The “appointing” of elders is another one of those matters where people love to read a few verses in the Bible and then build whole beliefs systems off of them.
First of all, elders weren’t “appointed.” That’s a sub-optimal English word choice for what happened. Being appointed implies that an elder was a position to be occupied. Elders weren’t positions, they were people.
Elders were recognized. That’s a better word to use, and what the original text actually means. It means they were already doing the things elders do before anyone recognized it.
This should lead us to ask “Why did they need to be recognized?“ Why not just let them do what they were already doing? What’s the point?
You must understand the story
If you understand the story of what’s happening, it clues you into why Paul thought this act of recognition was a good idea in these particular cases.
In the churches where Paul wrote letters with the suggestion to recognize elders (like I Timothy, 2 Timothy & Titus), they were in crisis.
There was confusion spreading because of strange teachings from people that claimed to be Christians and were committed members of those churches. These people were highly influential in these church communities.
They were teaching that God hates meat-eaters, disapproves of marriage, there is no resurrection, and other strange teachings that have no foundation in the gospel of the Kingdom.
This resulted in churches dividing over many different issues because of their confusion about who and what to believe.
You need an unbiased consultant
When Paul heard about situations like this, he would either go to a church himself or send a co-worker to help out. Having someone rooted in the gospel of the Kingdom and sound theology from the outside come to help was essential and priceless.
Because they were from the outside and were regarded with trust & credibility, they could come in like an unbiased consultant and help the church work through the issues.
This is part of the essence of being an apostle. They act like representatives of Jesus that can strengthen churches and help them refocus their beliefs and behaviors when things go awry if need be.
They could confront those teaching stuff that didn’t align with the Truth about Jesus and the gospel; and they could do one more thing…
They could help the whole church identify people in the local congregation who were aligned with the gospel and good examples of Christ in their behavior. They could recognize the people that were already aligned with the gospel in their beliefs and behaviors. These would be the people to listen to.
When people are confused about who to listen to, it helps if someone from the outside that is trusted comes by to mediate the situation.
The difference between appointing and recognizing
The reason elders were recognized in these situations is because that’s what THOSE churches needed AT THAT TIME to stay healthy and resolve the situation they were going through.
No, elders aren’t something every church needs to “appoint” to officially have good church structure and obey the Scriptures. No, appointing elders isn’t a mark of an established healthy church. Having people that could be recognized as elders if a situation called for it is. It’s essential to see this difference.
Paul wrote letters to plenty of churches where he never mentions elders. And he never recognized elders when he first planted a church. After all, how can you recognize someone as an elder if they haven’t done anything yet?
I’ll say it again because this is ultra-important to understand. The only reason elders were recognized in those particular churches is because that’s what was needed at that particular time AND they actually had people developed enough to receive recognition.
Paul thought this was what was healthy for THOSE churches, not what is healthy for all churches for all time.
This is just another casualty of reading the Bible like a manual. Everything changes when you understand the story.
It depends on the situation
Is recognizing elders a bad thing? It depends. You tell me the situation and I’ll tell you if I think recognizing elders is a bad idea.
There are some situations where it absolutely is. There are some situations where it absolutely isn’t. And there are probably some situations where it wouldn’t matter much.
But making the “appointing” of elders a prescription for a church like it’s a checklist item in a “how to run a church” manual is just asking for trouble.
In most churches, everyone already instinctively knows who the elders are anyway if they’ve been in community for a decent amount of time. There’s no confusion over it. Since that’s the case, the act of recognition is really not necessary. Everyone would just look at each other and be like “Duh, we already knew that.”
Now, that’s not to say that this might not be an appropriate thing to do in the future. It absolutely might be. It depends.