Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 3, 1956

The Scope And Limitation Of Elders' Authority

John T. Lewis, Birmingham, Alabama

The term church is used in the universal, and also in the local sense. The universal church includes all baptized believers. The local church is made up with baptized believers who meet together at an appointed place and at designated times to worship and carry on God's work.

There is not the remotest idea in God's word about a universal or brotherhood eldership. In Philippians 1:1 Paul says: "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." This is the New Testament idea of the local church with its bishops and deacons, and it is the only idea or way that we should ever think, preach, or write about the church or the elders. That is if the church is local, the elders must be local.

In Acts 20:17, 18 Luke says: "And from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus, and called to him the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them." All he said to them was confined strictly to the conditions in the church at Ephesus, in which the Holy Spirit had made them bishops. There was no way by which those elders could have gotten the idea that their bishopric extended over "all Asia," much less over all the world, or brotherhood. In verse twenty-eight Paul says: "Take heed 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." I do not believe that any conscientious person can read into Paul's statements that the elders at Ephesus could delegate any part of their authority, or responsibility, to look after both the temporal and spiritual needs of the church at Ephesus to any other elders on the face of the earth, or to any organization other than the church.

"The elders therefore among you I exhort who am a fellow elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, who am also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 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. And when the chief Shepherd shall be manifested, ye shall receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away." 1 Pet. 5:1-4. I am not a Greek scholar but God has endowed me with enough intelligence to know that inspiration, in the above scripture, has limited the authority of elders "to the flock of God which is among you." And in doing this I do not believe that the Holy Spirit made Peter either a "hobby rider" or a "Sommerite."

In James 1:27 we read: "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." Therefore every congregation, whose elders are not looking after the temporal needs of the "fatherless and widows" among them, has not the "pure and undefiled religion." I am not "President emeritus" of any great college "among us," but I know "this is that" which James was teaching, and if all congregations were looking after the needy "among them," there would not be enough institutional gas to float one organizational gas bag outside the church, of which we have many today.

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus Christ slides the curtain aside and lets us view the final judgment. In telling us how we serve him, he says, in verse forty: 'And the king shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me." We should always be ready to do good unto all men, but we serve Jesus Christ by serving our (His) brethren.

I am in my forty-ninth year in Birmingham. The first ten years I was the only gospel preacher in a hundred miles of the city giving all his time to preaching and teaching God's word. During those early years not one dime was ever sent here for my support. I have seen the cause of Christ grow here from a few faithful members worshiping in the third loft of a grocery store to more than twenty congregations with several hundred thousand dollars worth of church property. There are also more than twenty gospel preachers in this field now. This does not include the colored congregations and preachers, of which there are several. The congregations in Birmingham are not only carrying their own work, but the most of them are helping build meeting houses and supporting preachers in other fields. If there has ever been an orphan, a widow, or any needy person in any congregation in Birmingham that has gone without food and clothing, I have never heard of it, and I do not believe the congregation knew about it.

Therefore nothing but an institutional gas bag, inflated with personal ego, would say that there are elders in any congregation in Birmingham that do not believe in having the gospel preached to the world, nor in caring for the widows and orphans among them. I hope Birmingham will never become a fertile field for the promotional, sponsoring, or institutional bugs to lay their eggs. And it never will so long as the elders believe in the wisdom of God's eternal purpose in establishing the church to carry the Gospel to all the world.