Just Thinking Out Loud...

Bob West

As an ex-member of the board of elders, I wrote m the September 1988 issue, "I've Learned Better." One sister wrote and told me, "You have almost learned better." She explained: "In this Christian dispensation we do not have elders in the church. God placed elders in the infant state of the church for a specific purpose. Their work was fulfilled and no longer needed after the completing of the N.T. After the unity of faith came, all titled men passed. I get my learning from such passages as I Thess. 5:21, Eph. 4:11-14, and I Cor. 13:8-13." Certainly her thoughts are worth considering. No doubt elders possessed spiritual gifts during the time of Peter and Paul, but does that rule out mature older leaders among God's people today?

One brother responded with an article of his own, saying: "It is obvious that some improvements have been made in the concept previously held by that writer as to what the "eldership" is all about. We would suggest that he should not stop now, however." Good advice. For all of us. Including the writer of that article.

I had questioned the popular concept of "eldership" (a board of officials, who rule the "membership" of a religious party, such as a "local church") whether it is from God or from men. Positions of rank, power, and prestige are commonplace in the kingdoms of this world--civil governments, business corporations, social organizations, and even religious institutions like Roman Catholicism and Protestant denominationalism. But, we must not think that way in the kingdom of Christ. At least Jesus said it is not that way. (Matt. 20: 25-28).

In an effort to reconcile today's practice with Jesus' teaching, our brother concludes that one can be both a ruler and a servant at the same time. Much of his argumentation was based upon a foundation of assumptions (ie. the assumption that elders mentioned in Scripture were church officials and the assumption that God s people today must appoint men to a board of elders. Given enough assumptions, one can "prove" anything he wants to.

Our brother spoke of arbitrary and unreasonable decisions of elders in his article. He said such was an improper concept, of the duties and responsibilities of the elder. Where are these duties and responsibilities spelled out in God's Word? If elders serve by ruling and members serve by obeying elders, who can determine what is arbitrary and unreasonable?

In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus clearly lays the foundation for the nature of his kingdom. A basic factor is that in the kingdom there are to be no positions of power and prestige, no authoritative offices, no rank, no commands and subservience such as is typical of civil officers and offices. From this point forward in the New Testament, every notion about authority and position in the kingdom must be reconciled with this fundamental premise. Any interpretations that reject the simple declarations of Christ, and assert that there is to be some sort of sovereign authority exercised by men m the kingdom, cannot be correct.

It is contended by some that in this text Jesus is condemning the abuse of power, not the possession of authority itself. But this is presumption. This is not the obvious meaning of the text. Jesus spoke nothing about abuse of authority, but the exercise of it - the lording of authority over subjects. This was, according to Jesus, the understood prerogative of civil officials, but such authority would not exist in the kingdom. This is precisely what elders are not to do: to exercise lordly authority over their fellow Christians. This is explicitly forbidden by inspiration (1 Peter 5:3). Yet this is the very nature of the so-called "authority" of elders for which some contend, for they assert that even to disobey the opinions of elders is to disobey God! How could their "authority" be abused at all if even their opinions must be obeyed, as some contend, under pain of violating the law of God?

Nature of Authority in the Kingdom

The idea of the equality of all saints is actually as basic as the fact of the priesthood of all believers. When citizens of the kingdom are robbed of equality, the result is a hierarchy. Roman Catholicism is a classic example of this fact, but the principle could be true with us on a scale graduated downward.

Christians are "a holy priesthood," "a royal priesthood," and "kings and priests" (1 Peter 2.5, 9, Revelation 1:6). They are people who are kings and priests, not people with kings and priests. This places all Christians on level ground, with none as their superior. The equality of Christians in the kingdom must be repudiated to establish an authoritarian eldership. The latter is an arrangement of lords and servants, which does not depict the lateral relationship of Christians described by the New Testament.

When the authoritarian view is accepted, the Biblical view of the equality of saints is rejected. This process has led to the creation of an authoritative board of elders completely foreign to the New Testament context. The present-day status of elders is justified by reading into the Biblical texts meanings that seem to justify the current situation. We have created a modern office and "officialdom" for elders, then appeal to the Scriptures for support of our views. This is precisely what other religious groups have done to secure sanction for priests, bishops, and other "officials." With this approach Scriptural sanction can be found for any religious idea; at least adequate enough to satisfy the searcher. But this technique forces inaccurate testimony from the Word, rather than permitting God to speak to us through His Word. We must not turn to the Bible to prove what is true, but rather to discover what is truth.

The term "authority" is from the Greek exousia, which means "the power of authority, the right to exercise power...the power of one whose will and commands must be obeyed by others" (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of NT Words, vol. 1, p. 89). The term is frequently used in reference to the power of civil rulers (Romans 13:1-3; Titus 3:1). Thayer defines the word to mean the power of rule or government; the power of him whose will and commands must be submitted to by others and obeyed" (Joseph H.. Thayer, Greek-Enghsh Lexicon of the NT, p. 225). This is precisely the sort of authority Jesus said would not exist in his kingdom!

Pertinent to the "authority" issue is Paul's instruction to Titus: "Continue saying these things. Keep on encouraging and correcting with full authority" (Titus 2:15). This passage clearly states that evangelists have "authority." It is curious,, however, that while we maintain that elders have "authority," not a line of Scripture clearly states this, and while we deny evangelists have any "authority," this is the clear expression of Titus 2:15! We affirm that evangelists have no authority, while the Bible contends they do. We contend that elders do have authority, while the Bible nowhere says they do. Why are we so bent on contriving an "office" that we will affirm for it what is nowhere stated in the Scriptures? Is this really remaining silent where the Scriptures are silent?

Does an evangelist possess authority by virtue of his "office?" If not, by what supposition is an elder to have "authority" by virtue of his "office?" One writer dealt sensibly with the text by explaining, "The authority of this verse is that of the Word of God itself, not that of either an evangelist or elder as such" (Rebel Shelly, The Spiritual Sword, April 1978, p. 27). When evangelists speak, exhort and rebuke "with all authority" it is because they speak the Word of God, and when elders speak with authority it is because they speak the Word of God. If the "authority" held by an evangelist consists in the authority of the Word, why should it be understood that the "authority" possessed by an elder is totalitarian, and an authority inherent in an office and not in the Word? A position that cannot command more virile Scriptural support than this is not worthy of defense. Its support is obtained from traditional brotherhood views and highly suspicious Scriptural interpretations, rather than clear and unmistakable declarations of the Word. If we continue to be a people totally dedicated to what the Bible clearly teaches, no more and no less, then we are bound by integrity and by a sense of loyalty to God's Word to seriously reexamine our position regarding elders.

J. W. Shepherd comments on the "authoritative" role of evangelists in this manner: "He must speak with the authority which comes from a knowledge of the divine will and of the saving purposes of God" (Commentary, 1 Thessalonians-Philemon, Gospel Advocate Company, 1956, p. 280). He does not assert any official authority of office for evangelists, and rightly so. If we can understand that an evangelist's authority consists m his speaking from a knowledge of the will of God, why can't we understand this of elders also? What is the difference in the "authority" by which an evangelist speaks and that which elders speak? If there is a difference, where is this stated in the Scriptures?

It is the natural consequence of the authoritarian view to endow elders with absolute authority, for the theory cannot stop logically short of this conclusion. This conclusion is expressed by H. E. Phillips in this manner: "The authority of the eldership in the church .is the authority of Christ" (Scriptural Elders and Deacons, Cogdill Publications, 1959, p. 45). This is a classic expression of the modern authoritarian view of elders.

Continuing in this same channel of thought, Guy N. Woods writes: "Let us be exceedingly careful that we do not find ourselves in t. he unenviable position of rebellion against God and his servants. Elders, when functioning properly, are engaged in a work divinely authorized, and to oppose them is to oppose God" (Questions & Answers Open Forum, p. 2 5)

Another brother writes: "This means that if members rebel against "This means that if members rebel against these decisions (made by God's designated leaders) then they, in fact, rebel against God. Let it be emphasized: to rebel against God's designated leaders is to rebel against God himself"' (Spiritual Sword, April 1978, inside front cover). These expressions well typify the authoritarian view of elders.

When these statements defining the assumed authoritarian role of elders are examined, a number of disturbing questions present themselves: (1) Where in Scripture is it clearly stated that elders have authority over disciples of Christ, particularly an authority that "is the authority of Christ?" Is it actually intended for us to believe that the authority claimed for elders is equivalent to the authority of Christ the identical claim made by Roman Catholic priests? (2) Where is the passage that clearly states that "the office" of elder endows him with "authority?" This must be done to support the authoritarian viewpoint. (3) Where is the passage that clearly states that other Christians are to be in total subjection to the "authority" of elders? Such a Scripture must be produced to support a vital element of the authoritarian view. Moreover, the Bible does not clearly state this. (4) Since it is expressly stated that evangelists possess "authority" (Titus 2:15), and "are engaged in a work divinely authorized," is it also to be concluded that to oppose them is to oppose God?" If this is not the case with evangelists when their "authority" is clearly expressed in the Scriptures, why can it be contended that this is true with elders, when their so-called "authority" is nowhere clearly stated in the Scriptures? (5) Since evangelists function in a God-ordained role, can it be properly concluded that rebellion against them "is rebellion against God himself?." If this is not true of evangelists, to whom "authority" is attributed by the Scriptures, how could it be so with elders, to whom no "authority" is clearly attributed in the Scriptures?

Mistaken Views of Authority of Elders

"Our fundamental mistake," writes Jay Smith, "is in supposing that the Biblical concept of an elder is one of authority. Few people seem to notice that most of the prerogatives we have assigned to elders are assumptions without foundation m the Scriptures. In our day, decision-making has become the primary function of elders, and yet in the New Testament we have not one example of a group of elders ever making a decision for God's people, or being instructed to do so" (Firm Foundation, January 31, 1978, p. 3). In the same article, Smith continues: "The New Testament knows nothing of elders appointing successors or fellow-elders, hiring and firing preachers, or holding elders' meetings to decide policy or the work of the church." Notwithstanding the absence of New Testament precedent or authority, these very functions appear to be the prime responsibilities of elders in the modern view. The view is currently popular that the elders are to function like a board of directors of a corporation, usually to meet in closed-door sessions, to decide policies of the church, and to hand down high level decisions that must be unquestionably followed. This represents the development of human dogma among us, not directives from the Scriptures.

It might be urged, however, that since elders occupy an "office" that this implies "authority." The expression "the office of a bishop," as rendered by the King James version of I Timothy 3:1, is more accurately translated "overseership." The Greek word episkopos is very clearly rendered: "To aspire to leadership" (New English Bible). The idea is that of performing overseership, of exerting spiritual leadership, with emphasis upon the service performed not an office held. The spiritual qualities defined m the following verses (2-7) suggest what an elder is, not the "office" he holds or the "authority" he possesses. It is all too easily observed in our time that many elders are more concerned with "holding office" than with rendering service. Many of them do so little in going among God's people to minister to their needs. They prefer to function almost solely within the confines of a church office in their "elders' meeting."

William Conley has written: "...The elders do not have an office in the political or secular sense. There is no place in the New Testament calling their place an office per se. This re-emphasizes the point that their authority is not like political or secular forms" (Christian Bible Teacher, February 1974, p. 65). David Lipscomb concurs by stating concisely: "The word officer is never in the Scriptures applied to a member of the church of Christ" (Gospel Advocate, 1874, p. 294).

David Lipscomb continues: "We believe that no office in the church invests with a particle of authority. Controlling the church by virtue of authority of office is unknown in the Scriptures. Whenever a man in the church of Christ claims authority or exercises power merely on official grounds, he is essentially a Pope."

William Lipscomb, whom H. Leo Boles called "that prince of scholars," wrote: "While we honor as highly as anyone the wisdom, the experience and weight of authority which belongs to those who have been faithful servants of the Lord, we have never yet seen in the New Testament, the least ground for the authority of certain individuals termed officers to act independently of the congregation...While there can be no. doubt but that the more experienced men and women m the church are the proper persons to instruct, admonish, and reprove, still such a notion as official authority vested in a few individuals to act for the congregation is not to be.found in any example or precept m the word of truth·

Jack Lewis, professor at Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee, recently lectured at the Harding College Preachers Forum on the meaning of the Greek words associated with the word "elder." Lewis observed, "The Greek terms we've considered from the viewpoint of the elder emphasizes images of sacrifice and service that is to discharge rather than linages of authority. From the viewpoint of the people, the elder is an example that is to be followed, a teacher from whom to learn, a shepherd whose voice one hears, a protector from the wolves, a leader to whom one submits in humility because he is God's steward, and he is an older man to whom respect is gladly given" (Harding College Bulletin, April, 1979, p. 5).

If an older man is above suspicion, spiritually matured, a good teacher, 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 listen to him, for they will do that gladly. If he. is Christ-like in every area of his life, showing the same quality of love for others as did Jesus, people will be persuaded by his teaching and example and will yield to his wisdom.