Are The Elders Over The Work Of The Church?
Due to some things which have been recently expressed by various writers regarding the extent of the authority of elders, it is apparent that considerable study is needed on the subject by some brethren. This article is not written to review others which have been written, but to simply express a different point of view, and one which I feel is in harmony with the teaching of the word of God.
We have been reading lately that elders do not have the right to rule a local church in matters of judgment. One writer even put it that the elders are not over the work of the church. Another very studious brother questioned whether elders have the oversight of spending the money contributed into the treasury of the church. With these positions I am in disagreement. I ask you to seriously consider with me the facts presented from the Bible.
Let me make it perfectly clear in the beginning of this study that I do not believe that the elders can rule as lords in the church. That they have no such right is taught in the New Testament. (Matthew 20:25-28; 1 Pet. 5:3) With the idea that elders are infallible and that whatever decision they make must be complied with even at the expense of loyalty to the truth. I am not in sympathy. Yet some of the same passages which teach that elders are not to rule as lords (katakurie) also teach that they are to rule in some sense. Lords have inherent authority; elders have only delegated authority. It behooves us to learn in what realm and to what extent the King has delegated authority to the elders.
For my part, I flatly deny that elders can rule in matters of faith; that is, in regard to revealed truth. They can make no decision which will in any way affect the truth. "Forever, 0 Lord, thy word is settled in heaven." (Psalm 119:89) Neither can they determine for anyone but themselves what the truth is on any subject. God has made this the responsibility of each individual. That is the reason why when elders make decisions to use the funds of the church in a way contrary to the word of God, faithful members will rebel against such.
It is sometimes urged that elders can rule by teaching. But if this were so, then since we have the duty to obey them which have the rule over us, we should have to accept whatever they teach and no individual responsibility would be involved. If it is replied that we need only obey in things which are right, my answer is that we must obey what is right even if elders do not teach it, thus the idea of ruling by teaching is eliminated. Again, it is sometimes contended that they rule by example. But I should like to know by what definition one can discover the idea of rule in the word example. The idea of ruling by example is preposterous to anyone who has a knowledge of the meaning of words. It is impossible to rule by example. It is possible to teach by example when the example is coupled with the word of God, and elders are commanded to do just that in 1 Pet. 5:2, 3.
If elders cannot rule in matters of truth, then their rule must be in matters of judgment; that is, it is their place to make decisions concerning the expedients to be used in carrying out the Lord's will. They are not obligated to submit their decisions for the approval of the congregation before they become binding. A wise eldership will surely wish to consult the members on any major decision on which they are in doubt, but the decision is theirs to make. Their own will is not the thing which will govern them if they are qualified men, but rather the good and well-being of the flock. Why should the right to make these decisions be that of the elders? Because they are qualified for the work as no other member is. They must be experienced men; faithful men; tested men; respected men. More important, the right is theirs because the Lord said so! It is His will that it be done that way.
Hebrews 13:17: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves...." Obey them in what? In the things they teach? No, for we must obey the truth regardless. If the elders teach the truth we are no more strongly obligated to accept it than we should be if they did not teach it. And if they teach error we have no obligation to submit at all. Clearly, we are to obey them as they rule in determining how the details of local church work are to be supplied. The word for rule in this passage is hegeomai', which Thayer says means in this passage, "controlling in counsel." The counsel of God must control in everything revealed to be His will. But in determining how to carry out His will the elders' counsel is to control. The text teaches that this responsibility has been delegated to them by the Lord. Whatever decisions they make are to be in behalf of the best interests of our souls, knowing that they must give account for the seriousness with which they discharge their duties.
In 1 Timothy 3:4, the work of the elders is compared to the manner which they rule their own families. The word for rule here is proistemi', which is defined by Thayer in reference to this passage, "to be over, to superintend, preside over." The husband and father in a family is not a lord over that family. He has the obligation to respect their individual liberties. Yet it is his place to make the decisions as to how their needs are to be supplied. In the same manner, in the church elders recognize the needs of the members and make the decisions as to how best to supply these needs.
Take any congregation as an illustration: there is a work to be done and the Lord has not specified how the work is to be done. Some of the brethren want to do it one way, others prefer a different way. Either way would be in harmony with righteousness, but neither is an absolute necessity. Now who is to decide which way shall be employed? True, the Bible teaches brethren to submit to one another. But in this case, just who is to submit to whom? If the Lord has not determined this for us when he set elders in the church, then language means nothing. Those who have had experience in both situations: where the brethren as a whole make the decisions on the one hand, and where the elders make the decisions on the other hand, will know what I mean when I say that the Lord's way will work. And it is the only way that will work all of the time.
The work of the elders is twofold: to feed or pastor the flock, and to bishop or rule the local church. (Incidentally, the word bishop was taken by the Holy Spirit from a secular use. It was a title of local officials under the Roman Empire. The bishops had to obey and pass along to their people the commandments coming from Rome; but in regard to local details on which Rome had not ruled they could make decisions which governed in such cases). Where the Lord has already ruled, the elders cannot rule; they are to feed the flock what the Lord has ruled for them to eat. But where the Lord has not ruled, they are to superintend or oversee (the two words have precisely the same meaning).
Now, just what are the elders over? First, the elders are to oversee the members of the church as a collectivity. "....The flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof." (1 Peter 5:2) Second, they are to oversee the spending of the funds of the church. In Acts 11:30, when money was sent from Antioch to Judea, it was sent to the hands of the elders. Third, they are over the teaching work of the church. "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of the Lord, which he purchased with his own blood." (Acts 20:28) This would certainly include the responsibility of deciding such things as who should do the work of the evangelist in fellowship with that congregation, and what media of teaching should be employed. Fourth, they are to oversee the discipline of the church. Titus 1:9-11 makes it their responsibility to stop the mouths of those who subvert whole houses. But 1 Corinthians chapter 5 shows one way to stop those who would corrupt the whole house of God if left unchecked. Now, I know that elders cannot withdraw from anybody themselves. It is a church matter. However, someone must decide when the time has come to consider all other means of saving the person as having been exhausted; someone must see that the discipline is carried out.
Elders have the oversight of the members, the spending of the money, the teaching program, and the discipline of the local church. That these things must be done the Lord has ruled and revealed. The expedients used in doing them He has left for someone else to rule on. Who has the authority to rule in these matters if not the elders? Again, I ask who?
— 210 Barstow, Clovis, California