Who Calls the Shots?

Again we are about to say something unpopular! And we realize the calculated risk. But someone needs to challenge the growing "authority" syndrome. We are a people who are supposed to restore New Testament Christianity, you know. May we kindly suggest that the process we use in reaching decisions - decisions that determine the direction of the church - does not parallel the process of the New Testament church, and some study ought to be given to what is developing.

We have developed an "eldership." They were elders in the New Testament church but where do we find an "eldership?" In fact, we have invented a whole fleet of ships. It's the "ship" in the thing that worries us. The average reader will be astonished to learn that you cannot find the term "eldership" in the New Testament. Many elders do not even know that it is a non-biblical term. We accept the practice with such universality that to challenge the idea is to kick a sacred cow.

A "ship" denotes a governing board or body. The "deaconship," the "eldership," even the "membership" suggest a body politic. As soon as the Lord gives us a work we want to organize it. The organization is not usually conducive to more work, but rather to show where the authority heads up. We are aware that Paul told the Ephesian elders to "feed the church over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers," but to use this to make elders governors is to use the passage wrongly. There is a difference in overseer and commander. Peter put it well when he said, "Feed the flock of God which is among you." While the term "over" is used one time in the New Testament to describe the relationship between brethren, the term "among" is used 106 times. And related terms which describe the members of the body without indicating the rank of "ship" of any kind are used many more times. There was no chiefs-and-Indians syndrome in the N.T. church.

It is not an uncommon thing to hear the elders say, "We'll make the decisions." Do none of us ever stop to see how many "decisions" the elders of the New Testament made? Did any of us ever consider where we get New Testament authority for elders making decisions? Maybe, if we are going to restore New Testament Christianity we ought to study this decision-making process as it is really laid down in the New Testament. The further we develop a "ship" in connection with elders the more they become a policy-making, decision-making board, rather than shepherds working among the flock.

The church existed for a long time after Pentecost before we run into elders, and then sort of accidentally at the Jerusalem conference. Early in the church's history a widow-feeding problem arose. Guess who made the decision about choosing men to feed them. It wasn't the elders.

When the mission-minded church at Antioch became concerned about the heathen across the sea, they called an elders' meeting and the elders decided to sponsor Paul and Barnabas (if they could raise their support from other churches), and to send them out. No, that is not the way it reads in Acts 13. In fact, where is the elder who can find an elders' meeting in the New Testament? Who made the decision to send out Paul and Barnabas? One thing from reading the text is sure. The elders didn't. That is probably because they had not been formed into a "ship" yet. That came later. When it did come it resulted in the great apostasy.

One would be hard put even to get an elders' meeting out of the Jerusalem conference. Read Acts 15 with an open mind. Paul and Barnabas were sent by the church (not by the elders), and they came to Jerusalem "to be received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them." There was no separate, much less secret, meeting indicated in this passage. When a decision was made the text is very specific in saying that it was made by the "whole church." And the "whole church" was pleased with the proceedings.

Things that tear churches apart and cause them to go astray originate, for the most part, in "elders' meetings," or in meetings of some other "ship," whether official or not. As we search the New Testament for a precedent for our present-day decision-making procedures, we search in vain. We are of the opinion that questions are safer in the hands of the "church" than in the hands of any "ship."

The objection is sure to be offered that things are not so easily handled if the whole church has a voice in the decision. May we ask, easily handled for whom? It may not be as easy to put over something that is dear to someone in the "ship," but we doubt there is as much danger in submitting what affects all to all.

The problem of lordship has long been with us. Jesus' disciples argued over who should have the preeminence. Who would call the shots? At that very point Jesus told them that if any of them would be great they must become a servant of all. He, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, became the greatest of earth's servants. A footwashing Jesus is best served by footwashing elders.

None of the qualities mentioned in either Timothy or Titus have to do with decision-making. These qualities make men leaders because of what they are instead of who they are. Their "authority" is not the kind that inheres in a "board" or a "ship." In all our Restoration let us not overlook the admitted New Testament pattern for determining who calls the shots. -- Reuel Lemmons, Editor, Firm Foundation, August 2, 1977