Let us now consider a few details of how a gathering of God's people would recognize elders. I think we can summarize the main areas as follows:
• Understand the function of elders
• Understand the qualifications of elders
• Make a proper judgment of those who desire to function in this grace
My own suggestion for a gathering that does not have recognized elders would be for the brothers to study the scriptures on the function of elders. After they feel they have a basic understanding, one or two brothers could bring some ministry to the whole body so that every member would have a fresh view of God's purpose in eldership. I think this helps to eliminate fears as well as wrong expectations. There should be a place given for fellowship so that questions can be asked and answered. In all of this, I would encourage that we maintain God's order. In other words, sisters should be included, but in such a way that does not draw them out in a public way.
I would then suggest the same procedure for the area of qualifications. Our standards may be too high or too low. We want to understand God's standard so that we can move properly. Again, a study of the scriptures, depending on the Holy Spirit to lead us, is God's way.
If we are fortunate enough to have access to the ministry of an apostle, he may be able to help us through this time. This should be somebody who is familiar with the gathering and with whom we feel comfortable in God (in other words, there is a level of trust established). He is not the authority, but can help in pointing out those who could serve in this capacity. He does not make a man an elder--he just points out what God has already done. If we do not have the ministry of an apostle to draw from, we may know brothers who have a ministry (such as a teacher or elder in another assembly). Such brothers may be able to help us through the process of recognition.
The church is called to exercise judgment regarding those who desire to function as elders. For leaders to be effective, the flock must be at rest. This may take some time and we cannot rush the process, but neither can we linger for years. We need to be moving with purpose toward God's goal. We may not have recognized elders today, but if not, we need to know we are moving in that direction as an assembly.
When recognizing an elder in our midst, I believe the proper place of the church is to give their witness. We are witnessing to the calling of God (grace, qualifications, and the timing of God). A witness is not a vote. The church does not vote on things. A vote would give each member an equal say, with no accountability. A witness is accountable for how they answer. For example, we may have 20 members that are called upon to approve an elder. Most may say "yes" but two members say "no." The two must be questioned as to why they say no. Their reasons may be valid or not. The maturity and spirituality of those that witness may be questioned. The witness of an immature witness may need to be set aside. But one valid witness from one member is enough to stop us until the objection is cleared before God. As much as possible, we are looking for 100% witness from spiritual brothers and sisters.
There are many ways that a witness may be conducted. In general, we may want to move in an anonymous way to begin with, so that each person gives their witness without being affected by others. But in the end, each member must be accountable for their witness and be able to answer for their decision. They can be questioned, and if necessary, their witness may need to be disregarded, as explained above. The witness of a member who does not have a good testimony cannot be allowed to carry a heavy weight. Every member should be carefully listened to, and if their witness is not accepted, it should be done with care and a solid basis in scripture. The witness of the sisters should be gained in such a way that does not pull them out of their place of submission in God's order.
Surely such a process will test our relationships and submission to one another, but for the sake of the testimony of God and the building He wants to accomplish in the body and in every member's life, I do not believe we can lay this process aside. It is good for all of us. We can be accountable before God and in submission one to another. If it is done in the right spirit of love and truth, all will benefit, no matter what the current situation may be.