Roberts-Trefethen Debate On the Role of Elders: First Affirmative

By Tom M. Roberts

Proposition: “Resolved: The Scriptures teach that the elders of a local church are authorized to assemble privately to make decisions in matters of judgment for the local church before and without calling together the whole congregation.”

Definitions: “The Scriptures,” the 66 books of the Bible. “Teach,” instruct by commands, approved examples or divine implications. “Elders,” men who are scripturally authorized and appointed (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1) over each local church (Acts 14:23; 1 Pet. 5:2). “Local church,” the congregation in a given locality in its corporate entity (Phil. 1:1). “Authorized,” empowered, permitted. “To assemble,” meet in their eldership capacity (Acts 20:17). “Privately” (Gk: idios) “pertaining to one’s own; ‘.o do one’s own business (1 Thess. 4:11), apart (Matt. 24:3)” (Thayer, p. 296-7). “To make decisions,” come to a conclusion. “In matters of judgment,” distinct from matters of faith. “For the local church,” represent, act on behalf of, in the interest of the local congregation. “Before,” in advance of. “And without,” lacking, in the absence of. “Calling together,” summoning, requesting. “The whole congregation,” the ekklesia.

This debate is not about: (1) An abuse of that which is scriptural. Abuse of civil government does not mitigate against authorized government (Rom. 13:1-7); abuse by husbands does not mitigate against headship (Eph. 5:23); “lording it over God’s heritage” does not mitigate against oversight (Matt. 20:25-27; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). (2) Excluding the congregation from the decision-making process. While elders make final decisions as overseers, they seek advice and counsel from the congregation. (3) Excluding women since “congregation” includes women.

This debate is about: The error propagated by Vance in his book, Confusion or Consensus, which includes: (1) Charging elders with sin when they make a private decision for the church (p. 47, 51); (2) A demand that women be included in congregational decision-making (p. 3); (3) A claim for a pattern that demands congregational decision-making in every instance even when there are elders (p. 44); (4) Substitution of consensus for oversight of elders (p. 24); (5) Voting instead of elder oversight (his aff. #2). These errors violate the clear NT teaching of eldership oversight which permits them to make decisions on behalf of the congregation.The proposition which I affirm will be supported by three major arguments. The first will be a word study of the biblical language fromwhich we perceive the authority of elders.

Arguments: Words are vehicles of thoughts and inspiration has chosen the exact words to explain the scope of the elders’ authority, the congregation’s relationship to elders, and woman’s subjection. “Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words” (1 Cor. 2:13). When one is a “bishop” and exercises “oversight,” he is and does expressly what the Holy Spirit teaches. Divine concepts (“spiritual things”) are expressed through divine precepts (“spiritual words”). Human concepts (congregational decision-making) are expressed through human precepts (consensus, voting) and constitute “human wisdom.”

Word Study: (1) Elder, presbyter (presbuteros), Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5: “(3) in the Christian churches, those who, being raised up and qualified by the work of the Holy Spirit, were appointed to have the spiritual care of, and to exercise oversight over, the churches” (Vine, Vol. II:21). (2) Bishop, overseer (episkopos), 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7: “An overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly, any curator, guardian, or superintendent . . . spec. the superintendent, head or overseer of any Christian church” (Thayer, p. 243). “Lit, an overseer … (2) . . . is rendered . . . `office of a bishop,’ lit. `overseership,’ there is no word representing office. Note: The corresponding verb is episkopeo, which, in reference to the work of an overseer, is found in 1 Pet. 5:2 .. . ‘exercising the oversight … taking the oversight”‘ (Vine 129). (3) Pastors, shepherds (poimenas): “a shepherd, one who tends herds or flocks (not merely one who feeds them), is used metaphorically of Christian `pastors,’ Eph. 4:11. Pastors guide as well as feed the flock; cp. Acts 20:28, which, with v. 17, indicates that this was the service committed to elders (overseers, bishops); so in 1 Pet. 5:1-2, `tend the flock, exercising the oversight;’ this involves tender care and vigilant superintendence” (Vine 167). Also (4) Feed (verb, poimaino), Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2: “to act as a shepherd,” (quoting Trench) “The tending (which includes this) consists of other acts, of discipline, authority, restoration, material assistance of individuals, but they are incidental in comparison with the feeding” (Vine 87, 88). (5) Appoint (kathistemi): “prop. to set down, put down … (a) to set one over a thing (in charge of it), Acts 6:3 . . . (b) to appoint one to administer an office, Tit. 1:5” (Thayer 314). Compare its usage: Matt. 24:45, 47; Acts 6:3; Tit. 1:5. (6) Rule (proistemi), 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim.3:4; 5:17: “to set or place before; to set over. a. To be over, to superintend, preside over, rule” (Thayer 539); (hegeomai), Heb. 13:7, 17: “to lead, is translated to rule” (Vine 307).

These words clearly define that elders have the authority of God to oversee, exercise the oversight, see that things are done rightly by others, to be set over, to be a leader, to rule. There is no ambiguity here. It is inconceivable that elder oversight excludes the ability to make even one decision, much less that they sin by doing so. The Holy Spirit “makes” bishops (Acts 20:28) by the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and defines their authority by these words that describe them. It is ludicrous to use the terminology without applying the definitions. To admit oversight and superintendency is not to stretch a single word from its meaning or context. This is what elders are and what they do, not in name only. To strip elders of decision-making ability is to deny elders what they do by definition: “exercise the oversight.” It is notable that the same word “appoint” used in Acts 6:3 authorizing “deacons” to decide about tables is also used in Titus 1:5 regarding elders. Are deacons permitted to do that which is forbidden to elders: make decisions about their work? Elders are not to “lord it over the flock,” nor act as Gentile masters, but there is legitimate oversight (else words have no meaning), not to be confused with abuse (1 Pet. 5:3; Lk. 22:25-26). As a father rules his house, so an elder rules the “house of God” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Must a father rule by consensus or by majority vote without the ability to make a single decision without the whole family, including the children, being in agreement? In any collective (whether a family or a congregation), information may be sought from every member by the overseer, but someone must make a final decision. In the family, this is the father (Eph. 5:23). In the church, these are elders. Vance denies this to elders. Would he also deny it to fathers?

Word Study: Congregation’s role toward elders: Submit (hupeiko): “To resist no longer, to give way, yield, metaph. to yield to authority and admonition, to submit, Heb. 13:17” (Thayer 638). Obey (peitho): “1. To persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe; . . . 2. a. to be persuaded, to suffer one’s self to be persuaded . . . b. to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with, Acts 5:36-39; 23:21; 27:11; Rom. 2:8; Gal. 3:1; 5:1; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 3:3″(Thayer 497). Study the cited Scriptures carefully. Elders cannot be excluded from this work since it applies to those who are to “rule” over the church and elders are specifically charged with this duty. They are the only scripturally qualified men so charged.

Word study: Woman’s subjection (hupotage), 1 Tim. 2:11: “1. the act of subjecting, 2. obedience, subjection, to arrange under, to subordinate, to subject, put in subjection” (Thayer 645). Vance must make up his mind whether women have decision-making authority or not. In those congregations with a majority of women, the men must either submit to the authority of the women or over-ride their decision-making authority. If elders are present, they must defer to the women if the women decide to go against the judgment of the elders. If this is not true, women have no decision-making authority. The Bible requires women to be in subjection; Vance requires them to have decision-making authority. If “being in subjection” allows decision-making authority, why would not “being in subjection” also allow women to serve the Lord’s table, preach, or teach mixed adult classes so long as they did so “under male leadership”?

Summary: The words of the Holy Spirit define an elder and his authority. There is no need to stretch these words beyond their legitimate definitions to determine that elders can make a private decision that is binding on the church. The church is not a democracy that empowers itself to make corporate decisions (consensus) but a theocracy that has a mandate from Christ as head to submit in judgment matters to the qualified elders who are “over” them “in the Lord.”

Questions: (1) Do parents, husbands and magistrates have the right to make decisions relating to the oversight of their province (Eph. 6:4:1-4; 5:22-23; Rom. 13:1-2)? (2) Do bishops have the right to make decisions relating to the oversight of the church (1 Pet. 5:1-3)? (3) Do elders “lord it over God’s heritage” every time they make a decision for the congregation (1 Pet. 5:3; Matt. 20:25)? (4) If so, why is a woman not having “authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12) when she exercises decision-making authority in the church? (5) Do you believe an eldership should be removed from a congregation when it makes private decisions for the church?

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII, No. 22, p. 10-11
November 17, 1994