When the elders at ... insisted that your mother continue teaching in spite of several good reasons she gave for needing to be relieved, she submitted to them because, "after all, they are the elders." Members of the church everywhere appear to have submitted their spiritual lives to the control of a group of men, most of the time elders.
We find the same circumstances in the church here, although the group we meet with is open-minded, at least most of them appear to be. The group has been meeting together for about two years. We just completed a new building, modest by most standards. We are not associated with any segment of the church although most of the group come from moderately conservative backgrounds. We talk about some of the same problems that you and I have been discussing. We have no "elders," at least none that have been appointed. The subject has been brought up a couple of times with little response. I am teaching I and II Timothy on Sunday mornings, so we are into the subject area. I'd like to review a little of what we have talked about for my own benefit then explore a couple of areas a little and ask for your response and whatever you have been thinking about.
The situation we (the church, especially the members who are under elders) find ourselves in, not only permits but, seems to encourage such things as:
The .... elders "firing" the young preacher because he insisted on using translations other than the King James.
The Arkansas elders going to civil court to protect their assumed right to keep information secret from the congregation.
The Oklahoma elders insisting on making public the details and withdrawal from the member who admitted adultery but who wanted to sever relations with the congregation ending any identification with them. The eiders appear to have believed that their responsibility required public "humiliation of the member."
The list could go on and on. I would guess that many of our brethren would view these kinds of things as "abuses," not at all typical. It may well be that such arbitrary and arrogant behavior is not often displayed publicly, that most elders are good and honest men trying to do what they believe that the Lord requires of them, but the fact is that all of them are in a position to require the members to submit to their decisions, against the members' wishes or better judgment, about any time they want. I do not believe that these are isolated cases of abuse. I believe that it is the system itself, it is the way we have organized our relations with each other within the Body of Christ, that permits and encourages this kind of behavior.
"When the Lord committed the church into elders' hands He entrusted the salvation of countless millions to their keeping." "Elders are engaged in a work divinely authorized, and to oppose them is to oppose God." When preachers say these kinds of things and appear to get substantial agreement from members at large, an apparent agreement that our spiritual well being is in the hands of men (made elders by men) and that refusing to submit to a group of men (made elders by men) is to oppose God, I think we may well have become "the servants of men rather than the servants of God."
Sometimes we create more confusion and contradiction than light and learning while trying to fit what we believe and practice with what the Bible says. Some time ago a group of preachers and elders set out to fully defend the current arrangement of "church government," especially the "elders' authority" question that they see as an attempt to overthrow God's arrangement. Within their effort to enlighten us these three principles were emphasized:
1. The Bible teaches that elders have authority to make decisions in matters of expediency.
2. Members of the congregation who refuse to abide by any of these decisions are in rebellion against God.
3. Elders have no authority to make optional matters obligatory.
All of this in a cooperative effort to advance a single view of elders. It leads to more confusion than light for me. It reminds me of hearing my father preach in a meeting many years ago. That particular night he believed that he knew very well what Paul's admonition about women's hair length meant, and he said so, in plain language, and with great vigor. After the service ended a sister whose hair was curly and hardly down to her collar came up to him and said, "Preacher, do you believe that the Lord is pleased with the length of my hair?" He looked at her hair for a moment and said, "Well, to tell the truth, no, I don't. I think it's too short." She said, "Well, that's all the Lord gave me. My hair has never been cut."
The thing about these two efforts to apply the scriptures to practical, human experience efforts to do the Lord's will is that both contradictions result from preconceived ideas, from a mind-set, from a false basic assumption. I have no doubt that those preachers believe that what is in their mind is the will of the Lord. I believe that they believe that they are contending for The Faith. They never once considered the possibility that they could be contending for their faith, not necessarily The faith.
It was the same with my father. He believed that he knew the will of the Lord. He believed that he knew how to apply it. But only until he was confronted with a contradiction that his belief couldn't resolve. Then he began to learn some valuable lessons that served him well.
Throughout the study of elders by the group of preachers the hearer was repeatedly cautioned not to conclude that elders are to be followed into error. They said, "Christians are not to follow elders in any matter which is not authorized by the Bible," and that those who become "Lord over God's heritage" have overstepped their bounds. What they did not say was what a Christian should do when the elders make a decision that violates his conscience. If the Bible doesn't clearly tell us what we should do in such cases, while we are taught that we sin if we follow elders into error and at the same time we rebel against God if we refuse to follow a decision that the elders say is expedient, we find ourselves in total confusion.
But the confusion is of our own making. The fault is in ourselves, certainly not in the New Testament. I would guess that almost all of us have believed that local churches are, and always have been, formal organizations. We have accepted this as a God given, not to be questioned. It is the divine institution housing God's people. It is the only organization through which God works among men. It is the only "functional unit" authorized to carry out God's will. All of these ideas: institution, organization, functional unit, express a concept of formal organizations. But formal organizations are creatures of the world, very useful, essential, given the nature of the world. Their function is to give order to and management of resources (money, people, products) in pursuit of agreed upon objectives. Formal organizations are everywhere. We cannot live without them. They are the very effective means through which the efforts of large numbers of people are coordinated and directed toward objectives held in common by the organization's members. We are all members of several different formal organizations: several levels of government, where we work, professional associations, and others. They give order, security, sustenance to our lives. And, formal organizations require management. Someone has to be "in charge." Our brethren believe that God ordained this arrangement for His people and put elders "in authority" over local churches. I do not believe so.
Local churches now have the characteristics of formal organizations, but first century churches did not. The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia says, "The postapostolic church needed, in view of its position in the world, a more definite external organization; it is in the meaning and form given to this that a perversion of primitive Christianity is discerned."
Its position in the world during the first three centuries was that of a persecuted sect. But in the year 325 all that changed. The Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion. He gave the church corporate standing making it possible for the church to operate as an institution, an organization, a functioning unit, with Empirial approval, protection and support. He began the process of enriching the church with gifts. Barbara Tuchman writes, "By Constantine's gift, Christianity was both officially established and fatally compromised." As William Langland wrote,
When the kindness of Constantine gave Holy Church endowments, In land and leases, lordships, and servants, The Romans heard an angel cry on high above them, "This day dos ecclesiae has drunk venom and all who have Peter's power are poisoned forever."
When Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," he could have been thinking about what that church that Constantine made "official" slowly developed into. There probably has been no institution to husband so pervasive power and to be characterized by such perverted corruption as the Roman Catholic Church. I do not believe that God ordained formal organization, a corporate identity separate from and other than its members, as a basis for governing His people.
One of the last discussions concerned the actual work that New Testament elders would be found doing. I have a note that says "Men who do the work of elders are elders." I believe this is true because I believe that men cannot do the work of elders if they are not the kind of men described in the New Testament. They would not be qualified to do the work, they would not be equipped to do the work. Their fellow Christians would not view them nor respond to them in the way the New Testament describes. Men who are called elders but who are not qualified (by the characteristics set down in the New Testament) may be doing a work among the congregation, but I don't believe it is the work New Testament elders would be found doing. These men, called elders, have been installed in an "office" which has dominion over the affairs of the congregation. It is the "office" that has vested authority, not the men themselves. That "office," or something like it, is required by the nature of formal organizations. Local congregations have the same characteristics as corporations. The organization has a separate identity from the members. It has decision-making positions whether held by elders, deacons, trustees, steering committee, or something else. A corporation may have vacant seats on its board of directors, but the "seats of authority" are there whether they are filled or not. I remember the College Church in Abilene having "two vacancies in the eldership." I believe that men who hold such decision making positions in local churches are much more managers of church organizations than pastors of the flock. Their position and work is man made, not Holy Spirit made.
I believe that men become elders among God's people in much the same way that men become Christians. When men fit themselves with the qualities required by the Holy Spirit they become Christians. (Acts 2, Rom. 6, Col. 3) When Christian men fit themselves with the qualities required by the Holy Spirit (I Tim. 3, Tit. l) they become elders. The Holy Spirit makes Christians (Acts 2:38) and the Holy Spirit makes elders (Acts 20:28). An official act of the church is not required for a man to become a Christian; neither is an official act of the church required for a man to become an elder.
Men who have the personal qualities and characteristics attributed to elders (among the congregation, their families, the community) are active leaders. That's the kind of man being described. This quality of man inspires deep confidence in his fellow Christians who demonstrate that confidence by seeking his leadership. They will seek and accept his advice and counsel. Such a man is doing the work of an elder because he is an elder. He is not managing the affairs of an institutionalized religious organization; he is overseeing the flock.
There are a couple of other things that seem important to me on this subject. Concerning the Kingdom, there is equality among citizens (Matt. 20:20-28; Gal. 3:26-29; I Pet. 2:5-9). I know very few Christians who believe this. Jesus said that in the kingdoms of men some will exercise dominion and great authority over others. But this condition was not to exist among his followers. The truth is that this condition exists almost everywhere in the religious world. It is obvious to all of us when we see it among Catholics and denominations. The world recognized the distinction between the rulers and the ruled in religious organizations through the separation of the clergy and laity.
If there ever was a congregation that needed someone to take charge of it and exercise some controlling authority over it, Corinth would probably qualify. But Paul acknowledged that he did not have dominion over their faith. He said if they were to stand at all it would be by their faith, their individual faith (2 Cor. 1:24). If that was true for Corinth, it just has to be true for us.
We are able at times to see a little humor in Catholics accepting as true some of the absurd positions stated publicly by their popes. The same is true for other ruling religious bodies. I thought it was down right funny listening to a twenty year old Mormon "elder" trying to explain their Aaronic priesthood. Whatever the denomination, members are not free to develop their own faith and work out their own salvation. It seems that most people have a compulsion to invest ruling religious authority in some man or men.
Jesus said that men would not be ruling over us in His Kingdom. But men have always had trouble accepting the simplicity of God's ways. I don't know any member of the church who believes that elders have delegated legislative authority, but I have heard this many times: "Jesus has all authority in the Kingdom. Elders do not have the right to make laws for the church -- but they do have the right and responsibility to make decisions for the church." I can't see a clear difference between the two. A decision made for a congregation would be just as binding upon the members as any law governing the same people. At least it looks that way to me.
Two or three men in our Sunday morning study of I Timothy argued this position out of strong conviction. They clearly believe that elders "rule" congregations. The problem, as always, is what are members to do when elders make a decision that the members believe violates a scriptural principle? The answer they always resorted to was, "We are bound to submit to the rule of the elders so long as they rule according to the scripture. When they leave the scripture then we must stop following them." And the regular preacher, for whom I have great respect, said that elders decision making authority is limited to expedient matters concerning the congregation. Of course, the first position is too simplistic for anyone to try to live by. Who decides when elders cease to rule according to the scripture? Certainly they would never admit it. And what are members to do when a substantial number of them believe that this has happened but the elders say that their decisions are scriptural?
I used the standard example of the instrument -- an organ or piano. Congregations all over the country split over its use. Elders argue that its use is expedient, neither approved nor disapproved by the scriptures, so it can be used or not used without sin. When elders make such decisions and charge the congregation to accept the decisions as a scriptural function of the eldership's rule over the congregation, what are members to do if their faith is being violated? None of the men in the study had an answer, and some of them concluded that I don't believe in elders. The preacher finally said that he just didn't know.
The solution, for me, is a clearer understanding of the nature of the church, elders, and their work. I don't believe that God intended for any men to have dominion, or rule, over other men in His Kingdom. In the Kingdom of God there is truly only one King and He has no ambassadors in this world now. The church is a community of believers held together by a common faith in Christ and love for each other. Within any such community of people working together decisions have to be made. Obviously, someone has to make the necessary decisions. Those best suited to exercise the kind of leadership needed within congregations are men who, because of their superior knowledge, experience and demonstrated depth of righteous character, can lead, not drive, direct or manipulate. Because they are who and what they are, men of the highest quality in Christ (as described in 1 Tim. 3 and Tit. 1) the congregation will not just submit to their leadership, they will seek it. Such men do not permit the congregation to blindly follow their lead, they will exercise their leadership through teaching, personal example, persuasion, never by imposing personal opinion or preference or personal faith on the congregation. Their word, their judgment has more weight, more influence, more "authority" than other members of the congregation, not because God created a power-invested "office" from which men rule the church, but because they have clothed themselves so completely with the attributes of Christ that the congregation naturally looks to them for guidance and leadership. These men recognize their own abilities and want to do all they can for the cause of Christ. The congregation can't help but recognize their abilities and willingly follow their lead. This relationship does not establish clergy and laity, it is an exercise of the scriptural principle of one body, many members, differing functions.
You know the various meanings of the several words used in the N.T. for these men. W.E. Vine's definition of two of them may be worth including.
"Presbyter -- an elder, another term for the same person as bishop or overseer. 'Elder' indicates the mature spiritual experience and understanding of those described. 'Bishop' or 'overseer' indicates the character of the work undertaken.'
"Oversight -- (I Pet. 5 2) -- the word does not imply the entrance upon such responsibility, but the fulfillment of it. It is not a matter of assuming a position, but the discharge of duties."
Both of these say that New Testament elders were not in an "office," they had not been installed, vested, or anointed. They had a work to do, not an "office to occupy.''
The last point I'd like to mention concerns rule , as in Heb. 13:7. Many of our brethren equate "rule" with "boss." They don't seem able to conceive of men exercising great authority and pervasive influence without issuing orders; men who hold no official position of authority but who are most effective leaders. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were two such leaders. Neither of them ever held power invested public office, but the world will never be the same because of their leadership.
If all of this is true, then how can elders rule without having authority to issue orders to the members? I believe it is in the kind of leadership style they exercise. This kind of leadership is defined as "standing before," "leading," or "guiding." The idea of imposing arbitrary decisions is not there. What I see are dedicated men of strong faith helping struggling disciples on their way through life, not professional administrators managing the affairs of man's institutionalized religious enterprises.-- Protrepo