Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 7, 1964

Reflection About Elders

James E. Cooper

I believe in neither majority rule nor boss rule. If the majority rules, novices and unfaithful members can outvote the spiritually mature in a congregation. If a "boss" rules (Diotrephes, 3 John 9), the spiritually mature are outvoted again, but this time by a minority.

The church is to be guided by spiritually mature men, called elders, bishops, and pastors in the New Testament. Elders describe them as older and more experienced men — in spiritual matters, mind you. Bishops describe their work of superintending or overseeing the flock. Pastors describe their work as shepherds of the flock. Much of the misunderstanding among brethren about elders and their work could be alleviated if more attention were given to what it means to be shepherds. Our age is one in which men put a premium on power and the ability to control the lives of others, but we must be careful that we do not approach our study of God's order of church government with such "idols" in our hearts. (Ezek. 14:4)

Elders are not made such by the Holy Spirit until they are qualified according to the Spirit's instructions (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit, 1:5-9), and then selected by the church (compare the apostolic instruction to the Jerusalem church to select its own servants. Acts 6:1-6) A man does not automatically become an elder when he becomes qualified. If so, why did Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in the churches? (Acts 14:23) God set the office of elders in the church, but he does not automatically set a man in the office. If one becomes an elder by virtue of the fact that he becomes spiritually mature and scripturally qualified, then what Paul and Barnabas did was useless. The Lord automatically adds the saved to the church (Acts 2:47), but he doesn't automatically set a man in the office of a bishop by virtue of his maturity as a Christian.

The main qualification some seem to have is that they desire the office of a bishop. If the congregation doesn't think a man spiritually fit for the work, why should he insist on being an elder? The real solution would be to examine his own heart, humble himself before God and man, and live so that the church cannot help but respect him. He can do this only by forgetting his vain personal ambitions. He must deny self. (Matt. 16:24)

It is possible to have man-made elders — when the church selects and appoints men to be elders who are not spiritually qualified. In this case, they could un-make an elder by a higher authority than they made him an elder in the first place. If not, they would be unable to repent and rectify the error of making elders out of men that the Holy Spirit wouldn't make elders, Then, if a man serving as an elder proves by the manner of his life that he is spiritually unfit to be an elder, the church must refuse to recognize him as such. If not, one has the Lord demanding Christians to submit to a carnally minded man in spiritual matters — and submit right into hell! The church has as much authority to discipline an unruly "elder" as any other unruly member. (cf. 1 Tim. 5:19-20)

Elders do not rule by an arbitrary exercise of authority (cf. Matt. 20:25-28), lording it over the flock (1 Pet. 5:3), but by the Word of God. Elders are to lead the church into abiding in the doctrine of Christ. The church follows their leadership because it respects them as spiritual men. (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1) The church follows, not because elders are invested with arbitrary authority, but because elders by their godly example and spiritual life (1 Pet. 5:1-3), their knowledge and teaching of God's word (Tit. 1:9), are able to persuade the spiritually minded to follow them.

If a matter is one of purely human judgment, a spiritually minded eldership will try to ascertain which procedure will fairly benefit the congregation, rather than launch out on the basis of personal preferences and prejudices. Elders are not to allow themselves to be controlled by "self-will" (Titus. 1:7). If a choice must be made, spiritually minded men will try to benefit the majority of the congregation. This is not majority rule. Neither is it lording it over the church. Trouble between a church and its elders often occurs when elders themselves try to be little dictators, binding their opinions upon the flock.

If an elder (or eldership) assumes authority God never gave him, the congregation must rebel against him. In this case, the church is not rebelling against God's established order. When Peter and John said, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29), they were not rebelling against God's established order of human government (cf. Rom. 13:1f), but against the usurped authority exercised by the council. I am defending God's order, not usurping authority!

If spiritually mature (scripturally qualified) men are serving, not lording it over the flock by usurping authority not given by God, then those who rebel against elders are to be disciplined as unfit for fellowship in the congregation. In affairs of state, the criminal usurps authority to live outside of the law and is judged unfit to live in society. This analogy may be applied to the situation herein described.

It is my studied opinion that a congregation having elders who "rule well" (1 Tim. 5:17) will not have trouble with the question of majority rule. The members thereof will count themselves fortunate to be guided in their spiritual affairs by those who indeed "watch on behalf of souls." (Heb. 13:17) Such men "have spoken unto you the word of God" (Heb. 13:7), and they will gladly "follow their faith," because the end of their manner of life is eternal fellowship with God. Spiritually minded Christians rejoice when they are members of congregations whose elders are spiritually qualified to serve in this noble (and many times thankless) work.

— 733 Mill Street, Leitchfield, Kentucky