Appointing Elders, A Puritan Tradition


Pilgrim Fathers disembarking from Europe, by Robert Weir

The Churches of Christ in which I grew up, appointed elders in three different ways.

  1. One group cited the commands to Timothy and Titus to appoint elders with specific qualifications, and had preachers appoint elders in congregations. They either had the preacher nominate and appoint the elders,
  2. or they had the congregation nominate, and the preacher appointed the elders.
  3. Another group appointed elders by congregational vote.
  4. Yet another group had elders choose their associate elders.

When it comes to church organization, the Churches of Christ use the principle of Command, Example and Necessary Inference. This way of interpreting the Bible originated in the 1500s during the Protestant revolt against the Roman Catholic dominance of Europe, which had roots in Switzerland with John Calvin and John Knox. It was called the Regulative Principle: If one can find

  1. a clear Command,
  2. or a specific Example of how to accomplish a biblical command,
  3. or if one can Infer from an example that there must have been a specific command,

then that limited how the current church could accomplish certain tasks commanded in the New Testament, or how the current church could be organized.

The Churches of Christ use the Regulative Principle when arguing against the use of a piano, organ or guitar in worship.

Preacher: Paul said to sing and make melody in the heart. Where?

Congregation: In the heart.

Preacher: On the piano?

Congregation: No.

Preacher: Where?

Congregation: In the heart.

They believe this scripture, according to the Regulative Principle, limits their churches to singing and making melody in the heart. They do not use the term Regulative Principle, a term used only by the Presbyterians, Christian Reformed Churches, Anabaptists and Baptists. Instead the Churches of Christ use the term Command, Example and Necessary Inference, or CENI for short.

According to Church of Christ theology, one only needs CENI for the Work, Worship, and Organization of the Church. For anything else, one is relatively freer to obey God’s commands. (Why this is, remains a mystery.) Alexander Campbell and the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ formed their first Missionary Society in 1849 and sent out their first missionaries to Liberia and Jamaica in the 1850s. The Missionary Society voted to support the northern Union in 1863 in the Civil War. The Churches of Christ, besides being mostly in the slave owning south, opposed the missionary society based on the Regulative Principle: there was no CENI for a missionary society in the New Testament Church. Whenever the apostle Paul wanted to do a missionary trip he asked specific congregations to donate directly to his mission trip, period. Thus CENI would limit all missionary money to be raised in this way. No missionary society was permitted to raise money and appoint and send out missionaries. This created the first major split in the Restoration Movement. At the same time the Churches of Christ split with the Christian Church and Disciples of Christ over worshiping with organs, and slavery.

The Churches of Christ, however, do not appeal to CENI or the Regulative Principle when appointing elders. The clear command  from the Apostle Paul to the evangelists Timothy and Titus was: Timothy and Titus were to appoint elders (and deacons) in each city based on specific criteria which the Apostle Paul outlined. (The criteria seem designed to eliminate alcoholics, narcissists and borderline personalities from serving as elders.)

Where did the tradition of congregations choosing their own elders come from? Well, again, it came from the Presbyterian Church via Switzerland, and John Calvin and John Knox.


John Knox

The Roman Catholic Church dominated Europe from 400 years after Christ was born until 1400 years after Christ was born, 1,000 years. Priests (and nuns) were nominated by each congregation, to be sent away to seminaries, and then appointed by the bishop. Bishops were appointed by the archbishop, and archbishops were appointed by the Pope, the Pope was elected by the archbishops. Nobody was allowed to baptize or perform weddings or funerals except priests appointed by the bishop.

Within 100 years after the printing press was invented in Holland, city stat
es in nearby Switzerland began to throw out their Roman Catholic bishops
and appoint their own bishops, priests, elders and deacons, appointed by the town councils which were democratically elected by the men of the city. This was not only so that Bern, Geneva, Basel, and Zurich could obey the Bible exclusively, but to keep the Roman Catholic Church out of their cities, and to keep control over their own lives. It was also a huge money saver, saving 10% taxes that used to go to the Pope in Rome.


Ulrich Zwingli

The Congregationalists in England copied the organizational format they saw in Geneva, Switzerland, where John Calvin taught (and Scotland where another Swiss man, Ulrich Zwingli, taught). They brought it back to England and refused to let the local bishop of the Church of England appoint their preachers. They eventually emigrated to the United States as the Puritan Pilgrim Fathers, and so we inherited their staunch Protestant tradition. New England towns still have annual meetings where city officials are elected and major local issues are debated. 

The hard line Churches of Christ seem to think they can ignore the way elders were appointed in the early New Testament Church, yet point their finger at denominations who change the way the early church did things. Churches of Christ do not seem to care about Command, Example and Necessary Inference unless it supports their traditions. As soon as it doesn’t support their traditions then they can find all kinds of excuses, excuses that they will not allow any other group to use. 

The main pillar of hard line Church of Christ doctrine is tradition. We do what we have always done. We do what our parents did. That is what gets us to heaven. Not what Jesus or the apostles asked us to do. No! We do what our parents asked us to do to be pleasing to God. We remain faithful to our group.

In pursuing the Regulative Principle the hard line churches of Christ have traded the gospel for a mess of pottage. They have taken the beautiful good news that God has forgiven us of hating our neighbors, and coveting our neighbor’s good fortune, and have traded it for a formula for getting to heaven, and a formula for designing the perfect replica of the early congregation.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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2 Responses to Appointing Elders, A Puritan Tradition

  1. There can be a lot of drama in a church in regard to the makeup of an eldership. I’ve seen times where a dominant personality tries and sometimes succeeds in running things. Sometimes it is dominant families that are in the lead. In other situations, one faction of an eldership makes sure that it is in control and takes steps necessary to see that their side has the most votes, ie. control. That way, they can make sure that innovations such as clapping and praise teams are vetoed and other features of impending apocalypse rejected. I attended a church for twenty years which eventually split as a result of the elder selection process. In retrospect, it was the best possible thing for both groups. The elders asked for nominations for consideration to be added to the eldership. They gamed the system, extending the nomination time to make sure their preferred people got enough votes for the first cut. The final choice was theirs. Then they passed over a several well qualified people who had served the church well for many years in favor of their favorites. Not long before this, the elders had made several sudden autocratic decisions that many of us disagreed with. The new church is now thriving.

  2. Another thing. When it comes to the elder selection process, it is common to review the list of qualifications in I Timothy and Titus. They are read in the usual hyper literal way. It causes much consternation when the boundaries are fudged. Where does one draw the line with respect having believing children. Do all of them have to believe. If some are Baptists are they disqualified? If they have only one child are they disqualified. All of this is so unnecessary. Paul or whoever the authors were are giving what would have been common sense reasoning that is great advice but not an everlasting unchangeable formulation independent of custom and situation. I am indebted to the late Dr. Kenneth Shrable for a reference to a first century list of qualifications for a military leader ship position. Ken was from Mammoth Springs, AR, (born in the early twenties I think), attended Pepperdine, and eventually became a college professor then administrator. He related that a Roman author by the name of Onosander, who lived before Paul, gave a list with a similar structure to Paul. He lists a qualification and gives the reason. My blog entries of Feb 6 and 7 of 2007 are of my conversation with Ken and the text of Onosander which is taken from a commentary by Martin Dibelius and Han Conzleman.

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