Problems in the Church (VII): Brotherhood Elders

Cecil Willis
Akron, Ohio

The word "church" is used in the New Testament in both the local and universal senses. Sometimes the word embraces all the saved throughout the world (Matt. 16:18); on other occasions it embraces only t h e saved in a given locality (1 Cor. 1:2). We, therefore, speak of the church "local" and of the church "universal."

Even the most elementary Bible student recognizes that the church universal has no formal organization through which to function as a single unit. Christ is the only officer in the church universal (Col. 1:18). If there were other officers intended by God for the church universal, their office, qualifications and functions would have been described in the New Testament. Since such are not found, we conclude that there are to be no brotherhood officers in the church.

It often astonishes people of the world when we tell them that the churches of Christ have no earthly headquarters. We have no earthly headquarters because the church universal has neither formal organic entity nor universal officers.

The Congregation

The only functional unit about which one reads in the New Testament is the congregation, the local church. The local church has officers, both bishops (overseers) and deacons (servants) (Phil. 1:1). It is the intention of God that every congregation have such officers as soon as men are qualified (Acts 14:23). This fact alone implies the limitation of the authority of these overseers. No congregation has two sets of bishops over it, or over its work. There is no such overlapping of authority to be found in the Bible.

The bishops of each congregation are limited in their authority to that congregation over which they were appointed. Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that they were appointed overseers of a "flock", or congregation (Acts 20:28). In 1 Pet. 5:2 the apostle exhorts the elders to "tend the flock of God which is among you." These passages show the limit of the authority of bishops. Their authority is limited to the "flock."

In recent times, since brethren have begun to make brotherhood officers out of some elders, we have been asked just how many miles in each direction the authority of the elders extends. The very asking of this question implies a basic ignorance of God's word. The authority of elders is not diocesan (A diocese is a district in which one has authority). Elders' authority is not determined by geographic area only. The authority of an eldership extends to the last member of the flock over which it was appointed, and no further.

Yet today we see elderships attempting to function as brotherhood officers. Every student of church history knows that the first digression began with the eldership. This digression continued for nearly six hundred years, during which a bishop ceased to be one of several men who ruled one church, and became one man who ruled several churches. Further digression followed until the bishop of one church (Rome) came to rule all the churches. The Pope therefore became the first brotherhood elder. Since then, some modern-day brethren, perhaps unwittingly, have marched in his well-marked footsteps. They too have become brotherhood elders. Let us note some present-day examples of the brotherhood-elder concept.


We see this tendency to attempt to wield brotherhood control exemplified in the efforts of some elders to discipline the members of another congregation. Elders are to "tend" the flock. This means that elders have the obligation to do whatever is needed for the spiritual well being of the flock over which they serve. Yet some elderships have attempted to discipline the members of other churches.

Some elders have felt their brotherhood wide responsibility so keenly that they even have attempted to withdraw fellowships from members of other congregations. The oversight of an eldership is limited to the flock over which it was appointed.

Another indication of the brotherhoodelder concept is seen in the fact that, in some instances, elders admittedly have overseen members of more than one church. Elders frequently think that since they had something to do with establishing another congregation, they therefore have the oversight of the church, at least for a while. This is the "mother-church" concept, which is derived from sectarianism.

In the FIRM FOUNDATION, December 11, 1962, Lonzie B. Meece reports: "The new congregation in Warren, Mich., under the oversight of the elders of the Church of Christ, Crosse Point, Mich.? Is moving along in a fine way" (My emphasis--CW). Here we see one set of elders admittedly ruling two churches! Wonder how many other churches the Grosse Point elders would be willing to take under their oversight?

Here is another illustration of the thing we are discussing. There is an East Brainerd church in Chattanooga, and another church just called the Brainerd church. With this differentiation in mind, read the following announcement:

"The Brainerd church has accepted the oversight of the East Brainerd work, as requested by the brethren there. Our plans include the erection of a new building with adequate facilities for the future growth of that congregation, and to assist them in developing a strong congregation." From the Bulletin of the Brainerd church, Maurice Howel1, preacher.

A later report adds: "East Brainerd had its open house on December 16. This building was constructed under the oversight of the elders of the Brainerd church." GOSPEL ADVOCATE, February 23, 1963.

The following statement, also illustrative of the brotherhood-elder digression now being discussed, was made regarding the work in Traverse City, Michigan: "...a meeting was held with the members of the Traverse City church and Elders from Hayes Avenue in Detroit who have had the oversight of this work from its beginning." Observe that the Hayes Avenue elders in Detroit also oversee the Traverse City church.

In these instances (more could be supplied), elders are overseeing more than one church. If such is scriptural, how many congregations could these elders oversee? Could these elders extend their oversight to yet other churches? To all churches?

We further see this concept exemplified in that one eldership often oversees a work in behalf of many churches. A prime example of this is the "Herald of Truth" radio and television program. Approximately one-tenth of all the churches of Christ throughout the world now are making contributions to the Highland Avenue church in Abilene, Texas in order that Highland might put on a brotherhood radio and television program. The Highland church, while occasionally asserting that the "Herald of Truth" is peculiarly its work, in reality recognizes that this is not true. This they even admit every time they make a report to the "brotherhood." Why make a brotherhood report on a congregational work? Do they make such a brotherhood report on all their local work? Certainly not.

Several statements from the Highland church contain tacit admissions that Highland elders are functioning as brotherhood elders. In a 1952 report to the brotherhood, the Highland elders stated: "Briefly we shall give you some idea of the inner workings of this, YOUR national broadcast" (Their emphasis--CW). The "Herald of Truth" belongs to all the churches of Christ this report says. But the Highland elders oversee it. What more would it take to make brotherhood elders of them?

The book, PREACHERS OF TODAY, Vol. I, states: "Hundreds of congregations and individuals contributed to this work... It is the largest radio effort ever attempted by churches of Christ." These brethren did not state that the "Herald of Truth" is the largest radio work ever attempted by the Highland church, or by any church of Christ, but that it is the largest work ever attempted by churches of Christ. The churches of Christ constitute the brotherhood. But the Highland church is overseeing this work belonging to the churches of Christ. They are, then, without doubt serving as brotherhood elders.

An Ohio paper, THE CHRISTIAN LEADER, April 14, 1953, was exactly right when it stated: "However we must remember that the broadcast 'belongs to Christians in all areas It is far bigger than individuals or elders of the church of Christ. I am sure that even those concerned realize this fact... It is as big as the brotherhood of Christians..." In this quotation the very charge I am making frankly is admitted. The "Herald of Truth" is a brotherhood work. Unless God appointed the Highland elders to be brotherhood elders, they have no right to oversee such a work. More than a thousand churches of Christ now work through the Highland church. Who could have believed ten years ago that just a decade would see one-tenth of all the churches working through one eldership? If the other nine-tenths were to begin doing so, we would have mimicked Rome in a decade. What a feat!


Let us remember that each congregation is to have its own elders. Elders are appointed over the members of but one church. They therefore can oversee the members and the work of but one church. When elders attempt to oversee more than one congregation or the work of more than one congregation, they are attempting to oversee too much. They have gone beyond the authority allowed by God. They therefore presumptuously are acting without authority. This is dangerous business, whether elders or preachers be involved.

Truth Magazine VII: 9, pp. 2-3, 24
June 1963