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

By Vance E. Trefethen


As before, my articles represent my own views and not those of any church, eldership, or other saints. Quotes from Tom’s material are italicized, as are Greek words.

The Problem

Many are stuck between the false choice that elders either privately decide all matters of judgment, or else they have no authority or function at all. Since the latter is wrong, many are driven to the former. But there is a third way  the Bible way. In the Bible, elders perform authoritative spiritual leadership by calling and presiding over assemblies, teaching the flock, rebuking sinners, convicting false teachers, correcting the erring, counseling, visiting and lifting up the weak, leading in prayer, admonishing (warning) and showing less mature saints how to get to heaven. Both of the extremes described above have bad consequences. The first (“elders privately decide every-thing”) led to many of the disastrous consequences of the Boston Movement. The latter (“elders are just older saints with no leadership authority”) is associated with a break-down of the meaning and purpose of the local church. The Affirmative position accepts the first extreme in its zeal to avoid the second. The Negative denies both extremes in favor of the Bible pattern.


I challenge the Affirmative definition of “assemble” because (1) It’s not in any dictionary; and (2) It assumes something under debate; what “eldership capacity” means. I agree that elders (and teenagers, preachers, women, etc.) may meet privately. The question is, can private groups decide things for the church without ever including the whole congregation?

More Definitions

“Lord”  katakurieuo (1 Pet. 5:3; Matt. 20:25), “control, subjugate  exercise dominion over” (Strong, p. 40). “Lord”  katexousiazo (Matt. 20:25), “to have (wield) full privilege over” (Strong, p.41). “Leader”  hegeomai (Heb. 13:7,17, NASV), “chief” (Lk. 22:26; Acts 15:22). “Necessary”  “resulting from necessity; inevitable” (Webster Collegiate Dictionary 5th ed., p. 664).

What the Debate Is Not About

“Excluding the congregation from the decision-making process.” Really? But the proposition says “before and without” the congregation. Exclude means “to shut out” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, p. 250). This debate is already over and conceded to the Negative if we agree the congregation cannot be shut out of the decision-making process.

What the Debate Is About

My book? No, it’s about the proposition Tom agreed to affirm. The key to this debate is whether “privately deciding all collective judgments” is the necessary inference from words describing the work of elders, or whether there are other inferences required by Greek grammar, context, and the use of these words in other passages.

Word Study

(1) Elder, presbyter (presbuteros). I agree with Tom’s quote of Vine on this word more so than Tom does. Vine says “spiritual care of’ the church is the oversight they carry out. That’s exactly what I believe. But affirmative wants “spiritual care” to be changed into privately deciding all matters of judgment.

(2) Bishop, overseer (episkopos). Tom should have quoted Vine on “oversight” (episkopeo) to show what overseers do: “to look upon (epi, upon, skopeo, to look at, contemplate) . . .” The rest of Vine’s comments do not pertain to the definition until he reaches Hebrews 12:15, where it means “looking carefully” (Vine 152). Secret decision-making is conspicuously absent from Vine’s definition of “oversight.”

I hope Tom doesn’t believe his quote defining a bishop as head of any Christian church. Bishops who see that things done by others are done “rightly” (as opposed to “wrongly”) are leading people in matters of faith, not privately deciding matters of judgment. When something is a matter of “right” and “wrong” it is not a collective judgment. Thayer’s definition shows the work of elders in matters of faith and says nothing about deciding matters of judgment.

(3) Pastor, shepherd (poimenas). The definition of “pastor” as a “shepherd” is fine. God (not commentators like Trench) decides the work of shepherds, since he owns the flock. Ephesians 4:11-13 defines the work; “He gave some … pastors … for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith. . .” Pastors are for the unity of the faith. The definition of “matters of judgment” (“distinct from matters of faith”) means the word “pastor” has no application to this proposition.

(4) Feed (poimaino). Vine’s definition of poimaino is “to act as a shepherd.” Ezekiel 34:2-3 is an inspired commentary on shepherds’ work; feed the sheep, strengthen the weak, bind up the sick, heal the injured, bring back the strays, search for the lost. Pastors make the difference between sheep being “lost,” “injured,” or “weak” and being saved, healthy and strong. This is leadership in matters of faith, not secret decisions in matters of judgment. No one is “lost” over matters of judgment, and the feeding done by shepherds is in matters of faith (Eph. 4:11-13).

(5) Appoint (kathistemi). This word pertains only to how leaders are placed “in office,” and does not explain what kind of authority they have thereafter.

(6) Rule (proistemi). (1) I’m disappointed at the incomplete quote from Vine on this word. Here’s the full quote; “Proistemi, lit `to stand before,’ hence, to lead, attend to (indicating care and diligence), is translated to rule (Middle Voice), with reference to a local church, in Rom. 12:8; perfect active in 1 Tim. 5:17; with reference to a family, 1 Tim. 3:4 and 12 (Middle Voice); ver. 5 (2nd aorist, Active). See MAINTAIN” (Vine 307). “Lead” “attend to,” and “care and diligence” explain what “rule” means, and also contradict the Affirmative position, which is why they were omitted. These are consistent with the work of elders being to lead, help and “maintain” others in “the faith” (Eph. 4:11-13). (2) If proistemi means “privately decide all matters of judgment,” then all saints should privately decide everything because proistemi applies to all Christians in Tutus 3:14. “Privately decide everything for the church” cannot be necessarily inferred from proistemi. Since it’s not in the lexicon, it shouldn’t be inferred at all.

Fathers and Elders

No, elders do not rule (attend to, care for, lead) a church exactly as fathers do a family. There is a similarity in some aspects (proistemi), but there are two other words that sharply distinguish them; “head” and “lord.” The husband is “head” over his family (Eph. 5:23). Elders aren’t “head” of the church, and I call on Tom to retract this doctrine. The word “lord” applies to the husband’s relationship to his wife (1 Pet. 3:6, Do you still believe I’m a radical feminist?). Heads and lords can privately decide things and bind them on others. Both are granted to fathers and forbidden to elders.

Submit and Obey, Hebrews 13:7,17

(1) Elders are not the “only scripturally qualified men” who are “leaders” (hegeomai). In Luke 22:26 it refers to the Apostles and any others who might be considered “chief’ among brethren. In Acts 15:22 hegeomai distinguishes Judas and Silas from the “apostles and elders.” In Acts 14:12 it refers to a man disqualified from the eldership. (2) God’s definition of hegeomai in the church is “those who spoke the word of God to you” (Heb 13:7), “leading in speech” (Acts 14:12, New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon, 379). Hegeomai in the church are those who publicly teach and admonish from the word. Elders are among hegeomai since they must teach the Word, butepiskopeo and presbuteros are not synonyms for hegeomai, and not all hegeomai are elders. Elders are not mentioned anywhere in Hebrews 13. Assuming elders are the sole hegeomai of Hebrews 13 is an unnecessary inference. Judas, Barsabbas, Silas, and Paul are overlooked in this erroneous assumption. (3) Even if this were about elders only, it defeats the proposition. His definition of obey is yielding to persuasion, but the proposition says “before and without” the congregation. There is no persuasion when things are done privately without the congregation.

(4) The only matters mentioned in context are “the word of God,” “imitate their faith,” and “strange teachings” (Heb. 13:7-9). The Word, faith, and strange teachings are not matters of judgment.

Woman’s subjection (hupotage), 1 Tim. 2:11. This passage says nothing about anyone deciding things before and without the assembly. In singing, Bible class, and the Lord’s supper, women participate under male leadership. If women might attempt leadership in these things, the solution isn’t to ban women from participating. Why is that the only solution Tom has for reaching “one accord” (Acts 15:25) in matters of judgment? Violating NT examples (Acts 6:5; 15:22) is never the solution to anything.

Circular reasoning. How do we know episkopeo means privately decide everything? Because it’s used of elders. How do we know elders should privately decide everything? Because episkopeo applies to them. The pre-conceived idea proves the preconceived definition, which proves the preconceived idea. But notice: (1) Episkopeo is used on non-elders (Acts 1:20: Heb 12:15) and therefore gives others private decision-making authority, if that’s what it infers; (2) No lexicon defines it as “privately decide all matters of judgment.”

Confusion on authority. Affirmative wrongly assumes two things are equal because they have something in common. Example: Elders and fathers have something in common (proistemi), so all their authority is the same. Here’s the flaw: A policeman can rebuke and punish my daughter if he finds her speeding. As her father, I have similar authority. Do I therefore have all the same authority as a policeman? No. I can’t arrest people, drive a police car, etc. We have one type of authority in common, but many others are forbidden. So, with bishops and fathers.

Answers. (1) Episkopeo (oversight) isn’t in the pas-sages cited. Rephrase the question using Bible words in Bible ways and I’ll answer it.(2) Do you mean elders have the same authority as fathers and governments? Headship? Using the sword? How far will this go? Episkopeo doesn’t necessarily infer deciding matters of judgment for others (Heb 12:14-15). If you affirm it does, you must prove it. (3) Only if they do so in matters of collective judgment before and without including the congregation. (4) Because she isn’t overruling or leading the males, nor is she deciding things “for” the church. The whole group together reaches “general approbation” (2 Cor. 8:19), as your scholar said. (5) No. Nor should a preacher quit if he learns he was wrong about something he taught. He should just do things differently in the future.

Questions. (1) Do episkopeo and proistemi inevitably infer private decision-making? (2) Do elders wield full privilege (have total control) over decision-making? (3) Give a lexicon and a Scripture defining hegeomai as “elders-only.” (4) Does obeying the hegeomai of Hebrews 13 apply to individual or collective action, matters of faith or judgment, or what combination of the above? (5) Do the kings in Matthew 20:25 and Luke 22:26 rule by privately deciding things for the people?

Summary: Please join me in ejecting the proposition because:

1. It gives elders headship and lordship over the church.

2. It demands unnecessary and contradictory inferences from the Scriptures.

3. It changes the lexical definitions of Bible words.

4. It ignores Apostolic examples of congregational decision-making (Acts 15:22)

5. It confuses matters of faith with matters of judgment.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII, No. 22, p. 13-14
November 17, 1994