Jesus and his apostles stand solidly in opposition to the modern-day authoritarian institution called "the eldership" In the Church of Christ.
Unknown to early Christianity, this institution functions as a self-perpetuating collective papacy. It is a sort of combination of the corporate board of directors and a Communist politburo. As a corporate board, it exercises total decision-making power, it asserts total administrative authority, and it claims total power to rule. As a politburo, it pursues a sleepless watchdog role over the church to maintain official orthodoxy. Results have been the destruction of congregational responsibility, reduction of members from participants to attendants, and the stifling of individual growth.
This does not mean that the men who compose this latter-day papacy are bad men. As unquestioning prisoners of a closed-end orthodoxy concerning elders, which is no longer subject to examination, they are victims not unlike the many who suffer under the oppressive institution.
In exploring the above proposition, I would like to begin on the avenue of personal experience, since all valid religion is experiential. The time is recent, and the place is my hometown.
The elder sat eyeing me. When I had been dean at Lipscomb College, he was a callow freshman and something of a slow learner. But he had managed to make it through two years of college, and now as one of the "rulers" of the church, he felt fully qualified and even mandated to pass judgment on my character, my theology, and my status in the kingdom of heaven.
"So you want to know why you are banned," he said, "I'll answer by asking you a question. Do you believe that elders have the authority to rule over the church?"
"No," I replied, "I do not believe that elders have any authority, much less the authority to rule the church. Jesus specifically denied the power role to any of his disciples."
"That's it," he said with a note of finality. "That's it in a nutshell." The nutshell was that this man, wholly without teaching experience, had ruled that I, a teacher with 49 years of experience, 16 of which in Christian colleges, and honored as "Outstanding Professor" by the university faculty, student-body, and alumni, could not make a presentation in the Sunday school class which I attended because I denied the authority of elders to rule. The presentation, I may add, had nothing to do with elders. I could see a remarkable parallel between my case and that of a Russian who had indiscreetly doubted a doctrine of Marxism-Leninism.
However, this confident authority was a little more communicative than another elder to whom I went to inquire if the report was true that I had been excluded from all participation In the "worship" activities. "I will neither affirm nor deny it," he said, making it clear that elders are under no obligation to inform victims of their decisions. However, I did get the message indirectly, since the preacher delivered a series of sermons on the authority of elders to make all decisions for the church, "Including the color of the paint on the wall."
This personal experience in a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, church reflects the unloving exclusivism and hostility toward any person holding a belief at variance from the established orthodoxy which is so pervasive in the "main-line" Church of Christ. So closed is this particular issue that it may be broached only to reaffirm the official doctrine, the authority of elders being of greater moment than the authority of Christ.
The Institution only recently named "the elder ship" has emerged with two main functions. It controls the church's money and all of the power which money commands. Spending $200,000 a year can be a heady experience. The second function is "watchdogging" to maintain orthodoxy and conformity of thought. In this second function, this collegiate body often take their cues from the professional "minister," whose job is to know nil of the preachers, writers, and thinkers and can advise as to who is acceptable and who is not acceptable, and to pinpoint matters of orthodoxy. There is a church in Atlanta in which all the members who wish to participate publicly must pass a written examination provided by the elders. Even women who teach the pre-school children must also take the examination. "Ibis is not as extreme as it sounds, since members generally in the Church of Christ must pass scrutiny.
Naturally, elders cannot fulfill their primary and Biblical functions of teaching and serving the individual needs of the members. Some of the elders in the Murfreesboro church have never taught classes or groups, much less stood before the entire flock or counseled families threatened by divorce or other problems. Though they might claim that they can teach "in private," this is an obviously weak "out."
Though Church of Christ hermeneutics centers on "command, example, and necessary inference." a grossly lopsided application is made to establish the claim of elders to authority. Examples, I think, are determined when they embody fundamental principles. One such principle which infuses examples cited below is God's great love for men and his respect for their worth, their dignity, and their ability to act responsibly. Eldership theory is based on exactly the opposite distrust of the members to act responsibly, belief in their permanent immaturity, and trust in the ability of very few among the totality. Let us see how the eldership institution acts in conflict with Biblical examples.
1. Elders generally assume authority that even the apostles would not dream of assuming. For example, when the time came to fill the vacancy on the twelve caused by the desertion and death of Iscariot, what was done? It might be assumed that the eleven, who had been with Jesus throughout his personal ministry, were the obvious ones best qualified to choose the man. Instead, they called upon the disciples to select the two from whom the Holy Spirit would choose the one. Might not this be a good example for elders to follow? No so, they do the choosing of new elders and only permit members to make objections in private objections, if they are made, which are systematically ignored.
2 When the need arose for trustees to administer the common fund at Jerusalem, the apostles did not claim the authority to choose the seven. Rather, they had the whole church to elect them. Not only that, they made it clear that teachers, which they were, should give primacy to teaching and not be cumbered with administration. Modern elders ignore both examples set here. They do not hesitate to choose deacons, being unwilling to trust the responsibility to the members. Moreover, they make administration primary and ignore the scriptural doctrine that the one fundamental requirement of an elder is that he be a skilled and experienced teacher. Not only that, they assume the sole responsibility of choosing the professional "minister" whose salary the members must pay. They set his salary without consultation with the church, and they give him his walking papers when they choose.
3. When the great doctrinal issue of whether gentiles must become Jews In order to be Christians arose at Jerusalem, the apostles did not assume the prerogative of settling this question, nor did the elders. It was done "together with the whole church. What is the case today? Elders alone boldly claim to be the sole authority as to what is orthodox in doctrine. When some women began to vocalize prayers in a small group in the Murfreesboro church cited above, they preemptively ordered it stopped, ruling that silence is bound upon women in all mixed groups.
4. When a decision was reached to send representatives to the gentile church at Antioch, the whole Jerusalem assembly was involved in the selection of the two. If early Christians, many of whom could not even read, and all of whom were without the New Testament and the experience .of history, could be trusted with such solemn decisions by the apostles, why is this example ignored today by elders? Why is there no longer .the congregational meeting for the purpose of decision-making and electrons? Are our moderns so much wiser than the apostles?
5. Paul, an apostle, and Barnabas had elders elected" (New International Version) "In each church" in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. The Greek wording makes it perfectly clear that Paul and Barnabas did not choose these elders. They doubtless laid hands on them after the congregation chose them. The word cheirotones, which has been translated "appoint" literally means elect by raising hands." If this was true of new churches, by what right do modern elders usurp this right which Paul clearly demonstrates by example belongs to the members? Yet this is exactly what our Murfreesboro church does, and with pathetic consequences. Since the members are denied any part in the process of choice of elders, naturally they do not know them. So recently it was announced that the elders would wear prominently displayed nameplates and stand at the exits so that the members could come to know their names and faces! What a preposterous prostitution of the New Testament allegorical representation of shepherds and sheep! Whoever heard of sheep not knowing their real shepherds? This travesty lies in the fact that these elders function as decision-makers, decisions being made in private! They do everything else by proxy. They admonish by proxy. All done, of course, in assembly by a hired professional. Maybe next they will start being Christians by proxy.
6. Paul wrote that the churches chose the unnamed brother who was to accompany the gift to the Jerusalem poor. But today the members do none of the choosing and the elders do all the choosing. If Paul took pains to record this incident, reflecting his obvious approval of this action by his brethren, why is this example so callously ignored in today's churches?
7. Titus did not choose the elders in every church as he completed the unfinished work in the island of Crete. He taught the members what kind of person elders must be. He only ordained them, or laid hands upon them, or "appointed" them to the service they were to fulfill after the members had chosen them. Why are modem elders, who themselves do the choosing, so much wiser and so much more authoritative than Titus, who worked under the personal direction of the apostle?
8. Jesus singled out the power to rule exercised in the political realm, and said that it had no place in his spiritual realm. "It shall not be so among you, he said directly to his disciples. If there is a direct command in the scriptures this is one of them. We have noted that the apostles followed his command. They did not make the decisions for the church. Their leadership was one by example and inspired teaching, not by dictate. Why did Jesus emphasize that the great in his kingdom must not be at the top of the pyramid, but at the very bottom as servants of all? One does not command from the bottom. One does not make decisions which are binding on others when he m at the bottom. The modern eldership has rejected the command of Jesus and put themselves as an elite at the peak of the pyramid. They do bind their will upon others. They do issue commands. They do demand unquestioning obedience to their will. They not only rule, they rule as absolute monarchs. Their decisions are not subject to review by anybody. They do not submit themselves to the many, they require the many to subject themselves to them.
I once attended a meeting of "men" called by the elders of the Murfreesboro church cited above. At one stage in the discussion a proposal was advanced. A member, obviously not too well unformed about Church of Christ orthodoxy on elders, said, "Mr. Chinaman, I move the adoption of this proposal. One of the elders, with flushed face, said in an angry tone, "There will be no motions here. You men can make suggestions, but we elders will meet and make the decisions. .
9. No elder has ever admitted that he has violated Peter's instructions not to "lord it over the flock." Our modern elder theory tries to draw a line between an arbitrary dictatorship and a benevolent one. The theory holds, that elders can rule with a hand of iron so long as it is encased in a benevolent glove. Unfortunately for this theory, ruling" and "lording it over means exactly the same thing. Hoy Ledbetter in Integrity in June, 1977, very effectively points out that the alternate translations of Peter's expression "lord it over" in nine different lexicons are: "hold in subjection ... be masters of ... exercise lordship over ... domineer over ... get into their power ... try to show their authority over ... or exercise power over God's heritage." Recently the elders in the Murfreesboro church cited above announced that they were going to hire an additional professional "minister." Shortly afterward they announced that they were going to tear down a residence owned by the church and build on the site a new and enlarged "auditorium." In neither case was the church forewarned or consulted, though the members would be expected to foot the bill for both ventures. Both decisions, please note, are binding upon a silent membership. If this is not in violation of Peter s prohibition, what possibly would be? As an aside, they did not say a new sanctuary. That would have been just like the "sects." The term "auditorium" Is appropriate for that is what the members do sit and audit.
10. The Apostle Paul's example in writing to the churches in Galatia and Corinth is in direct conflict with modern elder theory. There were serious doctrinal, fraternal, and disciplinary problems m both places. Yet Paul did not write the elders to straighten out these problems, he wrote the members and put the burden on the many. It is highly significant that in his letters Paul practically never mentioned elders. He looked to congregational responsibility and congregational action. Once more we note in modern "eldership theory," Paul's appeal to congregational autonomy is an ex ample to be avoided. It has been replaced by eldership autonomy.
11. By modern eldership theory Jesus himself is open to criticism for advising. a person who has been unable to settle a difficulty with a brother to "take it to the assembly. In the Church of Christ if anybody attempted to do this, he would be immediately "churched." The "rulers" have revised the instructions of Jesus to read "take it to the elders.
12. Jesus declared that "all authority m heaven and on earth" had been given to him. He has given to his disciples duties, responsibilities, and blessings, but to no man has Jesus ever given any authority. "All authority" still belongs to him. Elders who exercise authority over God's people are guilty of usurpation. ON matters of faith every disciple must follow his own conscience, and any authority who attempts to decide and enforce a faith matter for a brother denigrates him. On matters which affect each member of a group, those who are affected must decide: This is not an exercise of authority, but an exercise of the right inherent In every autonomous soul. Hence there is no place for elders to make decisions binding on other people.
There were elders in the assemblies of the Lord established by the apostles but no "eldership." The former were older and spiritually mature persons who were primarily teachers and also leaders by example. The latter is a collective authoritarian institution devoted to ruling and decision-making.
It has been demonstrated that Jesus in building his church did not create a power structure, and specifically denied the use of power to any of his disciples, saying, "It shall not be so among you." The modern eldership is a power-wielding body, arrogating to itself all decisions for the church, issuing excommunication bulls ("withdrawal of fellowship"), exercising total control over church property, declaring official orthodoxy, and practicing exclusive mastery over the church's money. This institution is on almost every count in conflict with Biblical command and example. The apostles left it to the disciples to choose the successor to Judas, but the modern eldership is a self-perpetuating body. The New Testament churches we know about chose in assembly (voting) the elders to be ordained to the work they were to do, but the modern eldership does the choosing. The apostles asked the members to choose the seven trustees of the common fund at Jerusalem, but the modern eldership hand-picks the deacons for the church. The apostles divested themselves of any control over the church money, but the modern eldership sees money control as one of their major functions. The apostles put teaching so far above administration that they rejected, administrative work to devote their tune .to teaching, but the modem eldership makes administration their central activity. The apostle Paul in all of his letters to the churches never once called upon the elders to settle disciplinary problems or put a doctrinally disoriented congregation back on the track. He saw such problems as the responsibility of the whole assembly. The modern eldership claims exclusive authority over doctrine and discipline, and the whole church never meets in assembly to act on anything. If a letter IS sent to a church today, it is held to be completely the concern of the eldership, and the only communications likely to be passed on to the congregation are the thank-you notes.
The theory of the modern eldership has extremely weak underpinning in the New Testament, resting in the main on two passages. The theory has fastened on the mistranslation of the King James version, which was dictated by royalist political theory, particularly I Timothy. 5:13, which makes elders into rulers. But the original Greek makes clear that elders are not rulers, but are to be "out front" in teaching and manner of life. The other Biblical prop for the authoritarian institution has been Hebrews 13:17: Obey them that have the rule over you. This passage has been made to demand total authority and total sub mission. But all of the modem translations properly render it, "Obey your leaders."
This sounds and is quite different and provides by no means a foundation for the power-packed institution called the eldership. Who were these leaders .to whom the author of Hebrews refers? Not necessarily elders at all - indeed, the two lists of leaders whom God has appointed to his church and given in I Cor. 12:27-30 and I Tim. 4:11 do not even include elders by name.
Hebrews identifies these leaders as follows: "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith." But perhaps nobody could balk at the suggestion that this is an ideal description of the role elders should play teaching and being an example. The word "obey" with reference to the leaders does not refer to a submissive acceptance of administrative rulings and decisions handed down from above, but to obeying the word of God as presented by his teachers and modeled in their lives. Elders are not over the body, but a part of the body, and owe as much submission to all of the members as the members owe submission to them. Paul made this mutual submisiveness clear in writing, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."
David Lipscomb, E.G. Sewell, and other pioneer Restorationists foresaw the rise of the eldership institution and constantly warned against it. Lipscomb pointed out that an elder is not an officer who holds an office with authority and powers like a sheriff or governor. He is not a decision-maker and he is not a ruler. Instead of filling an office and exercising certain powers, Lipscomb pointed out, he performs a work, the core of which is teaching. As a shepherd he feels the needs of each member and is a confidant and counselor. He leads by example and never by command. His role is to enable the congregation to make the decisions needed to make the body effective and to grow into maturity. By no means should the elders collectively supplant the church as the functioning body.
How did it come about that the congregation lost its autonomy and passed under authoritarian rule? Certainly this was not the case with the churches a century and a half ago. The answer to this question must be found in a number of factors: the rise of the pastoral system, the growth of Calvinism and legalism in the church theology, the influence of the corporation and organizational thought, the swing of church leadership toward right-wing political and social thought, a growing distrust of fraternity and democracy, and a special hostility toward the Baptists (from whom we came) who practiced congregational voting in the decision-making process.
It seems that the business world is more alert to the principle of congregational autonomy than is the eldership. When the elders of a Lebanon church sold some property willed to the congregation, a Presbyterian chancery judge voided the sale on the grounds that the congregation owned the property. The sale would be valid, only if the entire membership authorized it and all of the members signed the deed. When a Murfreesboro eldership bought a commercial site, the mortgage company refused to lend money for the purchase until the entire membership authorized the purchase. The state of Florida does not automatically accept elders as trustees of church property.
To the typical professional "minister, voting is a very dirty word. "Sects" vote, the true church avoids the practice of the sects. Moreover, this clergyman finds the eldership a supportive institution and so he has worked with might and main to build up the institution and make questioning the authority of the eldership tantamount to treason. Who has ever heard a preacher preach a sermon on the danger of power-seeking elders, such as Paul warned against in ad dressing the Ephesian elders?
The growth of legalism, which views the faith as a code of laws, has contributed to the growth of the eldership institution. Someone is needed to legislate, someone is needed to "watchdog" over the church to see that the code is followed, someone is needed to guard "dangerous" thinking, someone is needed to enforce uniformity and that someone is the modern authoritarian eldership. The corporation culture has been absorbed into religious thinking. It holds that the few must rule, the many must serve. It has bred a wholesale distrust of the capabilities and potentialities of the ordinary pew occupant.
The consequences of the eldership system are bad. First and foremost, it fails "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining the full measure of perfection found in Christ" (Eph. 4: 12). In denying the congregation the experience of decision-making and the give-and-take of interpersonal relations involved in discussion, it promotes immaturity. People who never have the responsibility of facing group problems and applying intellectual and spiritual resources to their solution will remain spiritually children.
The system makes religion impersonal. In the field of alms, It separates the giver from the gift. His whole experience is limited to dropping money in a plate. He does not follow it through to the concrete cases of charity, nor does he come face to face with the crises in which his gift and his personal involvement will help and console. Any Christian who turns over most of his to elders to spend is foolishly being robbed of the most enriching experiences of the Christian life.
The authoritarian system of control discourages creative thinking and fresh insights, imposes dull uniformity instead of unity in diversity, heightens legalism and judgmentalism, and makes fear rather than love a controlling force. When elders abandon their teaching role, they build clericalism until the point is reached where the only person ever to appear in a teaching role in the assembly is a professional pulpiteer. The hierarchical system tends to promote intolerance as opposed to openness and free interpersonal relations. It reduces the members from participants to attendants. It discourages study and dia logue and puts the stamp of approval on passivity. It promotes division.
It is ironic that at the very time even "high church" denominations are moving toward greater member ship participation and decision-making at the congregational level (Lutheran churches, for example, call their pastors by a two-thirds membership vote), the Church of Christ is moving in the direction of the new authoritarian and totalitarian sects like Moon's and the Scientologists.
As the eldership system moves steadily in the direction of totalitarianism by the use of power over the church, it moves further away from the example and command of Jesus. Jesus totally rejected sacra mental power in refusing to cast himself from the pinnacle of the Temple, he again turned his back on the utilization of power to manipulate people. In rejecting mastery of the political world as the means of establishing his kingdom, Jesus chose the powerless route to create a people of his own. The constitution which he gave for the kingdom of heaven in the sermon of the mount makes no provision for the employment of power. It is high time that we rediscover the power less polity of Jesus.