Of all the areas regarding congregational leadership, the process of appointing elders has the least said about it. So, this becomes a matter of expediency, with each congregation left to determine most of the details of how to proceed. There are, however, a few Biblical principles to appreciate.
What Should the Process Look Like?
I guess the easiest thing would be to draw straws, like they did when they chose an apostle to take the place of Judas, back in Acts 1:26! I am mostly kidding. But there is something to learn from that scene. The whole congregation (“they,” 1:23) used qualifications set forth by the Lord (1:21-22) to identify two men from the group, Joseph and Matthias, who could fill the role of Apostle. Since there was only one slot available to round out the Twelve (1:20), they allowed God to make His own decision through the lot.
We don’t need to draw lots. All who are qualified may hold the office. But, in effect, we allow God to make His own decision by using His qualifications. We do not say, “Bro. So-and-So may be insulting to everyone he meets, but he is a successful businessman; we should put him in charge.” We do not say, “Bro. So-and-So may not come to worship very often, but when he’s here, he is such a gifted and smooth speaker; we should put him in charge.” It is the Holy Spirit who chooses men to be elders (Acts 20:28), through the word which He revealed.
The New Testament teaches that the preacher guides the process. In Titus 1:5, Paul said, “for this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” But I don’t get the sense that Titus picked the names; instead, Paul immediately delved into the qualifications. I would suggest that the preacher ought to preach on the office, role, and qualities of the elders, encourage the congregation to prepare men and select men, without asserting some kind of imaginary authority in picking names.
Perhaps the process of selecting servants in Acts 6:3 is instructive. Even though it was for a different office, Peter said, “brethren, select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation…” The congregation knows the members well. Let the congregation apply the Scriptural principles to each person. Various churches I spoke to use different systems to accomplish this goal. Some pass out surveys, some require nominations followed by a month of discussion, some require self-nominations. The congregation as a whole can capably identify the men to whom they are willing to submit, according to the qualifications in God’s word. On some date, the men are ordained before the whole congregation.
In any case, let us never fail to ask for God’s help by praying, privately and publicly. “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).
Is a Man Who Has Made Big Mistakes Out of the Running?
Surely this is a case by case thing. After all, I can think of some sins that, if I ever committed, would make me feel uncomfortable ever stepping into a pulpit again. But, perhaps that something I should get over. We as a congregation need to learn to practice real forgiveness, and we men need to cut ourselves a break. If sin is properly dealt with, it becomes a thing of the past (Heb. 8:12, Psalm 51:7-13).
Peter sinned so badly and publicly that he had to be rebuked in front of the whole congregation by Paul (Gal. 2:11-21). His hypocrisy was threatening to divide the church in Antioch. Even Barnabas was “carried away” by his sin. Nevertheless, he repented, and later identified himself as an elder (1 Peter 5:1).
And that wasn’t the first time. Peter denied Jesus three times with cursing and swearing (Matt. 26:74). Later when Jesus spoke to Peter, He admonished him three times, “shepherd My sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Is a man who made mistakes able to serve as an elder? Yes! It’s all about how one recovers. Look at Hebrews 11, and you’ll see that God does great things through spectacularly imperfect men. —John Guzzetta