Since Paul established the elder structure of government among Gentile churches (Acts 14:23) and, most likely, the Twelve established it among Jewish churches (Acts 15:6; James 5:14), the New Testament writers assumed eldership to be a fixed, apostolic institution. In Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus and the churches that a church is not properly ordered until qualified elders (plural) have been appointed. So he orders Titus to install elders: “Appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). By doing this, Paul is going against customary cultural practices because both the Jewish synagogue and Greco-Roman society commonly practiced one-man oversight. Thus Paul’s choice of the elder structure of government is intentional. He is not simply accommodating himself to current social norms. His instruction to Titus establishes an apostolic directive that should be followed by Christians today.
Many scholars contend, however, that only the instructions about elders, not the elder structure, are universally binding on churches. They say that Paul’s instructions regarding the qualifications of an elder are binding but that the structure is not. By making this distinction, they can eliminate the eldership structure from the church and apply the biblical instructions to their self-appointed institutions—the clerical structure or the singular pastorate. But this is an erroneous distinction. How, for example, would a critically important passage such as 1 Timothy 5:17-18 apply to the singular pastorate? This instruction makes sense only in the context of a plurality of elders.
I conclude, therefore, that the instructions given to elders and about elders, as well as the eldership structure itself, are to be regarded as apostolic directives (Titus 1:5) that are normative for churches today. Ladd is quite wrong when he claims that “there was no normative pattern of church government in the apostolic age, and that the organizational structure of the church is no essential element in the theology of the church.”21
We would do well to heed Alfred Kuen’s sober warning against doubting the full sufficiency of Scripture in order to direct the practices of our churches today. Kuen, a Bible teacher at the Emmaus Bible Institute in Switzerland, writes:
Has not the history of twenty centuries of Christianity proved that the plan of the primitive church is the only one which is suitable for all times and places, is most flexible in its adaptation to the most diverse conditions, is the best able to resist and stand against persecutions, and offers the maximum of possibilities for the full development of the spiritual life?
Each time that man has believed himself to be more intelligent than God, that he has painstakingly developed a religious system “better adapted to the psychology of man,” more conformable to the spirit of our times, instead of simply following the neo-testamentary model, his attempt has been short-lived because of failure due to some unforeseen difficulty.
All heresies and deviations in the church spring from the abandonment of the Scripture and of the model for the church which they present.22
In short, as Alfred Kuen concludes, “the churches established by the apostles remain the valid models for churches of all times and places.”23
21 Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 534.
22 Alfred Kuen, I Will Build My Church, trans. Ruby Linbald (Chicago: Moody, 1971), 17.
23 Ibid., 253.