The Authority of Elders

Ray Ferris
Racine, Wisconsin

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