The Rule of Elders
On the Relation of Elders and Congregations
Revised and Expanded
by Dale Smelser
The following pages examine a subject of growing interest -- the work of elders. I am confident the continuing discussion and study will help us focus ever more accurately upon the New Testament teaching about this important theme.
This material, critical of some concepts in some places, is not all or mostly negative. It strives to set forth a positive picture of the role of appointed shepherds in the churches. And more than dismay at the conduct of some churches and elders, I have profound regard for the men who by study, spiritual growth, and family influence have equipped themselves to meet the qualifications of the Holy Spirit, and who lead God's people in the ways of truth and righteousness, who teach and counsel and rescue. The reader will find here a high and appreciative view of the leadership designed for the people of God, and especially as it resides in elders.
Having served as an elder, like my father before me, I appreciate the sacrifices of such men. I am compelled, and happily so, "to esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work's sake" (I Thessalonians 5:13). I appreciate the elders who have. encouraged me as a preacher, and more specifically have encouraged the presentation of this material.
It was a fair-sized congregation blessed with an abundance of men. But those men did not seem to grow much. Few had their abilities utilized or developed. They were just there.
There were two active and very visible elders. They exclusively taught the adult Bible classes ("elders must be apt to teach"). They kept their own counsel, did all their planning alone, and implemented decisions of which the congregation was often unaware until the semi-annual congregational meeting with the elders. Well, it was not so much a meeting with the elders as it was an update by the elders about all they had planned and done. And that was sometimes impressive. The congregation listened, was asked nothing, and said nothing. It was all very neat and efficient.
Occasionally a member might timorously venture a suggestion to the elders. There was the suggestion that instead of the elders making the announcements at every service, various men could share in that little task. More participation might encourage some leadership development, and it would probably be good for children to see their fathers before the congregation more often than the few times a year possible where so many shared so few opportunities. The considered opinion of the conscientious elders was that they had better retain that responsibility as the men might say something wrong. When it was suggested that the announcements might be listed beforehand and given to the announcers, the answer in confident rectitude was, "We thought about that, but decided that since we are supposed to run things, we will just run them." And that was that.
The alarming thing is that some would see nothing wrong with the notions of such elders, even if they might not like all the consequences. After all, elders are appointed to oversee. Accordingly, the tenor of some articles in recent years would lead one to hold the above elders' stance unassailable. If perhaps not an example of the best judgment, it is still the elders' judgment to make. And it is the responsibility of the flock to submit without question.
Is the problem here just a case of overseers not using the best judgment? Or is it possible that it reflects conceptual error? Have some confused overseeing with authoritarian control? The keyword is authoritarian, "exercising complete or almost complete control over the will of others" (Random House Dictionary). There are occasional affirmations for this kind of control by the elders over the congregation. Of course, it is always asserted that elders must exercise this control without being lords. But there is a logical impossibility in all that. And the practical result is to canonize the will of elders and make their judgments imperative. That is authoritarian. And that is the stuff of lords. If that is what the Bible calls for, so be it. There are many good and effective leaders who as elders are not exercising all the power they might. But if this is not what the Bible teaches, there are concepts about the eldership that need addressing.
But considering the words rule, oversight, and submission, can there be any alternative to authoritarian control? The answer lies in the difference between overseeing and controlling; in leadership that, instead of dominating, develops, leads, and shepherds a high degree of participation by the congregation in its affairs. The solution lies in the kind of rule elders have. Join me in a study of the rule of elders in these next few pages.
Some Careless Thinking
"If the elders decide it, that is their responsibility. It is my responsibility to support them." While a Christian would want to avoid a rebellious attitude toward elders, he must realize that the elders cannot answer for him in the judgment if he follows them in what is wrong. They can only answer for their own actions and whether or not they were responsibly watchful and provided him with good leadership. The very simple principle taught by Jesus about following the traditions (established judgments) urged by the scribes and Pharisees, holds with regard to all men, including elders. What the Pharisees said sitting in Moses' seat, teaching the law, Jesus said to do. But when they left that and imposed tradition, however, hallowed by time, Jesus said, "If the blind lead the blind, they shall both fall into the ditch" (Matthew 15:14). If the elders instigate that which is wrong, the child of God cannot follow. Not only will such elders perish, but also those who follow them. They both fall into the ditch.
There was once a question of fairness involved in a presbyterian decision. Fairness has to do with mercy, justice, and righteousness. Unfairness can stand correcting. Disturbed and frustrated, one disciple said in hopeless resignation, "I am heartsick, but I have never questioned an elder in my life." If that is the attitude the Bible enjoins toward elders, brethren could not heed Paul's warning about those who were "grievous wolves" (Acts 20:29-30). There would be no way to stay digression headed by elders.
And when it comes to withdrawing, what do we hear? Often it is, "The elders withdrew from sister Spiteful." Such declarations betray a view of withdrawal as a formal pronouncement by the elders, who by the imposition of their decision have just closed the door of salvation. In the first place, it is not a decision for the elders to make unilaterally. The Spirit said to the saints at Corinth, "Ye being gathered together ... with the power of our Lord Jesus, to deliver ... unto Satan" (I Corinthians 5:4-5). From what we learn elsewhere, elders certainly would exercise leadership in all that culminated in that, and they would watch over the brethren as the brethren determined this action, but it was the obedient will of the congregation, not the elders, that was exercised here. The saints faced the necessity of backing away from relationships with the erring brother, leaving him the company of Satan, unrelieved by theirs. Thus at Corinth, the saints did not just listen to an announcement by the elders. The apostolic order was directed to the flock, and they in mutual resolve withdrew their company from the impenitent one.
Some seem to suppose that having elders withdraw from someone removes their name from the book of life. It does nothing of the sort. Elders do not control the door of salvation, to open and shut. Jesus does that (Revelation 3:7). Withdrawal derives from the recognition by brethren that one is for the moment irreconcilably rebellious to the rule of heaven, and that they can no longer company with him. On the other hand, if God accepts someone, elders who may pronounce them withdrawn-from perform their action as vainly as did Diotrephes (III John 10). And if God does not accept someone, ten thousand elderships extending him fellowship cannot make him acceptable.
And some have acceded such an authoritarian role to elders that any relationship of congregational members is deemed to operate under elderly dispensation. Such was the case when a group of women was planning a baby shower for an expectant young mother. One of them spoke up with urgent propriety, "Have you asked the elders?" The spiritual shepherds of God's people do not oversee showers. They would be concerned if drinking or gambling occurred there, or if the rich were so feted and the poor neglected, but one is hard put to find a scripture that makes baby showers their domain. Wise and godly elders know this.
Authoritarian Rule Prohibited
In studying the rule of elders it will be good to remember the versatility of words. The same word often has different shades of meaning, and even occasionally contrary meanings. For instance, what does "fast" mean? It can mean to go without eating. It can mean to bind tightly. Or it can mean quick. What does "quick" mean? It may mean fast, or inner feeling ("He cut me to the quick"), or it can mean alive (the quick and the dead). What does "cleave" mean? It may mean to part or divide. It also means to adhere closely, to cling.
Likewise, the English word rule in the Bible has various meanings. To understand what it teaches about elders, we must arrive at the one that fits the context of each passage and harmonizes with everything else the Holy Spirit has said about the conduct of elders. The necessity of rule having various applications is evident in the fact that our one word rule translates eight different words in the original text of the New Testament, two nouns and six verbs. Ignoring this and assuming one limited usage of the word rule has created a tension between elders performing their rule and trying not to be lords. Sometimes the tension is ignored and rule is just exerted in an authoritarian manner. After all, we know what "rule" means, we suppose.
The Greek words that are not used to describe the rule of elders are as significant as the ones that are. The words having to do with principality and power (arche, archo) are not used. The word for master (despotes) is not used. The word used for province or measuring standard (kanon) is not used. Simply put, authoritarian words are not used. Now one does not have to know all that, and it is not necessary to delve into the Greek if one will make a careful and unassuming study of his English translations and apply the word "rule" in accordance with all the requirements and limitations of the role of elders. That will avoid the mistake of arbitrarily seizing one convenient but incorrect meaning.
Disciples should certainly reject authoritarian rule by elders, seeing elders are precluded from "lording it over the flock" (I Peter 5:3). The word translated "lording over" means, "to domineer, to exercise complete control" (Reineker, A Linguistic Key to the Greek N.T.). Remember, "authoritarian" means, "exercising complete or almost complete control over the will of others." Thus, lording it over the flock and being authoritarian is the same thing. Elders are forbidden to be authoritarian, to assume complete control.
Dominion and Authority
Responding to the strife among the apostles about power and greatness in the kingdom, Jesus said, "Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them (exercise dominion, KJV) and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you" (Matthew 20:25-26). Jesus forbids the exercise of dominion and authority by some over others in the kingdom. To "exercise dominion" means, "rule ... over someone or something" (BAG). Bietenhard defines it, "rule over, subjugate, lord it over" (Dictionary of NT Theology, Vol. II, p. 510). Please note that to have dominion means to rule. This kind of rule is forbidden to men among God's people. Of necessity, there is a rule that elders do not have. But someone may note that other passages in some versions talk of the rule of elders. That is exactly the observation we need to make. The English word "rule" in the Bible has different applications. There is a rule elders do not have. And there is a rule elders do have. Unfortunately, some have supposed that since elders are to rule, they are in an authoritarian position.
To "exercise dominion" is a kind of rule forbidden to elders. The word translated "exercise dominion" also appears in the Septuagint in this text: "Give the King thy judgments, 0 God ... He shall have dominion from sea to sea" (Psalms 72:1,8). Elders do not have the kind of rule kings have.
The same word is used concerning the law, "which hath dominion over a man so long a time as he liveth" (Romans 7:1). The law has dominion. "Not so" shall anyone have such authority in the church. The rule of elders must fall somewhere short of the force of law. Apart from the authority to bind what is bound in heaven and ruling by that, not even the apostles claimed to have such personal authority. Paul said, "Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy" (II Corinthians 1:24).
The other thing Jesus prohibited is authority. The word translated authority is used in the Septuagint and rendered "power" in the King James Version: "For the king's word hath power; and who may say unto him, what doest thou?" (Ecclesiastes 8:4). You do not question the decision of the king, but no men, including elders, have that kind of unquestioned authority and personal rule in Christ's kingdom. The same word is used of husbands and wives where each has power (authority) over the body of the other. Remember, this is the extent of authority Jesus forbids in kingdom relationships. And when one remembers that the power the husband has over the body of his wife must be tempered by deference (I Peter 3:7) and love (Ephesians 5:28), he realizes that the rule of elders must be even a more tempered rule. Elders do not have over the flock what husbands and wives have over the bodies of one another. Not having that kind of power, elders must not act with the authority of a boss or board of directors, making all the decisions and imposing them by announcement. Those who advocate that have misunderstood the elders' role. They also disobey Christ.
"That Have the Rule"
"Obey them that have the rule over you" (Hebrews 13:17). To appreciate the word translated, "have the rule," one finds it profitable to see its use elsewhere. The word, hegeomai, is consistently defined as, "to lead, guide" (e.g., Rienecker, BAG, Vine, Alford, H. Meyer). Such conservative works as Berry and Young have "Obey your leaders." Likewise, the NASV says, "Remember those who led you" (Hebrews 13:7). "Obey your leaders" (Hebrews 13:17) and, "Greet all your leaders" (Hebrews 13:24). Observe that the word translated "rule" and "ruler" in some versions is translated "lead" and "leader" in others. It has to do with leadership, not dominion.
The undiscerning might point out that hegeomai describes a quality of eminence possessed by chiefs, princes and commanders, authoritarian figures all. But in possessing this quality, such authoritarian figures share it with others who are not in authoritarian roles. It refers to a quality that causes men to follow. The term itself does not connote authority, and authority is not the only way to have chiefness or this kind of rule, or leadership. In the kingdom, being chief (hegeomai) is accomplished by service (Luke 22:25-26), and power such as princes have is forbidden.
Significantly, Thayer defines this word, "leading as respects influence, controlling in counsel." Please note that the position is one exerted by influential counsel, not by dogmatic control. Another example given by Thayer, where the word is used as defined, is where Judas and Silas are described as "chief" or "leading" (hegeomai) men, chosen to go to Antioch by the apostles, the elders, and the whole church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22). The term translated "have the rule" then is not something that applies only to elders.
Indeed, our application of Hebrews 13:17 to elders must derive more from their watching for our souls (overseeing), than from their position of having rule or leadership. For the chapter earlier says, "Remember them that had the rule (hegeomai) over you, men that spake unto you the word of God" (Hebrews 13:7). The leading or ruling influence of those teachers was due to what they taught. But the same term that describes the influence of elders describes them. Again, elders are not the only ones designated "rulers" or "leading men." There are those of Hebrews 13:7. There are those of Luke 22:26. And there are those of Acts 15:22. If this word applied to elders and translated "rule" means to run things, it also requires other chief or leading men to whom it is applied to run things.
In conclusion, the kind of rule commissioned by hegeomai is not the exclusive province of elders. Nor does the meaning of the word equip elders with authoritarian control of a congregation. It is a term referring to any who are chief in influence, who lead (rule) by the influence of their counsel. Elders, those who watch for our souls, do this. Those who speak the word of God do this. So do other chief men.
There is a compound word that means obedience to authority. Peter used it when he said, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Paul used it when he said, "Be in subjection to rulers, to authorities ... be obedient" (Titus 3:1). That is not the term used of our relationship to those who as shepherds watch for our souls (Hebrews 13:17). There the term means "obey, follow" (BAG), "to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with" (Thayer), "to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey" (Vine). The obedience in this word is not subjection to orders and pronouncements, but following and yielding to respected persuasion. In this arrangement where the leader bears the burden of persuasion, he acknowledges brotherhood for, not dominance over, the follower. And the follower shows pliant respect for, not mindless enslavement to, the leader. Thus Vine states: "The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion" (emphasis added).
From this, and the former word designating those soul-watchers as leaders, it is the responsibility of elders to be of such stature (possessing chiefness earned by service) that they can lead by persuasion rather than by command. In appointing qualified men as pastors as directed by the Holy Spirit, we have chosen to respond to their leadership, and are to give them our support, cooperation, and encouragement. God's flock yields to good shepherds.
But simply being designated "bishop" does not equip a person to fulfill that role. If he does not possess the Spirit-authored qualifications, he is not equipped to so function. He will likely resort to being authoritarian to maintain control. Remember there are some who would lead that are self-serving and that do not deserve to be followed (John 10:12-13; Acts 20:28-30). Brethren, do not put such men in a place of such noble responsibility as the eldership. Do not appoint men unless they have proven to you by their qualifications that you can and should follow them in serving Christ. But so far in our study, we still lack anything that would suggest that elders are to meet, make all decisions privately, announce them, and that the congregation is to accept such announcement as fixed law.
In this term, we have the strongest word used to keep the flock from arrogant insubordination, and to stop divisive competition by anyone who may be jealous of the respect accorded qualified elders. There are people who chafe at the fact that others have more influence than they. They gain attention, and hope for a sympathetic response, by questioning everything the congregation does following the leadership of the elders. The text says rather to "submit" (Hebrews 13:17). That means to "yield to," be "retiring" in relation to them.
When elders "rule well" we are to esteem them. If they are the kind of men they ought to be, we know that in matters of judgment the leadership they provide is not self-serving, but out of consideration for the whole congregation. If the consensus they bring about should conflict with my personal preference this time, let me yield, retiring my preference, and likewise act for the good of the flock. This is easy to do when elders have a reputation for thoughtfulness, fairness, and honor.
It takes special leadership to bring about consensus and that kind of respect. It takes arrogance to hand down decrees. The one is scriptural. The latter is not. To the former, let me defer. The word says, as Berry renders it, "Be submissive." Others emphasize, "yield, fig. give way, submit to someone's authority" (BAG); "to give way, yield..., Metaph. to yield to authority and admonition, to submit" (Thayer).
Ah, there is our word, authority. Elders do have authority. Yes, but that does not make them authoritarian. What authority do they have? To lead, not to be boss. Remember, there is rule elders have. There is a rule they do not have. And there is a kind of authority that is in keeping with that scriptural verdict.
Authority is first defined, "The body or person exercising power or command" (Oxford English Dictionary). That is the kind of authority elders do not have (I Peter 5:3). That is the kind of authority Christ has (Matthew 28:18). That is the kind of personal power no one else in the kingdom has (Matthew 20:25-26).
Another definition of authority is, "Power to influence the conduct and actions of others; personal or practical influence" (Ibid.). That is the authority that harmonizes with what the scriptures teach us about leaders among God's people. Their power to influence comes from their recognized knowledge and godly character. Men who possess specific qualities ordained by the Holy Spirit are to be appointed to overall leadership. These are elders. Children of God are to respect and get behind them. If they become self-willed in their leading if they behave imperiously, the flock placed them where they are, and the flock can and ought to set them aside. They are no longer qualified. The flock is not required to submit to the magisterial ambitions of "straying wolves" (Acts 20:29-30).
Right and Wrong Rule
Here is a young church. The challenge of such demands sacrifice. The members join in planning and work. Being aware of what goes on and being a part of it creates high interest. Responsibility for the work keeps the kingdom central to their lives. The Lord blesses their effort and presently they judge they have men qualified to be elders. Elders are appointed. Things change. No more do they have a part in planning. Plans are made for them. Nor do they have much, if anything, to say about what preachers they support. Everything is decided for them.
Deacons are appointed and occupy a spiritual wasteland. Occasionally, the elders may ask a deacon to run some errand or perform some detail to facilitate what they have planned and enjoined. And the flock prays: "We are thankful for our elders and the work they do and the decisions they make." If there is not as much overall participation, at least the members, relieved of so much responsibility, do attend and give their money to be spent in whatever way the elders decide. Lack of involvement cools the earlier sense of urgency, and the members settle into a gentle complacency. Comfort replaces sacrifice. In which state did that congregation sound more like the body of Christ?
Scriptural elders can maintain that former interest and participation while they provide respected and mature counsel and direction: They oversee (see-over) all that participation instead of preempting it. It is unfortunate that some think of overseers as bosses. They would appraise them more accurately if they saw them as leaders seeing over (watching and caring for) a high degree of participation by all the saints in their shared affairs as a congregation.
Rule in I Timothy 5:17 and I Timothy 3:4-5
Can we be more detailed in describing the kind of rule elders have? We studied one of the words translated rule, hegeomai, which means to lead, guide. Another word, proistemi, is used when Paul speaks of elders who "rule well" (I Timothy 5:17). It will give us something with which we may compare the rule of elders. It means, "placed in front" (Vincent), "lit. 'to stand before,' hence to lead, attend to" (Vine). Several sources note "helping" and "giving care" involved in the word. Discussing its usage where it speaks of those who are "over you," or who "take the lead of you" (1 Thess 5:12), Coenen says, "They help (proistemi) others to live rightly and therefore deserve special esteem and love" (Dictionary of N.T. Theology, Vol 1, p. 197).
The idea of rule as being in front of in taking care of something reminds us that we have a scriptural illustration of the rule of elders. Among their qualifications Paul declares, "But if a man knoweth not how to rule (proistemi) his own house, how shall he take care of the church?" Proistemi describes a responsibility a man has to his house, as well as the responsibility elders have to the congregation. It is also used in the command, "Learn to maintain good works" (Titus 3:14). The idea of helping and maintaining explains why Paul compares this kind of rule to "taking care of." This term is not authoritarian but denotes the significant task of standing before to lead, to maintain and take care of thereby. This is the role of elders, rather than there being a dominating body to plan and dispose of separately and independently from the flock.
The Worthy Woman: Inclusive Participation
Following up on Paul's comparison of elders and congregation to a man and his house, his using the same word to describe a commonness of their respective roles, we observe that elders have a relation to the congregation similar to that of man and family. The argument is made only that there is a similar function of husbands and elders, not identical. The husband also stands as the head of his family, while the only head known to the church is Christ. But if the rule of husbands allows input and decision participation by those for whom he is responsible, then the rule of elders must allow the same.
Would it be the ideal home of the Bible where the husband made all the decisions by himself and just announced them to family gatherings, with no one else having any determination relative to a family function? The husband by himself decides when the groceries will be bought, when the meals will be served, and what the menu of each shall be. He decides the decor of the house, and what friends his wife may entertain. Rather than things being done with consideration and respect for his counsel and leadership, every detail of family life must be submitted to him to await his decision, and anyone strongly wishing otherwise than his dictum is considered a rebellious malcontent. I hope this does not sound like your home, but it does sound very much like the concept some have about the rule of elders.
Observing the divine correlation between a man and his house and the function of elders, consider God's characterization of a worthy woman in the house of her husband (Proverbs 31:10-31). She, rather than her husband, assigned her maidens their tasks (Proverbs 31:15). She considered a field and bought it (Proverbs 31:16). It was bought on her judgment. She managed the household (Proverbs 31:27). All details and plans did not have to originate with and be activated by the husband. In agreement, the New Testament instructs the wife to rule the household (I Timothy 5:14), a word signifying the actual management, rather than the word used of the rule of husbands and elders signifying overall leadership. Did her husband think she took too much to herself? Did he threaten her by telling her that she did not respect God's appointed authority? Was he threatened by her initiative and participation in running the affairs of the family? What he did was call her blessed and praise her (Proverbs 31:28). A wife is subject to her husband and answerable to him in all things, but that does not preclude such initiative and participation as exercised by the worthy woman.
This is all pertinent because the inclusive participation of others in the family is permitted in what a husband does in ruling his house. And the word that describes that rule is the word that describes the rule of elders.
The validity of that comparison, indicating a high degree of participation by a congregation in its affairs and decisions is borne out in New Testament examples. When servants were needed who would be appointed over a task (Acts 6:3), the congregation selected them, even with the presence of apostles. Elders should note this scriptural precedent and lead the congregation to do that, rather than the elders doing all the selecting. The elders could and should point out any non-qualified selection. Another observation is that these servants did not simply put plates and food before the needy, they were over that task. Elders would not plan all the logistics and assign tasks. That was to be done by others, deacons if you please. They would be subject to the counsel of the elders, to be sure, but the elders should relinquish to them the right of judgment and initiative, just as the worthy woman bought the field she considered. The congregation chose the servants for the task. Those men were then over that work. Some say elders are over the work of the congregation. That is only secondarily so and is the wrong emphasis. What they are over is the flock that does the work (Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2).
Another picture of congregational participation in its affairs is seen in the actions growing out of the dispute in Antioch over Gentile circumcision. Because the false teachers causing the disturbance at Antioch had come from Jerusalem, discussion with the elders at Jerusalem was sought, along with that of the apostles who were there. Who in Antioch made the decision to send someone and whom to send? "The brethren" (Acts 15:2). Those words are in italics (ASV) but "brethren" is the proper antecedent for the "they" (KJV) who sent. Rienecker says, "The subject of the verb implies that the brethren at Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas" (Op. cit.). Where there are elders who would consider that an infringement on their authority, the Bible needs to be read more carefully. The word rendered "appointed" means also "to arrange." That accords with the fact that on their journey Paul and Barnabas were "brought on their way by the church" (Acts 15:3). The brethren decided. They appointed. They arranged. They accomplished it. And this with evidence of elders in place (Acts 14:23).
The impact of this is seen when we observe what happens in some places today. The elders would meet and choose the men and announce who they were to the congregation. Those men would thank the elders for their confidence in them. They would declare to all that they had been sent by the elders. Furthermore, they would send back their reports to the elders, not for the convenience of address, or simply to the leaders of those who sent them, but because that is whom they consider responsible for their being sent. In all the sending, coming and going in the book of Acts, does that sound like anything you read there? Now, the elders there had leadership and oversight, but one perceives that it was not authoritarian and that the congregations practiced a high degree of participation in their own affairs.
And note what happened in Jerusalem as Luke details the events. "They were received of the church and the apostles and the elders" (Acts 15:4). It was not a private session with the elders, the church was present. And in that assembly, some of the Pharisees insisted upon circumcision of Gentiles; in effect that they become Jews. A subsequent meeting was called where the apostles, the Lord's ambassadors, and the elders, the leaders of the flock from whence the troublemakers had come, would see about this matter. Again, it was not a closed-door session. "All the multitude" (Acts 15:12) listened to Peter, his speech initiated by much questioning, then to Barnabas and Paul. Then they considered James' application of the prophet Amos, who by inference had declared the day of Gentiles coming to God as Gentiles. There was no need for circumcision.
Of this occasion, McGarvey says: "After the Pharisees had stated their position ... the assembly adjourned without discussing the question. The second meeting is announced ... Neither this nor the first meeting was composed exclusively of the apostles and the elders...from verse 22 we learn that the church was now present" (Commentary on Acts). There is a remarkable consensus about this second meeting: 'The consultation of the apostles and presbyters...thus put forward here afresh, was not confined to themselves...but took place in presence, and with the assistance, of the whole church assembled together, as is evident from ver. 12" (H.A.W. Meyer); "A special meeting of the church was called to consider the matter" (A.C. Hervey); "All the multitude, the whole mass, of those present, implying a much larger number than the apostles and elders" (J.A. Alexander); "...the delineation of the apostles and elders implied the presence of the brethren also, who are intended by (all the multitude)" (H. Alford); "The church is not named here as in verse 4, but we know from verses 12 and 22 that the whole church came together this time along with the apostles and elders" (A.T. Robertson).
This was a problem in, and of concern to, the congregation. What took place was not a sequestered council of the church hierarchy. Nor was it a private elders' meeting which would deliberate and then announce to the assembly its decision. Rather, the congregation was present, heard the convincing evidence, and joined in the conclusion and in sending greeting to the Gentile converts. Such greeting was sent orally and by letter. Note the congregation's participation. "Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men out of their company, and send them to Antioch..and they wrote...The apostles and elders and (KJV) brethren, unto the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch...greeting" (Acts 1522-23).
It is impressive how meticulously the Holy Spirit reiterates the participation of the congregation in all this. Here is a precedent illustrating the function of elders and congregation. Any oversight that excludes similar participation is not scriptural oversight. Any oversight that determines everything apart from congregational participation, and simply announces its decision to which all are obligated to submit upon pain of rejecting God's appointed authority, has rejected God's authority. The congregation in the New Testament is a community, a body, with a designated leadership. The authoritarian eldership concept is a vestige of the evolved Roman hierarchy, which trusts the members in controlled "worship," but. blocks further significant participation in the operation of the community. Restoration requires a return to the ancient order.
One would expect individual elders to confer on matters relating to the flock. It would be an inadequate leadership that went into each assembly without any idea of where the flock generally needed to go. But their conversations must not result in decrees. The Holy Spirit requires elders to be "not self-willed" (Titus 1:7). They must not insist on their way. That inferentially eliminates the concept that in matters of judgment their consultations are to produce final decisions to be imposed by the mere announcement, refusing any other participation. That is being self-willed. Let them remember that they are fallible and that it is not necessary for their finger to be on every detail. of the work, and that determining every detail is not their province. It is their task in transforming ideas into purpose and action, to work in concert with the brethren, persuading as leaders. That is involved, remember, in the definition of the words in Hebrews 13:17. And persuasion necessitates presentation to, and the participation of, the persuaded. If men cannot lead under such circumstances, they are not qualified to lead as shepherds, as elders.
If they have a factious and sinfully rebellious flock that will not yield in some matter of truth, they simply may have to separate the obedient and lead them to safety. The faithful will esteem and follow faithful shepherds and God will take note favorably. If hurtful separation takes place over judgment or policy, sin is surely present. It may be among the flock. What is not sometimes recognized is that it may also be among the elders and their lack of ability, and hence qualification, to lead. It could be because of their unscriptural authoritarian rule. But not every rebellion against elders is against authoritarian elders. Heretics rebel against good men.
The Glorious Paradox
In all this inclusive participation we must not conclude that the congregation is to function as a pure democracy. Christ established function by leadership. There are, after all, those who are chief (Luke 22:26), first (Matthew 20:27), and leaders (Hebrews 13:7,17). He did not intend for minimum knowledge and brash assertiveness to have equal influence with wisdom, proven service, and spiritual maturity, as can happen in a democracy. So while Christ banishes personal authority and dominion, he has ordained a leadership by the mature, the exemplary, the spiritually experienced, and the knowledgeable. It was the job of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to perfect the rest (Ephesians 4:11-12). Whether these were gifted or not is not the point. It was the truth and spiritual wisdom abiding in them that gave them leadership, however, it resided there. This spiritual leadership finds a continued residence in his shepherds, elders. While other good and knowledgeable disciples may exercise leadership, Paul demonstrated respect for the assigned leadership of elders by calling the elders at Ephesus to him at Troas for a final personal reminder of their responsibilities (Acts 20:17-38). Significantly, we are not told to follow the novice and the immature, or ones who covet influence without attaining the necessary qualifications of character, knowledge, and experience.
The glorious paradox that keeps the domineering from power is that leadership among the people of God is to reside in those who have been humbled by service (Matthew 20:27), as exemplified in Jesus as he washed the disciples' feet. By this, he emphasized that he was in their midst as one who served (Luke 22:27). Leadership by people most nearly approximating the nature of God emphasizes the ultimate leadership of God Himself. When we accord leadership only to such, we shall have the leadership purposed by God. Human will and personality shall not dominate, and human pride will not be empowered.
The paradox: Leaders established by serving. Leadership without dominion. Being first by service rather than by power.
Oversight: The Distinguishing Responsibility
There is one significant word left for us to study in relation to the nature of the rule of elders: oversight (I Peter 5:2). The word to some has an authoritarian connotation. But Westcott says of episcopea, translated "exercising the oversight," "to watch over, to watch out for. The word expresses the careful regard of those who occupy a position of responsibility" (A Linguistic Key to the Greek NT). How beautifully that harmonizes with the responsibility of elders who in the exercise of their rule, "take care of the church of God." The term translated "oversee" is also rendered "looking carefully, lest there be any man that falleth short of the grace of God" (Hebrews 12:15).
All this illuminates the instruction to elders to "Tend the flock of God among you, exercising the oversight" (I Peter 5:2). Oversight is exercised by tending, taking care of, watching over. Oversight does not mean being in rigid control. Elders are to lead, activating the group, seeing-over the assembly as it works, and giving example and counsel, not directives. There is. nothing in the word "oversight," or any information related to our study, that authorizes a group of men to run things by meeting privately and issuing consequential authoritarian pronouncements. That is having dominion. Oversight and dominion are not the same. One decides and imposes. The other watches over. Scriptural elders do the latter. It takes special men to be able to lead that way. Real elders are that kind of men.
The Scriptural Emphasis
I remember when the growing congregation I attended in my teens worked to appoint elders and deacons. There was a prevalent concept we intended to "correct," the idea that said, "Elders are over the spiritual matters of the congregation and deacons are over the material matters." While there is room for reservation about how that statement may be understood, it is time for some to get back to something akin to it.
The perceptual problem with the statement is that it may lead to a separation of responsibility so as to give deacons such independence and authority, that it leads to a "board of deacons" collectively supervising all the affairs of the congregation. This is the status in some denominations where the deacons "run things," instead of being subordinated to the will of the congregation under the overall leadership of the elders. Our aim in those heady days was to make sure the elders, were "over all the work of the church." The problem with that was to make elders managers of all the details that should have been delegated to deacons, who scripturally are to be "appointed over," over, specific and limited functional tasks (Acts 6:3).
Our misguided efforts institutionalized the eldership into business managers. That spreading concept lent to the developing idea a brotherhood of churches, or church business units that could be linked through empowered elderships, and thus to the general institutionalism that followed. Conversely, if leaders are limited to watching over the spiritual well-being of separate local flocks, each with groups of servants limited to their assigned specific local tasks, there is organizational inhibition to connecting the work of various congregations. The mechanism just does not exist. The evolution of authoritarian elderships over every detail of function contributed to institutionalizing the work of churches.
As noted earlier, the scriptural emphasis is not that elders are over the work of the church, the scriptural expression is that they are over the brethren (I Thessalonians 5:12). The focus of elders' work should be on leading (hegeomai - ruling), watching (Hebrews 13:17), feeding (spiritually, Acts 20:28), tending (I Peter 5:2), being examples (1 Pet 5:3), teaching and protecting (Titus 1:9). Spiritual things. While their role is not identical to husbands and fathers, they do share the role of standing before to lead (proistemi), and "taking care of" (I Timothy 3:4-5). Their overall leadership is emphasized by the fact that funds sent from elsewhere for their needy were to be delivered into their hands (Acts 11:27-30). But following the apostolic order, the funds would be administered by the appropriate deacons (Acts 6:1-4). As with the apostles, elders need to give themselves more to the spiritual aspect of the kingdom and leave mere administration to others (Acts 6:2-4).
Elders are older brethren who know their Bibles. You can call on them for caring counsel and depend on their spiritual wisdom. Their examples and faithfulness nourish and exhort the congregation. They lovingly watch over the spiritual community of believers in their midst, to secure each soul and bring scriptural and practical consensus through their Christ devoted leadership. They embody the courage and selflessness of shepherds as they guard the flock of Christ against self-seeking and digressive influences. Let someone else see to paving the parking lot.
Some elders run a tight ship. They see the implementation of every phase of the work as their prerogative. Though they may occasionally consult a few members, there is no sense of real congregational participation, and all decisions ultimately are made by them autonomously.
Others by leadership activate the congregation, involving the members of the body in the planning and deciding process. They work for consensus, not just for a majority; for unanimity of action, if not unanimity of preference. Deacons are selected by the congregation and set over specific matters. Rather than the elders deciding every detail of function, the deacons, responsible to them and the congregation enlist whatever help they need. The groups of deacons do not link up to become an official board. Their responsibilities are expended by serving in the respective specific tasks they are set over. The flock thus activated is watched over, counseled, and guarded from heresy and sin by mature, exemplary men, elders.
In one circumstance, there is authoritarian action treating the congregation as a domain to be controlled by the will and talents of men who wield power. Jesus forbade such dominion among the subjects of his kingdom. In the second there is obedience to a scriptural statement, inference, and precedent.
The words the apostles used of the function of elders are not authoritarian terms. People in authoritarian positions may possess those qualities, but they get their authority elsewhere, not from those terms. The ruling the Holy Spirit designates is done by leading and guiding, caring for. Obedience to elders is not irresponsible yielding to personal power, but submitting to scriptural instruction in matters of doctrine, and to godly persuasion in matters of judgment, while participating in determining things, such as whom to fellowship in support, for example (Acts 15:1-3). The sense of the word oversee emphasizes watching for, not operating, running and dominating. It is the term used to emphasize the protecting role of Jesus when he is described as bishop (guardian, NASV) of our souls (I Peter 2:25). If it is pointed out that Jesus is to control our lives, that is obviously true, but not as a result of being episcopos (bishop, guardian), but because he is also Lord. Elders are the former. They are not the latter.
A good close might be this clarifying observation: "Oversight means loving care and concern ... it must never be used
for personal aggrandizement" (Dictionary of N.T. Theology,
Vol. I, p. 191). "Authoritarian oversight' was avoided in the early church (Ibid.).
It is my desire that this be a worthy contribution to the study of the role of the noble men God wants leading his children. May all who study these pages be blessed in their pursuit of truth, and may what truth is here find place in their hearts and understanding, and may elders and all of us constantly strive to bring our actions, yea, "Every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (II Corinthians 10:5).