So where do we begin? Every gathering of God's people has to begin someplace, and in the beginning there are probably no recognized elders. What do we do if we have no elders? When do we need elders? How will we know? These and many other questions surround our subject. I do not propose to answer all of them, but I want to give some suggestions that I trust will be helpful.
My observation is that the size of a gathering has a significant bearing on whether elders are needed or not. A gathering of four families does not need two elders watching over the other two families. This creates a very unhealthy spiritual atmosphere. Four brothers can function together as a brotherhood to handle the oversight of the gathering. The purpose of recognizing elders is not so that "we can be a church" or so that "we can be in order." Rather it comes from a need to function in an orderly way so that all things can be unto edification. If there are only four brothers, any subject can be handled properly among these brothers. They can pray together, get the mind of God together, move together, and submit one to another in love. God will bless that type of working.
But we trust the gathering will grow as they reach out to others. So how do they function with a dozen brothers? That becomes more difficult. It is hard to gather all of the brothers together for every question. Some among them will be more mature and some may not be able to handle every question. The need for recognized eldership will become more apparent in a gathering of this size. The Holy Spirit is the one who is preparing a bride for Christ, so we must believe that He will lead and give wisdom for each situation.
Another factor will be the maturity of the members. A dozen mature brothers may be able to function quite well as a brotherhood. But if a few are mature and a number are younger or immature it may be more difficult. A tendency in such a situation is for a "de facto" leadership to develop without formal recognition. In other words, the older brothers start to fellowship privately on how to handle sensitive issues, then give leadership. But this bypasses God's order. Are these brothers qualified? If not, the leadership they give can be misleading and ineffective, resulting in further problems. If they are qualified and are giving good leadership, why do we not recognize them as elders?
Lack of recognition can lead to a "hands off" attitude toward obvious needs in the lives of the members. An older mature brother who is qualified as an elder and has the care of God in his heart may see the need, but be hesitant to move to meet the need because the flock has not recognized him. The situation may "backfire," with the response "Who gave you authority to touch this?" Anticipating the reaction, he may choose not to move, so the need goes unmet. I believe if we have brothers in our midst who are qualified and desirous of functioning, we need to give them the permission to fulfill their God-given grace in the body. This is love in action.
A gathering of believers may consider the question of recognition and conclude for one reason or another that they cannot recognize elders. It may be that they do not have brothers who "aspire" or those who aspire may not be qualified. But the gathering still needs leadership. What should they do? I believe that the Holy Spirit will give the answer we need in every situation as we look for that leadership. Perhaps a few older mature brothers may be set aside to give limited leadership. Perhaps the whole brotherhood may need to be involved in significant decisions. Whatever the temporary solution may be, I think it is important that the gathering be moving toward a proper leadership. If brothers are not qualified, they should know the area of weaknesses and be moving diligently to correct those areas. The whole gathering should be praying that God will raise up elders who can lead them into green pastures. "Pray the Lord of the harvest" is the command from Jesus. We cannot just drift with no goal in sight. We should never settle for less than God's design.