The perennial controversy surrounding the rule of bishops (overseers) has raged since the time of Christ. Men have always desired positions of authority from which they can exercise power over their fellows in all areas of human endeavor, but none is so obvious as those who love the preeminence of the chief seats and who love to control the hearts and souls of others in all matters of religion. This inordinate desire for domination can be spotted in holy scripture in a man by the name of Diotrephes, "who loveth to have the preeminence among them...prating against us with wicked words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and them that would he forbiddeth and casteth them out of the church" (3 John 10).
Also, the careful student of early church history knows that the great departure from the faith in the second and subsequent centuries occured largely from this same evil spirit in men, the desire to rule others. It fostered the development of a hierarchical ecclessiasm known as the Catholic Church, which in turn feasted on an assumed power and authority to be the sole interpreters of the Bible, to legislate new regulations, to dictate terms of membership, and to administer all sacredotal rights and privileges to its parishioners.
This human tendency to desire positions of rank and authority was even prevelant among the apostles. We read in Matthew 20:20-28 that the mother of James and John asked Jesus if her two sons could sit "one on thy right hand, and one on thy left hand, in the kingdom." That those choice places represented official positions of authority is evidenced by the response of our Lord when he called all the apostles together to hear His explanation: "Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. NOT SO SHALL IT BE AMONG YOU..." (vv. 25, 26). Then, Jesus taught that their work in the kingdom would be one of service not one of being served as some great Lord. Jesus, himself, set the example.
Jesus taught the apostles that in His kingdom there would not be positions of rank and authority such as were found in the kingdoms of men. The reason is quite clear to any good Bible student: the kingdom of God is spiritual. Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Earlier, He had explained to the Pharisees, "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation... the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). This spiritual kingdom would know only one Lord and King, Jesus Christ, "who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords" (1 Tim. 6:15). Paul told the Ephesians clearly and emphatically, "There is one Lord" (Eph. 4:5).
By these scriptures we come to understand that this spiritual kingdom was not to be set up as men would set one up, with positions of rank and authority, to be enjoyed by rulers exercising the lordship over people, but would "come" with the preaching of, and the response to, the gospel. When a person became a child of God, he also became a citizen in the kingdom of God with Jesus Christ his only lord and master. NO MAN WAS EVER ASSIGNED A POSITION OF AUTHORITY OVER A CHILD OF GOD, NOT EVEN AN APOSTLE!
The scriptures teach that this spiritual kingdom was not set up by men (apostles) who were destined to be "lord" in it, but by men (apostles) who were willing to take on the role of servants for the master's use. Paul understood there was only one lord in the kingdom when he said to the Corinthians: "Not that we have lordship over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for in faith ye stand fast" (2 Cor. 1:24). Paul knew his role, as well as that of his fellow apostles. He was a servant for Jesus Christ, a helper to the brethren. By the grace of God he had been chosen to reveal the mystery in the gospel. Furthermore, he knew that "all authority" had been given to Christ; God had "put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23). Paul did not have this kind of authority nor any part of it, though he was "authorized" by Jesus to do the work of "building the church." "For though I should glory somewhat abundantly concerning our authority (which the Lord gave for building you up, and not for casting you down)..." (2 Cor. 10:8). This was not the raw authority that a lord possesses, such as Jesus claimed for himself in Matthew 28:18. Paul was authorized to speak for Jesus as an ambassador would speak on behalf of his lord. In fact, Paul used that analogy: "We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us; we beseech you on behalf of Christ" (2 Cor. 5:20). We should not understand Paul to be saying that he enjoyed authority that would rank him above the rest of the citizens of the kingdom, nor did he have the "lordship over" their faith (1:24).
The purpose of this article is not to argue exhaustively against the position that "elders have divine authority to make final decisions in all matters of judgement," but to examine one aspect of that doctrine which assumes a fallacious interpretation of Matthew 20:25; Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25; and I Peter 5:3. First, we should read these scriptures:
But Jesus called them unto Him, and said, Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles LORD IT OVER them -- and their great ones exercise AUTHORITY over them. Not so shall it be among you...(Matthew 20:25-26a).
And Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles LORD IT OVER them; and their great ones exercise AUTHORITY over them. But it is not so among you...(Mark 10:42-43a).
And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles have LORDSHIP OVER them; and they that have AUTHORITY over them are called Benefactors. But ye shall not be so... (Luke 22:25-26a).
...neither as LORDING IT OVER the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).
I have emphasized certain words in the quotations to focus our attention upon the issue. Those that contend for the absolute "divine authority" for elders, make "LORD IT OVER," "LORDSHIP OVER," AND "LORDING IT OVER" mean simple abusive actions of those "who have a right to rule over others in matters of judgement.
Before I dispute this argument, let me make sure that we understand what the argument is. Many take the position that elders (bishops) have the final say (make final decisions) on all matters of judgement, that God has given them the right to rule over people as long as they do not abuse this privilege. Furthermore, they say that in these passages quoted above, Jesus and Peter were concerned only with the abuse of power by the men who were to enjoy rank (such as apostles and later, elders). Many contend that in I Peter 5:3, Peter is not saying that "elders have not the right to exercise their authority over the flock, but he is saying that an elder cannot become abusive or tyrannical." Brother James B. Coffman, in his commentary on First Peter says. "The NT clearly teaches that in a sense (limited, of course), the ELDERS ARE 'LORDS' OR RULERS OVER THEIR CONGREGATION; and what is prohibited here is not the exercise of their lawful authority, but the improper exercise of it" (p.262) (emphasis mine). We can see that brother Coffman struggles with the real meaning of the word translated "lording it over" as he attempts to harmonize it with the popular notion that "in a sense (limited, of course), the elders are 'lords' or rulers over their congregations."
Sometimes it is necessary to resort to the study of Greek words to arrive at a better understanding of a Bible subject. A case in point is "baptism." One does not have to study the Greek to know what constitutes "baptism." The Scriptures are clear on this topic. However, the study of Greek confirms the truth obtained from the word. So it is with the study of this matter of bishops and their rule. Please bear with me and consider the following arguments made from the key Greek words of the scriptures quoted above.
In Luke 22:25, Jesus used the word KURIEUO, which "denotes to be lord of, to exercise lordship over" (Vines, Vol. 3, p. 18). Arndt and Gingrich define it "be lord or master, rule, lord it (over), control" (p. 459). Thayer: "To be lord of, to rule over, have dominion over... to exercise influence upon, to have power over" (p. 365). Strong: "to rule: -- have dominion over, lord, be lord of, exercise lordship over" (p. 44). Notice: ABUSIVENESS IS NOT INHERENT IN THE WORD, KURIEUO! The verb denotes an action of rightful lordship. This is the word that would describe the rule of Jesus as our Lord.
In Luke 22:25, Jesus states that "kings of the Gentiles have lordship (KURIEUO) over them;" that is kings (lords) have the right to rule, or have dominion over their subjects. I repeat for emphasis, this word (KURIEUO), has nothing to do with ABUSE OF POWER. In fact, Luke records Jesus as saying that these kings have authority over them as "Benefactors."
In Romans 14:9, Paul said, "Christ died and lived again, that he might BE LORD of both the dead and the living." Paul used KURIEUO here, recognizing His Lordship. Again, there is nothing in the word to indicate an abusiveness of power.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul used KURIEUO when he said: "Not that we have LORDSHIP over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for in faith ye stand fast" (2 Cor. 1:24). Paul understood that there is "one Lord." (Eph. 4:5).
When men, serving as overseers, override, overturn, or in any way attempt to countermand the consensus of the brethren IN MATTERS OF JUDGMENT, they are exercising the kind of lordship that Jesus expressly stated would not be a part of the spiritual kingdom!
In Matthew 20:25, Mark 10:42, and in I Peter 5:3 we find the word, KATAKURIEUO, which W.E. Vine says is "a strengthened form of KURIEUO." Under the word, "dominion," Mr. Vine defines KATAKURIEUO, "...to exercise, or gain, dominion over, to lord it over, is used of (a) the lordship of Gentile rulers, Matt. 20:25, A.V., 'exercise dominion,' R.V., 'lord it;' Mark 10:42, A.V., 'exercise lordship,' R.V., 'lord it;'...(c) of the evil of elders in lording it over the saints under their spiritual care, I Peter 5:3" (Vol. 1, p. 332).
Arndt and Gingrich define KATAKURIEUP very similarly to KURIEUO, "...become master, gain dominion over, subdue...be master, lord it (over), rule" (p. 413). Other authorities give similar definitions.
Again, the point is quite clear. The word KATAKURIEUO does not indicate an abusiveness of power. The only way that one can tell that a "lord" is being abusive is by the context. Now, let us apply the meaning of KATAKURIEUO to I Peter 5:3 and ask, "What did Peter mean when he said concerning an elder, 'neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you'?" Peter is not saying, "Elders can rule with the authority of 'lords' as long as they do not become abusive." He is saying that elders are not to act as if they ARE lords (the King James Version correctly translates this "Neither as being lords over God's heritage"), but rather they are to make themselves "examples to the flock." Remember, Jesus had taught Peter that in the spiritual kingdom of God "it would not be so," that is, no one would be in a position of rank and authority LIKE A LORD, benevolent or tyrannical!
Look again to Matthew 20:25, Mark 10:42, and Luke 22:25 and find the word "authority." In Matthew and Mark the Greek word is KATAEXOUSIAZO, which is a strengthened form of EXOUSIAZO, the word found in Luke. Both words have the meaning of exercising power and authority. This is what you would expect a lord and master to possess. This is what Jesus Christ was given by the Father to rule the heaven and the earth (Matt. 28:18). There is not one hint of abusive power in these Greek words. It is not inherent in these words. It is significant that Jesus said of this authority, "it shall not be so among you." Elders do not have "divine authority to make final decisions on all matters pertaining to judgment and expediencies." Bishops are not "supreme," nor is their word "final." It is not true that "to go against the judgement of elders is to go against a decision of God," as some have advocated even recently among us.
It is my strong belief that the overseers are the spiritually matured among us who are "made," or "appointed" by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), according to the standard set by the Spirit through Paul's writings to Timothy (I Tim. 3) and Titus (Titus 1). Their work is spiritual; they are to watch in behalf of the souls; they are to teach, reprove, rebuke, correct and restore with all humility and meekness; they are to exemplify what it means to be Christ-like: to love, to be kind and gentle, to show compassion, to act mercifully; and they are to serve the children of God. Thank God there are men who understand and who do this kind of work. God bless them for it!
When the early church began to see its leaders as having rank and authority, the great apostasy was born. And, it was not to be held back, for alas, men love the preeminence, and far too many people were willing to abdicate and turn everything over to them. History has a way of repeating itself. It is my contention that the seeds already have been sown, as men advocate that there are positions of rank and authority.
Am I an alarmist? I think not. Others have seen the danger and have spoken out, among them is Homer Harley:
There appears to be an idea prevalent among us today expressed something like this: "Elders rule in the realm of judgment and opinion, not in the realm of faith." I believe this is exactly in reverse: They rule in the realm of faith, and not in the realm of judgment and opinion...The contention of this writer, is that in the realm of judgment or opinion, an elder HAS NO AUTHORITY (emphasis mine - DO) more than another individual...In the realm of faith he is to see that the will of God is carried out... Instead, there appears to be a growing trend toward the disposition of leaving all matters of decision to the elders, which is not healthful... From this brief discussion, it seems clear that the "rule" of elders is that of wise oversight, superintendence, leadership, and guidance, exerted by moral persuasion, and submission encouraged by service and example. They rule by pointing out the teaching of the Lord which the Christian is to obey... (Homer Hailey -- Hailey's Comments, Vol. II, pp., 526-545).
The rule of bishops is an example, not with some kind of authority that entitles them to command obedience upon threat of recrimination. That kind of authority resides in civil government and has no place in the spiritual kingdom: "It shall not be so among you" --Jesus Christ.
I will close with the great thoughts of Matthew Henry, commenting on, "It shall not be so among you":
The constitution of the spiritual kingdom is-- quite different from this. You are to teach the subjects of this kingdom, to instruct and beseech them, to counsel and comfort them, to take pains with them, and suffer with them, not to exercise dominion or authority over them; you are not to lord it over God's heritage (1 Pet. 5:3), but to labour in it. This forbids not only tyranny, and abuse of power, but the claim or use of any such secular authority as the princes of the Gentiles lawfully exercise. So hard is it for vain men, even good men, to have such authority, and not to be puffed up with it, and do more hurt than good with it that our Lord Jesus saw fit wholly to banish it out of his church. Paul himself disowns dominion over the faith of any, 2 Cor. 1:24. The pomp and grandeur of the princes of the Gentiles ill become Christ's disciples. Now, if there were no such power and honour intended to be in the church, it was nonsense for them to be striving who should have it. They knew not what they asked. (Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 5, pp. 290-291).
To you who insist that you have rank and authority over the people of God, I say, "You know not what you ask."