The Scriptural Work Of Elders
(Editor's Note: In four installments we will publish the full text of a sermon delivered by Brother Douthitt at the Fifth Annual Lectureship of Central Christian College, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, on March 31, 1955.)
When our Lord was here on earth, he spoke often of a coming kingdom which he called his "church," and the "kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 16:18, 19.) He promised to establish this kingdom during the life-time of some of his disciples who then were his followers. (Mark 9:1.)
On the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, that kingdom came with power just as the prophets had foretold, and as Jesus had promised. (Acts 2:1-4.)
Nothing has ever existed on this earth in which heaven has manifested a greater interest than this new institution called "the church." It existed eternally in the purpose and plan of God for the redemption of man. (Eph. 3:10, 11.) Our Saviour died to bring it into the world; he "loved the church, and gave himself up for it." (Eph. 5:25.) He purchased it with his own blood. (Acts 20:28.)
The greatest work ever assigned to any individual or group was assigned to the church. This work is fourfold: (1) Making the manifold wisdom of God known to every creature in the whole world, Eph. 3:10. (2) Worshipping God, John 4:23, 24. (3) Perfecting the saints, Eph. 4:12. (4) Helping those in need, 1 Timothy 5:16.
To do this work and to accomplish. His eternal purpose, God set many classes of workers in the church. "And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ." (Eph. 4:11, 12.) God set these workers, "each one of them in the body, even as it pleased him." (1 Cor. 12:18.)
Some of these servants in the early church have no successors. Their work was finished "when that which is perfect is come." (1 Cor. 13:10.) That perfect "law of liberty" which they wrote and spoke became the guide, the standard and the sole rule of faith and practice for the church for all time to come, and divinely inspired men no longer are needed in person on the earth. (1 Cor. 13:8-10.)
But to achieve God's eternal purpose, and to perform the work assigned to the church, some of these offices must be occupied by men here on the earth as long as the church remains in the world, ,or as long as time shall last.
It is God's revealed will for every local church on earth to have within its own membership a group of servants called the "presbytery" or eldership, just as soon as men can be qualified for the duties of that office. Paul and Barnabas "appointed for them elders in every church" that they visited on one of their tours. (Acts 14:23.) Titus was left in Crete to "set in order the things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every city." (Titus 1:5.) These "things" remain "wanting" -lacking in every church until men in that church are qualified for, and appointed to, the work of the eldership.
In a discussion of the subject assigned to me, "Scriptural Work of Elders," a brief dissertation on the names by which these men are called may be helpful. The names applied to them in our English New Testament are translations of three Greek words: presbuteros, episkopos and poimen.
1. Presbuteros is translated "elder"; it literally means "older," and when used to designate a servant in the church it connotes the necessary wisdom and experience to guide and direct others in the truth. An example of this usage appears in 1 Peter 5:5, "Likewise ye younger, be subject unto the elder." It appears sixty-seven times in the Greek Testament.
The word presbuterion is used three times in the Greek Testament. In 1 Timothy 4:14 it is translated "presbytery" in the King James and American Standard versions. It means "eldership," or "assembly of elders." In Luke 22:66 it is translated "assembly of the elders" in the American Standard version. In Acts 22:5 it is rendered "estate of the elders." The names "presbytery" and "eldership" designate the same group of workers.
2. Episkopos is rendered "bishop" in the American Standard version, and "overseer" by the King James version in Acts 20:28. It appears five times in the Greek Testament.
3. Poimen means "shepherd" and it signifies a feeder or one who tends the flock. It appears eighteen times in the Greek Testament, and is translated "shepherd" in every place except Ephesians 4:11 where it is rendered "pastor."
These three names-elder, bishop, pastor-are not synonyms, but they refer to the same office in the church of God. These men are called elders because they are older in wisdom and experience; they are called bishops because they are overseers of the work; they are called pastors or shepherds because they feed and tend the flock.
All the duties to which elders have been divinely appointed may be classified under four headings: 1. Exercising the oversight. 2. Making themselves examples to the flock. 3. Feeding the church. 4. Tending the flock.
I. Exercising The Oversight
Elders have been assigned the important duty and given the sacred obligation of overseeing or supervising a "charge" which has been "allotted" to them. They are commanded, "Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God; nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock." (1 Peter 5:2, 3.) They have been made overseers of the church. (Acts 20:28.) They are the overseers of all the work that a church has the right to perform or undertake: 1. Making known the manifold wisdom of God. 2. Worshipping the Lord. 3. Perfecting the saints.
4. Helping the needy.
Certain limitations and restrictions are stated in connection with this duty of exercising oversight in 1 Peter 5:2 and 3.
They have no right to delegate the supervision of the work and resources of their "charge" to a preacher, or the elders of another church, or any other outside agency. It is God's will for every church to be independent and autonomous. A church is free, independent, and autonomous as long as its work is under the oversight of its own elders, and no longer. How can a church surrender its autonomy, except by placing an outside authority in control of its work?
This "exercising the oversight" by elders is limited to the one local church in which they are made bishops. The Holy Spirit never made any man a bishop of more than one church. The divine order is a plurality of elders in every church, and never a plurality of churches under one eldership. When elders of one church assume or accept the oversight of a sister church, whether that sister church has elders or not, they violate the New Testament principle of local church autonomy. Calling the church without elders a "mission" does not make it right for an eldership to oversee a plurality of churches. If the Roman hierarchy was not created by many churches' surrendering the oversight of their work to one church, then historians cannot be relied on for the truth on anything.
Elders should exercise the oversight and perform all the other duties of their office "willingly" and not of constraint. Their responsibilities are great, yet there is no work on earth in which men should labor more cheerfully and hopefully. Every inclination on the part of an eldership to place the management of the work in the hands of a preacher, or in the hands of a sister congregation, shows an unwillingness to meet and to bear the sacred obligations of this holy office.
The work must not be done "for filthy lucre." The office is desecrated when it is made a means of dishonorable gain for either the church or the elders. Elders that rule well certainly should be counted worthy of double honor, "especially those who labor in the word and in teaching." (1 Tim. 5:17.) The church should honor an elder with its substance, when the elder's duties to the church affect his work of earning a living; but to accept or to use the office in the hope of ill-gotten gain for himself or for the church is dishonorable and sinful.
In their desire to make the church rich and respectable, or to do more work than the church is able to do, elders of zeal and initiative have been tempted to violate this "filthy lucre" prohibition by obtaining money for the church in an unscriptural way. This prohibition has been violated in three ways. (1) By the sale of indulgences. Whether that "indulgence" consists merely in permission to eat meat on Friday or to get drunk on Saturday, the money obtained thereby is ill-gotten gain; it is filthy lucre. (2) By begging and accepting donations from other churches for a work to which all churches are related equally. Whether that money is from only one church, or from 1088 churches, or from every church on earth, it is money obtained unscripturally; it is filthy lucre. (3) By a church's operating a secular business for profit with which to do its work. Whether that secular business be a two-dollar pie counter, or a two hundred thousand dollar farm and ranch, it is ill-gotten gain; it is filthy lucre when a church obtains it that way.
One of two things is true: (1) God has expressed His will on how a church shall obtain funds for its work; or (2) He has not expressed it, but left it to the judgment of men. If He has not expressed His will on this matter, then a church can employ any money raising method it chooses (that is not inherently sinful), and it can reject any method it chooses.
But God has expressed His will on this matter. (1 Cor. 16:1-2; Acts 4:34-37.) In all the revealed will of God, where is there authority for a church's selling indulgences, or begging and accepting contributions from other churches for a work to which all are equally related, or operating a secular business for money with which to do its work? That authority does not exist.
"Lording it over the charge allotted "to them is expressly forbidden among bishops. When James and John asked for places of power and authority in the kingdom, Jesus precluded forever the possibility of any man's receiving such a place from the Lord. He said in reply to their request, "Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you." (Matt. 20:25, 26.) This passage clearly forbids two things in the kingdom of Christ: (1) lording it over others; (2) exercising authority over others.
All governmental authority is vested in three branches: legislative, judicial and executive. The church is an absolute monarchy with Christ as sole law-maker, judge and executive. (Math 28:18; Isa. 33: 22.) He has all authority in the kingdom of which he is head, and not one of these three branches of his government has been delegated to any human sovereign.
"One only is the lawgiver." (James 4:12.) The law of the Spirit of life (Rom. 8:2) is recorded in the New Testament. To add to, to diminish from or to change any precept of that law of Christ is to usurp the legislative authority which belongs solely to him. It is strictly forbidden. (Rev. 22:18, 19.) The scriptures furnish the man of God completely unto every good work, and no additional enactment is needed for the faith and work of the church. The elders can neither make a law nor repeal one Christ has made; but they can and must arrange a place, appoint a time and prepare a program of work, worship and service, and direct the activities of the church. This is not legislating. The qualifications for a bishop require a knowledge of the law of Christ, and an aptitude to teach it. The entire congregation should recognize and respect the bishops' knowledge of the word, and should "obey them," and "submit to them," when they speak the word of the Lord. (Heb. 13:7, 17.) If they speak for doctrine their own precepts, this order to obey them does not apply.
"One only" is judge. (James 4:12.) Christ is the sole Judge, the Supreme and only Court in the kingdom of heaven. (Acts 17:31.) Though the eldership is not a divinely ordained ecclesiastical court patterned after the Jewish Sanhedrin to sit in judgment over the people of God, yet it must make decisions in the realm of expediency, distinguish between right and wrong in all matters of church work, and direct the flock in the right way by teaching and guiding and leading, and not by manifestoes, decrees and "official acts."
Elders do not have the judicial authority to fix a point of doctrine by their verdict. At Jerusalem with the apostles and elders present (Acts 15), a point of doctrine pertaining to Judaism was not determined and settled by a "decision of the elders"; it was the truth taught in God's word (Amos 9:11, 12) and presented to the brethren by James, that settled that question. Elders today should follow the example of James: search the scriptures, learn the truth therefrom, and then teach it to the church.
Elders do not have executive authority. The executive branch is that department of government that enforces the law, and has the authority to inflict punishment on the transgressors. In the kingdom of heaven Christ alone has that power.
The president of the United States, as the head of the executive department, is given an army and navy of which he is commander-in-chief; the precinct policeman carries a gun and a stick; they must enforce the law. But it is not so in the kingdom of Christ. If members of the church desecrate the Lord's Supper, or go so far as to renounce the faith, the elders cannot inflict punishment or make the disobedient do "penance"; they are not executive officers. They can and must warn the brethren against such violations, try to restore the erring, and finally sever all social relations with the incorrigible, and persuade the flock to do likewise. The penalty for violations of the spiritual law of Christ will be inflicted by the King himself. (2 Thess. 1:7-10; Matt. 13:41, 42.)
(To be continued)