By James R. Cope, reprinted from The Preceptor
(Introductory Note: I am indebted to my friend and brother Robert F. Turner for pointing out to me the article on “Majorities and Manners” by James R. Cope, which appeared in his column “Preceptor Perceptions” in The Preceptor, Feb. 1952, p. 4. In the “Dunne-Pickup Debate,” published in the Gospel Guardian beginning 19 Nov. 1953, the Catholic priest Dunne claimed that Cope’s article endorses the concept of a hierarchy. We can understand Dunne grabbing at straws by misusing Cope’s article as well as by misusing Scripture. The Bible pattern for elders to oversee and to shepherd the local church, as defended by Cope, precludes both the extremes of hierarchy and of majority rule. There is a vast difference between one who leads in making decisions of expediency, which by definition admits that the decisions may be revamped when elders and brethren see changing circumstances, and one who makes ecclesiastical law equivalent to the divine revelation ordained in Matthew 16:19, which is precisely what Catholicism claims for its hierarchy.
Among our own brethren, history reveals the working of the destructive demons of radicalism, extremism, digression, and factionalism. During the institutional apostasy which began in 1849 and which recurred after World War 11, some elderships suffered from delusions of grandiose officialdom, used arbitrary and carnal tactics as though the end justifies the means, and ran roughshod over their brethren and the Bible. At the other end of the spectrum, a few men like Charles Holt have denied that the local church is an organized entity or that the Bible provides a pattern for a specially designated eldership which can lead with authority in the sense of making decisions in the realm of expediency. A few brethren have defied elders by resorting to the carnal and political tactics of majority rule-calling for votes and passing petitions. We commend brother Cope’s article as a balanced presentation of the truth.-Ron Halbrook, 1101 Dyson Rd., West Columbia, TX 77486)
I civilized countries recognize the necessity of government. Different forms of government hold sway in various lands but all admit the necessity of some final tribunal and ultimate authority. Chaos and confusion prevail where no rule obtains. Whether we study the civil, domestic, or religious realm authority must be vested and recognized as existing somewhere if peace and order are to be realities.
Authority Of Christ Supreme
In the church of Christ all authority resides in Christ. He is the maker, giver, and judge of his law as well as the discerner of the hearts of his subjects. On earth there is no super-organization of all Christians with authority stemming from some central headquarters. In view of plain Bible teaching one of the simplest and most revealing tests of the scripturalness of any professed religious organization is the question: Does it have some national or international head on earth? If the answer is the affirmative, such within itself shows that religious body not to be the Lord’s spiritual body for his church has no such organizational structure.
The only organization which Christ has on earth is the church in some given locality generally spoken of as a congregation of disciples or baptized believers. The law of Christ governs believers in their congregational relationships just as it governs Christians in their individual relationships. As the individual disciple cannot disregard the will of Christ in his individual activities and remain sinless, so the congregation cannot violate the law of God in its congregational or collective activities and remain sinless.
Bishops And Expediency
In the local church God has made provision for bishops to govern in matters of expediency. These officers are sometimes called elders, overseers, and presbyters. In matters of faith, i.e., where God has definitely spoken, bishops are under exactly the same obligation to obey implicitly the word of God as are all other Christians. They have an additional responsibility of faith not bound upon all saints, viz., they are to “feed the flock.” This is not a matter of judgment but a solemn obligation devolving upon them as a result of the relationship they sustain to those whom they oversee.
In matters of judgment or expediency those meeting the divine qualifications of bishops are supreme and their word is final. The Holy Spirit has appointed them and to resist their authority is to rebel against the Holy Spirit. God knew that the final decisions in the sphere of expediency had to be made by somebody, and divine wisdom has provided for them in the eldership. Regardless of the individual’s judgment, it becomes his solemn obligation to acquiesce in the bishops’ rule when that rule is announced. For all practical purposes their decision is God’s decision, and therefore, must become the disciple’s decision. To do otherwise is to nullify the office of elders and reflect upon God’s purpose in providing them. If their decisions can be disregarded, their office can be ignored. If their office can be ignored, God’s word can be set aside, for it makes provision for bishops in the churches.
The Spirit Of Rebellion
Sad to say, many feel today that God’s word can be set aside. They will not admit it but their actions betray their true sentiment. When rebellion breaks out and the judgment of qualified, God-fearing elders become the target of invectives and harsh criticisms of loose thinking and looser-talking church members, the Lord’s word has been set aside and his own government attacked. Either elders are to rule or they are not to rule. If they are to rule, they must be obeyed. If they are not to rule, divine wisdom was mistaken in commanding that they be obeyed.
When the spirit of rebellion begins to foment, it generally finds expression in overt acts. Absalom became the victim of his own vain ambition to rule in David’s stead before the people were stirred to help him consummate his evil designs in dethroning his father. His dissatisfaction with the existing order, first, and his conceited notion that he could successfully replace God’s appointed king, next, formed the framework of his scheme to usurp the throne of Israel. His foolish folly is best seen in the overthrow of his plan and the loss of his life.
A disposition to throw out the elders and change the existing order is the thing of the day in some localities. It is the mind of Absalom and the spirit of Korah. When it takes tangible form, it is overt rebellion against God and the gospel. It denies the authority of Christ and brings his body to open shame. Within the last decade churches all over the land have witnessed such heart-rending spectacles, and the cause at large has suffered irreparable damage as a direct result of this spirit.
Most always the situation resolves itself into majority rule versus elder rule, and eventually into open division of the congregation. Christian principles and decent manners fall prostrate before majority vote. The would-be rulers take over, and the men who only a short while before held the confidence and respect of all are now ambushed by ambition, scourged by scoffing, and crucified by calumny. Majority rule in the church has no manners-decent manners, that is. And those who constitute the majority are so blinded by pride that they can see no sin of their own and so infatuated with their own importance that they do not listen to reason and will not heed revelation.
Where gospel preachers are willing to submit themselves to the judgment of elders when they fire as well as when they hire, the situation will rapidly improve. If preachers and elders will hold faithfully and constantly before the congregation, its responsibility and proper attitude toward the elders the disciples will not likely get out of control. This is one sure way to honor the divine arrangement and preserve the peace of God’s people.
Majority rule is not God’s plan for his church. If it is right part of the time, it is proper all the time. If it is right all the time, there is no room for elder rule. If there is no place for elder rule, there is no place for Christ’s rule. If there is no place for Christ’s rule, there is no place for Christ’s church, and if there is no place for Christ’s church, there is no room for Christ. Beware of the man or men, preachers or otherwise, who will dissipate the divine plan for their own purposes. Such persons are too liberal for the progress and prosperity of the Lord’s people in spiritual affairs.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 18, pp. 558-559
September 19, 1985