The Authority of Elders in the Local Church
The Church: Who’s In Charge?
First Baptist Church transitioned to elder governance in the early 1980s. In those beginning days, we were an elder lead church rather than an elder rule church. This half way measure proved to be problematic. Gradually we came to understand that the preferred organizational structure pictured in the New Testament was a church governed by a group of qualified and willing elders. Thus, we made minor changes in policy and procedure to reflect this understanding of the New Testament.
We have discovered over the years that the tendency to revert to a congregational mindset easily surfaces especially when elders make unpopular decisions. After all, our history with elder rule is much shorter than with congregational rule; and we still live in America where the one-man-one-vote mantra is patriotic; and where sunshine laws are king – every has a right to know the reasons and details of all decisions.
Therefore, I deem it wise from time to time to revisit the principles of church governance. The following thoughts are not exhaustive; do not mistake these brief notes for a complete discussion of the subject. They do however establish the notion that elders are to have the authority in the congregation.
The authority in the New Testament church belongs to the elders
The very nature of any discussion regarding the plurality of the eldership and the function of elders leads us to the conclusion that the elders are to be the leaders in the congregation and are to be submitted to and followed as sheep follow a shepherd so long as the direction of leadership is within the bounds of Scripture. A few examples make this clear:
Distribution of relief funds - Acts 11:27-30
Verses 29-30 indicate that the Antioch church gave its money to the Jerusalem elders to manage for the relief of the needy saints. The elders were clearly the authorities in this relief effort.
The counsel - Acts 15
Though we cannot be sure of the exact nature of this meeting, if it was a local church meeting then the plurality elders is assumed. It is also instructive that during this meeting the elders and apostles were clearly in charge. The flow of the passage leads to this conclusion:
15:4 - Three distinct groups were present - church, apostles, elders (an article precedes each term).
15:6 - Clearly the apostles and the elders apart from the congregation did the study and investigation of the Pharisees position regarding circumcision (v 5).
15:12 - The congregation (“all the people”) listened attentively to the proceedings.
15:13-21 - James, apparently one of the elders (his exact identity is unknown), gave his judgment on the matter (19-21). If he was also an apostle (Galatians 1:19), then he was probably first among the elders.
15:22 - The apostles and elders agreed with James. In some manner, the whole assembly concurred (σὺν ὅλῃ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ).
15:23 - However, the message sent back to Antioch with a select delegation was in the name of the apostles and elders only. Note that the KJV phrase “and brethren” is not a good translation of Οἱ ἀπόστολοι καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἀδελφοὶ. There are only two groups (two articles) – brothers refers to either both apostles and elders or only elders – note the NAU makes it refer to elders only while ESV to both).
16:4 - Unequivocally we learn that the apostles and elders made the decision.
Paul’s farewell - Acts 20:28
Paul calls together the Ephesian elders to deliver farewell greetings (v17). His admonition to them is loaded with teaching points, one of which is that they are ultimately responsible to God alone (v 28). This certainly smacks of authority.
Discipline of elders - 1 Timothy 5:19
Safeguards are put in place for entertaining accusations against elders. This fact argues for a unique position of authority in the local church.
The shepherd concept - Acts 20:28-30
The image of the church as sheep or a flock cared for by shepherds itself argues for the innate authority of the elders.
6. The bishop role – Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2
The terms elder, bishop, and shepherd/pastor are synonymous terms in the New Testament. As a “bishop” (ἐπίσκοπος) the elder stands over or rules the congregation. This idea of presiding clearly assumes authority.
7. The command to follow leaders - Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24; 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13
These are remarkable admonitions. If the “leaders” of Hebrews and Thessalonians are not the elders, then who are they?
8. The qualifications for elders - 1 Timothy 3:4-5
Because management skills are clearly required, it is likely that first century readers understood that authority was assumed.
So, to the question, “What individuals have authority in the church?” the answer must be, “the elders.”
The role of deacons is serving the congregation as assistants to the elders
The term “deacon” conveys the basic concept of "serving". In distinction from other synonyms, διάκονος indicates the idea of personal service to another as well as service of love. Basic to understanding the term is the original sense of waiting on tables and generally to provide care. (douloj = a slave to a person; qerapwn = one who serves a person regardless whether bond or free; diakonoj = the servant in his work not in his relationship to a person; uphrethj = a military "under‑rower" a subordinate official)
In the New Testament the term is used in this original sense of waiting on tables. But, it is broadened to include the idea of preparing and organizing a meal, caring for a guest, being serviceable, lovingly meeting the needs of others, and finally the full concept of rendering assistance to others. Serving became Jesus' symbol of loving care for others! This whole concept carried over into the official church office
So, the general function of deacons is serving as assistants to the elders. Cremer (page 178) observes that"…it denotes those who stood by the bishops as helpers, on account of which they probably received the name deacons, as Tychicus is so called in his relationship to Paul (Col. 4:7; Eph. 6:21; Acts 19:22)."
The place of the congregation in the life of the church
Christ has invested authority in the church to elders. They are to make all decisions regarding policy and doctrine in the church. What authority then does the congregation possess in the affairs of the church? Though clearly the congregation is to submit to its God ordained leaders at risk of rebellion against God Himself, the congregation is none-the-less assigned some significant functions.
1. The discipline of members - Matthew 18:15-17
The final court of judgment in matters of church discipline is the church itself. How this works in practice is not revealed specifically, but certainly, whoever has the power to discipline must have significant authority.
2. The discipline of elders - 1 Timothy 5:19-20
Though the method of disciplining elders is not specified in this passage, it is not unreasonable to assume that elders are subject to the discipline of the congregation at large.
The selection of elders - Acts 14:23
Though the exact method of the selection of elders is hotly debated, some suggest that the use of ceirotonh,santej in this passage may be significant (Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion v2 p 1066). The term may mean to raise or stretch out the hand in order to vote (from ceir and teinw). Such may be the case in Acts 6:5 and 2 Corinthians 8:19. Does this suggest that the congregation was involved in the selection of elders by corporate vote? Or did the founders of the church merely preside over the election of elders by the congregation?
However, it should be noted that nearly all translations render ceirotonh,santej with “ordain” or “appoint”; so also all Greek lexicons. In fact, Titus 1:5 uses the term “appoint” (katasth,sh|j ). Also, contextually the “they appointed” of this verse undoubtedly refers to Barnabas and Paul rather than the congregation itself. So, “…the reference is not to election by the congregation…” (Lohse TDNT v 9 p 437). Perhaps MacArthur is right when he concludes that in every phase in the development of the church, “…the ultimate responsibility for appointing elders was a part of the function of church leadership.” (Eldership 22).
Whatever, it is true that the verb itself says nothing about the mechanics of the selection. The exact role of the congregation is not stated. However, many agree that somehow the congregation is involved in the selection of elders by affirmation if not by vote. Perhaps it is in similar fashion to Acts 15 whatever that was!
There are matters of church life that require the involvement of the congregation. The selection of elders may be one of these matters. After citing the two examples of Acts 6 and 15, Strauch concludes that “…it is clear that the leadership body takes the lead for the congregation and the that the congregation participates” (Strauch Eldership 295)
I agree that “The New Testament does not indicate that the congregation governs itself by majority vote, and there is no evidence that God has granted every member one equal vote with every other member. Rather, the New Testament congregation is governed by its own congregational elders. The elders, according to the express instruction of the New Testament, have the authority to shepherd the congregation.” (Strauch Eldership 293)
Here are some outflows of this view of elders and the congregation:
- The congregation is not owed explanations for decisions made by its elders.
- The congregation need not be consulted prior to elder decisions.
- The congregation is required to submit to the authority of elders.
- The congregation must carefully select qualified and willing men to lead it.
- The congregation should not expect to vote on decisions unless mandated by the church constitution or invited to do so by the elders.
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2016. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.
Posted on Mon, July 17, 2017
by Joe Flatt filed under