I Corinthians 16:15-16 introduces the household of Stephanas which had devoted themselves to the service of the saints. To such as these, Paul says to be in subjection. In that passage, "be in subjection" (hupotasso) is a common phrase referring to submission to deity by Christians, submission of slaves to master, children to parents, demons to disciples, etc. We are all to be in subjection to one another (Eph. 5:21).
The Corinthians were to be in subjection to the household of Stephanas, for they "have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints." "Devoted" is literally appointed (Gr. tasso), (Vine, p. 70) as in Rom. 13:1 where we are to be in subjection (hupotasso) to governing authorities ...those that exist have been instituted (tasso) by God. The household of Stephanas had the same credentials as civil governors and were to be accorded the same respect.
Stephanas' ministry is diakonia, similar to the same word "deacon" (diadonos) in I Timothy 3. Loosely translated, I Cor. 16:15 could be rendered: "They have appointed themselves to serve you Corinthians as leaders, you must put yourselves under such." Moffat translates it: "Well, I want you to put yourselves under people like that, under everyone who sets his hand to the work."
Stephanas and his household had appointed themselves to the diakonia. Paul didn't do it; the church didn't do it; they appointed themselves, not in a spirit of self-assertion but in genuine service and humility (1 Peter 5:5-6). God appointed them! Stephanas was equipped to fulfill the work, and God pointed out to them the opportunity of service. Paul recognized this and he commands the church to submit to their ministry, their servant-hood.
This is the New Testament way. In this same manner, the Holy Spirit appoints elders (Acts 20:28), when they do the work. That is, serving by example (1 Pet. 5:3) - teaching, guiding, shepherding. How unlike the modern Church of Christ, where elders and deacons are voted upon and appointed by man.
The well-respected R. L. Whiteside furnishes vital clues as to the nature of Stephanas' work and the leadership of the church at Corinth in his Reflections (pp. 130-131). Whiteside sees Stephanas' house as elders, pastors, shepherds, inasmuch as they were the experienced teachers in Corinth. Whiteside's remarks about the household of Stephanas are very helpful in the proper understanding of the role of elders that we quote him at length:
"It is not said that these men were set apart as elders, but it is plain that they were doing the work of elders. Perhaps they had been so appointed; or else, on account of their ability and energy in carrying on the work of the Lord, the church by common consent looked to them as leaders in the work. Both nature and the Scriptures put the better informed and the more experienced in the lead. In the church those who have been members the longest have the most experience, and should have more scriptural knowledge than others. It is a pity, even worse than a pity, that some members who know little or nothing about the Bible do not hesitate to put up their ignorance and poor judgement against the wisest and best-informed men in the church. Like the characters described by Jude, they rail at whatsoever things they know not.
"The subjection required was not because the men mentioned had any official authority, but, like all acceptable service, the subjection was to be voluntary. If you were following the guidance of a man who knew the way through dangerous swamps or over dangerous mountain trails, you would obey his instructions - you would submit to him, not because he had any authority, but because he had knowledge and experience. In fact, if you were sensible, you would gladly be in subjection to him. The application to living the Christian life is easy. There is authority in knowledge and experience that all people of sense recognize; but, strange to say, in religion people use less sense than in other matters.
As Whiteside plainly and forcefully writes, God's people must allow experienced men who have the wisdom and maturity to lead others in all phases of work among the brethren - the preaching and teaching, benevolent work, discipline that leads to correcting sinful situations. Stephanas and his household were such spiritual guides and pastors.
Only elders appointed by the Holy Spirit and not selected by man are fully capable of guiding other Christians over narrow trails and shepherd them around murky swamplands past human traditions, immorality, worldly situations, and unrighteousness. Let us happily submit to men like Stephanas who lead and guide in godly ways and not in the systems of man.