The Rule Of Elders: By Example Only?
This congregation will shortly begin a search for additional Elders and Deacons. As I began to write an article about Elders, to be inserted into the weekly bulletin, I remembered the following published in the April 2009 issue of BIBLICAL INSIGHTS. Please carefully read the article re-printed here and remember that the men being presented will, if appointed, take on the work and rule of Elders.
The Rule of Elders: By Example Only?
By L. A. Stauffer
UNFORTUNATE CONSEQUENCES inevitably follow when unqualified men are appointed elders to over-see and shepherd God's church. One of those is both the pain and division among God's people who have served under "dictatorial" elders who have "lorded" it over the saints. It is equally disturbing that some evangelists have decided that elders have no "rule" at all, but are merely examples and counselors to the flock. One extreme in this case begets another extreme. Elders, according to this view, "rule" only by "moral suasion” as one preacher put it, and the impact of their character and teaching.
Various "terms" and "images" the Holy Spirit employs to detail the work of elders unmistakably point to a more extensive role-to a responsibility to make decisions in the spiritual interest of the brethren and the church they over-see. To belittle and mock elders as boards of directors who decide if the building needs a new roof and the grass needs fertilized may be accurate in some or many cases, but it ignores the issue of biblically authorized leadership. Such remarks settle nothing about the need and importance of decisions on spiritual matters-whether by elders, a vote of the congregation, or a decision of a men's business meeting. The biblical answer to this question is found in what is revealed about the role of elders.
"Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor"; "if a man knows not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God"; "but we beseech you, brethren, to know them that labor among you and are over [rule] you in the Lord" (1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Timothy 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). The word proisteme, used in these verses, means literally "to set. ..or place before" and is translated "rule” "manage” "govern” "lead" and is defined "to set over. ..to appoint with authority ...preside. ..superintend" (Analytical Lexicon, William D. Mounce; see Thayer, Arndt/Gingrich, and Strong).
A husband/father over his household defines the sense of this word "rule" and illustrates the role of elders over the church. A father is authorized to take charge of his family spiritually and to make decisions in the interest of both his wife and the training of his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Who other than elders is assigned this responsibility in the church-whether to determine a spiritual curriculum, qualified teachers for classes, an able evangelist to work with them, truths that need to be taught and emphasized from the pulpit, etc.? If elders "take care" of the church the way husbands/fathers take care of their families, they will need to determine methods and personnel for spiritual development.
The Hebrews writer adds two important words to this discussion: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them" (Hebrews 13:17). The word "obey" essentially means, "trust" and "submission" and the word "submit" is to literally come "under" what one "hears:' The two words are used with a different word translated "rule": the word egeomai, meaning "to lead the way; to take the lead. ..to be chief, to preside, govern, rule" (Mounce). Thayer says: "to lead; to go before; to be a leader; to rule, command; to have authority over.”
Unless there is clear evidence elsewhere that elders are only leaders by example and influence, the terms in this text demand that these leaders make decisions regarding the spiritual development and growth of God's people to which brethren out of respect and esteem are to submit (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).
"For the bishop must be blameless, as God's steward;' Paul writes in the qualifications of elders given to Titus (Titus 1:7). Some modern versions render steward "manager;' a translation that fits the Greek term (oikonomos), which literally means "law of the house" and denotes one placed in charge of a master's household (Luke 12:42). Stewards of God's family are to manage His people as "they that must give an account" (Hebrews 13:17; Luke 16:1-2). Again, some spiritual decisions are necessary if elders are to take charge of the Lord's church and oversee the souls of its members.
Many would agree that the most striking image the Holy Spirit has drawn of the elders-church relationship is the church as a flock of sheep under the leadership of a shepherd. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd of the flock as the head of the church (1 Peter 2:25; 1 Peter 5:4; Colossians 1:18). But as shepherds serving over the flock under the authority of Jesus, elders, this portrait suggests, must lead the sheep into fertile pastures, alongside still waters, and protect them from wolf-like enemies of the faith (Psalms 23:1-6). Does this not call for decisions about the direction of the church spiritually? The point is not that Christians are to submit to another Christian because he holds an office, but because of his work and his spiritual maturity and qualifications to guide the church in paths of righteousness.
There is no argument with brethren who believe that too many elders have spent far too much time deciding incidental matters and have neglected the work of tending, exhorting, teaching, comforting, strengthening brethren by personal contact and admonition. Husbands/fathers have done the same thing. Their principal role is not to mow the grass and pick up the leaves-yet those things must be done under the scope of their duty to rule well their own houses. Elders also, in addition to personally caring for the sheep and setting an example of holiness and righteousness, must, as already noted, decide who will teach, what will be taught, who will be supported in evangelistic work, and whether the local evangelist is effective and should stay or is ineffective and should go. Who, if not the elders, is authorized by God to determine these matters in the local church? How can anyone conclude that such decisions are to be made by a vote of the congregation or amen's meeting-consisting of mature and immature disciples?
Brethren everywhere regret the painful experiences that evangelists and brethren in general have had under elders who know little about the word "shepherd" and its implication and are high on the word "rule;' which they interpret to mean "lord:' The problem, however, is not with the right to "rule" as "shepherds" who decide lovingly what is good for the flock spiritually. The difficulties arise when men are appointed who are not qualified in character, are only interested in control, and are not shepherds willing to lay down their lives for the sheep.