Gary McBride

Raising Up the Next Generation of Elders

Scripture is surprisingly silent on the mechanics of assembly life. There are almost no instructions on how to meet as to format and the flow of the meetings. There are no words about Sunday School, singing, hymnbooks, instruments, seating arrangements or the order of meetings. People often have strong views on these issues based on practices in Acts, inferences or conclusions drawn outside of the context, or even the silence of Scripture. There is not even an example given in the New Testament as to how a group did function on a weekly or monthly basis.

Some would be strongly assertive about the process of recognition of new elders and the propagation of the office. Such opinions are based on adherence to a pattern or preference and not supported by Scripture. Absent from Scripture is any instruction on how the office of an elder is to be perpetuated.

The pattern assemblies have adopted is that ultimately the existing elders decide what man or men are to join the oversight. This will usually include an announcement to the assembly or some means of official recognition. This pattern has been followed for generations and is now generally accepted as having scriptural support.


What does have some scriptural support is that there should be a plurality of elders. This is gleaned from several passages that use the word “elder” in the plural. In Acts 20:17 Paul called for the elders from Ephesus – though it should be remembered the book of Acts is narrative and not necessarily normative.  Also in Acts, Paul appointed elders in every church he and Barnabas visited on their return to Antioch, (14:23). When Paul got to Jerusalem in Acts 15,  he met with the apostles and the elders. Peter mentions elders in 1 Peter 5:1, but he is writing to a large group of converted Jews spread abroad and not to one assembly.

What would seem to be more conclusive is that Paul addresses the Philippian epistle to the elders and deacons at Philippi. Also Titus is given instruction to appoint elders in every city. Plurality is also expressed in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13 and in Hebrews 13:7, 17 by the word “those” referring to the leadership.

What the Scriptures do not mention is what happens in a new assembly that starts with very few men or a declining assembly down to one or two brethren. There is an example of Paul appointing elders and instruction for Titus to do the same. What is not addressed is what takes place in the next generation as far as appointing or recognizing new elders.


In Acts 20:28 Paul tells the Ephesian elders that it is the Holy Spirit who made them overseers. Again, for us, what is missing is any practical indication of how this truth is worked out in assembly life. Leadership is a spiritual work and the Holy Spirit equips and enables men for this function, but no instruction is given on how the Holy Spirit makes this known.

Even in the lists of qualifications in 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 there is no word on the mechanics of recognition and perpetuating the office. Both Paul and Peter address the importance of desire in the heart of those who would serve but again no direction as to recognition.

Much more could be said on this topic but these thoughts are designed to stimulate reflection and discussion. In the absence of a “thus says the Lord” there must be a pragmatic and principled way of addressing the issue. Just perhaps, there may be a better and more pro-active way than the pattern of the past one hundred and fifty years.

Practically, one of the problems has been aged men holding on to the office too long and becoming, due to tenure and age, “lords” over the flock. Ideas and initiatives are rejected because they vary from the approach of former years. Often men in this position are afraid of and thus resistant to any change in that they view the mechanics of assembly life as having scriptural support. Assemblies too easily become stifled because of fear of change and control by a strong personality. (editor’s note: See Chuck Gianotti’s article on Why People Resist Change)

Older brethren need to be aware that the assembly belongs to the Lord and be willing to relinquish control. They should consider that if the Lord called them home tomorrow, the work will either die out or be carried on by others. These others may not be as experienced, as wise, or as spiritual but if the work is to carry on, they are the material the Holy Spirit has supplied.


Pragmatic, according to the dictionary, means “dealing with the problems that exist in a specific situation in a reasonable and logical way instead of depending on ideas and theories.” I would add to “ideas and theories” old patterns – ” because it is the way it has always been done.”  A pragmatic approach can be the death knell of a local church as “what works” overrides the Scripture and “thus says the Lord”. So in speaking of “being pragmatic”, I am not thinking in terms of church life in general but with regard to this specific issue.

Pragmatically it is better to start the process sooner rather than later. Younger men could meet with oversight on a regular basis without being recognized as elders. In this format there could be opportunity for discipleship. The one danger is older men who want to clone themselves rather than letting the younger men develop and make some mistakes.

Perhaps it is time to consider that the pattern now followed, though not unscriptural, does not have direct endorsement in Scripture. The principles are unalterable, but the process and practice can be addressed. Is there more that can be done to draw men into assembly life and to have them take responsibility at a younger age?

As I travel in various assemblies this is one of the most pressing issues. For a few assemblies it may be too late as there are no middle-aged men to take over the leadership. For others this is a critical time – with an aging population and little prospects for growth, it is important to start the process as soon as possible.

Gary McBride


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    It seems that your article presupposes some ideas that you dismiss very early on and don’t really give a scriptural basis for. That is that we should have elders in the first place. You say, “This pattern has been followed for generations and is now generally accepted as having scriptural support.” But earlier in your article you admit there is an absence of scriptural support for such a claim. I think many of the “patterns” that we follow must be looked at in the light of scripture and prayerfully considered if we are doing them because we always have, or because we are being obedient to the Word. Personally, I feel eldership was a foundational office of the Church and is not longer perpetuated during this time of ruin we find ourselves in. I don’t want to start an argument, I just want some thoughtful, prayerful, consideration of another point and then we can continue on in loving fellowship.


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      Thank you Caleb for your comment and we respect your position on this subject. We will be posting articles on elders and one will definitely be our Biblical stand on why elders are for today.


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      I don’t think Gary was saying there’s no scriptural basis for having elders, but that there is no specific scriptural instruction for how to recognize elders.
      The method described in the article (existing elders decide who should be added to the oversight and then announce it to the assembly), is what has been done at my assembly, but I can’t give a chapter and verse to back up that practice. I don’t think this makes the practice contrary to scripture, it’s just not specifically covered in scripture.


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        Just to add that J N Darby and others – still followed quite closely by “exclusive” assemblies – held to the so called ‘ruin of the church’, whereby the New Testament’s scriptures about elders no longer applied, again, supposedly. On the one hand experience has shown that such a concept can increase the influence of strong personalities within a local assembly (and Darby was certainly a strong personality), yet on the other hand the overt or covert idea of regional oversight or circles of assemblies tends also to be associated with those who hold to the so called ‘ruin of the church’.


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    I agree with you Gary, we need to rethink our leadership initiation process. And perhaps as an older man you see the short-comings of a lot of the older men (no offense). But as a younger man I’m seeing a total lack of spiritual interest on their part. This of course is not true of everyone, but I have talked to a lot of young people who attend Assemblies regularly, go to conferences, are in fellowship but have absolutely zero appetite for the word or desire to mature spiritually. Astonishingly, in the face of their near-biblical illiteracy, they still think they know more about the Bible than their evangelical counterparts because they go to an “Assembly.” It seems that their parents have praised and pampered them to the point where they think holiness and maturity automatically get absorbed at the meetings of the local church. I know of one assembly where all the elders are in their 70’s and 80’s and want to hand off leadership but no one wants to step into that role. What are they supposed to do in that situation?


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    We appreciate Brother Gary McBride’s ministry in our assembly also. Some helpful points in the article. Regarding ‘how to recognize’ elders, maybe a useful consideration is that first and foremost eldership is a work, and thus recognition is something that morally follows only after the work is being accomplished. Acts 20, referred to in the article, indicates that it is the Holy Spirit that raises up elders; it’s not a democracy.


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      Agreed Mark, I would also point to Acts 6 where the apostles were given the task of discerning the Lord’s will for appointing Spirit filled believers to specially recognized tasks – it was not given as a vote to the Church. And Titus 1:5 where Titus was given the responsibility of appointing elders. Those who fulfill the qualifications of an elder today have the same authority as Titus, because they have the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the inspired writings of the apostles and the promise of the Lord Jesus, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).


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    While Gary is speaking about eldership here, (and I would agree with much of what he writes on that subject), I think his first paragraph is problematic, and could do with being amended. He writes, ‘There are almost no instructions on how to meet as to format and the flow of the meetings … there are no words about the order of meetings … There is not even an example given in the New Testament as to how a group did function on a weekly or monthly basis’. On the contrary, in the New Testament, there are very clear descriptions, indeed directions, given. The NT clearly and repeatedly pictures a model of church meetings like 1 Cor. 14:26-40 where individuals used their gifts to worship God and build up His people. It says nothing about an elder-organised, top-down, pre-scripted ‘service’ like many churches have, but a Holy Spirit-guided meeting (see 1 Thess. 5:19-21 and other places). This is not to say that the Scripture gives exhaustive directions about church meetings (sufficiency of scripture does not entail being exhaustive).


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    Paul’s intention with regards to elders is quite clear (Acts14:23) “and when they had appointed elders for them in every church with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they have believed.” This will forever be an issue of faith, as we act in accordance with God’s revealed will for the church. They appointed elders (plurality) in every church not just a few, they did it by praying and fasting in faith to commit it to the Lord, and they continued to pray for them. By the virtue of the epistles which were written to the churches we know that they supported them both biblically and practically, or as Gary has said in his latest book on Thessalonians by “telling” teaching” and “training”them. They went further and visited them, to encourage them and exhort them as the Lord opened the doors for them. It falls upon spiritual men within the existing assembly leadership to follow the same example. The reason there are so few young men taking the ropes of leadership today is that spiritual leaders of today have failed to disciple them as they should. The reason that this has not happened is because it will cost time and effort and it is just easier to show up on Sunday and then head home when the services are over. I agree with the thought that discipled young men should be given the opportunity to “aspire” to the office of being a elder, or might I say young men “perspiring” in the Lord’s service. The existing elders get a chance to work with these young men and the young men get a chance to understand what being an elder is all about. On sensitive issues these young men can always be asked to step out of the room if need be. With time and experience and prayer and fasting those who should be recognized as elders will be abundantly clear to the existing leadership and we can all praise God for the next generation that he has raised up to serve Him.


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    I have been looking at this issue with relation to 2 Timothy 2:2, and feel that Paul does give some indication as to the “perpetuity” of leadership being discussed.

    Although this passage speaks specifically of “teaching others”, the role of “bishop” or “elder” is such that the Christian walk is taught and committed, or entrusted, to others through the testimony of an elder in principle, precept, and practice.

    Timothy, as a young elder, had demonstrated a life of commitment to the Word of God, and his faith was evident to those around him. Paul was directing Timothy to “commit” the same truths he (Timothy) had heard and learned to “faithful men”.

    I would suggest that this responsibility of “committing or entrusting” truth lies with the elders who are serving. Maybe ask the question “Who am I committing truths to now on a consistent basis?” This would not necessarily include public speaking, but if perpetuity of church leadership is of paramount importance, who am I spending consistent time with in discipleship for the purpose of leading?

    The first indication of who will be ready to accept the Spirit-led responsibility of church leadership lies in the phrase “faithful men”. It is not enough to “desire the office of bishop”, but as others have clearly articulated, one needs to be “faithful” to the work of leadership, including having the “qualifications” listed in 1 Tim, Titus, and being a partaker of the afflictions of the gospel(1:8)

    I can entrust my son to give a message to the neighbour for me. I believe that my son will faithfully give the message to the neighbour as I spoke it, so that the importance of the message will not be lost or confused, because he has demonstrated his trustworthiness both to me and to others in matters of importance. If my son however, demonstrated gross irresponsibility, forgetfulness, lack of gravity towards important matters, or refusal to give the message, I obviously would not commit the task to him.
    In the same way, existing elders are to be looking for those who are “faithful” to deliver the same message of God’s revealed truth, whether it be the Gospel truth to unbelievers or doctrinal truths which instruct God’s flock. The elders must commit or “deposit as a trust” those truths to all of the flock, but the faithful ones will be the ones who will demonstrate a proper use and dissemination of these things.

    The term elder, or bishop, as I understand it, means “to oversee, or to inspect”. As there is a constant spreading of Biblical truths amongst the flock, the elders will be “inspecting” for a “faithful” response. It brings to mind the same concept of sowing the seed and not knowing how the ground is prepared beneath the visible topsoil. The evidence of consistent growth will only be noticed beyond the burning sun and the things which choke. This faithful response will be that “they”, the “faithful men”, will be able to teach others also. Just as the Holy Spirit will give the existing elders the ability to “inspect” for good fruits, the Spirit of God will strengthen younger men to be exercised to faithfulness, which is a good indication of their “aspiring” or “perspiring” in the Lord’s service.

    Although not a readily obvious pattern in terms of specific protocol, time frame, etc., I feel that this is pretty explicit in terms of giving serving elders the direction to look in for passing on the baton.


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