ontroversy continues today over the question of whether Jesus delegated authority to any man or group of men after He stated, "All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18).
There is nothing wrong with controversy. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to the obtaining of truth. Argumentation does not have to be ugly and unkind, but the sifting for truth in confrontation often will be painful and disturbing. From this the coward runs and buries his head in the sand, hoping that controversy will subside to leave peace and tranquility. On the other hand, the honest seeker braves the storm of debate with his eyes wide open and weighs every argument carefully in light of God's word to see if such things are true. To this precious soul, this modern day Theophilus, comes the knowledge that truly makes one free, while the one who shirks from the fight of faith is enslaved to the traditions of men as he wallows in the mire of error.
The question raised in the title of this article is at the heart of the controversy. There are those who argue that elders have been given "Divine authority," and all "in the flock which is among them" must submit completely to their will. There is division among the proponents of this doctrine. One group contends that "elders only rule in matters of judgment" while the other states that "elders only rule in matters of faith." Obviously, both positions cannot be right because they stand diametrically opposed to each other, except for the common argument that elders are given Divine right to rule the flock. This cannot be proven from scripture. After a careful study of the subject for many years now, it is my opinion that both positions are false.
It matters not which position one takes in the controversy, both lead ultimately to a Romish-styled hierarchial, institutional ecclesia. Champions of either side of the issue make two identical assumptions which guarantee the conclusion. First, they assume that "elders" are "officers who hold title to rank and power within a structured organization" and second, they assume that one must belong to this organization and render complete subjection to "elders" as one would submit to the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation depends on total submission to the "elders." By this, they mean that unless one submits to the "rule of the elders" and obeys them, they are considered "weak" "unfaithful," "unsound" and "lost."
The pioneer preachers of the nineteenth century, who are identified with the "Restoration Movement," were slow to accept a "ruling class" among the brethren. Tolbert Fanning rejected it completely. In a series of articles published in the Religious Historian, 1872-1874, under the caption of The Church of Christ, Brother Fanning systematically set forth the plain teaching of the scriptures on a number of subjects relating to the church, and at the same time he showed the fallacies of Catholicism and Protestantism. Also, he pointed out that brethren of his day were developing the same mentality that led to both isms.
After carefully defining the word for "elder" presbuteros, and showing its uses in the New Testament, Fanning wrote:
"That older men or seniors had special work to perform, we have not doubted, but whether the word ever signified an officer, or that any one was entitled to his eldership, by investiture, is the question. That any elder was necessarily an officer we have failed to discover. WE THINK THERE IS NO PROOF" (emp. mine - DO)
In his teaching of I Peter 5:1-5, Fanning listed seven "distinctive points" concerning the "elders." We notice number six:
"Were these seniors officers in the sense of having had authority given by any church ceremony as a qualification for performing service? If we say that Peter was an official elder we must conclude that he had been inducted into this and diverse other official positions which he occupied. But the idea of induction by ceremonies into offices, as apostle, evangelist, bishop, elder, pastor, overseer, etc. IS CERTAINLY FOREIGN TO THE BIBLE (emp. mine - DO), and yet, Peter was an apostle evangelist, bishop, elder, deacon and servant. Possibly he was entitled to every title indicative of valuable labor in the cause of Christ.
Therefore, Fanning concluded that "elders" are not "officers of the church," who are invested with authority to rule over the people of God. He stated emphatically that a distinction made between "officers" and the rest of the people would ultimately lead to the Romish or Protestant concept where "the church is composed of the clergy and the laity"
We agree with Tolbert Fanning. Jesus did not delegate authority to any man, or group of men, on earth. To his apostles who were seeking positions of rank and authority He 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, but whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant, even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28).
Elders are to serve, not rule.
But, someone says, "What about Hebrews 13:17?" This is usually the first scripture cited to "prove" that elders have authority. It says, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them: for they watch in behalf of your souls, as they that shall give account...."
Now, go through the verse and pick out the word "elder." If you cannot find it in the verse, look for it in the context. You are right! It is nowhere to be found. Is it not strange that the main text to which those who advocate "Elders Rule," does not even mention "elders"? It is assumed beyond a shadow of a doubt that verse 17 is talking about elders. Then, it is welded into a law of God that this verse gives elders the authority to rule over the congregation.
Two other verses in Hebrews 13, verses 7 and 24, are very similar to verse 17. It is unclear who the Hebrew writer had in mind. Verse 7 reads: "Remember them that had the rule over you, men that spake unto you the word of God; and considering the issue of their life, imitate their faith." Notice the past tense treatment of "had the rule." Verse 24 states: "Salute all them that have the rule over you, and all the saints...." It is very possible that those "that spake unto you the word of God" were the first to preach the gospel to them, including the apostles themselves.
Robert Milligan, a great scholar of the nineteenth century, published a commentary on Hebrews in 1875. Commenting on verse 7 Milligan wrote:
"Remember them which have the rule over you: Or more literally, Remember your leaders (hegoumenon) who spoke (elalesan) to you the word of God; carefully considering the issue of their manner of life; imitate their faith. The reference is to such men as Stephen, James the brother of John, and other faithful preachers of the Gospel who had formerly proclaimed to the Hebrews the good word of God...". (Commentary on Hebrews, p. 375}.
Milligan did not understand these verses as granting authority to groups of elders in congregations as is conceived in the twentieth century. He did see that among groups of Christians there were those who would be respect-fully followed as spiritual leaders, among which would be preachers and teachers of the word of God.
Certainly, elders may be included in Hebrews 13:17, but this verse does not give authority to them in the same sense that is assumed and taught by so many today. Admittedly, if we accept the English words which have been supplied to us, first by the King James translators, and then by the translators of the past one hundred years, we might conclude the authoritarian position is correct. But we should do a word study to determine if we have been given the right English words that convey the proper meanings of the Greek words used in the text. I am convinced that the King James translators, laboring under an "institutional church" mentality, selected the strongest words possible which conveyed the idea that the people must submit to the authority of the Clergy. In this way King James could control the people through the Church, of which he was Supreme Ruler. (For more on this theme consult this author's article, "Church": From God or From Man?" The Examiner, January, Vol. 2, No. 1). Our word study will reveal that the most logical words which could have been chosen to give the true meaning of the originals were overlooked because they would "soften" tremendously the assumed sense of the verse and do away completely with the authoritarian emphasis.
Now, let's get back to verse 17: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them...." Notice the words that were chosen: "Obey," "rule over you," and "submit." These English words conjure up in our minds a very authoritative concept. A President, Governor or some other political officer has the invested right to command others to submit to his authority and obey. Verse 17 is translated in such a way as to carry that image over into some imagined ecclessiastical office called Bishop or Elder. It is conceived and taught that these ecclesiastical officers do have the authority to command and to expect obedience from all who submit to that authority. (In fact, in some congregations, one may not be considered a part of that group until he/she publically declares allegiance and submission to the Elders). If Christians want to enjoy the fellowship in certain congregations but are unwilling to obey every judgment call made by the Elders, they face the threat of excommunication. Elders (Bishops) expect to be obeyed. All this inspite of our Lord's teaching that there will not be rank and authority in the spiritual Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:20-28).
According to W.E. Vine, the Greek word peitho means "to persuade, to win over, in the Passive and Middle Voices, to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey, is so used with this meaning, in the Middle Voice. THE OBEDIENCE SUGGESTED IS NOT BY SUBMISSION TO AUTHORITY, BUT RESULTING FROM PERSUASION" (emp. mine – DO; An Expository Dic-tionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 3, p. 124). The thrust of the word peitho is not one of submission to authority, it is one of listening to someone out of respect and taking their advice. A better translation of peitho in verse 17 is "Listen to," not "Obey them."
Peitho is sometimes translated "trust" in the King James Version of the New Testament and would have been an ideal translation in verse 17: ‘Trust them....’ This leaves the reader with a different flavor entirely than does the translation "Obey them..."
This is the part of verse 17 that really shows the bias and intent of the translators. "Have the rule over you" (KJV) was given as the meaning of hegeomai. It is used 28 times in the New Testament and translated variously as "count," "think," "esteem," "be governor," and other miscellaneous words such as "chief' and "leader." It is significant to me that the King James translators used the strongest possible English words to translate hegeomai. Out of the 28 times the word appears, they elected to translate it "rule over you" three times: Hebrews 13:7, 17, and 24, thus, strengthening the concept that the Church officer had unquestionable rule and authority and must be obeyed.
If the Holy Spirit wanted to convey the idea that Elders (Bishops) had the authority that they now claim, He would have used the Greek word arche, which translates into "rule" or "power." One who had the authority to rule was archon, "a ruler" or "a magistrate.' By choosing hegeomai the Holy Spirit indicated that these men who "watch(ed) in behalf of your souls", were the leaders among them.
Mr. Vine defines hegeomai "to lead, is translated to rule in Heb. 13:7, 17, 24 (A. V. marg(in) in the first two, ‘are the guides’ and ‘guide.’)." Thus, Mr. Vine acknowledges the word to mean "to lead." It is interesting that the King James translators did insert the marginal rendering "are the guides." I believe that is exactly what they are in this case. They are the men who have the respect of the group to be the group's leaders or guides.
Significantly, translators of the last sixty years have deferred to "leaders" as a proper rendering of hegeomai and have been willing to drop the phrase "have the rule over you." However, their desire to retain the authority of the Institutional Church officers shows up in their translation of verse 17 as a whole. Here are some samplings:
Revised Standard Version: Obey your leaders and submit to them ....
New American Standard Version: Obey your leaders, and submit to them ....
Living Bible: Obey your spiritual leaders and be willing to do what they say.
Today's English Version: Obey your leaders and follow their orders.
New International Version: Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.
Jerusalem Bible: Obey your leaders and do as they tell you.
New English Bible: Obey your leaders and defer to them ....
The Goodspeed Translation: Obey your leaders and give way to them ....
The Moffatt Translation: Obey your leaders, submit to them ....
Berry's Interlinear: Obey your leaders, be submissive ....
There can be no doubt that have the rule over you is not a proper translation of hegeomai, There is not a Greek word in this verse that carries the idea of "rule." Recent scholarship testifies to the fact that "leaders" is the best translation, as we have demonstrated above.
Also, you will find in those translations, "leaders" in verses 7 and 24, and you will not find "have (had) the rule over you" in verse 7. This is an improvement in the renderings.
As we have pointed out before, the problem with the word "rule" is that we associate it with power and authority. Jesus has all power and authority (Matt. 28:18) and has not delegated any of it to any man or group of men. Now, you might be thinking of other scriptures that seem to teach that elders have the authority to rule. Let's look at them:
Romans 12:8 - "...he that ruleth, with diligence."
First, we are not told that this pertains to elders, it must be assumed. The word "ruleth" is from proistemi, not archo, and means "to stand before, hence to lead, attend to (indicating care and diligence)..." (Vine). Paul is talking about those in leadership roles.
First Thessalonians 5:12 -"...know them that labor among you, and are over, you in the Lord, and admonish you.
Again, we must assume these to be elders. This may not necessarily be so. Definitely, "over you" is a biased translation of proistemi. There is no word in this verse that should be translated "over you." Proistemi means "to lead, attend to." Literally, it means "to stand before," according to Mr. Vine. Once again, we have the idea of "leaders" among the saints. This verse does not contain the idea of authoritative figures ruling congregations.
First Timothy 3:4,5 - "...ruleth his own house...."
Since proistemi is our Greek word, we must understand that elders are charged with "leading," "attending," "caring for" their own house as well as the "house of God." Power and authority are not inherent in this word. The emphasis is on provision. The same is true in regard to the charge made to deacons in verse 12.
First Timothy 5:17,- "Let the elders that rule well...
Again, proistemi tells us that the reference is to leadership, not authority. In Berry’s Interlinear, he calls, them the 'take the lead elders." "Rule conveys the idea of "power and authority" and should give way to "lead" as a proper translation of proistemi.
All of these scriptures are saying the same thing, matching exactly what the writer of Hebrews wanted to convey. Spiritually matured men were charged by GOD with responsibilities to lead the flock. This included feeding (teaching) and caring for the people of God. They were to watch out for their souls. None of these requires power and authority. Neither was given by God.
H. Leo Boles, writing on this subject in 1944, could just as well have been writing for us today:
"There are elders who think themselves clothed or invested with all authority. They do not regard the wishes of the congregation, but impose their own dictatorial authority of the church. They never attempt to get the wishes of the church; and when the wishes are known, they do as they please. They 'boss' the affairs of the church. They usurp the authority from Christ, and are dictators over the church' (Gospel Advocate, Feb. 2, 1944, p. 2).
Those who push the Authoritarian position usually say, "If the 'rule over you' doesn't get you, the 'submit to them' will." Let's see if that is true.
Hupeiko is only found one time in the New Testament, in Hebrews 13:17. Mr. Vine says it means "to retire, withdraw (hupo, under, eiko, to yield), hence, to yield, submit, is used metaphorically in Heb. 13:17, of submitting to spiritual guides in the churches" (Vine, Vol. 4, p. 87). Notice the thrust of this word. It means "to yield" or "to give in to." The thought in this verse, then, is for the Christian to yield to the wisdom of the older, more matured, spiritual leader. It is not a question of submitting to one who has "authority over you," but just simply respecting another's experience and wisdom. If that one has a track record of being weak in the knowledge of the scriptures, or has shown himself to be anything but spiritually minded, or is not a tested, proven leader among the group, there will not be the respect for him, and a thousand "appointments" will not make him into an "elder." There have been far too many instances where a congregation has "made" someone an "elder" and then expected everyone to "submit" to his "authoritative position." You cannot get that teaching out of Hebrews 13:17. You cannot find it anywhere in God's word.
There are other words in the Greek that are translated "subject,' "subjection,'' and "submit," but interestingly, not a one of them applies to "elders." Hupotasso is a word that is used 40 times, not once pertaining to "elders." Mr. Vine states that it is "primarily a military term, to rank under..." (Vine, Vol. 4, p. 86). Can you see why this word could not be used to describe the relationship between the congregation and the elders? In the Kingdom of God, there is no one with "rank" or authority over others! Therefore, the Holy Spirit used hupeiko and not hupotasso.
It should be stated, however, that hupotasso doesn’t always carry with it the idea of rank and authority. While we are subject to Christ (Eph. 5:24), to the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3), and to His law (Rom. 8:7), we are subject to the earthly governments (Rom. 13:1). Wives are subject to their husbands (Col. 3:18), children are subject to their parents (I Tim. 3:4), and servants are subject to their masters (I Pet. 2:18). Now, we all recognize that rank and authority may be included in these examples, however, in Ephesians 5:21, Paul encouraged "subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ." This is a use of hupotasso as well. We know there can be no rank and authority intended because Jesus said that in the spiritual kingdom "it would not be so among you" (Matt. 20:26). Christians are to be yielding in spirit and serving in disposition toward one another, but this in no way suggests that we place ourselves under someone's authority.
We have seen that most translators have given the world a version of Hebrews 13:17, which fits the Institutional Church idea, equipped with authoritative officials. It has led to much confusion. I would like to share with you what I believe to be a better translation of the verse, one that is in harmony with all the scriptures on the subject:
"Trust them that are your leaders and be yielding: for they watch in behalf of your souls...."
If the King James translators would have given us that translation, and subsequent versions would have followed their influence (as they did anyway), then we might not have had the controversy over authoritative officials.
Certainly, it would not be difficult to "trust...and be yielding" to those who exercised spiritual concerns and matured wisdom. There should not be any thought of one having rank and authority. Jesus never delegated them.
But, I am afraid the controversy will continue for many reasons. Some have stopped studying the subject and have their minds made up; some have taught the Authoritarian way for so long, they feel they cannot turn back now; others actually want the few to "rule" because they are a part of it. They enjoy the prestige, power, and in some cases, the money that goes along with the official position. Then, there are people who defend this position because they think they can escape their responsibilities before God by "letting the elders do the work" for them.
We must not forget that those who take the Authoritarian position are obligated to produce the scriptures that substantiate it, not only in the English versions, but also from the original language. It will not do just to read a scripture like Hebrews 13:17, thinking that will defend the position. One must be able to prove his proposition by the very words of the Holy Spirit. It is not enough just to say "elders hold special office, and therefore, as officers, have delegated authority from Christ." Prove it!
Waymon D. Miller has written a fine book entitled The Role of Elders In The New Testament Church, in which he states,
"This is the essential fact to be established to prove that elders are vested with an 'office' and 'authority,' as is maintained by some. If inspiration had intended to confer upon elders such superior 'authority' to which all members must submit, why is this nowhere clearly expressed in the New Testament? Why must such a crucial issue rest upon a fabric of assumption, and suspicious interpretation of Scriptures?" (p. 40)
If an older man is above reproach, spiritually matured, apt to teach, and interested in saving souls, he doesn't have to have one ounce of authority to be of service to others and to advance the cause of Christ. He will never have to demand that people respect and obey him, for that will be given to him gladly. Furthermore, if he is Christ-like in every area of his life, showing the same love qualities for others as did Jesus, people will be persuaded by his teaching and example and will yield to his wisdom. This is the essence of the "elder's rule." It is a standard, the standard of Christ, rather than an exercise of commanded obedience. Yes, the elder rules, but according to the wisdom of God, not according to the dictates of man.
Finally, we must not forget that it was the insistence on the part of a few men, who said that Jesus had delegated His authority to them that led the church of the second century down the pathway to Rome. Catholicism developed and flourished in subsequent centuries because too many men loved the pre-eminence of a Diotrophes. Arguments for Divine right of rule were the same as those made today. Look at the claims for legitimate power made by the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant Churches as well, and see if they are not identical to those made by the Authoritarian advocates among us today. Are we doomed to repeat the same mistake? God, help us! - 505 Brentwood Drive, Temple Terrace, FL 33617.