specific object is to exhort and convict the gainsayer--exhort them till exhortation fails, and then convict them before the congregation as corrupt opposers of the truth. Of course, this is only one of the many objects of teaching, and is mentioned in this place because the young congregations in Crete were at that time infested by "vain talkers and deceivers." The source of information by which the Elders were to silence these men, was not the philosophy in which the latter boasted, but the faithful word which had already bean taught. The Elders are required to hold fast this "faithful word," and, as a consequence, condemn everything unauthorized by it. A "thus saith the Lord" was to be the touch stone of every doctrine and every practice which Jew or Gentile might introduce, and thus, by "sound teaching," the Elders were to stop the mouths [63] of all in their respective congregations who taught things which they ought not.

      It is an old question, as old, at least, as Presbyterianism, whether capability to teach must characterize every eligible candidate for the Eldership. The Presbyterian theory requires one teaching Elder and a plurality of ruling Elders in each congregation, and they claim that they find authority for this distinction in the well-known words of Paul: "The Elders who rule well count worthy of double honor, specially they who labor in word and teaching." After all that has been said and written on this passage, we think that candor most certainly requires the admission that there were some Elders who did not labor in word and teaching. Every attempt which we have ever seen to set aside this obvious inference from the words, is a mere subterfuge like those so often adopted to obscure the plain statements of the Scriptures in reference to baptism. Let us deal fairly with our own minds, and the Scriptures will more readily yield to us their meaning.

      But while we are thus compelled, by the obvious meaning of plain words, to admit that there were Elders in the primitive churches who did not labor in word and teaching--that is, who did not preach and teach publicly, we are by no means compelled to admit that it was because they were incapable of teaching. Capability of teaching being a prescribed qualification for the Eldership, we may not suppose that it was disregarded in the selection of Elders, unless it be in uninstructed congregations. But Paul does not mention the "Elders that rule well" in a manner to indicate that their appointment was irregular. There is another way to account for the [64] distinction made without supposing a violation of the law; and that is, that although all of the Elders were capable of teaching, some were more capable than others, and the burden of this part of the work was for this reason assigned to them by mutual consent. Where a number of men are associated together in an office of multifarious duties, it is almost invariably the case that some are better adapted for one duty, and others for another; and in order to the greatest efficiency of the body they must of necessity adopt a corresponding division of labor. It is natural, therefore, if not unavoidable, that in the practical working of a board of Elders, some of them should do little else than rule, and others little else than teach and preach. Jointly, they are responsible for the teaching and ruling; among themselves they must divide the labor in such way as will accomplish the best results. The best rule that they can jointly exercise, and the best instruction that they can jointly impart, is what the Lord requires at their hands.

      Some of the Christian congregations of the present day are at work on the plan here indicated. They have a board of Elders, all of whom are capable of teaching, and one of whom is a preacher. The latter proclaims the gospel to the world in the public assembly, and takes the leading part in the instruction of the congregation. He gives his whole time to the work, and lived of the gospel which he preaches. The others take a secondary part in the teaching, and share in full the responsibility of ruling. They give but a portion of their time to the work, and give it, like the Elders of the church at Ephesus, gratuitously. Acts xx: 34, 35. This is Scriptural and wise. [65]

      In a still larger number of congregations, an Evangelist is called to the aid of the Eldership. He preaches and takes the leading part in teaching, while the Elders take the secondary part in teaching, and supreme control in ruling, making use, however, of whatever wisdom and experience the evangelist may possess, to aid them. This we also pronounce Scriptural; for in this capacity Timothy labored among the Elders at Ephesus, and Epaphroditus among those at Philippi. Acts xx: 17, comp. 1 Ti. i: 3; Phil. i: 1, comp. ii: 25-30.

      But, besides these, we must acknowledge that there are many congregations among us with Elders in office who do not teach, and who are incapable of teaching. All such should immediately do one of two things--either resign the office, or put into exercise their latent powers, and prove themselves capable of teaching and therefore qualified for the office. However, all the congregations should be taught, by the Evangelists who form them to select for the office only men who are capable of teaching, and all Evangelists should be careful to ordain only such to the office. In this way present evils may gradually be corrected, and a repetition of them in the future, avoided.

[ATOTE 62-66]

Top of Page