Let me start out by stating that this article is not an indictment of any particular congregation and elders, but there seems to be a lot of controversy and confusion that revolves around the work and the authority of the elders within our Lord's church today. There are even false teachers that deny the authority and even the legitimacy of the office of the elder. This confusion and error results in friction between the congregation and their elders and/or between the elders and the preacher. In at least a couple of congregations, this friction has escalated to the point that the congregation has taken their elders to court or vice versa. This is a great shame and a reproach on our Lord's church (I Corinthians 6:1-5). Let's look at some of the confusion and error that we find and then go to God's Word for the ultimate authority on the work and authority of the elders.
Have you ever been asked, "who's the pastor at your church?" How do you answer that question? To be scriptural, you would answer the question, "Well we have several pastors, but we usually refer to them as elders. Our preacher is (insert name here)." Now they're confused, because they were referring to the preacher. Now take some time to consider the elder/preacher situation at your local congregation. Can you answer honestly with the scriptural answer? Let's look at the situation of the elder/preacher roles that exists in many congregations of the Lord's church.
Most congregations of Christ's church have a body of men (two or more) that are called elders. They generally are a decision making body that determines how the congregation's treasury is to be spent, the time, and to some extent, the order (like, whether the Lord's Supper comes before or after the lesson) of the worship service and bible studies, and how many elders and deacons the congregation should have. They choose men to be elders or deacons when they feel that there is a need for additional positions in those works or a replacement is needed. They hire (and fire if necessary) the preacher. They meet regularly to make these decisions, and the men of the congregation are welcomed to sit in on these meetings, although not necessarily openly invited to do so. One of the elders serves as the treasurer and he issues a monthly or quarterly financial statement. They also meet on some kind of regular basis with the deacons to hear a report on their individual areas of work and any issues they might have. The men of the congregation are welcomed to sit in on this also, though again, not necessarily openly invited to do so. Most congregations have a man who was chosen by the elders to be the pulpit preacher for the congregation. The preacher is usually expected to have a bachelors degree (or in some congregations, a masters) in Bible from a respected "church" college. The preacher may work at a secular job "for a living" and the congregation compensate him for his expenses in his work. More likely he is dedicated full time to the work and the congregation supports him with a salary and a house. He is expected to present a lesson at the Sunday A.M. and P.M. worship service, teach a Sunday morning and Wednesday night Bible class, maybe a midweek Ladies Bible Class also, research and expose all false teaching in the brotherhood, write an article every week for the bulletin, choose a speaker for the gospel meeting (in some cases), visit the sick and shut-in, visit "erring members", counsel those who have problems, comfort the bereaved, work with the young people, and since he is at the building most of the time anyway, mow the yard.
Does this sound a lot like the congregation that you are affiliated with? Now, regardless of what is scriptural, considering the situation just stated, honestly answer, "Who is the pastor?" Are you afraid to give an honest answer because you know it would not be scriptural? The above situation is very much like what you find in denominations except they would call their preacher "pastor" and the managerial body "deacons." As I stated before, this situation exists in many congregations of the Lord's church. We have created a pastor/deacon/laity system in congregations of the Christ's church. The extent to which this is true varies depending on the individual congregation. In some congregations this may not be the case at all, while in others the situation may even be worse than I described. In some cases, the role of the pastor may be filled by several "ministers". There are probably a lot of seemingly logical reasons why this situation exists. It is sometimes rationalized as expediency. The elders turn their work over to a hired preacher and sometimes a staff of "ministers" because they feel that it is more "expedient." Is expediency the real reason, or do they hide behind this excuse? The real reason may be that the elders, though probably good and faithful men, are not skilled enough in the "rightly dividing the word of truth" to feel in adequate in the role in elders. Therefore, they turn to a "professional preacher" to provide spiritual food for the flock. It may also be possible, God forbid, that the men appointed to the work of elders actually do not want the work and are willing to turn it over to a surrogate pastor (or staff of pastors) being content in just controlling the purse strings of the congregation. Often times, I think the burden of managing the "facilities" distracts elders. Churches today have so much expense and management involved in the "facilities" that the elders are too busy to "tend the flock", so they have to delegate their spiritual responsibilities to the preacher or staff. Sometimes (very often) the fault lies more with the men of the congregation than with the elders. The elders feel embattled and hide behind closed doors and operate through the pulpit preacher and other "staff". Criticism of the elders is more prevalent than support. Open meetings with all the men of the congregation are not possible because some of the men want to dominate the meetings, pushing their own agendas. This confounds the elders, the other men in the meeting, and the whole purpose of the meeting. So the general men's meetings cease. This problem involves pride and selfishness. The problem of pride and self plagued the Corinthian church. Paul gave them the solution to their problem in I Corinthians, Chapter 13, LOVE.
There are false teachers today that contend that no authority is delegated to elders by the scriptures. They even deny that the office of the elder even exists in the scriptures. According to them, elders are only to set a good example for the congregation to follow and that is the extent the elders' influence over the congregation. Why would they teach this? I can think of two reasons. One is that in some cases, elders have abused their office, "lording over" the congregation, and for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Another reason, and more probable, is the false teachers want to undermine the authority of the elders because the eldership is an obstacle to the apostasy that they want to introduce to the congregation.
Now, what does the scriptures say about the responsibilities, work, and authority of the elders? First of all, we know that Paul ordained elders (plural) in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:21-23). He instructed Titus to ordain elders on the Isle of Crete (Titus 1:5). He gave Timothy a list of qualifications of the office of elder in I Timothy 3:1-7. He gave Titus this list also in Titus 1:5-9. Why would Paul ordain men for an work that did not exist? Why would The Holy Spirit, through Paul, give qualifications for an office that did not exist? Elders are referred to as pastors (poimen or shepherd) only in Ephesians 4:11, and governments (kubernesis or director) only in I Corinthians 12:28. They are called elders (presbuteros or senior) in Acts 11:30; 14:23, Acts Chapter 15, Acts 16:4; 20:17; 21:18, I Timothy 5:17, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, and I Peter Chapter 5. They are referred to as overseers and bishops (episkopos or superintendent) in Acts 20:28, Philippians 1:1, I Timothy 3:2, and Titus Chapter 1. The work or office is called bishop (episkope or supervision) in I Timothy 3:1.
What do the scriptures say is the responsibilities of the elders? We find the work and responsibilities of the elders summed up in this admonition, "tend the flock of God which is among you" (I Peter 5:2). The Lord is described so many times in the scriptures as a shepherd, and now The Holy Spirit, through Peter, uses the same analogy to describe the responsibilities of those that have the oversight of the church. The elders have the responsibility of providing all the care that the congregation, "the flock", needs. Let me say here that "the flock" includes the preacher, unless it so happens that he has been appointed an elder of that congregation. So let's look at our Lord's shepherding techniques and to see what is expected of shepherds in His church.
- "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters." (Psalms 23:1, 2)
The shepherd makes sure that their flock is getting its proper spiritual nutrition. That is the reason that one of the qualifications of an elder is to be able to teach (I Timothy 3:2). We can easily draw the conclusion, if an elder must be able to teach, he is to teach. They have to make sure that each of the flock is getting the nutrition that is appropriate for their spiritual age. In other words, milk for those young in the faith and meat for those older (Hebrews 5:13, 14). This is not say that teaching is exclusively the work of the elders. We have Biblical examples of the Deacons teaching the gospel also (Acts, Chapter 6). Paul told Titus that the older women were to teach the younger women (Titus 2:3-5). And of course, evangelists teach.
- As shepherds of the flock, the elders are to be vigilant and protect the flock from danger. What dangers? "Wolves" or false teachers (Acts 20:29-31). It is the elders' responsibility to make sure that false teaching is kept out. They cannot turn this responsibility over to someone else. To keep out false teaching, they must first be able to recognize false teaching, and counter it by teaching God's Truth (Titus 1:9). This takes a lot of courage and faith in God. Courage and faith such as were found in the shepherd David (I Samuel 17:34-37). Jesus said that the good shepherd gives his life to protect his flock (John 10:11-13), then gave us an example by dying on cross for us. Now, just because it is the elders' responsibility to keep false teaching out of the congregation, does it relieve the flock of the responsibility to study and know the truth so they can recognize false doctrine? Absolutely not (Acts 17:10,11 and II Timothy 2:15, 16).
- "He restoreth my soul:..." (Psalm 23:3)
Elders must deal with the congregation on an individual basis. Jesus said that he knew his sheep by name (John 10:3, 14). Some time individuals "go astray" and it is the elders' responsibility to (Matthew 18:12, Luke 15:4-6) to bring that one back. Are the elders alone in this responsibility? No, this responsibility falls on all of us (Galatians 6:1), but the elders are to lead the congregation (by example) in this work. Sometimes an individual in the flock becomes sick or weak spiritually, and must be nursed back to health. This is the responsibility of the shepherd (Acts 20:35). But again, are the elders alone in that responsibility? No, they lead the congregation in this work also (I Thessalonians 5:11, 14). Individuals in the congregation fall ill physically also, in which case the elders are to be called to pray over them (James 5:14). One thing that strikes me as strange is how congregations with numbers 500, or 1500, or maybe even more, and yet there are only five elders. How can five men serve in the capacity that the scriptures say they are to serve when they are spread so thin? In an article in "Church Growth Magazine" (October-December, 1994) there was a review of John Ellas' book, "Clear Choices for Churches". Here is an interesting excerpt from this article:
"Ellas has uncovered significant findings relating to staffing and style of leadership. According to his research, growing churches average one full-time minister for every 125 to 150 people in assembly attendance. He found that adequate staffing "correlates not only with growth, but with most vital aspects of church life."
So if you want to grow, staff up? If you want to grow, hire more ministers? Why not appoint more elders instead? Why not appoint more shepherds instead of men that may turn out to be nothing more than hirelings, or worse, wolves. The scriptures do not give a minimum number of elders that a congregation should have other than they are mentioned in plurality. It also does not give a maximum number of elders that a congregation should have. It is my conviction that a congregation should have as many elders as they have men qualified and willing to enter into the work.
- A shepherd leads the flock. They are to lead the flock "in paths of righteousness" just like the Lord in Psalms 23:3. Jesus, the chief shepherd, said that his sheep follow him because they know him and he knows them (John 10:3,4, 14). This means that the eldership must come out from behind closed doors to accomplish their work. Elders cannot lead in secret, they must be open and honest with all the congregation. There are matters between the elders and individuals of the congregation that must be kept in confidence, but the elders cannot be secretive about matters that concern the entire congregation. The congregation, on the other hand, submit themselves to the elders because they understand that they are watching out over their souls (Hebrews 13:17). If the congregation is not submitting themselves to the elders, it may be because they don't know and therefore don't trust the elders (John 10:5). The congregation will likely never submit themselves to a behind-closed-doors authoritative body, but they will submit to men that are working side by side with them, taking the lead in the work. They will submit to the elders that are leading them to heaven by personally teaching and exhorting them, praying with them, and setting a good example for them to follow. What kind of authority does The Holy Spirit delegate to the elders? First of all, let's make one thing clear from the start. There is absolutely no authority above Jesus the Christ in His church. God has given Jesus all authority (Ephesians 1:19-23). The apostles and prophets spoke only what The Holy Spirit told them (John 14:17,26; 15:26, 27; 16:6-16, Galatians 1:11,12), except by permission (I Corinthians 7:6,7). They had no authority to teach or write any other doctrine than that which was given to them by The Holy Spirit. Elders are made overseers by The Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), in other words by the authority of the scriptures which were given to us by The Holy Spirit (II Timothy 3:16). They cannot substitute their will for the will of God. Elders are not infallible. If an elder is not "holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught" or in not using "sound doctrine", it is the duty of the other faithful elders and the faithful men of the congregation to relieve him of duties as an elder. Nevertheless, elders are endued by the scriptures with authority, hence they were referred to as governments in I Corinthians 12:28. The title "overseers" indicates that they have authority. I Timothy 3:4, 5 says that an elder must be "one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)". Does this not indicate that the elders have authority in a congregation liken to the authority a father has in his home (and thus the same responsibilities (Ephesians 6:4))? Finally, the Hebrew writer said to Obey (peitho or be persuaded) those leading (hegeomai or having official authority over) you, and submit (hipeiko or to yield) yourselves (Hebrews 13:17). But how do you reconcile that to what Peter wrote in I Peter 5:1-5?
"The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away."
Doesn't that say that elders are to lead by their example and have no authority? No, it means that they are not lord over the church like the scribes and the Pharisees did the people of that day and in the days of Christ. They did not practice what they taught (Matthew 23), and they cast men out of their synagogues if they opposed them (John 9:13-34; 12:42). Elders are not to subjugate their flock, as was the case with Diotrephes (III John, Verses 9 and 10). A flock has to be led by its shepherds, not pushed. If you try to push a flock of sheep, they will only scatter.What does the scripture tell us about preachers' role in the local congregation?
- Some other things to consider. In Acts 11:26-30, we find where the elders were stewards of the money that had been collected by Paul and Silas for the relieving of the Judean Church. Elders can be supported by their congregation (I Timothy 5:17, 18). Oh, and by the way, the scriptures don't mention elders choosing men to serve as elders or deacons. From the example that we have of the Apostles in the Jerusalem church, the men of congregation were to choose men from among themselves to serve as deacons and the elders approve (or disapprove if necessary) their selections (Acts 6:3-6). In the scriptures we find that evangelists (Paul, Timothy, Titus) ordained men to be the first elders in new congregations, but what about established congregations that already have elders? Who selected additional elders in that case? The scriptures are silent except we know the elders would have supervised the selection process and would have to been responsible for the ordination of the new elders.
- Paul said that the church should support those that preach the gospel (I Corinthians, Chapter 9), but in many cases, Paul either was supported in his work by congregations other than where he was preaching (II Corinthians 11:8, 9) or he worked to make a living for himself (and those with him) (Acts 18:3, 20:33, 34; II Thessalonians 3:8-10). In either case Paul was never idle. If he was not working at a secular job, he was evangelizing.
- Preachers are to preach the Gospel relying on the power of the Gospel, not on enticing words (I Corinthians 2:4, 5). Too many preachers rely too much on moving stories, testimonials, and anecdotes to move their audience instead of the power of God's Word. Preachers are to " preach the word" (II Timothy 4:2) not their words or the words of other men. To do this, they must study (I Timothy 4:13 and II Timothy 2:15).
- Some preachers only preach "positive sermons" They don't preach on repentance from sin because they are afraid that they will offend some one. This verses say it all: "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine." (II Timothy 4:2). In other words, convince or convict of sins, warn of the consequences of sin, and encourage to live righteously. If a preacher is not preaching against sin, he is failing to do two thirds of his job.
That's what the scriptures say is to be expected of the preacher in his work.
- Finally, if a preacher is not setting an example of what he is preaching, he will not be very effective, hence Paul's exhortation to Timothy and Titus (I Timothy 4:12, 16 and Titus 2:1, 7, 8).
Now, how about the congregation or "the flock". Do we find, in the scriptures, an elder/laity system within the church? Are you defining laity, as most of the sectarian world, where the laity takes all their instruction from the clergy because they are told they cannot understand the scriptures? Are you talking about a laity where the only way they receive the scriptures is having it regurgitated to them by a Sunday School Teacher, pulpit preacher, or some book written by a respected "christian" author? If that's what you mean by laity, then absolutely not. The laity or flock that we read about in the Bible were not perfect, but this we know, they were instructed to grow in faith, in knowledge of God's Word, and to incorporate all the fruits of the spirit into their lives, especially love (Acts 2:42-47, I Corinthians 13, Galatians 5:22,23, II Peter 1:5-9). All of us must take down our Bibles and study. Not just read, but study. For starters don't take my word for any of this. Study the scriptures that I have cited. Dig even deeper into the scriptures to learn more about the responsibilities of the elders in the Lord's church, and our responsibilities to the elders.
In conclusion, you can see there is quite a difference between what the scriptures say are the roles and responsibilities of the elders, preacher, and the rest of us, and what is practiced in many congregations of the Lord's church today. We have abandoned the "old paths", usually in the name of expediency, and now find ourselves in the midst of wolves. It's not too late to "ask for the old paths, where is the good way" (Jeremiah 6:16). If we get rid of this pastor/deacon/laity system we have created, our preachers, not having to be a surrogate elder, will be more effective in preaching the gospel. If we get rid of this pastor/deacon/laity system we have created, the congregation will have more love, trust, appreciation, and respect for their elders just like I Thessalonians 5:12, 13 says it should. And if we get rid of this pastor/deacon/laity system we have created, false teaching will have a much harder time getting into a congregation.
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