19 February, 2007

Elders: Rulers or Servants? Part 1

Please read the Introduction to this series first.

"But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. " Matthew 23: 8-11

Controversy continues today over the question of whether Jesus delegated authority to any man or group of men after He stated, "All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18).

There is nothing wrong with controversy. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to the obtaining of truth. Argumentation does not have to be ugly and unkind, but the sifting for truth in confrontation often will be painful and disturbing. From this the coward runs and buries his head in the sand, hoping that controversy will subside to leave peace and tranquility. On the other hand, the honest seeker braves the storm of debate with his eyes wide open and weighs every argument carefully in light of God's word to see if such things are true. To this precious soul, this modern day Theophilus, comes the knowledge that truly makes one free, while the one who shirks from the fight of faith is enslaved to the traditions of men as he wallows in the mire of error.

The question raised in the title of this article is at the heart of the controversy. There are those who argue that elders have been given "Divine authority," and all "in the flock which is among them" must submit completely to their will. There is division among the proponents of this doctrine. One group contends that "elders only rule in matters of judgment" while the other states that "elders only rule in matters of faith."
Obviously, both positions cannot be right because they stand diametrically opposed to each other, except for the common argument that elders are given Divine right to rule the flock. This cannot be proven from scripture. After a careful study of the subject for many years now, it is my opinion that both positions are false.

It matters not which position one takes in the controversy, both lead ultimately to a Romish-styled hierarchical, institutional ecclesia. Champions of either side of the issue make two identical assumptions which guarantee the conclusion. First, they assume that "elders" are "officers who hold title to rank and power within a structured organization" and second, they assume that one must belong to this organization and render complete subjection to "elders" as one would submit to the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation depends on total submission to the "elders." By this, they mean that unless one submits to the "rule of the elders" and obeys them, they are considered "weak" "unfaithful," "unsound" and "lost."
The pioneer preachers of the nineteenth century, who are identified with the "Restoration Movement," were slow to accept a "ruling class" among the brethren. Tolbert Fanning rejected it completely. In a series of articles published in the Religious Historian, 1872-1874, under the caption of The Church of Christ, Brother Fanning systematically set forth the plain teaching of the scriptures on a number of subjects relating to the church, and at the same time he showed the fallacies of Catholicism and Protestantism. Also, he pointed out that brethren of his day were developing the same mentality that led to both 'isms'.

After carefully defining the word for "elder", presbuteros, and showing its uses in the New Testament, Fanning wrote:
"That older men or seniors had special work to perform, we have not doubted, but whether the word ever signified an officer, or that any one was entitled to his eldership, by investiture, is the question. That any elder was necessarily an officer we have failed to discover. WE THINK THERE IS NO PROOF" (emp. mine )

In his teaching of I Peter 5:1-5, Fanning listed seven "distinctive points" concerning the "elders." We notice number six:
"Were these seniors officers in the sense of having had authority given by any church ceremony as a qualification for performing service? If we say that Peter was an official elder we must conclude that he had been inducted into this and diverse other official positions which he occupied. But the idea of induction by ceremonies into offices, as apostle, evangelist, bishop, elder, pastor, overseer, etc. IS CERTAINLY FOREIGN TO THE BIBLE (emp. mine - DO), and yet, Peter was an apostle evangelist, bishop, elder, deacon and servant. Possibly he was entitled to every title indicative of valuable labor in the cause of Christ."

Therefore, Fanning concluded that "elders" are not "officers of the church," who are invested with authority to rule over the people of God. He stated emphatically that a distinction made between "officers" and the rest of the people would ultimately lead to the Romish or Protestant concept where "the church is composed of the clergy and the laity"

We agree with Tolbert Fanning. Jesus did not delegate authority to any man, or group of men, on earth. To his apostles who were seeking positions of rank and authority He said:
"Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. NOT SO SHALL IT BE AMONG YOU, but whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant, even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28).
Elders are to serve, not rule.
Part 2 of this series is coming up...


David Dansker said...


Very interesting. Points on the growth of "isms" and division of laity and clergy well taken. Excellent capstone verse:

Mat 20:25-28 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. (26) But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; (27) And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant (emphasis added): (28) Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

I have a particular disdain for the misuse of the word "servant" by today's mega-isms who combine it with "leader" to produce servant-leader. What I have seen, by the materials and packages being marketed, is a campaign to produce servants by imbuing them with the false prestige of title.


Jen said...

Lin, I agree that elders should definitely be "servants" rather than "rulers," but as far as the authority given by a "church ceremony," let's look at a couple verses.

Acts 14:23 - "So when they had appointed elders in every church..."

Titus 1:5 - "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—"

These Scriptures do not necessarily say that there was a certain kind of ceremony necessary for giving elders authority, but it does make very clear that they are "appointed" in some way.

Just because you are an old man does not necessarily make you an elder in the church, nor should it. There are very clear lists for the qualifications for such, and we can also look at I Tim. 3:1 - "If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work." This clearly shows us that an elder is more than just an older man.

I am again glad that the "ruling" elders at my church consider themselves to be the servants of all.

Lin said...

Jen, I guess my first question is who has authority to appoint elders? Pastors are elders. The members of the body?

I agree though, someone has to lead. In the examples you give from scripture, the Disciples were not staying in one place...but were traveling and these churces needed leaders to teach and bring order.

However, if we follow the geneology of scriptural Apostles we end up like the Catholics who believe that Jesus was telling Peter he was to be the first pope. They want us to believe that all popes are spiritual descendents of Peter! Notice a small group of men vote on the Pope.

There is no set process given to us for church structure. Not all the NT churches were the same!

Elder is the term used and I think if we look at most of the Apostles except Paul, we can say they were not the cream of the crop. They were not studying under a Rabbi when Jesus called them, they were working which suggests that they did not pass the standard in that day to continue in studying with the Rabbi. (God uses the weak and humble to get Glory for Himself)

I agree with you about the 'old' elder reference. The old man reference is a non starter. If we go to Hebrews 13:7 it talks about considering the outcome of our leaders' way of life and imitating them. There has to be some time to consider the outcome. (We are told to 'consider' the outcome.)

I don't think we can ignore Matthew 28:18

. 18And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

I do believe that the word 'rule' in these verses would best best translated as 'lead'.

The bottom line is that I believe we are free to follow these leaders or not. Jesus became our "priest". If an elder is not following scripture, we should not follow them and the only way we can know this is to be Bereans. Who Paul commended...So, it only makes sense that 'submission' is really yielding to their leadership.