When an assembly begins, how are its overseers recognized?
From Titus 1:5, we learn that several cities in Crete had assemblies but no recognized overseers. The pattern of the New Testament shows that, where the Lord has “flocks” (Acts 20:28), He also has “under-shepherds” (1Pe 5:2-4). The condition of the assemblies in Crete could only be temporary. The Acts 20 passage supports the assumption that the Spirit was raising up shepherds. Paul gave Titus apostolic guidance through the inspired Word (Titus 1:6-9) so that Titus applied the Word of God to the circumstances and discerned those whom the Spirit was fitting for that service. Such a subjective choice in such a critical matter requires much spiritual wisdom, but, at the same time, allows for human error.
The proverb, “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Pro 11:14), encourages a man with such a responsibility to seek counsel from others with mature judgment, whether gospel workers or elders. This may not always be possible, but is most desirable.
Lest any assume they can move ahead of the Lord in forming an assembly, the Scriptures give principles to guide us. The Spirit allows for the possibility that a number may be saved in a locality, yet that, in itself, does not produce an assembly. More than “two or three” were saved in Athens during Paul’s visit (Acts 17:34), but we have no Biblical evidence of the formation of an assembly there. If we recognize that the designation, a “church of God” (1Co 1:2), indicates that an assembly is divine in its origin, the God Who moved with deliberate order in His work of creation will undoubtedly do the same in forming an assembly. If the Spirit of God is going to raise up shepherds, He will provide progressive evidence of this as some of the men involved begin to show shepherd character. This, among other things (such as developing gift, stability of character, submission to Biblical order), indicates that the Spirit is at work in forming the spiritual entity (“purchased with His own blood,” Acts 20:28) that bears the name “church of God.”
In a new work, is there a danger of encouraging some to take oversight prematurely?
The Ephesian assembly was established and had existing elders (Acts 20:17) when Paul wrote Timothy. The teachings in 1 Timothy, however, give us principles that apply to a new work.
On the subject of elders, Paul advised Timothy to “lay hands suddenly on no man” (1Ti 5:22). Personalities differ, so that some give immediate evidence of failings; for others, time will expose their sins (v 24). In some cases, it may also take time before the positive features become evident (v 25). Second, Paul listed in the qualifications of elders, “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (3:6).
In the first passage, Paul highlights the liabilities of those who recognize what the Spirit of God is doing in raising up elders. They do not possess omniscience, so they need sufficient time to be certain that the traits they observe are of lasting quality.
In the second reference, Paul points out the liability of the individuals being considered. Some degree of spiritual maturity is necessary to give a man sufficiently steady hands to carry the full cup of responsibility entailed in oversight. Human nature too easily responds to leadership with a sense of pride, leading the individual to overstep his responsibilities to his own, and the assembly’s, detriment.
Many who have observed God’s work over the years could cite examples of work that was crippled or destroyed by men who were given leadership responsibilities prematurely.
What becomes the role of those God has used in planting an assembly?
The assemblies in Crete were apparently exposed to the attacks of those who contradicted sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). Paul was concerned that the men who led the flock would be able to stand against such men and thus preserve the assembly for which they were responsible. Titus had a part to play in this by his teaching (2:1), but the goal was that each assembly would have men within it who possessed this capability. The role of those who plant and nurture a young assembly is to so strengthen that assembly that it will be able to function and flourish without him (or them). In speaking to the Ephesian elders, Paul makes it clear that this is also the Spirit’s goal (Acts 20: 28-32). Remarkably, God is able to accomplish this despite the native characteristics, even of Cretans (Titus 1:12).
The instruments the Spirit is using in this work need sensitivity so they neither rush ahead of the Spirit’s working nor lag behind it. Circumstances differ and the rate at which this good work progresses differs from case to case. Those who are not familiar with a particular work may not be fitted to understand the timing of the Spirit’s work. Nonetheless, the goal remains the same.
Paul speaks of himself as having a role like a mother (1Th 2:7) and a father (v 11) in the development of the Thessalonian assembly. Parents work toward the day when their child will be able to function on his own and make choices consistent with the truth they have taught him. Some parents can so control a child that they limit his maturing. Sometimes parents step in too quickly when they see some unsteadiness in their mature child. Eventually, parents must trust the power of the principles they have instilled in their child and commit him to God in prayer. They trust God’s power and wisdom to continue the training required. Epaphras certainly practiced this (Col 4:12, 13).
Under what conditions would laboring men who planted an assembly step in to guide that flock?
Two possibilities exist: intervention may be necessary to prevent the destruction of the testimony; intervention may weaken the assembly’s ability to trust God, learning from and of Him through its needs. If intervention increases the assembly’s dependence on the laboring man, this contravenes his God-given role, because he has hindered the development of maturity in the assembly. The rare cases when he judges that he must intervene will be emergencies. He will need spiritual wisdom to determine this, and the principle James states (James 1:5) indicates his recourse.