HOW GOD APPOINTS ELDERS
How does God appoint elders? In an assembly, there are always a few brothers whose growth is more obvious than the others’. They bear a more excellent testimony than others and are desirous of picking up the work of an elder. They also bear some resemblance of an elder. As a result, the apostles appoint them to be elders to oversee the brothers. The church in Ephesus gives us an example of this. In the beginning, there were only saved believers in Ephesus; no elders were appointed. But after the apostles went there the second time, we see elders there. The first time Paul went out from Antioch, his intention was merely to save some people. But later, he appointed elders in every city (Acts 14:23). Before a meeting is properly established as an assembly, it is still feeble in its walk, and there is the need for others to support it. But after some are able to take up the responsibility of overseership, the apostles appoint them to be elders.
At times, the apostles could not appoint elders personally; they then sent others to do the appointing. Timothy and Titus were this kind of people. According to the direction of the apostle, they went to different cities and appointed elders, who then bore the responsibility of the local churches.
Since the appointment of the elders is for the purpose of representing God’s authority, the elders should understand that Christ is the Head and that the church is here to express His heart’s desire. The elders should inquire concerning the Lord’s desire. Only then will they be able to express Christ’s authority in the meetings. Through these ones, God makes the decision to move or stop. Therefore, all the brothers should learn to submit to these ones. Of course, no one likes to see anyone lording it over him. Although the elders should not lord it over us, we should submit to the God-appointed authority as our part. God has ordained two things in eternity: authority and submission. But many believers do not like to submit to authority. The world is filled with lawlessness today. I am afraid that the mystery of this lawlessness has become manifest in the church. Parents are criticized at will by children, and husbands submit to the authority of their wives. Headmasters and teachers are attacked, opposed, and elected by students, and workers strike at will. Such things are happening frequently. Now is the time that lawless ones will appear as the Bible predicted. If we are not careful, and if we refuse to submit to authority, we are not following Christ but following Antichrist instead. If we cannot submit to authority, how can we expect others to submit to authority? When those who receive a salary from the so-called churches come to rule over us, we cannot submit to them. But if God has placed a certain person in a certain position and has charged us to submit to him, we should submit accordingly. We should obey the ones who watch over our souls as those who will render an account (Heb. 13:17). Therefore, submission to the elders is something that no one can overturn.
THE TITLE AND THE APPOINTMENT
OF ELDERS AMONG US
Let us summarize: (1) The elders are the overseers; (2) the eldership is plural in number; and (3) the elders are appointed by the apostles or the ones sent by the apostles. We know that there are no apostles today and that there is no one sent by the apostles. How then can elders be produced? In the course of our discussion in the brothers’ meeting, concerning biblical questions among the co-workers, we have agreed on the following judgment, according to the Bible and the teaching of the Holy Spirit: presently, due to the fact that there are no apostles, there is no possibility for official elders to be appointed. We cannot confer on anyone the title of an elder. If the title of an elder is conferred, we would have to ask where are the apostles who appointed these elders? However, we are not saying that no one is doing the work of an elder. Although we do not have the official title of an elder, we can find men in all the places who resemble elders and who are doing the work of an elder. They serve as elders in an unofficial way. How can this group of people be raised up to do the work of an elder? Who appointed them to be "unofficial" elders? They have been appointed by "unofficial" apostles.
Today, it is a fact that we do not have apostles among us. However, there are a group of people who are doing the work of the apostles, such as preaching the gospel and establishing churches. They readily admit that they cannot match the apostles in their holiness, power, victory, and work. They are merely doing a small part of the work of the apostles, perhaps only a thousandth part. Today, God is working through this group of people in the same way that He was working through the apostles in the early days. Formerly, the apostles established churches everywhere. Today, this group of people are establishing churches everywhere. We admit that they are far inferior to the apostles and are not qualified to be called apostles. Yet we cannot deny that they are doing part of the work of the apostles. This group of people are the apostles God uses today in this time of the church’s degradation.
God saves sinners and gathers believers through this group of people. They are the most suitable group to lead those who are under their care to respect certain ones in their meetings and consider them as the "elders" among them.
We are merely helping the brothers to submit to these ones. We have to be careful. If we are not careful, we can easily fall into the Catholic system of apostolic succession or the teaching of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which asserts that bishops have apostolic authority. Our judgment is not only according to the scriptural teaching, but this judgment fully matches our experience. For example, Brother Chu is working in Pu-tung and has saved some people there. If he asks Brother Hwang to go there to appoint elders, Brother Hwang would not know whom to appoint because only Brother Chu knows the local situation. He has been continually leading the believers and feeding them. Only he understands the spiritual condition of the local brothers and is concerned about their souls. Only he can lead them to submit to the ones who act as elders among them. At the same time, the rest of the brothers should learn to accept God’s appointed authority.
We cannot refuse submission to authority. We have to ask God to humble us. If we cannot be an "elder," we should submit to others who are the "elders." We should learn to be submissive persons. If our flesh has been deeply judged, we will consider submission to be a good thing and an easy matter; we will consider submission to be something sweet. As long as the flesh is not judged, the church will never be proper. If the brothers deal with the flesh properly and are willing to submit, no difficulty will arise. Therefore, those who are doing the work of the apostles should lead the brothers to acknowledge the ones who should be appointed as "elders" and help the brothers submit to these "elders."
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 2) Vol. 22: The Assembly Life & The Prayer Ministry of the Church, Chapter 4, by Watchman Nee)