The “Rule” of Elders

By Lanny Smith

The Bible teaches that elders are to bear “rule” in the local church (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17). However, there is a great deal of misunderstanding as to the nature of this rule. Therefore it would be wise for us to carefully consider this subject. As with many other Bible topics, there are extreme views on the rule of elders. Some believe that elders stand in the place of God, and thus “to disobey the elders is to disobey God.” But at the other extreme are those who would strip elders of any rule, and make them subject to the will of the congregation. Both of these extremes are wrong!

Elders do not stand in the place of God. “There is one Lawgiver” (Jas. 4:12). God has not abdicated his throne. No man, or group of men, has the right to enact or repeal laws for God. Further, Peter warns elders against “being lords over” the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). This phrase suggests “to be master of, to subjugate, to overpower.” Elders do not make laws, nor can they “overpower” anyone to accept their judgments or personal whims. Some elders would do well to seriously consider this, for it has been a root of many evils! Rather, elders “rule” by virtue of their ex-ample. Hear Peter again: “nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). Their example generates respect, influence, trust, and thus the submission of the flock (cf. v. 5a).

While it is true that elders are not “lords,” they also are not subject to the will of the church. God’s plan calls for shepherds  qualified men of experience  to lead the sheep of the flock (1 Pet. 5:1-5; 1 Tim. 3:4-6). Sheep follow shepherds; they do not lead shepherds! If elders must constantly ask the flock if certain judgments are agreeable with them, then they are not leaders, but followers. The Bible says, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive” (Heb. 13:17). Even in 1 Peter 5:3, where Peter warns elders again “being lords over” the flock, there is a legitimate rule implied. If elders bear no rule at all, then this warning against the abuse of authority is absurd.

As previously stated, elders “rule” by virtue of the influence generated from their example (cf. 1 Pet. 5:3). Thus, when selecting elders, we are taught of God to look for exemplary men (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). Therefore, when a church selects and appoints men to be “over this business” of shepherding (cf. Acts 6:3), there is an “implied contract” to follow these shepherds. In effect, the church is saying, “We trust you with our care; please lead us.” While their judgments are not inspired of God, the flock has chosen to put them in the lead, and thus should trust and submit to them. This is God’s established form of oversight (Acts 14:23; 1 Pet. 5:1-5; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17).

Thayer says that those who “rule over you” (Heb. 13:17) do so by “leading as respects influence, controlling in counsel.” Furthermore, W.E. Vine says that the word “obey” in this passage suggests that one is “persuaded” by the counsel of these experienced men. If elders “rule” by influence and persuasive counsel, it demands that they maintain good and open communication with the flock, rather than being secretive about every aspect of their work. It may even be necessary to have public meetings with the entire church from time to time, especially for major undertakings or problems (cf. Acts 6:1-6; Acts 15). Along with their own mature judgment, good elders will take the desires of the congregation into consideration; and then render decisions for the good of the flock, and in harmony with the Lord’s will. This type of “rule” makes them fit leaders in God’s kingdom, and motivates the flock to follow. It also helps them to avoid arbitrary rule (cf. 1 Pet. 5:3), which is a great temptation  especially in “matters of judgment.” But there are also matters that need to be handled privately by elders (cf. Jas. 5:14-15; Acts 21:18-24)! This is not “being lords over” the flock, it is wisdom at work; and it can help keep problems to a minimum (cf. Prov. 17:9; 25:8-10).

It is true that some elders have abused their “rule,” become “lords over” the church, and caused untold harm. But we simply must not allow abuses to cloud the issue of congregational “governments” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28, KJV). The Bible is clear about this matter. It simply is not true that every decision that elders make without consulting the flock is tantamount to “being lords over” the flock. “Per-mission or lording” is a false dilemma! Of course, if elders fail to live or “rule” in harmony with God’s will, they should be corrected, even removed, if necessary (1 Tim. 5:19-20; 2 Thess. 3:6). The elders must be “over” the flock; but the flock must have and maintain scriptural elders!

Greater dedication to the Lord would solve many of the ills that exist with regard to this issue. The truth lies between the extremes of arbitrary, inconsiderate rule of the elders (1 Pet. 5:3), and majority rule of the congregation (Heb. 13:17). Let us thank God for those who understand this, and work to correct those who do not.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 17, p. 11
September 1, 1994