June 20, 2018

The Authority of Elders

By Ray Ferris

In a prior article, on autonomy, we concluded by noting that men sometimes get autonomy confused with
the oversight the elders have over the people of a congregation. In reality there is little connection in the two
thoughts. One has to do with the independence of congregations one another; the other with submission by those
in a congregation to qualified men who have been chosen to direct and oversee the labors of that church.
Autonomy deals with the relationship of congregations and must never be used to argue for the elders being
law-makers over a church. There is but one lawgiver who is Christ.

Sphere of Authority

Much has been written and said recently in an effort to demonstrate and clarify the limitations of the sphere
in which elders may exercise authority. The sphere is, of course, not one of geographical limitations, but
congregational limitations. All who will take the trouble to look can see the tendency that prevails for a group
of elders to reach beyond one congregation and strive to oversee more than one church; or sometimes this
tendency is manifested in efforts to oversee only certain aspects of another church or its work.

The fearful conditions that exist among churches of Christ in some instances is evidence that this is a timely
subject. We pray to God the study has not been too late in being renewed.

Limitations of Authority Within

However, there is much to indicate that a study needs to be made of the limitations of the elders' authority
over the congregation which appointed them. It is not at all unusual to hear men argue that things must never
be questioned or fought against if the elders have decided they should be done. This is nothing more nor less
than a doctrine of infallibility of men. Notice carefully the following scriptures:

"Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before
all, that others also may fear." I Tim. 5:19-20. This passage is cited for two reasons. First, caution and care
is admonished in receiving any criticism of an elder. There will always be those who will spitefully and unjustly
accuse the men who are overseers of any work. Second, an elder may sometimes be accused justly of sin. Verse
twenty admonished that all who sin are be rebuked. Elders, then, are not infallible and may sometimes need to
be censured.

Again we read as Paul spoke to the elders of the Ephesian church. "For I know this, that after my
departing), shall grievous wolves enter in among, you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own. selves shall men
arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them." Acts 20:29-30, (Emphasis mine, REF). Paul
knew an apostasy was coming-see II Thess. 2:1-12. He prophesied that much of the apostasy would be caused
by a perverted eldership. Anyone who knows anything of church history realizes he was absolutely right.

Fallibility of Elders an Established Fact

These passages show the fallibility of elders very adequately. Every decision that a group of elders make
should be measured by the word of God. If it cannot be upheld by scripture it is wrong. The elders are not in
any sense a legislative body to bind where God has not, nor to loose where God has bound. "There is one
lawgiver . . ." Jas. 4:12. God, through Jesus, has given us every rule we need.

This point is perhaps established most clearly in I Peter 5:1-4. The elders are not to be lords over God's
heritage, but examples. The word translated lords over is found in three other places in the New
Testament-Matt. 20:25; Mk. 10:42; and Acts 19:16. It is simply the verb f orm of the word lord with a
prepositional prefix which means to bring under. Thus the congregation is not under the dominion of the elders,
but rather they are to be examples, or patterns, of what God desires men to be. This word, translated examples
or ensamples, properly means a pattern, and is also used in Acts 7:43, 44, and Heb. 8:5. In these passages it
is translated figures, fashion, and pattern.

Elders Are To Be Leaders

The primary work of elders is to be of an exemplary nature. They are to go before, which is a primary
meaning of the two Greek words that are translated rule in describing their duties. They are shepherds of the
flock, but undershepherds. I Pet. 5:4. T he shepherd led his sheep in the proper paths. Psalm 23:3 and John
10:1-18. Elders ought to be setting the pace for the rest of the congregation rather than be driving them like a
team of mules.

Must Not Encourage Rebellion

These words have not been written to encourage rebellion against those who are elders. They are overseers
and rulers, and these words, thus translated, do carry the idea of supervision and authority, as well as the
meanings we have noted. Hebrews 13:17 certainly emphasized the necessity of submission to elders. "Obey
them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves for they watch for your souls, as they that must give
account . . ."

However, in the realm of faith this authority is to be only an authority of enforcement of what God has
said. In realms of opinion and expediency their rule is more complete, but it should never reach the state of
forcing the church under their dominion even in realms of opinion. Such is not being examples or patterns, but
lords over the church.

Such Authority Illustrated

Let us note an illustration that will help to see the point. God has decreed that a man is to be the head of
his family. Read Eph. 6:1-3; -then Eph. 5:22-24; and then Eph. 6:4. The husband is the head of the wife and
is responsible for the guidance of his children.

Now suppose a family matter arises in which the father is desirous of one thing while the remainder of the
family is opposed to that. It is not a matter of conviction with any of the family-merely a matter of opinion.
The. father has the authority and power to demand that his will be done, but in so doing he would be acting
most unwisely. The same would be true with the eldership in matters of expediency and opinion. They have
the authority and power to demand, but in so doing they may sometimes act very unwisely-even to the point
of violating I Peter 5:1-4.


Once again let me say this article is not meant to encourage any kind of rebellion against elders. It is
written in the hopes of causing all, including elders, to think more seriously of our responsibilities unto the Lord
and each other, whether we be shepherds or the sheep.

Truth Magazine I:9, pp. 4-5, 15
June 1957