1-5 Elders And Deacons
There evidently were leaders of some sort in the first ecclesias; and so there ought to be in our groups those who are in positions of respect and thereby leadership. But let’s be clear about one thing: human beings naturally seek to have leaders, to have someone to shoulder the responsibility for their decisions, someone to tell them what to do, how to believe… hence the amazing popularity of the Catholic church. Yet there are Biblical ‘leaders’ in the ecclesias we read of in the New Testament; but it can’t be that our leaders today are leaders for us in the sense that people naturally desire leadership in order to offload the burden of personal decision making and exercising of our own conscience. Recall how in the time of the Judges, Micah asked the young Levite, who was “unto him as one of his sons”, to “be unto me a father and a priest” (Jud. 17:10,11- note the paradox), resulting in others likewise asking him to “be unto us a father and a priest” (Jud. 18:19). The point is, no matter how unqualified a person may be for the job, they may be pressed into being leaders because that’s what nominally religious people so desperately need.
Yet without leadership, our groups will lack direction and vitality, and there would be a fruitless anarchy amongst us. A leader, like a father, can and should make others feel valued, and give focus for the sense of family which there should be in the group. The universal servanthood of us all and the essential focus which there must be on the headship of Christ shouldn’t be allowed to alter this. Nor should ‘elders’ be seen by the congregations as servants whom they expect to organise things for them and care for them. We are all servants of all. Respect must be earnt by elders, never demanded. Their way of life is the basis of their authority (Heb. 13:7); in this sense, we have the choice whom to consider as our elders, whom we will respect and follow. Jesus taught as one who had authority, unlike the scribes (Mk. 1:22). Yet the Scribes had authority in terms of their position, and yet they were not respected; and hence they couldn’t teach with authority as Jesus could.
Paul in Gal. 2:5 speaks of how he refused to “give place by subjection” to some who claimed to be elders, even though they “seemed to be somewhat” and were [in the eyes of some] “in repute” (Gal. 2:6 ASV). The same Greek word translated “subjection” is found in 1 Cor. 16:16; Tit. 3:1 and 1 Pet. 5:5 about submission to elders in the ecclesia. Paul’s example shows that merely because an elder demands subjection, this doesn’t mean we should automatically give it- even if others do. We should be “subject” to those who are in our judgment qualified to demand our subjection (1 Cor. 16:16); and “subjection” in Paul’s writings usually refers to our subjection to the Lordship of Jesus. Our subjection must be to Him first before any human elders.
Nehemiah’s brother Hanani was given “charge over Jerusalem: for he was a faithful man”- not just because he was the boss’s brother, which is how the nepotism of those times would have usually required (Neh. 7:2). It can be that human qualification, e.g. being a successful businessman, or the brother of a leading brother, is related to positions of eldership amongst us. Yet the Nehemiah passage shows that although sometimes there may be overlap between both spiritual and human qualification, it is the spiritual qualification which must be paramount. Because of this the ‘leaders’ of a healthy ecclesia will not need to give any justification for their authority. They will naturally be respected for who they are, just as a father in a healthy family. This is why the NT gives all of us guidelines on how to decide whether a brother should be respected as an elder or not. Even though some may be shepherds, they are still sheep; and they are leading others after the Lord Jesus, “the chief shepherd”, not after themselves. And they should remember that Gal. 6:6 requires “him that is taught in the word” to share back his knowledge with his teacher. This is possibly the meaning behind the enigmatic Eph. 3:10- the converts of the church declare the wisdom of God to the ‘principalities and powers in the heavenlies’, phrases elsewhere used about the eldership of the church. The shepherd is to learn from his sheep- a concept totally out of step with the concept of leadership in 1st and 21st centuries alike. The flock isn’t theirs; it is their Lord’s. Any who teach others are themselves disciples, learners at the feet of the Master. It is simply so that some have more ability to organise than others; the Lord spoke of how each believer is given differing amounts of talent to use in His service. But before God, we are one in Christ. Elders are likened to the lowest class of “labourer”, or to a humble ox, all the same worthy of reward (1 Tim. 5:18). There is certainly no intrinsic sense of superiority attached to being an elder in the church of Christ.
The Greek language is full or words containing the compounds kata-
and arch-, implying power over others, as part of a hierarchy.
The leaders of the Roman world used these terms (Mt. 20:25), as
did the synagogue leadership. But never does scripture use these
kind of words about those who are ‘elders’ in the true ecclesia.
It’s a pointed omission. On the other hand, there are many sun-
prefixes: fellow-worker, fellow-citizen, fellow-soldier, fellow-heir
etc. The New Testament emphasis is certainly on what we have in
common rather on the fact that in practice some are more capable
of organising, or deserve especial respect for their evident spirituality
and “for their work’s sake”. And the teaching of the Lord Himself
was more concerned with how to follow Him than how to lead others.
Likewise, there were many contemporary Greek words used to describe
religious gatherings, e.g. heorte, synodos, koinos. But
instead the word ekklesia is used, meaning a gathering
together of town citizens with equal rights to discuss a matter.
This is how the word was understood at that time.
Natural Growth And Outcomes
1 Tim. 1:4 RVmg. seems to imply that continuing in true doctrine
and teaching it to others develops "a stewardship of God which
is in faith". This "stewardship" isn't an office
or position one is voted into or appointed to by a committee- it's
something which comes naturally over time, as we allow the true
doctrines of God to work in us and come to its natural term, which
will be a stewardship or responsibility in God's house. Quite naturally,
we are to pass on to others what we have been given, and over time,
as we grow in the word, we are given more, and so we pass out more
to others. That's why there is a connection between being an "elder"
and being "older" in the faith, i.e. having walked in
the Lord for a longer time. The disciples were given the food by
Jesus, and they in their turn 'set it before' the crowd (Mk. 8:7).
This is the same Greek word used in 2 Tim. 2:2- we are to "commit"
['set before'] to others what has been committed to us, just as
Paul 'committed' to Timothy what had been committed to him (1 Tim.
1:18). Or again, Paul tells the Corinthians that he "delivered"
to them what he had himself "received from the Lord" (1
Cor. 11:23). This passing on to others, in teaching and practical
ways, can only be legitimately done by those who have themselves
"received from the Lord"- and it's something which in
a healthy spiritual person will happen quite naturally. It isn't
the result of being put into a church office or position.
However, despite all we have written in this study about equality of responsibility amongst us, there is Biblical reference to various forms of leadership position in the ecclesia. A deacon means literally one who serves at table. We must all serve [deacon] one another (1 Pet. 4:10; Eph. 4:12). And yet there were clearly specific ‘deacons’ in the New Testament ecclesias. Clearly they were officially doing what was in fact the duty of everyone to do. And so it is with us. There may be brethren whom we appoint to teach us; but we should all in some sense be teaching and influencing each other in the Lord’s way. Likewise there was an office of ‘evangelist’ (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5), but none would doubt that we are all evangelists. Elders are not to be domineering but to be examples, typoi (1 Pet. 5:3); but we are all typoi to each other (1 Thess. 1:7). Paul and Timothy were vessels used by God (Acts 9:15; 2 Tim. 2:21); but so are we all (2 Cor. 4:7) This means that nobody can claim they have a right to certain types of work which others in the congregation can’t do. For they are only doing officially and publicly what in spirit we are all seeking to do. We may respect them to the extent that we let them do the public work, but this doesn’t mean that we are freed of our own responsibilities, nor that they can lord it over us.
Footnote: "What to do if elders are unsuitable and not qualified for their job?"
Firstly, don't be too hard on elders. It's easy for those who've never had responsibility in the ecclesia to be critical of those who do. And none of us are perfect; our patient bearing with others' weaknesses ought to reflect how the Lord so patiently bears with ours. Our attitude to our brothers and sisters, including our elders, is going to be a major factor in influencing the Lord's final judgment of us. That said, as you point out, there can be times when really an elder simply isn't acting properly. Nobody is above criticism, and no elder should be unaccountable. But firstly I want to challenge the terms of your question. I wonder whether it's right to speak of 'leaders' in the ecclesia. There were many Greek words carrying the idea of 'leader' which could have been used in the New Testament to describe ecclesial elders; but the Spirit chose not to use them. 'Elder' means simply an old person, either in years or experience. A 'deacon' is literally a servant or errand runner. Even episkopos, "bishop", doesn't necessarily mean a leader. It can refer to an overseer in the sense of a coordinator / foreman on a building site, just ensuring the smooth running of an operation without being a personal leader. Epi-skopos can just as well be translated 'a mark setter' [skopos is elsewhere translated "mark" in the AV]. And the mark constantly before the Christian is the Lord Jesus and His Kingdom (Phil. 3:14). The Lord Jesus warned that the blind cannot lead the blind- and explained what He meant by adding that "The disciple is not above his master: but every one when he is perfected shall be as his master" (Lk. 6:39.40). We are all learners of the one Master, and not leaders. Only if we are perfect can we be leaders of the blind- for it is Jesus personally who was prophesied as leading the blind (Is. 42:16). Hence we read in Mt. 23:10: "Nor should you be called 'Leader,' because your one and only leader is the Messiah". It is Christ alone who can " lead you to God" (1 Pet. 3:18). Likewise 2 Thess. 3:5: "May the Lord [Jesus] lead you into a greater understanding of God's love". Whenever we read of men leading in the ecclesia, it's always in a negative sense of leading into error:
- "The teaching of deceitful people, who lead others into error by the tricks they invent" (Eph. 4:14)
- "The time will come when some men from your own group will tell lies to lead the believers away after them" (Act 20:30)
- "The teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak how to lead the people of Israel into sin" (Rev. 2:14)
- "They lead weak people into a trap (2 Pet. 2:14)
- "Be on your guard, then, so that you will not be led away by the errors of lawless people" (2 Pet. 3:17)
- " Do not let all kinds of strange teachings lead you from the right way" (Heb 13:9).
It seems to me that respect can only ever be earnt, and never demanded on the basis that a brother was voted into an 'office' or appointed there by a group of brethren from afar. We know the qualifications for elders, bishops, deacons. We can make our own mind up as to whether or not we accept a brother as being truly qualified to be an elder. We may respect him as a brother, but not as an elder. In the situation you refer to, where an elder is acting wrongly, he has disqualified himself from being an elder- and therefore you don't have to treat him as such, even if he claims to be one. My observation is that ecclesias are so small that often brothers become 'elders' by default, rather than because they meet the required qualifications. There has also been the problem in some parts of visitors from another country appointing ill qualified brothers to be elders in a local situation which they are largely ignorant of. You don't need to put up with that situation; you as individuals must choose elders for yourselves according to your experience of the brothers concerned, reflected against the Biblical qualifications for them.
My suggestion would be to not let the situation fester. After prayer and self-examination, discuss the issue openly with the offending 'elder'. Never cease to respect him as a brother; but raise the specific behaviour with him which you believe to disqualify him as an elder. However, this should only be done if the behaviour is unquestionably wrong and evidently proven. Hunches, gossip, suspicion, anonymous accusation etc. don't amount to evidence, and the love that seeks to believe all things, hope all things and positively see the best in others will ignore those kinds of things.