From Heaven or From Men

By Clinton D. Hamilton

The work of elders, their relation to congregation, and the congregation’s relation to them continue to be a topic of genuine interest among brethren. Questions are frequently raised by sincere brethren. Often the questions are difficult and call for many inferences from the scriptures. Some of them raise points on which the scriptures have not spoken directly; accordingly, answers must be deduced from what is said.

Two questions in this area have been raised by the same querist. Both of these questions will be discussed in this article.

Question: Explain what it means in I Peter 5:3 in the words “not lording it over the flock.” The second question follows: Are elders appointed for life and if their conduct disqualifies them but they will not resign, what can a congregation do?

Response: Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every congregation (Acts 14:23). Titus was to appoint elders in every city (Tit. 1:5). There were elders at Philippi (Phil. 1:1) and at Ephesus (Acts 20:17,28), as well as at Jerusalem and in Judea (Acts 11:28-30; 15:2,6,22,23; 16:4). This was the pattern in the New Testament. Commencing with Acts 11:30, there are 16 instances of the use of the term elder related to these spiritual leaders in the Lord’s body. The term occurs 67 times in the New Testament.

It will be helpful to us in this study to ascertain the meaning and the significance of the terms used to refer to these servants of God and examples to the flock of God. Elder is from the term presbuteros which signifies one who is older and more experienced. It is a term of general use in the New Testament and can refer simply to an older person (Acts 2:17); it also is used to refer to the leaders among the Jews (Matt. 27:12,20; Mk. 14:43, et. al.). However, it does have the precise meaning of a spiritual leader and overseer in the flock of God appointed to the work as directed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). According to the New Testament pattern, there was a plurality of them in every church (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5). God’s specified qualifications for them are factors of the work which he committed them to do (I Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). Conveyed by the term is the notion of mature spiritual experience. These are men who know the will of God and can make application of in not only in their own lives but can also exhort others properly to apply it in their lives.

Episkopos is a term that refers to the elders (Acts 20:17,28) and is translated by the words overseer and bishop. The Greek term is derived from epi, over, and skopeo, to look or watch. Of the five times it is used in the New Testament, four of them have reference to those who are also called elders (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7). The other time it is used has reference to Christ as the shepherd and bishop of the soul (1 Pet. 2:25). This term emphasizes the work of overseeing or watching over the congregation.

Pastor is another term which applies to the same persons as does the term elder. Poimen is the word from which pastor is translated; shepherd sometimes is the translation for the Greek term. Poimen means shepherd and is one who tends the flock. Its meaning is broader than the idea of feeding the flock. The term occurs in Ephesians 4:11. This work is that which elders and bishops also perform (Acts 20:17,28). Peter’s instructions are most informative in this connection. To the elders he exhorts that they tend the flock of God which is among them (1 Pet. 5:1-2). In this tending, they were to exercise the oversight. The work here mentioned for them shows that elder and pastor are equivalent terms. Tend is from poimaino, the verb from which the noun poimen is derived, and is used in 1 Peter 5:2.

The tending or shepherding to be done by the elders is to be done willingly, of a ready mind, and as examples. Willingly is translated from ekousios, which has the meaning of voluntarily, of one’s own accord (Thayer). This willingness is contrasted with force and compulsion which is the meaning of the term anankastos used in the original text (Thayer). In the context of this passage, the idea is that the elders do their work of their own free will, ready to do their duty, and not by constraint, force, or compulsion. No one has to compel them to do the work God gave them.

Neither do elders see their work as a means to gain money, “for filthy lucre” is an expression that conveys the idea of greediness or eagerness for base gain, which is the meaning of aischrokerdos used in this passage. Some elders might be paid for their work (1 Tim. 5:7) but they are not to do it for the sake of the gain. Rather, their work should be done from “a ready mind” which is translated from prothumos, which has the meaning of willing (Thayer) or with alacrity (Vine). Gain is not the driving force but an eagerness of heart to do the will of God in relation to the flock is.

Nor do elders do their work “as lording it over the charge allotted” to them. Lording over is rendered from katakurieuo which means “to hold in subjection, to be master of, to exercise lordship over” (Thayer). Jesus used this term in speaking about the Gentiles lording it over, or exercising dominion over, those related to them (Matt. 20:25; Mk. 10:42). Contrasted to this subduing or lording it over, the elders are to be examples to the flock. Example is from tupos which means pattern (Vine). It is “an example to be imitated,” according to Thayer. They are not as lords to subdue or exercise dominion but rather go before as patterns or molds of the conduct that brethren should imitate. Sometimes, elders may show the disposition to demand that people be subjected or subdued to them on the basis of their position. But those who have the disposition Peter described will be those who by the force and power of example demonstrate the pattern of life that brethren should live. Elders are not dictators or rulers in the sense that the great ones or princes of the Gentiles exercised authority over their people. This disposition must be far removed from elders.

Jesus contrasted the spirit of the Gentile lords to what his servants should be. The great ones among the Lord’s people are those who serve or minister (Matt. 20:26-28; Mk. 10:43-45). Elders, then, are to approach their work of watching with willingness to benefit the souls of men and not as being lords or rulers with dictatorial powers.

Brethren under the oversight of elders are to obey them (Heb. 13:17). Obey is translated from the term peitho which means “to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with” (Thayer). The idea is that one is persuaded by their instruction and exhortation from the word of God to the point that he yields to or obeys the teaching. Peitho sometimes is translated persuade (Matt. 27:20; Lk. 16:31; Acts 14:19, et. al.), trust (Matt. 10:24; Lk. 18:9; Phil. 3:4; Heb. 2:13; 13:18, et. al.), obey (Acts 5:8,37; Rom. 2:8; Gal. 3:1; 5:7; Jas. 3:3, et. al.), believe (Acts 17:4; 27:11; 28:24, et. al.); there are some other terms also used in the translation of it; yield (Acts 23:21); having made … friend (Acts 12:20); agree (Acts 5:40). One should have no difficulty under-standing the meaning of obey in the context of the work of elders. Peitho is used 55 times in the New Testament.

Why should brethren yield to, be persuaded by, or obey the elders? The reason assigned by revelation is “for they watch in behalf’ of your souls (Heb. 13:17). For is from gar which has the meaning of because. It is because elders watch in behalf of souls that one should yield to or be persuaded by their instruction or spiritual guidance. One’s soul’s welfare is a factor of the relation that one sustains to the word of God. It is evident, therefore, that elders are concerned about one’s relation and response to the word of God. Watch is translated from agrupneo, which literally means to be sleepless in chasing sheep (Vine). Metaphorically it has the meaning of being constant in observing and caring for the souls of men. Thayer comments in relation to Hebrews 13:17 that the idea is “to exercise constant vigilance over something (an image drawn from shepherds).” Elders are awake and constant in their concern for men’s souls. Souls are in a state of good welfare if they are obedient to the word of God. Elders are to instruct and guide men in understanding and doing the will of God. Good ones do not view themselves as being lords, rulers, or dictators.

Another term that needs attention is rule in Hebrew 13:17; it comes from egeomai which has the meaning of leading or guiding. The same term is used in Hebrews 13:7 in relation to elders and also in verse 24. Basically, the sense of the term in this context is to take the lead and guide. Since they are awake to the welfare of souls, they take the lead in matters pertaining to the word of God. They do not seek to impose on others their wills but rather they seek to persuade men to be responsive to the will of God. In this, their lives are examples of what one’s relation to the word of God should be.

Christ is referred to as shepherd (poimen) and bishop (episkopos) of men’s souls (1 Pet. 2:25). His teaching is that by which he shepherds and bishops men’s souls. He instructs men how to behave in relation to God and to one another. In the role of shepherds and bishops, elders should instruct in the word of God what a person’s duties are to God and one another. When they step beyond this work, they are not doing what elders are instructed to do. One of their qualifications is to be apt to teach (I Tim. 3:2). The term from which the expression “apt to teach” is translated is didaktikos and means skilled in instructing. This qualification is necessary because elders must deal with people in relation to the word of God, taking the lead and guidance in imparting what it says and how to apply it in one’s life.

Elders are to exhort and to convict the gainsayers (Tit. 1:9). Exhort is from the term parakaleo which means to call on, to entreat, to admonish, or to urge one to pursue a certain course of conduct (Vine). Because elders are exhorting in relation to the welfare of one’s soul, they must be able from diligent study to know what conduct the word of God instructs men to follow. The original text says that this is to be by teaching, didaskalia. In relation to the gainsayer or the one who opposes the truth of God, the elders are to have the role of contradicting and convicting. The gainsayer is the one contradicting the word of God. Gainsayer is from antilego which literally means to speak against. In relation to such a false teacher, elders are to convict or convince. Convict is from elegcho which means to reprove or rebuke. This word is used to state what John the baptizer did in relation to Herod concerning his adultery (Lk. 3:19). One cannot do this successfully without knowing well the teaching of the gospel. This exhorting and convicting of the gainsayer is for the benefit of the gainsayer’s soul if he can be convinced to accept the word of God.

Taking the lead over the people of God is a serious work fraught with eternal consequences. If elders instruct brethren in the word of God and show by example how it is to regulate conduct, then it would be disastrous for brethren not to yield to them. In this instance, it would be unprofitable to the brethren and a grief to the elders (Heb. 13:17). The rule or the leading of elders is not the imposing of their will or judgment on brethren. They oversee the brethren as they go about their lives, teaching them to do the will of God and showing them when they violate it. They urge brethren to do right, not impose their judgment on them. If they behave as dictators, they would be lording it over the flock.

On recalling those elders who had the leadership over brethren, and spake the word of God to them but are now dead, brethren are to consider the way they issued from life or died. Having done this, they should imitate their faith (Heb. 13:7). Certainly, being dead these elders would not be lording it over the flock. However, brethren were to imitate their faith, the example of a life of faith.

Elders are human and may sin. If they do, accusations against them shall not be received except before two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). Those that do sin should be rebuked before all that the rest may also fear (1 Tim. 5:2). If elders become unqualified by their conduct or teaching, they are not to be in the leading role. If they do not step aside, admitting that they are unfit to lead, then the brethren should express themselves to be effect that they are unfit and proceed to demonstrate that they are by refusing to follow their example and any erroneous teaching. This behavior in relation to men who have disqualified them-selves to be elders effectively relieves them of their leadership role.

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 24, p. 5-7
December 16, 1993