Roberts Trefethen Debate on the Role of the Elders: Second Negative

By Vance E. Trefethen

The Problem Grows: When elders privately decide all matters of collective and individual judgment for others (2A, 6 19), the plane has landed in Boston. We’re told elders may decide whether a member needs circumcision (1st Debate, 2N, 67). If the saint disagrees, they cite Hebrews 13:17 and decide for him (2 A, 6 19). Folks where does it stop? Compared to involuntary genital surgery, deciding what house you may buy is trivial. But there is no Scripture to stop such things once you accept the Affirmative position.

An interesting Debate: Ordinarily, it takes two parties to have a debate. But not always: ” . . . Hebrews 13:17… elders … `rule’ [Gk. hegeomai, VET] over the church and elders are specifically charged with this duty. They are the only scripturally qualified men so charged” (TR, IA, 68). BUT: “I have never taught hegeomai to be elders-only” (TR, 2A, 6 19).

“This debate is not about… excluding the congregation from the decision-making process” (TR, IA, 63).

BUT: “elders . . . make private decisions on behalf of the congregation . .. before and without calling together the whole congregation” (TR, 2A, 6 1).

“Bishop, overseer (episkopos) . . . head or overseer of any Christian church” (TR, IA, 66).

BUT: “I did not suggest that elders are heads of the church” (TR, 2A, 6 16).

. . overseers … make decisions (after discussions)” (TR, 2A, 6 16, emp. added).

BUT: “Before and without calling together the whole congregation” (proposition).

The Debate is About: “`Head’ and `lord’ . . . are granted to fathers and forbidden to elders” (VT, 1 N, 6 14). “Vance `forbids to elders’ what God authorizes” (TR, 2A, 6 16). I deny headship and lordship, but Tom says I’m wrong. He uses “head” and “overseer” interchangeably (1 A, 66), and I say that’s wrong. This debate is about headship and lordship for elders.

Authority: The keys to understanding authority are context and scope.

Context: Fathers have headship and lordship authority in the family, yet this was applied out of context to elders (2A, 6 16). Governments have authority to make laws and bear the sword, but this was applied out of context to elders (2A, 6 16). Slave-owners and military officers also have decision-making authority (1 Pet. 2:18; Lk. 7:8). I wait in fear for these to be used as models for elders. Whatever you believe about elders’ authority, you must get it from a passage about elders! Otherwise, elders will be enforcing capital punishment, spanking all the kids, treating people like slaves, and ordering military exercises. Please, let’s observe context.

Scope: Except for Jesus, all authority is limited. Evangelists have “authority” (Tit. 2:15), but don’t decide things for the church. Governments have authority, but exceed it if they persecute Christians. Fathers have headship and lordship authority in the family, but exceed it if they order the wife not to go to church. Are we denying the authority of evangelists, governments, or fathers when we say their authority is limited? Tom removed all limits for elders by affirming that they privately decide collective and individual judgments for everyone (2A, 6 19). I’m tired of being accused of saying elders have “no authority” when I simply argue their authority is limited.

Word Study: (1) Presbuteros. No affirmative response to my analysis of Vine’s definition.

(2) Episkopos (overseer). No affirmative response to Vine’s definition of oversight. No response to the fact that it refers to non-elders in some passages (and therefore gives non-elders private decision-making power, if that’s what it infers). No response to the circular reasoning problem. No response to the problem of all saints privately deciding things in Hebrews 12:14-15 if episkopeo necessarily infers decision-making. And, if episkopeo doesn’t necessarily infer private decision-making, the proposition is lost.

(3) Pastor. No response to Ephesians 4 defining pastors’ work as “faith,” not judgment.

(4) Feed. “Spiritual” and “judgmental” work are two different things (TR, 2A,19). Since “feed” involves “spiritual functions” (TR, 2A, 111), not collective judgment, “feed” is out of the debate.

(5) Appoint (kathistemi). No affirmative response. We agree this applies to elders. It also applies to some non-elders (Acts 6:3; 2 Pet. 1:8). This proves nothing about private decision-making.

(6) Rule (proistemi). (1) No affirmative explanation of the words Vine used to define proistemi: “care and diligence,” “attend to,” “lead,” and “maintain.” He won’t quote them, but his scholar said them. (2) No lexicon was given to show proistemi necessarily infers private decision-making. (3) No response to explain Titus 3:14 if proistemi infers private decision-making.

“Silent as the tomb” on 1 Timothy 2:11-12. The perception of silence is explained by Acts 7:57. The word for vote (cheirotoneo) isn’t in this passage, but we agree it means “general approbation” (2 Cor. 8:19), which is what I advocate, and which isn’t private decision-making. No affirmative response on 1 Timothy 2 saying nothing about decisions without an assembly.

Hegeomai (leaders, chief men) in Hebrews 13:7,17. No affirmative reply to the “word of God,” “imitate their faith” and “strange teachings” referring to faith, not judgment. No response to “obey” requiring persuasion and the presence of the multitude. No explanation of Judas and Silas, two non-elder, non-apostle “chief men.” We now agree that “those who speak the word” are hegeomai (2A, 6 15), so any “decision-making” goes to non-elders as well as elders. Are you ready for any teacher to decide things privately for the church?

Acts 4:34-37. “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one (of them) claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them . . . for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35). In the NT, the congregation came to one heart and soul about the action before it happened. Affirmative wants it “before and without” the congregation. There are no elders or men’s business meetings in this text. Acts 4 denies the proposition.

Acts 6:1-6. “In Acts 6, before and without calling the congregation together, the apostles . . . decided to stop serving tables . . . decided on seven men” (TR, 2A, 63, emp. added). “And the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them” (Acts 6:2). Choose this day .. .

Acts 9:26-28. (1) “Them” of v. 28 refers to its antecedent, the apostles, just as “they” of Acts 2:1 refers to the apostles of 1:26. Verse 29 shows the fellowship was in preaching with the apostles. (2) Can 12 non-elders in a church of over 5,000 privately decide matters of fellow-ship for a church today? I challenge Tom to affirm they can, if that’s what this passage teaches.

Acts 11:27-30. (1) Adding “expediently” and “inexpediently” into Thayer is not acceptable. If a lexicon won’t support a position, don’t quote it. (2) “Jesus is overseer, elders are overseers and it means the same in both cases” (TR, 1st debate, 3N, 64). Please tell what matters of expediency Jesus is “overseeing” (deciding?) in the Kingdom today and we’ll use that as our guide for elders. (3) Give a Scripture in Acts 11 showing a collective judgment made without the congregation, who made it, what the specific decision was, and who was invited or excluded.

Acts 13:1-3. (1) Commands from the Holy Spirit are matters of faith, not judgment. Acts 13 has no bearing on the proposition. (2) It’s interesting that there were no elders or men’s business meetings here. I challenge Tom to affirm that five non-elders in a church of 5,000 members can decide things without consulting the elders or calling a men’s business meeting.

Acts 15:6; 16:4; 21:25. (1) This is about the plan of salvation for Gentiles, not matters of judgment. (2) The multitude was present (15:12). (3) I challenge Tom to state whether elders today may “decide” what people must do to be saved, write a letter with their plan, send it to other churches, and tell those churches to obey their decision.

Galatians 2:2. What “decisions” were made in this passage? Paul “privately” discussed “the gospel,” which is not a “congregational judgment.” Galatians 2:2 has nothing to do with this debate.

Acts 21:15-26. (1) “Without calling together the congregation” (TR). “The assembly must needs come together” (Acts 21:22). Choose this day . . . (2) I don’t object to private meetings to “discuss how the church might be affected” (2A, 68). That’s not what we’re debating. (3) Nothing was decided about congregational action. The whole church didn’t shave or take vows. These elders met with a saint about individual action, which has no bearing on the proposition.

“Private (not secret).” “Secret” is one of the definitions of “private,” and “private” is a synonym for “secret” (Webster Collegiate Dictionary 5th ed., 780, 898).

“Vance says they sinned.” Be careful about ascribing statements to others that they didn’t make. Before attributing something, be sure you can cite the reference where it was said.

Answers to Clarified 1A Questions. (1) Yes, as do slave-owners and military officers. (2) Not collective judgments without the multitude. Yes, for specific acts of leadership in matters of faith (e.g.; deciding to rebuke a sinner; rejecting unscriptural Bible class material).

Answers to 2A Questions. (1) No, they didn’t choose 7 men “without” an assembly (Acts 6:2), and no, they didn’t sin. (2) Jesus decides that ultimately in the universal church. Local churches determine specific cases by following 1 Timothy 5:19-20. (3) and (4) Fellowship isn’t in the proposition, isn’t on p. 109 of my book, and I will not debate it. (5) Yes, provided the congregation has agreed on this method of handling emergencies. Then, the action follows a decision assembly and isn’t “before and with-out.” Be careful with emergencies, or I’ll ask about a flood leaving 100 orphans homeless in the rain near a warm dry church building.

Questions for Tom. (1) May a 13-year-old boy who was baptized yesterday attend a men’s business meeting? May he participate? (2) Can any non-elders (in a church with elders) decide any collective judgments without the elders? (3) In a large church with 14 elders, could 3 elders (without the other 11) privately decide matters of congregational judgment? (4) Did any NT church have a men’s business meeting? Give the church and the Scripture. (5) Are elders or men’s business meetings authorized to “vote” among themselves in making decisions for the church? Is a business meetings authorized to “vote” among them-selves in making decisions for the church? In a business meeting with 100 men, 51 favor something, 49 oppose. Was it scriptural to take a survey to find out those numbers? Is the matter settled after this survey (vote)?

Summary: Please join me in rejecting the proposition because:

1. It confuses congregational action with individual action.

2. It gives headship and lordship to elders and uses the word “authority” out of context.

3. It confuses the direct operation of the Holy Spirit, the plan of salvation for the Gentiles, and “the gospel” for matters of congregational judgment.

4. It alters or ignores the lexical definitions of words used to describe the work of elders.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII, No. 22, p. 16-19
November 17, 1994