By Roy E. Cogdill
Men have as much right to alter the Word of God as to remodel and redesign the structure or function of the church of God. The same prerogative that grants to man the right to do one justifies the other, also. But such right does not exist and to exercise it is to bring upon one’s self the anathema of Almighty God. Man has no right to change God’s Word and he has no right to lay his unholy hands upon the church to change it in any way. God designed it from eternity (Eph. 3:10-11). Jesus built it after the divine pattern, upon the divinely laid foundation (Matt. 16:18-20). The Holy Spirit dwells in it to give it life, strength, power and vitality (Eph. 2:19-22). It is in this body, designed by the wisdom and will of Almighty God, sent from heaven and established upon this earth by the Lord Jesus Christ, and directed by the Holy Spirit that God is to be glorified (Eph. 3:21). But this cannot be done by altering the divine pattern for the church any more than it can be done by changing the message of His Word. When men do one, they signify thereby that they would not hesitate to do the other, if they thought it would be accepted by those with whom they are in fellowship. After all, a human creed is no worse than a human organization or a human program or work and worship! Why should it be so regarded? The same passage that teaches one God, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, also teaches one body (Eph. 4:4-6)!
We have pointed out the divine organization of the Lord’s Church as it is revealed in the New Testament. The one and only organization known to New Testament scriptures is the local church! We challenge any one to produce another. There was nothing larger, smaller, or other than the local church. Through it, all of the Lord’s work was carried on by the people of God. When that organization began to be altered by the wisdom and unbelief of fallible men, apostasy ensued and out of that apostasy, human creeds and human denominational organizations grew. It is even so today!
The “Rule” of the Elders
Over each one of these local churches, God appointed that elders should “rule” or have the superintendence and oversight as bishops. This rule was not by their own authority, residual either in them as men, or in the “office” or work to which they had been appointed, but in the execution of the will of the Lord, the head over all things to the church which is his body, and therefore by his authority. It was not a delegated authority that made them “lords” over the churches. From the exercise of their own will, using the “office” to have their own way and follow their own judgment, they were precluded. A self-willed man is not qualified to be an elder (Titus 1:7). Neither did their position of responsibility give them license to act as “lords” over the heritage of God (the church). The sovereignty belongs to the Lord and everything anyone does in the church of the Lord must be done by his authority (1 Pet. 5:1-5; Eph. 1:21-23).
One extreme among brethren today, concerning the eldership, is the idea that elders, or bishops, constitute a sort of hierarchy that is almost, if not quite, infallible and that these men who have the God appointed rule have the right to determine truth for us all, lay down a prescribed rule by which we are to live, and steer the church on a course of activity from which none have the scriptural right to dissent. The common conception along this line, which is used to excuse fellowship or participation in something admittedly without Bible authority in the activity of the church, is that when the elders decide upon a course of action, right or wrong, every member must be in subjection to them and no one has the right to refuse to follow them in such a course. The infallibility claimed for the Roman Catholic Hierarchy in their “interpretation of the scriptures” and in the authority exercised by them, even to the claim to be able to forgive sins, is no more absolute than that. The Bible teaches that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). This applies to any kind of authority, governmental, parental, marital, or congregational. The individual that is willing to violate his conscience by fellowshipping what is not in harmony with the teaching of the Lord, just because the elders think it is all right, or for any other reason, is untrue to the Lord and disobedient to his obligation to recognize the Lord as the one and only sovereign of his heart and life.
Concerning elders Paul wrote, 1 Tim. 5:17-20, “Them that sin, rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” This injunction was delivered to a Gospel preacher and was not idle instruction. A preacher that will not dissent and refuse to go along, even with the elders under whom he labors, as well as any others, when they depart from that which is according to truth is a time-server and man pleaser, a hireling and unworthy of Christian fellowship. Every Christian has an obligation to determine what the truth is by his own study of the Word of God and honor it above all else. Elders, if there is any difference at all, are charged with special duty to follow strictly the will of the Lord and watch against any departure therefrom, either in theory or practice (Acts 20:28-32).
That there is wide spread abuse of the eldership along this and many other lines is apparent to all who are in any wise acquainted with the true facts. Sometimes elders are jealous of their “authority” and will not take anyone, preacher, deacon, teacher, or member into their counsel, seeking their advice and help in settling even matters of judgment and expediency. They feel called upon to make every decision without considering or consulting those over whom they “rule.” This is very unwise and will eventually breed rebellion. If a father of the family should feel that it is his right and obligation to make every decision without the advice, counsel, or without even consulting the wishes and preferences of the members of the family, he will breed rebellion. Members, who are properly taught, know how to give their advice, counsel and help in such matters without trespassing upon the duty and responsibility of the elders. Elders who are competent to be recognized as elders should and will know how to keep in constant touch with the members under their supervision without either yielding their responsibility or without being “lords” and oppressive in the exercise of their duty to “rule.”
The other extreme is the presently agitated theory among some, even of the “sound brethren,” that elders have no “oversight” and cannot rightly rule except by teaching and example. There must be the right to “exercise the oversight,” “to tend,” “to take heed,” “to watch,” not by teaching of example only, but in admonition, restraint, discipline, and direction. Upon the elders this responsibility has been made to rest and their obligation to discharge it must be honored not only by them “for they must give an account unto God” for the souls over whom they watch; but it must be honored by those under their “watch,” “oversight” or “tending” by recognizing the subjection that is due them. To disrespect this or try to discredit it is not in harmony with divine authority any more than altering the government of God’s Church by enlarging their authority and jurisdiction. One is as much a departure as the other and both are spiritual anarchy against the God-given government in His church.
Truth Magazine XIX: 51, pp. 812-813
November 6, 1975