An Ex-Member of the Board of Elders Writes:
Several years ago I was appointed an elder in a Church of Christ in Orlando, Florida. I took my job as elder seriously. I saw it as work to do for the Lord and for the church, not as an honorary title. My job: Make decisions. And, I encouraged the other elders to have more meetings so we could make more decisions. Like so many others, I thought I could only function as an elder as we functioned together as an eldership.
I believed in the popular concept that elders are church officials--given "divine authority" and all "in the flock among them" must submit completely to their will. I now have some problems with that concept, finding it rooted more in Roman Catholicism and Protestant denominationalism than in God's Word.
In affirming that elders have the authority and dominion over disciples of Christ, such as has been commonly maintained, a mistaken view is presented of the structure of those who serve Christ in a particular city or area. In supporting this concept of the function of elders, we have been misguided in our understanding of autonomy, for an autonomous group cannot be one dominated by autocratic officers. Autonomy is self-government. Elder/bishop rule is episcopal/presbyterian rule.
Over the years we have fashioned elders into an eldership, a corporate body foreign to the Word of God. With this we have changed the structure of a group of Christians serving together from a functioning organism, with each saint performing an equally vital role, to an organization consisting of sovereign rulers and submissive servants. Such is not, in my view, the picture of the family of God presented in the Bible. It is rather an arrangement conceived by inaccurate application of what the Scriptures actually teach about the role and function of the spiritual shepherds of God's people.
What kind of authority has God given elders? All authority? (I don't know of anyone who has gone this far, unless it is the Pope.) Do they only rule in matters of faith? (Some think so.) Or, do they only rule in matters of judgement? (Most authoritarians I'm aware of take this position.) If any one of these ideas is true, then what is wrong with the Roman concept of the Pope? We may use different titles on the organization chart and the scope may be different, but the government structure of the papacy and the eldership is the same.
If God is so capable of communicating with us (and I'm convinced that He is), then where did He clearly tell us about the authority He allegedly gave elders?
Hebrews 13:17, you say? Where is the word "elder" in this passage? Where is it in the context?
I have heard this response: "It says (in the words of King James) to obey them that have the rule over you. Elders are the ones who have the rule over you. Who else could the passage be talking about?" It is assumed that elders have a rule, then on that basis it is assumed that this passage is referring to elders. This reminds me of the circular reasoning used by the evolutionist who establishes the age of fossils from rock strata where the age of the rock strata is established from the age of the fossils.
One of the biggest problems I have with the "eldership" concept is found in Matthew 20:25-28. When the mother of James and John requested privileged positions for her sons in the kingdom, Jesus rebuked her saying, "You don't know what you're asking..." The Lord then addressed himself to the misconception of all the apostles in this struggle for power and position in the kingdom. He said, "You know that the rulers of the world lord it over their people. Important men use their authority over them, but you must not think that way. Instead, if one of you wants to be great, that person should be your servant. If one of you wants to be important, he should be your slave. I did not come to be served. Instead, I came to serve and to give my life to pay the price for many people's sins."
The kingdom of Christ is not like the kingdoms of this world. No positions of power and prestige. No rank. No authoritative officers.
Please remember this important point: Every notion about authority and position in the kingdom must be reconciled with the fundamental premise set forth in Matthew 20:25-28!
The human ego in its greed grasps for titles, place, power, and praise, but this is not the Christ way. The way of Christ is the path of service, the way of a servant.
Great men of God thru the ages have been designated by the title of devotion, "a servant of God." Some examples are: "Moses, the servant of God" (1 Chron. 6:49), "Daniel, servant of the living God" (Daniel 6:20), "his servant Joshua" (Exodus 33:11), "his servant Ahijah" (1 Kings 14:18), "his servant Elijah" (2 Kings 9:36), "his servant Jonah" (2 Kings 14:25), "his servant Hezekiah" (2 Chron. 32:16), "Abraham his servant" (Psalm 105:42), "Paul, a servant of God" (Titus 1:1), "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1), "his servant John" (Revelation 1:1).
One of the most superbly profound passages about Christ was concerning His surrendering His heavenly rights to become a human servant! The Son of Man came to serve, to become a servant. To be a servant is to be Christ-like. Every place in the kingdom is a place of service, not just a title. When Jesus was attending His "Father's business," it was not in a business meeting with the apostles. Rather, He was busy out among the people ministering to their needs, functioning in the role of a servant.
Why is it that we seek something more for the elders than Jesus assumed--titles, position, rank, authority? The role of an elder is a function, a service. Elders are to serve, not rule. Elders are to serve, not be served.
"He that will be great among you, let him be your servant.'' Amen.