By John N. Evans
Have you ever examined thoroughly the subject of elders’ leadership or authority? It has been my experience that this is one topic which is often neglected in our study of God’s shepherds. We spend hours debating and thrashing out the qualifications of elders, which are indeed important, and neglect to examine in equal detail the congregation’s relationship to the elders.
What is the scope of the elders’ leadership? Just how far should a congregation follow elders? What are the limits which God’s word imposes on elders’ authority? Do elders serve as examples only? Do they have the right to make any decisions of judgment on behalf of the congregation? Do Acts 6, Acts 15, and 1 Corinthians 5 indicate that all significant decisions must be congregational decisions, with all members taking an active role in making those decisions? These are the types of questions which come to mind when we discuss the elders’ leadership.
In recent years, this subject has received greater attention. Books have been written which address these questions, debates have taken place, and Christians have sought Bible answers. When a preacher addresses the subject in his sermons, he’ll often be asked now about the elders’ authority. Where does it begin and where does it end?
It would be impossible to answer all the questions which I have posed in one article. For example, a careful examination of Acts 6, Acts 15, and 1 Corinthians 5 necessitates a separate study. What I would like to do, however, is examine two prominent, equally unscriptural views regarding the elders’ leadership. I say equally unscriptural because both of these doctrines violate God’s law to an equal degree.
The first view holds that we must follow the elders no matter how they rule or decide. This is the notion that, “We have to do whatever the elders say, because they are the elders. They know what’s best for us.” In essence, this view gives elders authoritarian or dictatorial powers and would allow them to “lord it over” the flock, in violation of such passages as 1 Peter 5:3.
This view also overlooks the fact elders are men, subject to sin, as we all are. In 1 Timothy 5:19-20, the apostle Paul writes, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (KJV). One of the implications of these verses is that elders can sin and that they need to be rebuked and corrected whenit is established that they have erred.
Obviously, we cannot follow elders into sin. If they ask us to do something which is contrary to God’s law, or will lead us in a way that violates Scripture, we must refuse. Our obligation is summed up by the apostles’ words in Acts 5:29: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (KJV). We cannot use the excuse, “The elders made me do it!” as a reason to tolerate or practice error.
You might be tempted to ask, “John, does anyone really believe that? — that we should follow the elders, even if their decision is sinful?” While they probably would not frame it in those words, I assure you that many have practiced this false doctrine.
For example, I am told by reliable witnesses who were present back in the 1950s, when questions regarding institutionalism and the sponsoring church arrangement were raging, that many brethren drifted into error on the basis of the excuse, “The elders said it is okay, and they know what’s best for us.” There was also the idea that, “The elders have made the decision to support this arrangement, and I cannot go against their authority.”
Friends, this is a sorry excuse to sin, and we ought to know better. “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8, KJV). Being respectful of the elders’ leadership does not include the idea of violating God’s word. Who would honestly argue that it does?
This false doctrine also overlooks the fact that ultimate authority resides in Christ. In Matthew 28:18, Christ says, “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth” (ASV). Clearly, elders have no legislative, law- making authority, and whatever leadership they exercise would have to be under the headship of Christ. Elders serve as shepherds or pastors of the flock under the Chief Shepherd, who is Jesus (1 Pet. 5:4). They cannot make a law where God has made no law, nor can they act outside the boundaries of God’s word.
These points are axiomatic, and all honest students of the Bible will accept them.
Sadly, in recent years I have become aware of an equally false doctrine regarding the elders’ leadership which goes to the opposite extreme. In fact, it is my observation that some of those who hold this unscriptural view drifted into it because they witnessed the sin of dictatorial, authoritarian elders. One human fraility we must guard against is the tendency to swing from one false extreme to the opposite, false extreme. I would also submit that this second false view is founded on the misinterpretation and misapplication of such passages as Acts 6, Acts 15, and 1 Corinthians 5. It has also been my experience that those who believe this second doctrine are working to increase the role of female participation in the leadership of the congregation, though I would hasten to add that many of them would deny this. Time will tell.
Simply put, this second view holds that elders can make no significant decisions of judgment in harmony with God’s word without the prior knowledge or consent of the entire congregation. Let me be clear on this: There are those who teach and practice that elders can make no decisions on behalf of the congregation regarding its work and worship unless the entire church has met, discussed, and agreed on the matter first. According to these proponents, Acts 6 and Acts 15 give the pattern for all decision-making in the congregation, and there is no Bible authority for any private business meetings of the elders or of the men of the congregation in their absence.
They would contend that there are no examples of private decision-making meetings in the Bible and to have them, whether they be by the elders or the men of the congregation, is unscriptural. They will often give a conspiratorial flavor to this concept and talk about the sin of “secret, closed-door meetings” as if some diabolical plot is being hatched.
This view is wrong on about a half dozen counts, and I would contend against it just as strongly as I would the notion of authoritarian elders.
Primarily, this viewpoint denies the clear meaning of such passages as 1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:28, and 1 Peter 5:1-2, which describe the role and work of elders in leading a congregation. These verses say that elders are to “rule well,” we are to submit to them that “rule over” us, the Holy Ghost has made them “overseers,” and they are to “exercise the oversight.” They do all of this and yet they have no decision-making ability in harmony with God’s word? Friends, can we not see that the authority to make decisions of judgment in harmony with God’s word is inherent in the very phrases which God’s inspired writers used to describe the leadership of elders? Those who want to argue that there are no examples of private, decision- making meetings of the elders forget that is not the only way God instructs. Indeed, they make the same kind of arguments the non-class brethren have made through the years: “There’s no example of Bible classes smaller than the whole assembly meeting at the building.” They ignore the fact that God informs us in a variety of ways.
It is interesting to observe some of the arguments which those who hold this position try to make from the Greek. While I’m no Greek scholar, I can read an accurate English translation, and so can you. There are good textual reasons why the best Greek scholars of their day who worked on the American Standard Version decided that 1 Timothy 5:17 should read, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor.” Those same translators rendered Hebrews 13:17 as, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them: for they watch on behalf of your souls.”
Young’s Analytical Concordance tells me that rule in Hebrews 13:17 means to “lead, guide, govern,” and those three words certainly include the idea of being able to make decisions and judgments in harmony with God’s word! And, surely we can understand that shepherding a flock involves watchful care and active supervision.
Is there no genuine leadership in harmony with God’s word inherent in such terms? May elders oversee the work but make no real decisions until they check it out with the whole congregation first? Are we saying that shepherds guide the flock but make no decisions on behalf of the flock? Are elders prohibited from exercising judgment until they check it out with the whole church? Friends, who’s leading whom if all of that is true? Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 describe men of judgment and experience; why the need for such wisdom and maturity if it cannot be employed and others are to make the decisions?
Those who hold this second, unscriptural position may not realize it, but the ultimate result of their teaching is that bishops become little more than announcement elders who preside over meetings of the entire church and make known the decisions the church has reached. I understand that they would not agree with this assessment, but see if that is not the end result.
Elders do not become dictators lording it over the flock as soon as they make any decisions on behalf of the local church. If they are men of judgment and experience, as the qualifications demand, and if they have the proper respect for God’s word and their fellow saints, then they can make decisions in harmony with God’s word without behaving as tyrants. We should respect them for that responsibility and “obey them that have the rule” over us.
And certainly qualified, working elders should keep a congregation informed concerning decisions affecting the work and worship of the group. They should also solicit the input of the members on a regular basis. No one denies this. In fact, Titus 1:7 states that one of the qualifications of elders is that they act as stewards of God who are not self- willed. If the men are truly qualified, they will understand exactly what Peter meant when he wrote, “Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God, nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind, neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2-3, ASV).
But, friends, let us never take the position that elders can make no decisions on behalf of the congregation. Even from a practical standpoint, such a position is impossible to defend. For example, sometimes elders must make judgments immediately, when there simply is no opportunity to call the congregation together, even if they wanted to. Sometimes decisions are of such a private, personal nature that the fewer people who know about a situation, the better. Those who have been members of the Lord’s body for any length of time at all can think of many examples which fit the circumstances I have just described.
The bottom line is that “exercising the oversight” and shepherding the flock involves leadership. And, anyway you cut it, leadership involves making decisions.
If someone were to ask me to sum up my beliefs regarding the elders’ leadership in one paragraph, I might say it this way:
Qualified, working elders lead, guide, and feed a congregation. They act as wise and loving shepherds in exercising this oversight (1 Pet. 5:2; Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28). The scope of their rule is limited by the boundaries of God’s word (Matt. 28:18; Acts 5:29). Can they make decisions on behalf of the local church in harmony with God’s law? Absolutely! One cannot exercise oversight, lead, and act as a shepherd without doing so! Will qualified elders keep a congregation informed, solicit input, and ask for suggestions from all the members? Absolutely! Remember, these are stewards of God who are not self-willed (Tit. 1: 7).
In closing allow me to make one final point: Our understanding of truth should be shaped not by what has happened to us, but rather by what God’s word says. Do not allow your own or another’s past experience with elders who acted, perhaps, in an unscriptural way, to cause you to embrace a false view concerning their leadership. Be content with what God’s word plainly teaches on the subject. Do not add to the authority of elders (the first view we examined) or subtract from it (the second view). Remember 2 John 9 and Revelation 22:18-19.