22 February, 2007

Elders: Rulers or Servants? Part 2

"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Matthew 23: 1-12

This will make no sense unless you read the Introduction and Part 1, first.

Summary from Part 1: Elders are to serve not rule.

But, someone says, "What about Hebrews 13:17?" This is usually the first scripture cited to "prove" that elders have authority. It says, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them: for they watch in behalf of your souls, as they that shall give account...."

Now, go through the verse and pick out the word "elder." If you cannot find it in the verse, look for it in the context. You are right! It is nowhere to be found. Is it not strange that the main text to which those who advocate "Elders Rule," does not even mention "elders"? It is assumed beyond a shadow of a doubt that verse 17 is talking about elders. Then, it is welded into a law of God that this verse gives elders the authority to rule over the congregation.

Two other verses in Hebrews 13, verses 7 and 24, are very similar to verse 17. It is unclear who the Hebrew writer had in mind. Verse 7 reads: "Remember them that had the rule over you, men that spake unto you the word of God; and considering the issue of their life, imitate their faith." Notice the past tense treatment of "had the rule." Verse 24 states: "Salute all them that have the rule over you, and all the saints...." It is very possible that those "that spake unto you the word of God" were the first to preach the gospel to them, including the apostles themselves.
Robert Milligan, a great scholar of the nineteenth century, published a commentary on Hebrews in 1875. Commenting on verse 7 Milligan wrote:

"Remember them which have the rule over you: Or more literally, Remember your leaders (hegoumenon) who spoke (elalesan) to you the word of God; carefully considering the issue of their manner of life; imitate their faith. The reference is to such men as Stephen, James the brother of John, and other faithful preachers of the Gospel who had formerly proclaimed to the Hebrews the good word of God...". (Commentary on Hebrews, p. 375}.

Milligan did not understand these verses as granting authority to groups of elders in congregations as is conceived in the twentieth century. He did see that among groups of Christians there were those who would be respect-fully followed as spiritual leaders, among which would be preachers and teachers of the word of God.

Certainly, elders may be included in Hebrews 13:17, but this verse does not give authority to them in the same sense that is assumed and taught by so many today. Admittedly, if we accept the English words which have been supplied to us, first by the King James translators, and then by the translators of the past one hundred years, we might conclude the authoritarian position is correct. But we should do a word study to determine if we have been given the right English words that convey the proper meanings of the Greek words used in the text. I am convinced that the King James translators, laboring under an "institutional church" mentality, selected the strongest words possible which conveyed the idea that the people must submit to the authority of the Clergy. In this way King James could control the people through the Church, of which he was Supreme Ruler. (For more on this theme consult this article, "Church": From God or From Man?" The Examiner, January, Vol. 2, No. 1). Our word study will reveal that the most logical words which could have been chosen to give the true meaning of the originals were overlooked because they would "soften" tremendously the assumed sense of the verse and do away completely with the authoritarian emphasis.

Now, let's get back to verse 17: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them...." Notice the words that were chosen: "Obey," "rule over you," and "submit." These English words conjure up in our minds a very authoritative concept. A President, Governor or some other political officer has the invested right to command others to submit to his authority and obey.

Verse 17 is translated in such a way as to carry that image over into some imagined ecclesiastical office called Bishop or Elder. It is conceived and taught that these ecclesiastical officers do have the authority to command and to expect obedience from all who submit to that authority. (In fact, in some congregations, one may not be considered a part of that group until he/she publicly declares allegiance and submission to the Elders). If Christians want to enjoy the fellowship in certain congregations but are unwilling to obey every judgment call made by the Elders, they face the threat of excommunication. Elders (Bishops) expect to be obeyed.
All this in spite of our Lord's teaching that there will not be rank and authority in the spiritual Kingdom of God:

"Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20: 20-28

Come back for Part 3 for a look at: Obey, have rule over you, and submit.

First graphic: Guy Fawkes, a notary or proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and advocate of the consistory court of the Archbishop of York
Second graphic: Seal for the Society for the Suppression of Vice
Third graphic: 16th Century woodcut of the persecution of Anabaptist Martyrs


simplegifts3 said...

Some thought provoking posts here, lindon. I confess to being very disheartened by much of what I see in contemporary American society with respect to this.

Scott said...

"All this in spite of our Lord's teaching that there will not be rank and authority in the spiritual Kingdom of God"

So, do you suppose that this is a problem only in the elder-led model of church government? It seems to me that moving toward elder-led and away from deacon dominated LEADERSHIP is a more productive church government.


The big question is yet to be asked...

How long will our current forms of doing church actually be viable? None of them seem to fit the NT descriptions of church anyway.

Is it possible...well, I will save the ongoing contemplation for my own blog so as not to detract from your excellent series.

Lin said...

Scott, you ask excellent questions. My experience over the past few years have been with elder led.

The problem is in how the elders view the role. And in their personal holiness.

I agree that none of our current forms fit the NT church. Constantine really did a number on the church that is with us today.

Write about this on your blog when you get a chance. I would love to read your views.

David Dansker said...


Guy Fawkes is an Interesting, and appropriate, choice for your series:



Scarlett said...

It seems pretty obvious the Lord is calling the church back to the way He set up the early church. If it wasn't broke, who had the audacity to change it? As usual, "man" is the answer to that question.