We can look around today and see how many modern elderships function: the Elders have absolute control over all decisions made on behalf of a congregation, both spiritual and mundane, and it is the responsibility of the flock to submit without question to their rule. In this study however, we will see that scripture not only paints a very different picture of how Elderships should function, but also strictly forbids ruling a congregation in such a manner.
(Though I have great respect for Elders as Godly men, earnestly trying to follow God, who sacrifice much to the Church, I must speak where the bible speaks even if it steps on the toes of great men. I wish that I didn’t have to write this, but I cannot in good conscience study the matter and then sweep God’s teaching under a rug.)
Notice that Elders are not unique to the New Testament church. The Old Testament has many references to Elders, and this position still existed in Jesus’s day as well. These Elders were different in ways from Church Elders, but there is also much similarity. Their role involved teaching and application of God’s law (Exodus 17:2-6; Deuteronomy 19:11-12; Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Joshua 20:1-4). This isn’t unlike the role God has given Church Elders today. In Old Testament times, God used these wise men to aid with the practical application of his teachings, and he knew that there would still be a need for this after His Church was formed. The first churches would be coming from a culture accustomed to looking to learned men for guidance and counsel, and were already comfortable addressing such men as “Elders”, so it’s hardly surprising that this is what God chose to call our modern Church Elders.
In order to understand the scope and limits of Church Elders, we have to first examine the words used in the New Testament to define their position. Not just our modern English translations, but also the specific Greek words inspired authors chose to express God’s will, so we can uncover the author’s original intended message. We could choose to bury our heads in the sand and assume that our English translations are sufficient enough, but that would hardly be responsible. Biblical Greek is a deeply colorful language, and most Greek scholars agree that it is very difficult to translate adequately into English. Sometimes the intentened message is buried in the attempt, so it’s very important to study and dig to find the truth. We also have to study biblical accounts to find examples that can be followed today.
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” - Acts 20:28
“Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;” - 1 Peter 5:2
God gave Elders the grave responsibility of overseeing their congregations. This isn’t the same as controlling the congregation though. The word translated “Oversee” in these passages is “episkopeō”, and means “to look upon, inspect, look after, care for” (Thayer), "to watch over, to watch out for. The word expresses the careful regard of those who occupy a position of responsibility" (A Linguistic Key to the Greek NT). The same term is rendered "looking carefully” in Hebrews 12:15, "looking carefully, lest there be any man that falleth short of the grace of God". We see this idea further expressed in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
In regard to Elders, the term “Oversee” denotes the critical role of Elders to carefully examine their flocks, looking for areas where teaching and encouragement are needed. However, it does not grant Elderships any authority to lord over a congregation, as it is sometimes mistakenly applied.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” - Hebrews 13:17
We might see the words “Obey” and “Submit”, and think that God gave Elders a dictatorship type control over their congregations. However, a deeper study shows that much is lost in translation.
In the New Testament, there is a compound greek word, “peitharcheo”, that is often used when expressing “obedience to authority”. Paul used it when he said, "Be in subjection to rulers, to authorities ... be obedient" (Titus 3:1). Peter used it when he said, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). In Hebrews 5:9 we see the word “hupakuou”, which is used when expressing the idea of “obedience owed because someone has authority over you”: "And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him."
These aren’t the words God chose to use when he spoke of our relationship to Elders in Hebrews 13:17 though. Here God chose instead to use the term “peithoi”, which means “be persuaded” (Vine), "to be prevailed on, won over, persuaded” (Liddel and Scott). Unfortunately, this word is misleadingly translated simply as “obey” in many of our english translations, however the word is never used to convey obedience to an order or proclamation, but to convey persuasion through teaching and counsel. Thus Vine states: "The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion".
We also see the word “Leaders”, sometimes translated “those who have the rule”. The greek word being translated here is “hegeomia”, which is the greek word for “guide”, often used when referring to teachers or counselors. Thayer defines this word as "leading as respects influence, controlling in counsel." This is not the word for authoritarian or dictatorial control, but someone who leads strictly through persuasion and example. The power Elders have is not that of control, but of influence.
We should note also, that the word “hegeomia” is not only applied to Elders. Judas and Silas are described as "chief" or "leading" (hegeomai) men, chosen to go to Antioch by the apostles, the elders, and the whole church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22). The term translated "have the rule" then is not something that applies only to Elders, but to all people in the church who lead and guide others through their teaching and example.
And finally, we have the word “Submit”, translated from the word “hupeiko”, meaning “to resist no longer, but to give way, yield (of combatants)” (Thayer). In other words, don’t be combative, argumentative, or stubborn. Allow yourself to be led by those who are teaching the will of God. This is not the same greek word used when we are told to submit to God (James 4:7), or when wives are commanded to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22 ), or when we are commanded to submit to higher powers (Romans 13:1). In those instances, the word “hupotassō” is used, which means “to submit to one’s control” (Thayer). In Hebrews 13:7, “hupeiko” is used instead to express the idea of not being resistant to the messages taught.
So Hebrews 13:7 can be accurately read as:
“Be persuaded by your teachers and don’t resist them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
It wasn’t a mistake when God chose to use different words to describe the authority of leaders in the Church than he did when he outlined other positions of authority. God always chooses his words very carefully, so we can be sure that he had a very specific role in mind for Elderships that was different from any other institution. The obedience we are taught here is not subjection to orders and pronouncements like other forms of leadership, but yielding to wise persuasion. In this arrangement, the leader bears the burden of persuasion, and the follower shows pliant respect for the leader.
We see this idea further expressed in Hebrews 13:7...
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
1 Timothy 5:17
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” - 1 Timothy 5:17
The verb “proistēmi” (translated “rule” here) occurs eight times in Paul’s writings. It is a puzzling term though as it has several possible translations and is used in scripture interchangeably to describe different things. The term can mean “to stand before, to preside, to practise, maintain, be over, rule” (Strongs), “to preside over, to be a protector, to give aid, give attention to” (Thayer).
In the Septuagint, we find two primary meanings. One is to manage a household or temple and the other is to stand in protection of someone or something. In the New Testament, we see the term used in reference to husbands managing their house (1 Timothy 3:4-5), husbands managing their children (1 Timothy 3:12), and it is also translated “maintain” when Paul instructed Titus to “maintain good works” (Titus 3:8,14). The feminine noun version of the term is used to describe a woman named Phoebe in Romans 16:2, in relation to her being a “helper”.
It seems the term is always used to describe some form of “caring for”. Either by managing, protecting, helping, or maintaining. In 1 Timothy 3:4-5 though, we see it applied to both Elders and husbands in the same passage, so we can deduct that the “Rule” Elders have shares a similarity to the rule husbands have over their household. We can imagine how poor a marriage it would be if a husband were to make all of the decisions for his wife, never allowing her to speak. Or how terrible it would be for a father to lock himself in his room and slide commands for his children under the door; never teaching them or discussing his reasons. This isn’t how a husband should manage his house, and it’s not how Elders should manage the Church.
AUTHORITARIAN RULE PROHIBITED
“not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” - 1 Peter 5:3 ESV
“neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” - 1 Peter 5:3 KJV
“neither as exercising lordship over the heritages, but patterns becoming of the flock” - 1 Peter 5:3 YLT
“not as lords over God's heritage, but making yourselves examples to the flock” - 1 Peter 5:3 BBE
Elders are prohibited from being lords over the flock. The fact that any prohibition exists at all is evidence that God saw danger in an Eldership exercising too much control over their congregation, which is why this study is so important. Historically, we see the danger realized, as the Catholic denomination can trace its roots back to elders of the Church who, like Diotrephes in 3 John 1:9, "loved to have the preeminence".
The greek word translated "exercising lordship" 1 Peter 5:3 is “katakurieuo”, and means "to domineer, to exercise complete control" (Reineker, A Linguistic Key to the Greek N.T.), “control, subjugate, exercise dominion over, be lord over, overcome” (Strong's Exhaustive Concordance). Elders are forbidden to be authoritarian, to assume control over a congregation. Unfortunately, this is how the modern Church is often governed.
Jesus is the one who explained this best when he uses the same term in Matthew. Peter and John’s mother asked for her sons positions of prominence and power in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus answered, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
Jesus stated that in His Church, there would be no person or group that would exercise control over anyone. Instead, leadership in the Church would be based on influence. Leaders in the church would be servants, leading by means other than authority, through teaching, counsel, and example.
God didn’t design the role of Elders to resemble worldly governments or business management structures. Earthly kingdoms function by exerting their will on their subjects, but in Christ’s kingdom Greatness is determined by servitude. Instead of men following orders issued by members of rank, Christ wanted His followers to be persuaded by those who had become examples of Godly servitude and thus gained influence in the Church. This model is in stark contrast to any other system of worldly governance. This is why nowhere in scripture will you find Elders meeting behind closed doors to make decisions on behalf of the Church. The Elders are not a board of directors; this isn’t the job God gave them. On the contrary, God gave Elders the responsibility of leading solely through example and teaching, by tying-their-hands and not allowing them to exercise control, so in all matters the Church would be led through persuasion and example. Not bowing to the authority of a man’s position, but being persuaded by the teachings of God.
A BIBLICAL EXAMPLE
We have seen that the original greek paints a very different picture of an eldership's role than we see by merely looking at our modern english translations. Specifically, that God intended elder’s to be teachers and persuaders, not managers or monarchs. Now let's look at one of the only recorded examples of an eldership in practice.
"And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved. Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question" - Acts 15:1-2
We see here a time when a matter was brought before Elders of the church. This was a controversial issue and was causing much division, so it needed to be dealt with. Paul and Barnabas made a report of the events to the Elders and Apostles (Acts 15:4-5 ), because one of the critical roles the Elders have is that of counselors and sources of wisdom for the Church. In a similar manner to Old Testament Elders, Church Elders should help the Church determine the proper application of God’s teachings. And by studying this recorded example, we can learn much of how this process should be practically carried out.
When "the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter" (Acts 15:6), did they do so behind closed doors as is done in our modern Churches? Not at all; in fact, there was a large audience present during these discussions. "Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles" (Acts 15:12). In other words, the church was present and listening as their leaders considered the issue raised.
So how was the matter settled? By an official pronouncement by the Elders and Apostles to the rest of the church? No, the church learned by watching the apostles and elders discuss the issue publically, and the whole church was persuaded and able to agree because of what they heard. "Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch" (Acts 15:22). Notice, the consent to send these men wasn’t given by the Apostles and Elders alone, but also by the whole church. And the letter sent with these men claimed that they had “all come to an agreement together” (Acts 15:25). Again we conclude that the apostles and elders did not find it necessary to make decisions separate from the church, but were able to lead through teaching, reason, and persuasion. The leaders led the church to the proper conclusion, but they were not a substitute for the voice of the whole church.
THE UN-BIBLICAL ALTERNATIVE
We in the church have the bad habit of outsourcing our spiritual responsibilities. We outsource the studying of the bible to our preachers, and we outsource everything else to our Elders. Then we are left with congregations full of passive, in-active members who are disconnected from their congregations.
Imagine this scenario:
A new congregation is beginning. All the members excitedly join together in the planning and the work. As a result, each member is focused on the kingdom and the Church grows.
Eventually, men are judged to be qualified to be Elders and are appointed. Then things begin to change. The members no longer have a part in the planning; plans are made for them. They no longer have anything to say about the preachers or missionaries they support. Everything is decided for them.
The members are happy to have Elders, and are thankful for the work they do. However, there is no longer very much participation from the congregation. Eventually, their only responsibilities are attending the services and paying contribution. The zeal they once had for the work of the Church is replaced with comfort.
Some leave and join other congregations because they want to feel like they are “a part of something” again. Later, the Elders make a controversial decision for reasons not made known to the congregation. Many leave in protest.
The members that remain are happy with their eldership and are happy that they don’t have to put very much effort into serving God. The church stops growing and becomes stagnant. The Elders notice this trend and invent new programs in an attempt to get the zeal they once had back, but their efforts are largely unsuccessful and the congregation remains lukewarm.
This isn’t the model we see in the New Testament though. There we see how our congregations should function: with Elders that are constantly watching their congregations, looking for areas that need to be reproved, rebuked, and exhorted (2 Timothy 4:2). Elders that are constantly before the church, ever teaching, lovingly persuading, and openly discussing matters of import. Elders that are constant sources of wisdom and examples of righteous living. And with members that listen respectfully to their Elders as wise and learned men who are working for God, and as long as what the Elders have to say is in line with scripture, happily following the Elder’s guidance without resistance.
This is the relationship God created between Elders and the Church.
So in light of our biblical examples, and seeing the implications behind the original greek words, I believe an accurate picture can be painted of what God intended Elderships to be, but how should this be practically applied to our Churches?
First, we must recognize that the voice of the church and the voice of the elders are separate, and one shouldn’t be used to drown out the other. Also, neither is a suitable substitute for the other. No congregation will be truly healthy unless both voices are present. Practically, one form that this can take is that of “men’s business meetings”; meetings directed by the elders, but allowing members participation in matters of the church. But also, whenever possible, matters under the consideration of the elders should be discussed openly before the church. More “Elder’s Meetings” should take place with open doors than closed ones. Of course, some matters will have to be addressed quietly to protect persons involved, but in all other matters elders should avoid becoming secretive. One of the most powerful charges to elders is that they teach and persuade the flock, and this cannot be accomplished by going into a room and locking out the congregation.
Second, we must acknowledge the the term “leaders” or “those who have the rule” is applied not only to Elders, but also to any man that teaches or has influence in the congregation (Acts 15:22). Each of these leaders is serving the same master and has the same goal of tending to the needs of the Church. As such, there should always be a healthy communication between these men, aiding each other in their common goal. Their roles are complementary, not competitive.
It should also be noted that preachers do not work for an eldership. Preachers work for God and are supported financially by the church. Though this support is often administered by the eldership, the decision of which preachers or missionaries the church supports should be left in the hands of the church. (There are no recorded examples of a preacher ever being hired or dismissed by an eldership, so it is a much safer approach to leave this responsibility in the hands of the church rather than risk violating Peter 5:3. Also, since consent is needed from the church to select elders, it stands to reason that consent is needed to select other church leaders as well.) Careful consideration must always be applied so a preacher isn’t led to work for elders instead of working for God, as this would be an un-biblical relationship and would place both preachers and elders into roles God never intended for them. I’m afraid some of the cultural norms of our modern American society have influenced the governance of our churches, but tradition and culture are no replacement for biblical patterns.
I would like to end this study with some questions for your consideration:
- In Acts 15, we see that the church had a voice and made decisions separate from their eldership. Knowing that we should follow our biblical examples and model our congregations accordingly, in what way does the modern church still have this voice today? And if it doesn't, would that be a case of us not following our biblical pattern?
- Also in Acts 15, God chose to record in great detail an eldership in practice. In this rare account, we see that the elders met publically with open doors. For what reason would this biblical example not be followed today?
- When Jesus made the statement that in His church no one would exercise authority (Matthew 20:25-28), how do you believe this applies to elderships?
- Is it possible that modern elderships function the way that they currently do because of tradition and cultural norms, instead of strictly searching our biblical examples and looking back to the original greek to find God's intended role for the position? If this is the case, how can we get back to following our biblical pattern?