A Look At Church “Officers”

By Robert F. Turner

Soon after the beginning of the Lord’s church the concept of church was subjected to change. Instead of being considered a people of God, there was a growing tendency to consider the church an institution of God not simply instituted (as was marriage), but a universal body politic. Perhaps it is impossible to say whether the change in concept produced changes in government, or changes in government produced changes in concept, but it is clear that a misconception of church officers developed hand in hand with apostasy in government, structure and concept making a Judaism type “priesthood” in what was supposed to be the “New Testament” church.

Remember when the mother of James and John brought her sons to Christ and asked that they be allowed to sit in high places in the kingdom (Matt. 20:20f). Christ said to be great in His kingdom one must be a servant. He cited the concept of rule that prevailed among kingdoms of men, and said “not so shall it be among you.” There is no hierarchy in Christ’s church. All are priests, figuratively speaking (1 Pet. 2:5), under Christ our High Priest (Heb. 7). Our Lord repeatedly warned the apostles about desiring “high places” and forgetting that “one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:8). In Christ’s view of matters, there was only one step in the ladder of authority. He occupied the top of the ladder, and apostles, prophets, elders, deacons, preachers, and those some call “laymen” — all occupied the common position of “brethren.”

This is not to say every one has the same function. For a while, certain ones were “power-equipped” for roles essential to “the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:llff). But the special gifts that made these roles possible were not permanent, nor did this represent a hierarchal order of authority. In I Corinthians 12 the list includes “miracles, gifts of healing, helps, governments, and divers kinds of tongues. ” Those who had such gifts are likened unto members of a physical body-“and those parts of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor” (v. 23). Each member of the body has an “office,” in the sense of the dictionary example: “They (the eyes) resign their office and their light.” Here, “office” is not a power position of authority over other members. It refers to function, in a body made up of parts equally necessary to the whole. (Remember “. . . all ye are brethren.”)

In early restoration literature, and from some current writers, we are told the Apostles were “officers” in the Universal church. Our brethren usually insist they had no successors, but continued in that role through their writings. Continued in the figurative role of ambassadors with the King’s message, yes; but were they ever “officials” of a universal church organization? This is vitally pertinent to the basic question regarding church concepts. It is the “take off” point for Roman Catholicism, and for all other “historic church” concepts-resulting in international, national, or denominational church organizations. Paul said his “authority” was for “building you up” (2 Cor. 10:8), and claimed to do no more than deliver truth (2 Cor. 4:7, 5:18f). The apostles bound and loosed what had already been bound and loosed in heaven: as is apparent in the future perfect passive periphrastic tense of Matthew 16:19. If grammar is distasteful to you, consider the fact that they were forbidden to teach until they could speak as the Spirit gave them utterance (Lk, 24:49), which means the message originated in heaven, not in the minds or from the “office” of the Apostles.

We may reason, the apostles were “officials,” but they had no legislative authority, i.e., they could not make laws. Could their decisions be ignored or disobeyed with impunity, or were their directives to be regarded as divine law? I believe we can say they were either legislators; or, they had an “office” in the sense of function, viz., that of inspired message bearers, and the directives originated with God. James seems to settle the question by writing that there is one legislative, executive, and judicial authority, and that is God. (Read carefully Jas. 2:10-12; 4:11-12.) This does not erase the need for ambassadors, experienced advisors, and qualified leaders in the early church. But they asked for following only on the basis of inspiration and their example of Christ following (1 Cor. 11:1).

If the apostles were not “officials” of the church-if they had no legislative authority in and of themselves, it should be clear that uninspired elders do not occupy such a position. 1 Timothy 3:1 (KJV) does say, “If a man desire the office of a bishop . . . ” but there is no separate word here for “office.” A literal translation is, “If anyone oversight aspires to . . . ” and this refers to the “work” of overseeing. The KJV continues, very aptly, “he desireth a good work. ” It is not a “position” (office in that sense) that is under consideration, but a “function” or “work” that should be desired. The bishops are neither lawmakers nor “dignitaries” in a hierarchy, but mu t follow laws of God, and urge others to do the same (Tit. 1:9-11). The same reasoning eliminates evangelists and deacons from an “official” preeminence of position in a local church. The whole church (assembled or otherwise) follows divine instructions, and neither makes nor validates those laws.

But Hebrews 13:7 reads, “Obey them that have the rule over you. . . .” Four different Greek words are translated “rule” and three are applied to elders. Here the word for “rule” (hegeomat) means “lead” and signifies one who is out in front as a guide or military leader. It is not amiss to say elders have the “office” (function) of leading. Then, in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 we are told the elders are “over you in the Lord.” Here the word (proistemi) means “stand before” and indicates they have the “office” (work) of directing, managing, conducting. Elders are to “shepherd” the flock (1 Pet. 5:2), and that word (poimaino) is also translated “rule.” The office of the elder is to feed and protect the flock. But the fourth word translated “rule” (archo) means “preeminent, first” and is never applied to elders. Jesus uses the noun form of this word to speak of “rulers of the nations” and says, “not so shall it be among you” (Matt. 20:25f).

Godly elders have a heavy load to bear and are worthy of our respect. We should submit to their judgment and work as a team under their guidance. They are not “officials” in the political sense of the word, but nonetheless workers with God, who need our support and assistance.

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 12, pp. 358-359
June 20, 1985