The claims of the contemporary "eldership" institution to absolute power over the church now being legally asserted in civil court cases reflect the tragedy which threatens to engulf the restoration movement in the closing years of this century.
In the widely publicized Collinsville case, the elders denied the right of a member to withdraw from the congregation without their consent. They also asserted that the power to excommunicate a member ("withdraw fellowship") resides in the hands of the elders and the victim cannot be accepted by any other church without their approval.
In a hearing last month in the Chancery Court of Little Rock, John P. Gipson, "minister" and elder of the Sixth and Izard Church, established elders as lords over the church by describing their authority as unlimited and their responsibility only to God. Theirs is an authoritative "office.''
Elders, he said, select elders, not the members, and they likewise fire elders. While they should seek to inform themselves about the wishes of the congregation, they are nevertheless a self-perpetuating body. They "rule" the church. Their best judgement must take precedence over the will of the congregation, even when the congregation is unanimously in disagreement.
When the judgement of the elders conflicts with the law of the land, the law must give way, he said, referring to the Arkansas law which requires the popular election of the directors of an incorporated church for a term of years. The Sixth and Izard Church is incorporated. The elders have the right to keep the salary of the preachers secret even though the Arkansas law requires that the finances and records of the church be kept as an open book to the members. To reveal the salary of the preacher, he insisted, would violate the religious conscience of the elders. Instead the Scriptures make the elders the sole custodian of the church's money, he added, and how it is spent lies solely at the discretion of the elders, to be kept secret if they choose.
Gipson's testimony as an expert on Church of Christ doctrine and practice was based on his claim that he prepared to be a preacher by majoring in Bible at Abilene Christian College and on long terms as pulpit minister of six churches. Gipson did not reveal to the court that he failed to graduate at ACC, his grades being too poor, and that he flunked his two classes in Greek, presumably one basis for expertise in the New Testament.
If Gipson's testimony failed to make elders lords over God's heritage, one is left to wonder what was lacking. The duty of members, he emphasized is to "obey and submit." No dictatorship ever asked for more.
Apparently the Chancellor was unimpressed by Gipson's testimony, for he told the elders that unless they could reach an agreement with the plaintiff within 30 days, he would rule against their claim that their defense came under the protection of the First Amendment and that the trial would proceed as a civil suit under the law of incorporation of non-profit institutions. The plaintiffs are asking that the finances of the church be open to inspection by the members and that the directors of the corporation be elected as the law requires.
Gipson put primary emphasis on the power of the elders to make all decisions for the church, and once a decision is made every member must support it. This decision-making power is vested in the elders as overseers, or kindly dictators.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find Gipson's claims totally lacking in support. The 120 present voted to choose the successor of Iscariot, the entire Jerusalem Church chose the seven to run the food relief program. The "whole church" at the Jerusalem conference decided that Gentiles did not have to follow the Law of Moses in order to be Christians. The Greek word commonly translated "appointed" elders in Acts 14:23 actually meant "choose by show of hands" and in the NEV is properly rendered "had elders elected."
In no instance is the Greek word exousia, which means authority or power, used in connection with the roles of elders. If the New Testament had meant for elders to be powerful rulers, it would have said so. In spite of Gipson's testimony Jesus absolutely prohibited ruling or the exercise of authority among his followers (Matt. 20:25). The Greek word Proistanoi used in connection with church leaders (elders are not the only leaders) actually means "care for" like the Good Samaritan on the Jericho Road. When this word is translated "rule" or "over you," it is misleading by implying exercise of power (I Thess. 5:12). Servants don't rule and they are not "over" the ones they serve.
There is not a single example in the New Testament of elders being the decision-makers of the church, as Gipson claims. In letter after letter Paul rested this responsibility with the whole church. But Gipson pours every concept of power exercised by the Soviet Politbureau into the hands of elders as "overseers." This word "among whom the Holy Spirit had made you overseers" carries no connection of power. Rather it means "looking out for" the welfare of each individual member. Elders are not like antebellum plantation overseers with a platted whip over the shoulder, but humble servants and teachers subjecting themselves to the church.
The contemporary Restoration Movement whose goal had been to follow faithfully New Testament principles and examples, is slowly being changed into a hierarchical institution with a professional clergy and a power structure modeled after the secular world. Only a revolution may now save it and return it to the goals of early leaders like Campbell, Stone, Shelburne, and Lipscomb. We could then purify our language to correspond with New Testament concepts. No more would we talk about the "office" of elder and we would find ourselves back in the family of God with no concern except for the authority of the Christ as Lord.
Editor's Note: The above is based on the astonishing testimony of John P. Gipson in Chancery Court as recorded by the court reporter. One thing Brother Gipson was trying to protect and keep secret was his staggering salary reported to be not less than $75,000 and maybe $92,000.