Skip to main content

Don’t elders have to be ordained and sent out by other elders?

Ephesians 4:11–12 tells us that elders or shepherds are given as gifts to the church by God himself, to equip his people for ministry and to build up his body on earth. In other words, eldership is a spiritual gift bestowed by God.

Because it comes from God, it cannot come from ordination—from other elders laying hands on a new elder. Indeed, it must be recognized prior to his being ordained, or otherwise they would not have laid hands upon him in the first place (1 Timothy 5:22). He must be tested, he must prove himself, before being called.

The purpose of the laying on of hands is to formally recognize the gift, and appoint the man to the eldership. Laying on of hands first appears in the Old Testament, and is used for the same purpose: to appoint a representative.

And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt-offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. (Leviticus 1:4)

Symbolically, when you lay on hands, you impart something from yourself. In ordination, what is imparted is authority and identity—authority to act as a representative of God on behalf of the local body with whom the new elder is identified. This is the origin of the laying on of hands that we see in the New Testament to ordain a man (Acts 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:22).

The Holy Spirit is also imparted through the laying on of hands, since he is bound up with the authority and identity of God’s representatives, being the one from whom that authority ultimately comes, and the one who unites them all into one identity in Christ (Acts 8:17; 9:17; 19:6). For this reason, it can certainly be said that a man receives the gift of eldership formally, and perhaps in greater measure, through the laying on of hands, as Paul indicates of Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).

Ordinarily, the responsibility and authority to recognize and ordain a man is invested in the existing elders of a congregation. This is why the normal and ideal means of ordination is always the laying on of hands by previously-ordained elders. However, those elders themselves serve at the consent of the church. A church, as a body, may dismiss an elder as head over them. Equally, then, a church, as a body, must be able to ordain an elder as head over them. This is just one application of the keys of the kingdom, which Jesus himself invests in the local congregation (Matthew 18:17–18). The power of the keys is ordinarily administered by the elders, but it is held by the congregation. Therefore, where no elder yet exists, the authority to recognize and ordain him falls directly to the congregation itself.

This is simply an application of the broader principle of rulership that is articulated throughout scripture: that under God’s law, rulers are ratified by the people, govern at the consent of the people—and that responsibility for their governance therefore falls on the people:

When thou art come unto the land which Yahweh thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me; 15 thou shalt surely set him king over thee, whom Yahweh thy God shall choose: one from among thy brothers shalt thou set king over thee. (Deuteronomy 17:14–15)

You see that the congregation of Israel is authorized to set a king over them. It is from both their election of him, and God’s, that his kingship derives. Now, if this is true of a king over an entire nation, how much more of an elder in a church? Indeed, the principles of kingship are echoed in Paul’s qualifications for elders. In Deuteronomy 17:16–17, the king is forbidden from multiplying three things: wives, warhorses, and wealth. In Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, the elder is required, among other things, to be the man of one woman, to not be pugnacious, and to not be a lover of money. Many of the other qualifications for elders are drawn from the qualifications for judges in Exodus 18:21: elders, just like judges, must be able men, fearing God, loving truth, and hating dirty gain.

So the ordination of elders is based on the concept of corporate responsibility and representation. (This is the same principle that grounds the gospel itself, for it is also how we can be considered one body with Christ, and share in his righteousness.) It therefore cannot be that the only validly ordained elders are those who can trace a continuous line all the way back to the laying on of hands by an apostle of Jesus. Not only does this contradict God’s law on how rulership works, but it would disqualify vast numbers of elders in denominations across the world today, and would make it impossible, for instance, to form a new church in an area where no contact with another church exists.

All this to say, if a group of Christians covenants together as a church, and then lays hands on the men they wish to represent them, those men are validly ordained elders.