Now we come to the New Testament. In the Old Testament we are not able to find out how the first group of elders was produced. There is also not a direct word in the New Testament to tell us how the first group of elders in the New Testament church was produced. Both Peter and John were elders in the church in Jerusalem (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1). James was also an elder there (Gal. 2:9; Acts 12:17; 15:2, 13; 21:18). He was a flesh brother of the Lord Jesus (Gal. 1:19; Matt. 13:55) and was not saved before the Lord’s death (John 7:3, 5). Either through seeing the Lord’s death or through the appearing of the Lord to him in His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7), James believed in the Lord. Thus, the time from his salvation to his becoming an elder was very short. Eventually, he became the leading elder in the church in Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem is represented by the name James in Galatians 2:12, and in the book of Acts, James is the prominent one among the elders in Jerusalem (12:17; 15:13; 21:18). How were James, Peter, and John produced as elders? The Bible does not directly tell us.
When the apostle Paul was raised up by the Lord and sent out by the Holy Spirit, the Lord used him to establish new churches. Acts 14:23 tells us that Paul returned to appoint elders in each of these new local churches probably within the same year. The appointment of the elders is recorded clearly in Acts 14:23. The elders were established among the saints by the apostles who had preached the gospel to them and had formed them into a local church. Titus 1:5 tells us that the apostles who established the churches had the position and the right to send a representative to establish elders. This was the case with Titus. Titus was representing the apostle Paul to establish elders in each city of the island of Crete. These verses show us that the elders were properly produced in the New Testament through appointment by those who preached the gospel to them, who taught them the truth, and who formed them with the saints into a local church. These apostles should be the ones who appoint the elders to carry out God’s administration in each local church.
At the very beginning of the Lord’s recovery in mainland China, we adopted at least eighty percent of the Brethren’s practice. By 1935 we realized that we could not fully follow them, because we realized their serious mistake in the matter of the church practice. The light that Brother Nee received during that time is in the book entitled The Assembly Life. Those messages were first given by him in 1934.
When Brother Nee began to see the light concerning the scriptural practice of the church life, he was still somewhat held by our humility. He said, "Today we are the unofficial apostles, yet the unofficial apostles still have the unofficial right to appoint the unofficial elders." We were very humble. We did not feel good about recognizing that we were the apostles at that time. But we did say, "If we are not the apostles today, at least we are the unofficial apostles. Otherwise, where did the churches come from?" No doubt, all the churches in China came out of Brother Nee’s teaching. If he was not an apostle, at least he was an unofficial apostle.
After a short time, another book was published in Chinese by Brother Nee entitled The Normal Christian Church Life. In this book Brother Nee became bold. He said that if those of us who preach the gospel, teach the truth, and establish and form churches are not the apostles, then who are? He became very strong in this matter. He dropped the prefix un from the word official and said that we were the official apostles and that the elders set up by us were the official elders. Therefore, we are not unofficial elders. We are the official elders. I realize that some of you are still young, but compared with the elders established by Paul in Acts 14:23, you are not so young. Those elders were appointed by Paul within the same year that their churches were established.
(Leadership in the New Testament, Chapter 3, by Witness Lee)