In AD 52–57, the biblical letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth do not mention these congregations having elders yet. How did the congregations without elders maintain order? When without qualified men for elders, the church of Christ must look to the Scriptures (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9).
With or without elders, a congregation must work together and the leadership must make decisions together. Paul wrote to the congregation at Philippi with its elders and deacons. (Phil 1:1). Paul did not write only to the elders and deacons. Even with elders and deacons, there are decisions that are best made with the whole congregation. When Paul and Barnabas came to give a report of their work, they gave the report to the congregation and not just to the leadership (Acts 14:27). The churches at Colossi and Thessalonica received apostolic letters to the congregation and not only their leaders (Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27). Paul also wrote the Christians at Ephesus and the churches of Galatia without noting their elders (Acts 14:23; Eph 4:11). A congregational meeting was also gathered of the church in Antioch where they would have included elders because the Galatians had elders after them (Acts 14:27–28). When the church made decisions, “the apostles and elders, with the whole church” agreed (Acts 15:22–23). Any leadership must work with the congregation and not lord over them (cf. 1 Pet 5:1–3).
With or without elders to lead, Christ’s Spirit encouraged and instructed these congregations, and they were responsible to serve God together (Eph 4:16). The Corinthians do not appear to have elders when Paul wrote them, and Paul instructed the congregation to be united in the same mind and judgment (1 Cor 1:10). Congregations are to “be in subjection to such and to everyone who works together and labors” (1 Cor 16:15–16). When elders were selected, Paul and Barnabas called together the congregation to establish elders (Acts 14:23). By the Spirit of Christ, Paul wrote to Titus instructing him to appoint elders in every town in Crete, because without elders, a congregation is lacking (Titus 1:5).
Leaders without Elders
Without elders, the scriptural leadership consists of the male family leaders who are heads of the households (1 Cor 11:3; 16:15–16; Eph 5:22–34; 1 Tim 2:8–15). The Corinthian letter instructed the congregation to humbly subordinate to those working and laboring in the Lord (1 Cor 16:15–16). The inspired writer described church leaders as “those who spoke to you the Word of God” (Heb 13:7). The writer instructed these Christians within each congregation and their leaders to yield to that leadership (Heb 13:17).
For sincere Christians, submitting to examples leading by love is not hard. Jesus revealed,
You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Nations lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42–45)
Christian leaders are not an authority to lord over the congregation by making demands and restrictions for others, but Christ’s servants lead by service, example, doctrine, admonition, and encouragement (Luke 22:24–30; cf. 1 Pet 5:1–3). There is no decision or offense that Christians cannot settle in love and unity with the encouragement of Christian leaders (1 Cor 6:2–4). Even while submitting to leaders, each Christian is to humbly subordinate to one another and to esteem one another greater than oneself that includes all leaders such as elders (Eph 5:21; Phil 2:3–4).
Church Actions without Elders
With or without elders, the whole congregation must meet to hear reports and make plans to serve (Acts 14:23, 27; cf. 1 Cor 14:40). Remember that the testimony of two or three is trustworthy (2 Cor 13:1). A work is good for the congregation when two or three members report of its need and thus their recommendation is a trustworthy consideration without objection from two or three (John 5:31–47; 8:12–18; Acts 6:1–11; cf. 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19; Heb 10:28). Christians should make all such decisions in this way. By God’s wisdom and for unity, let no work proceed if there are two or three sincere Christians who disapprove for any respectable reason. Such loving compromise is some times necessary for unity until privately resolved (cf. Matt 18:15–17). There is no place for disputing, grumbling, or complaining in open or private meetings (Phil 2:14; 1 Tim 6:3–5; 2 Tim 2:14–18, 23–26; Titus 3:9–11; Jas 5:9).
Without elders, the congregation may need to choose two or more to serve and maintain specific ministries (Acts 6:1–7). These stewards will be accountable to the congregation and the heads of households. In private matters, the heads of households will have to make judgments in private decisions about matters of personal benevolence and discipline. Without elders, the whole congregation can make doctrinal decisions together. The need for closed meetings is all seen in how Christians address private matters in a one-on-one meeting or in the midst of two or three witnesses (Matt 18:15–16). However, when Christians cannot resolve an offense, then the whole congregation must decide together (Matt 18:17; 1 Tim 5:19–21).
May God bless all congregations and their scriptural leadership. “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3–4).