New Testament Leadership Print
Friday, 05 December 2008 16:09
footwash.jpgAdvantages of Having Elders
It would be a serious blunder to conclude that elders are unimportant to the life of a church.  Paul warned that "fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock." (ESV, Ac 20:29).  Some wolves are schismatic, others promote false doctrine, and still others practice immorality.   Too often, house churches without qualified elders fall in a type of spiritual malaise.  No one takes leadership responsibility.  There is no 'point man" to offer direction.  Things just coast along.  Discipleship is minimal.  In many cases, it becomes a case of the blind leading the blind.  Pooled ignorance in "teaching" becomes the norm.  Evident sins are overlooked.  Social problems are not dealt with.  The church can become vulnerable to wolves in sheep's' clothing. During the World War Two battle of Midway, a lone American air torpedo squadron (VT-8), from the aircraft carrier Hornet, attacked the Japanese invasion fleet.  Tragically, the squadron was ordered to attack without fighter escort.  Like the charge of the Light Brigade, it proved suicidal.  Only one airman survived.  Elders are to the church what the American fighter planes would have been to the bombers:  protection.  One important ministry that elders offer is defense against savage wolves.  For instance, elders are men who can "refute" those who oppose sound doctrine (Tit 1:9).
The reality of the situation is that house churches are not yet mainstream in Western Christianity.  As such, a house church is likely to attract every unattached heretic, rebel and social misfit in the county.  Without elders willing to stand at the gate to intercept and deal with such persons, a house church is particularly vulnerable to abuse, strife, frustration, and  even disbanding.
Besides fending off wolves, elders serve the body in many other ways.  In many respects, a church without an elder is much like a family without a father.  Qualified elders provide direction, teach, disciple, help the church achieve consensus, promote the saints' growth into maturity, train future leaders, lead by example and guard the truth ( Ac 20:25-31, Ep 4:11-13, 1Ti 1:3, 3:4-5, 5:17, 6:20, 2Ti 1:13-14, 2:2, 15, 3:16-17, 4:2-4, Ti 1:9, 13, 2:15 and Heb 13:17).  Church leaders are men of mature character who oversee, shepherd, teach, equip and coach.  Every now and then they will need to call on the obstinate to submit to their leadership (Heb 13:17).

Elder-Led Congregational Consensus
One very important ministry elders provide is leadership.  All are agreed that the Lord Jesus is the head of the church (Col 1:15-20).  Thus, the church ultimately is a dictatorship (or theocracy) ruled by Christ through His written Word and the influence of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:25-27; 16:12-15; Ac 2:42; Ep 2:19-22; 1Ti 3:14-15).  Once we follow the organizational flow chart down from the head, where does the line of authority go?
In speaking to the elders of the Ephesian church, Paul said, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which He bought with His own blood" (20:17, 28).  The use of the terms overseers and shepherds certainly suggests a supervisory position for elders.  When writing to Timothy about the qualifications for an elder, Paul asked, "If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?" (1Ti 3:5).  This again implies a management role for elders.  Peter asked the elders to "be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers" (1Pe 5:2).  Once more elders are painted in a leadership mode.
1 Timothy 5:17 refers to elders who direct the affairs of the church well.  1 Thessalonians 5:12 asks the brothers to respect those "who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you."  Hebrews 13:7 commands, "Remember your leaders." Following that, Hebrews 13:17 adds, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.  They keep watch over you as men who must give an account."  All of this indicates that there are to be human leaders in the church.  These leaders are most often referred to as elders or overseers.  
As to the difference between an elder, overseer ("bishop" in the KJV), and pastor (shepherd), an examination of Acts 20:17, 28-30, Titus 1:5-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-3 will show the synonymous usage of these words.  All three refer to the same person or ministry.  Any modern distinction between them is purely artificial and without scriptural warrant.
The biblical references to "rule" by overseers could, if taken in isolation, easily lead to a wrong view of how elder rule should operate.  There is more to the equation than at first meets the eye.  Consider the steps of church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17 as it relates to a church's decision making process (see also 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Galatians 6:1).  Notice that the whole congregation is to be involved in the decision to exercise discipline.  Notice also that the leaders are not especially singled out to screen the cases before they reach the open meeting nor to carry out the discipline themselves.  It is a congregational decision.
This corporate process is also glimpsed in Acts 1:15-26.  The apostle Peter placed the burden for finding a replacement for Judas upon the church as a whole.  In Acts 6:1-6, the apostles turned to "all the disciples" (6:2) and asked them to choose administrators for the church's welfare system.  Both these examples point to congregational involvement.
Paul wrote to "all" (1:7) the saints in Rome, and made no special mention of the elders.  The letters to the Corinthians were addressed to the entire "church" (1Co 1:2, 2Co 1:1).  Again there was no emphasis on the overseers.  This is all the more remarkable when one considers that Corinthians deals with church discipline, marriage, the Lord's Supper, and interactive meetings.  The greeting in Galatians 1:2 focuses on the "churches" in Galatia.  The message was not first filtered through the leaders.  The "Saints in Ephesus" (1:1) were the recipients of that letter (Ep 1:1).  In Philippians 1:1 the saints were given equal billing with the overseers and deacons, who are finally mentioned in a salutation..  In Colossians 1:2, the salutation went to "the holy and faithful brothers in Christ."  All of this implies that the elders were themselves also sheep.  The elders were a subset of the church as a whole.  There was no clergy/laity distinction.
This lack of emphasis on the leadership is also seen in 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 2:1, 7, and Jude 1:1.  In fact, the book of Hebrews was written to a group of believers and it was not until the very last chapter that the author asked them to "greet all your leaders" (13:24).  He did not even greet the leaders directly!
Much may be gleaned from the way that New Testament writers made appeals directly to entire churches.  They went to great lengths to influence ordinary rank and file believers.  The apostles did not simply bark orders and issue injunctions (as a military commander might do).  Instead, they treated other believers as equals and appealed directly to them as such.  No doubt local church leaders were led in much the same way.  Their primary authority lay in their ability to influence with the truth.  The respect they were given was honestly earned.  It was the opposite of military authority wherein soldiers respect the rank but not necessarily the man.
Hebrews 13:7 reflects the fact that the leadership style employed by church leaders is primarily one of direction by example: "Remember your leaders . . . Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith."  Along this same line, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 reveals that leaders are to be respected, not because of automatically inferred authority of rank, but because of the value of their service — "Hold them in highest regard in love because of their work."  Jesus said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave" (Mt 20:25-28).
The word church in the New Testament is used a few times to refer to the universal church.  Most occurrences, however, refer to organized local churches.  No organized church should be any bigger than a single congregation, and no church has official jurisdiction or authority over any other church (though there naturally will be inter-church cooperation and assistance).  Each house church is ideally to be guided by its own elder(s).  Each elder is equal in authority to any other elder.  There is to be no senior pastor nor presiding bishop over a city.  A leader's primary authority is based on his ability to persuade with the truth.  He is to lead by example, not lording it over the church (1Pe 5:3).  Church polity is thus a dynamic process of interaction, persuasion, and right timing between the shepherds and the sheep.
Jesus' comments on leadership truly must be the starting point and final reference in our understanding of an elder's authority (Lk 22:24-27).  Dr. Hal Miller has insightfully observed, "Jesus' disturbing teaching about authority among his followers contrasts their experience of it with every other society.  The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects and make that appear good by calling themselves "benefactors."  They exercise their power and try (more or less successfully) to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church.  There, on the contrary, the one who leads is as a slave and the one who rules is as the youngest (Lk 22:24-27).  Lest this lose its impact, you should stop to reflect that the youngest and the slaves are precisely those without authority in our normal sense of the word.  Yet this is what leadership among Jesus' people is like."1
Though they were technically apostolic workers, Timothy and Titus clearly functioned as substitute elders until permanent local men were appointed.  The elders that were later appointed could be expected to do the same types of things that these temporary apostolic workers had done on the local level (1Ti 1:3, 4:11, 5:17, 6:17, Tit 1:12-13, 2:15, 3:10).  From this it is clear that it is proper an for elder, in exercising servant leadership, to authoritatively reprove, speak, teach, and guide.  An elder is to "rule well" and "oversee" the church, taking the initiative in prompting and guarding.  As a mature believer, his understanding of what constitutes right or wrong behavior and doctrine will most probably be correct.  An elder naturally will often be among the first to detect and deal with problems.  He is to be proactive, not merely reactive.  However, if those he confronts refuse to listen, the elder's final recourse is to then present the matter to the whole church in accordance with the Matthew 18 process.  Though a elder is critical to the consensus process, authority, ultimately, still rests with the church corporately (congregational consensus).
There is a delicate balance to be reached between the leadership role of elders and the decision making responsibilities of the congregation.  Too far one way and you have a pope.  Too far the other and you have a ship with no rudder.  In essence, both the arguments for the leadership of the elders and for the corporate responsibility of the entire church are valid.  On one hand, you have elders leading by example, guiding with teaching and by moderating the give-and-take discussion of the assembly.  On the other hand, you have the flock.  The church corporately makes the final decision, yet they are exhorted to follow their elders and to allow themselves to be persuaded by their leaders' arguments (Heb 13:17).  Elders' words have weight only to the extent that the people give it to them.   Elders deserve honor due to the position in which God has placed them (1Ti 5:17).

The Appointment of Elders
How should elders be appointed?  All potential overseers must meet a lengthy list of qualifications (1Ti 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9).  That a man is both willing and able to be an elder is obviously the work of the Holy Spirit (Ac 20:28).  Once these prerequisites are met, the would-be elder is then appointed.  In Ac 14:23 Paul and Barnabas apparently did the appointing, and Titus was left in Crete by Paul to appoint elders (Tit 1:5).  As Nee observed, "they merely established as elders those whom the Holy Spirit had already made overseers in the church."2
After the apostles (missionaries/church planters) appointed elders and moved on, there is virtual silence as to how subsequent elders were, or ought to be, chosen.  Operating from the principle of Acts 1:15-26 & 6:1-6, one could conclude that the succeeding elders were chosen by the whole congregation (following the requirements laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7), under the leadership of the existing elders, and under the advisement of any itinerant ministers that have earned the right to be heard by that local congregation.

Steve Atkerson