Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Responding to Messianic613: The Issue: Were First-Century Elders (Zekenim) Congregationally-Elected or Apostolically-Elected?

So I've been enjoying the on-going discussion with Messianic613.  I'll try to separate posts for the different issues being discussed in order to make it easier for anyone to comment.


Election of Elders and Overseers is a process not known in the NT. In all the instances where Elders and Overseers to be appointed in the NT, they were either appointed directly by the Apostles, or by apostolic delegates who could act in their name and with their authority, like Timothy and Titus. The only election we have is the election of deacons, in Acts ch. VI. But deacons were not in a position of ruling. Authority in the Assembly of Messiah according to the data of the NT is never established by a bottom-up process. It is derived from Messiah in a top-down manner.

Nobody in today's Assembly can claim that he has authority from Messiah in a historical chain of ordination. Today's messianic leaders claim of authority can only be legitimate insofar as it is a claim of biblical and theological scholarship, which, just as any scholarship, is always subject to ongoing debate.


Geert, you need to read a book by Elazar and Cohen entitled "The Jewish Polity."  In the chapter covering first-century Judaism, and specifically pg. 130, Elazar describes the political structure of Jewish kehillot (communities).  There were three realms of authority:

(1) the council of zekenim elected from among the ba'alei batim, led by an Archon, and appointing gabbaim (functionaries) such as the gabbayei tzedakah and the soferim;

(2) the bet din appointed by the Nasi or Exilarch.  Also the Talmidei chachamim, the local scholars serving as teachers of Torah and heads of court;

(3) the kohanim, if available, were given honorific status.  The chazzan was usually a kohen.

Also, you should see the extensive bibliography for that chapter to see the authoritative sources from which Elazar and Cohen derive this information.  

Now, if we accept this as true--that the congregational election of elders was customary in first-century Judaism, then we need to examine the Apostolic Writings to see whether Paul diverged from this custom.  And, as a preliminary matter, we should also note that Paul was "zealous for the traditions" and that, in Acts 21, he demonstrated his devotion to the "customs" of Judaism.  

But indeed we read the following:

"Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust," (Acts 14:23) 
"The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you," Titus 1:5

Our first impression of these passages might be that Paul was in favor of Apostolic appointment of elders rather than congregational appointment of elders.  However, there are two reasons that this is not the case.

First, as mentioned, the historical custom was for congregational-appointment of elders and we know that Paul was zealous for these customs.

Second, and more importantly, we should assume that the Apostles were not stupid, that they wanted to create a workable, self-sustaining system of elder succession.  So why not use the system that was already a universal custom in Judaism?

In conclusion, I agree with Elazar and Cohen that the principal householders were responsible for electing a council of elders for their congregation.


  1. Excellent post! We too have debated this issue. We came at it from a different perspective. Here is our Beit Din’s meforshim on the issue:

    Shayla: How are elders chosen?

    When Moses spoke to us across the Jordan in the land of Moab, he explained that we were to appoint for ourselves wise, understanding, and respected men from each tribe, and that he would make them our leaders (Deuteronomy 1:13). There were leaders for tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands (v.15). This was in accordance to Jethro’s advice (Exodus 18:21) and apparently the wisdom came from the Lord (Numbers 11:16-17). So the process seems to be that those who have some understanding of character and leadership look throughout the populace for qualified persons. They bring this pool to the congregation and the leadership who then formally and publicly appoint them to their position. We see the same process in Acts 1:21-23 where a set of qualifications were given, two men were found who met the qualifications, and the Lord chose one of them. Again in Acts 6 we read:
    • Acts 6:3-6 HCSB Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry." 5 The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. 6 They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
    After those original leaders were anointed by Moses, many years passed. We wandered through the wilderness until the rebellious generation passed away. Yet there is no further talk of Moses appointing and anointing. There is no great discussion of the matter in the rest of the historical books. They simply followed the system.
    The same goes for the New Covenant. The Apostles passed off the scene and there was no further discussion of the matter. Instead we are told to “stand firm and hold to the traditions we were taught” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and what we heard from the Apostles we are to “commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
    The congregation is divided up between the elders on the elder’s council. Every elder is responsible for a group of people. The elders advise them, teach them and sometimes rebuke them. When individuals or families have a concern or a dispute, they bring the matter to the elders who form an appropriate Beit Din (there are rules which may require an elder to recuse himself) and rule on the matter.
    The elders are each required to choose two caretakers, individuals who will help the elder keep track of the people. Each caretaker is responsible for about a dozen people. They make a special effort to greet people and to celebrate their birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, accomplishments etc. They send notes of condolence and make sure the elder notices that someone is missing meetings or is in trouble. They are not elders. They don’t counsel (any more than any talmid should). Yet this presents an opportunity for them to show if they MIGHT be elders someday.

  2. There is no one who knows the congregation better than the elders who have played this role for many years. The elders look through the congregation, considering first the caretakers but not reserving themselves to this group. They find people with the right character and qualifications and bring these people to the congregation. The congregation, in accordance to Matthew 18:15-17, forms a type of higher court. Besides, if the people won’t follow them, what’s the point? The congregation votes to approve or disapprove of the elders’ suggestion. So far the elders have chosen wisely and their suggestions have met with nearly unanimous approval. If a person has been selected by the elders and approved by the congregation, the elders then formally and publicly lay hands on them to set them aside for their duty.
    This is not a quick process because we must be careful to not “be too quick to lay hands on anyone” because we don’t want to share in their possibly undiscovered sins (1 Timothy 5:22).

  3. Cajun,

    I love it. You're much further along than I am. I know a little about theory; you not only know the theory but you also know how to apply the theory. Thank you for sharing all of this with us. I'm sure it will be a blessing to many people--especially those in the process of starting congregations.



  4. Peter,

    Please read Tim Hegg's: "A Community or a congregation? For what are we striving."

    At TorahReasource.com in the articles section.

    1. It's funny you should suggest that! I just woke up from a nap and felt led to explore this very question! So I hopped online and this is the first thing I see---a recommendation to read an article regarding that very topic!

      Thanks, Dan!