Preachers Serving as Elders
If I talk about preachers today, most members of our fellowship think I am not talking about elders. This is, however, more the result of our current practice than the practice of the early church. The apostle Peter was both a preacher and an elder (1 Peter 5:1), and the New Testament indicates other preachers also served as elders. Paul says these preaching elders are to receive a twofold honor by the church: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). The next verse indicates the preaching elders were honored with financial support: “For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages’” (v. 18). These preachers are to be honored twice by the church: once by being appointed as leaders and next by being paid for their ministry. Verse 17 indicates the financial support was “especially” for preachers. The adverb translated “especially” can mean “most of all,” “above all,” “particularly” or “especially” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 490).
In general, churches of Christ do not follow the biblical pattern of appointing preachers as elders. There are a few exceptions, but the general practice is to exclude preachers from leadership and to separate their work from the work of elders. There are probably many reasons for this, and not all of them can be attributed to ignorance of the biblical model. Perhaps one of the greatest reasons is the fear of having the preacher around for more than just a few years. In fact, the history of some churches can be traced more in the hiring and firing of preachers than in ministry and service. Although appointing a preacher as an elder will not necessarily prevent this, it will require a change of attitude toward those who preach for the local churches. It will mean, for example, that preachers are honored by the church and considered as much a part of the local congregation as the elders who are not supported full-time in ministry.
Some will object by saying that although we have not practiced this in our fellowship, we have never denied that it is technically possible. This reminds me of some churches I have known who never seem to organize with elders and deacons according to the biblical pattern. They defend the biblical teaching and say it is technically possible in some churches but not in their church. It seems they have managed to interpret the qualifications in such a way as to exclude anyone from being qualified. And so it is with appointing preachers as elders, we admit that it is technically possible but, in general, we refuse to do it.
Others have argued that although it is technically possible, it is not advisable today. Yet, what some think is not advisable, Paul said was to be the practice of the churches. Remember, these were the churches the apostles left behind, and Paul’s first letter to Timothy was written late in his career at a time when he was trying to prepare the churches for his departure. At the least, we should consider Paul’s counsel in 1 Timothy 5:17 as having a practical benefit for the church today. Like the concept of elders itself, the presence of preaching elders in the New Testament should be looked upon as the divine pattern for the church in every age.
Why is it, then, that in our fellowship today we are reluctant to appoint preachers as elders despite the clear teaching of 1 Timothy 5:17? Although some preachers may not be qualified, many are and yet these men are seldom utilized by churches. If many preachers are qualified, then why do they never serve as elders? One reason may be the very point Paul is making to the church in this text: the failure to honor those who serve the church in preaching.
Another reason may be the legacy from an old controversy in our fellowship over whether it is right to pay the preacher on a regular basis for ministry in the church. This controversy, which occurred over a generation ago, was referred to as the “located preacher question.” Some argue, based on the model of Paul and his missionary team, that preachers in the New Testament were never located for very long in one place. From this they conclude that it is wrong for a church to pay a preacher to locate in one place for any length of time. The argument implied that if preachers were paid, then they must move around frequently, as Paul and his associates did, rather than stay in one place. The texts cited to justify this odd view, however, are selective and do not account for some clear examples of apostolic practice and teaching. Notice, for example, that the elders who were preachers in 1 Timothy 5:17 were to be paid for their ministry and they were definitely “located” in the city of Ephesus. How long were some of these preachers located in Ephesus? If Paul wrote this letter in the mid-sixties (see chapter 3), then it is possible that some of the preaching elders had already been there for perhaps as long as 12 years. For example, Paul began his three year ministry in Ephesus in about 53 AD, and before that Priscilla and Aquila had ministered there along with Apollos and perhaps others. The first mention of elders in Ephesus is when Paul asked them to meet him in Miletus in the spring of 57, which indicates elders had been appointed at sometime in the previous four years. By the time he wrote 1 Timothy in the mid-sixties, elders had been in Ephesus for several years. In other words, the support for preaching elders, like the appointment of elders, reflects a long standing practice of the church. Furthermore, the letter of 1 Timothy and Paul’s farewell address to the elders (Acts 20:13-38) provides a pattern of government, ministry, and life designed to sustain the church at Ephesus in the absence of apostolic leadership. In the same way, this pattern should also be the model for leadership today.
J B Myers