1-6 Bishops And Elders
The commands relating to bishops (overseers) stress that he should only be
treated as such if his own family is in order (1 Tim. 3:4,5,12).
This could suggest that he was the one who had converted others;
for the image of our converts being our spiritual children is a
frequent one (1 Cor. 4:14,17; 2 Cor. 6:13; Gal. 4:19; Tit. 1:4;
Philemon 10; 1 Pet. 5:13). In the same way as a father ought to
be respected by his children, so converts ought to respect those
who converted them. The fact Paul had made converts and founded
ecclesias was used by him as a proof that he deserved at least some
respect- they were his ‘seal’, the hallmark that showed him genuine
(1 Cor. 9:2). My sense is that the first century Gentile ecclesias
were very similar to many Christian groups throughout Africa, Europe
and Asia today; somebody was converted by a visiting preacher, and
they in turn converted a group of their associates. Such groups
need leadership, and the logical leader is the one who converted.
This is why elders are defined in Heb. 13:7 as those who preached
the Gospel to those they lead. Yet there can be a tendency for groups
of converts to forget the eternal debt they owe to those who brought
them to new life in Christ, just as there can be a forgetting of
responsibility to our natural parents. A possible translation of
Is. 8:16 is: “I will bind up the testimony, and seal the instruction
by my disciples” [suggested by Dr. Martin Hengel]. The context is
Isaiah speaking about his disciples in the school of the prophets
he ran. The implication would be that the disciples of Divine teaching
are actually the seal or credibility of the instruction / testimony
which the Gospel contains. Valid converts are therefore a sign of
the validity of the preacher, and are therefore a qualification
for eldership. The respect afforded to such converters / leaders
should, however, be qualified by their meeting of the standards
Paul lays down: e.g. their own natural children should be well led
by them. The integrity and manner of life of those who converted
us is what inspires us to carry on. Thus Paul urges Timothy to “continue”
because he knew “of what persons” he had been taught them (2 Tim.
3:14 RVmg.). The image of a father leading his children is essentially
a gentle image. Note how the episkopoi were overseers in
the flock, not over it (Acts 20:28 Gk. Cp. AV). It should be noted
that the bishop’s qualification is that he knows how to
rule his own house (1 Tim. 3:5). It may be that as with Samuel and
other elders, their children or converts do not ‘turn out’ well.
If this is because there was a lack of spiritual leadership, this
disqualifies a brother. But if he knew how to rule, but
they rebelled, then he is not thereby disqualified. Fathers cannot
be held responsible for the spiritual failure of their children
in all cases (Jer. 31:29,30; Ez. 18- and the example of Yahweh with
Israel). Likewise, Paul was clearly a bishop and yet was single.
“A bishop must be the husband of one wife” therefore requires
us to again read in an ellipsis: ‘[If he is married he must be…]
the husband of one wife’.
The following words sum it all up: “Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasises the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even although these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly…the bishop is the simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire”(2) . Thus who we are makes us a father / leader- not the fact we were or were not voted in to an office. If too much focus is placed on the fact an elder has been ‘appointed’ as such, then we run the risk of the congregation and the elder becoming totally out of touch with each other. A status quo mentality develops rather than real growth; the ecclesia becomes stuck in the mire of mediocrity and even division, because the elder isn’t inspiring it forward in the way that only a true father can do.
What we have been saying here
is confirmed by a closer analysis of the Greek text in the passages
concerning leadership in the church. In Rom. 12:6-8, Paul speaks
of he who exhorts, he who gives, he who presides-
but note that the participles are used. The thought is of people
doing things, rather than offices in their own right. When Paul
writes to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with
the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1), the Greek nouns have no articles
[syn episkopois kai diakonois]. This indicates that the ‘bishops
and deacons’ weren’t seen as an established ‘office of the church’.
Rather is Paul concerned with the functions of what these
brethren did. It was only in Christianity’s later apostacy that
the offices came to be glorified merely as offices. Note how in
1 Thess. 5:11, Paul tells the entire church to build one another
up- he doesn’t leave that work to the elders. And in the next two
verses, he goes straight on to tell them to respect those who labour
amongst them (1 Thess. 5:12,13). There seems to be some sort of
juxtaposition going on here. The flock are to take on responsibility
of building each other up, but also to respect their elders.
Whilst the idea of
having a treasurer isn’t at all a bad idea, it’s perhaps significant
that in the Corinthian letters, Paul makes no mention of such an
office. The members were to save weekly and then hand their gathering
to Paul when he comes to them (1 Cor. 16). Or in 2 Cor. 8, we read
of Titus and his companions being allocated to simply collect what
had been gathered up for the Jerusalem poor fund. Likewise when
Paul speaks of the breaking of bread, he makes no reference to anyone
leading the gathering. He places blame for misbehaviour there upon
the actual members. And Paul doesn’t appeal to any ultimate overseer
of the whole Corinthian church when he begs for church meetings
to be conducted far better (1 Corinthians 14). I feel these omissions,
even though they are an argument from silence, are significant.
Another such possible argument from omission can be built from an
examination of the Lord’s letters recorded in Rev. 2 and 3. The
‘Angel of the church’ to whom the letters were sent may simply refer
to the ‘messenger’ of the church, who physically distributed the
letters. 2 Cor. 8:23 specifically mentions such “messengers of the
churches” whose task was to distribute letters from the inspired
apostles. Hermas speaks of such a ‘messenger’ whose job it was to
take transcripts of visions to the believers in various cities (Vision
II 4.3). My point is that in this case, the Lord’s letters of Rev.
2 and 3 were directed not at a body of eldership, but directly to
all members of the churches. I’m not saying there is no place for
elders, but there is no place for any system of eldership or committee
/ hierarchical structure which devalues the individual believer
or disables his or her initiative in serving the Lord. Note how
the household of Stephanas in 1 Cor. 16:15 are said to have appointed
themselves to ministering to the saints [eis diakonian tois
hagiois]. They didn’t need any bishop or committee to ‘put them
into the ministry’. They saw the need, and responded.
It seems to me that
giving someone responsibility or duties beyond their real
capacity to undertake can destroy their self-esteem and even them
as individuals. This kind of thing happens when believers are pushed
into offices of eldership by vote or political decision; if Biblical
guidelines are followed, the believer who has naturally shown
over a period of time that they are qualified as an elder or pastoral
figure naturally becomes that figure; and therefore the
problem of pushing someone into an 'office' that is beyond their
capacity to handle simply never arises. For example, if a brother
has preached in a country or area for some time, converted people,
built them up in the faith, he is their natural elder. If another
brother is moved in as 'elder' who's perhaps never set foot in the
country, just because he is given that 'office', there is a real
possibility that the experience will be damaging to him personally-
as well as unhelpful for those suddenly and inappropriately informed
that he is their 'father' in the Lord.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
(New York: Macmillan, 1954), p. 108. (3) Derek Tidball, Skilful
Shepherds (Leicester: I.V.P., 1986), p. 106.
Appendix: “Obey them that have the rule over
you” (Heb. 13:17)
This passage has been much abused to teach that
‘you must unquestioningly obey church elders, do what they say,
believe what they tell you, give them what they ask you’. We need
to bear in mind that such elders often prefer to quote the King
James translation of this and other such passages about bishops
and elders. First off, for all that I’m a personal fan of the
KJV, let’s remember that it had a deeply political context as
a translation. 17th century England was organized around
“bishops” who collected the taxes for the King- and as James several
times said, “No bishops- no king”. It was in his interest to ensure
that the new Bible translation he authorized gave power to those
bishops. Thus James ordered the translation committee: “The Bishops'
Bible is to be followed, and as little altered as the original
will permit”. There was inevitably a need for the translators
to please their King and sponsor- and so there tends to be an
element of mistranslation in Bible passages which speak of obedience
to bishops and church elders (1).
The context is set by Heb. 13:7: “Remember
them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the
word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their
conversation”. I’d like to quote some linguistic observations
by Steve Cook:
“(a) It is in the past tense
but has been translated to read as though it were in the present
(b) The word over (“rule over you”) in this verse has no
corresponding word in the Greek and was added by the translators
(humon means “of you” not “over you”).
(c) The phrase, "them which have the rule over" is a
paraphrase of one Greek word - hegeomai - a verb - meaning
to lead, to go before as a guide. In a Christian context hegeomai
is descriptive of the act of guiding, going on ahead, leading
the way as an example, not sitting as overlords.
(d) It is referring to those who have died in the faith, not to
living individuals presiding over the body of Christ…
Greek word [in Heb. 13:17] peitho that was translated obey
appears only 55 times in the New Testament. It is only translated
obey seven times. The word peitho is in the passive
voice and simply means be persuaded, as the following lexicons
To persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe. To make friends
of, to win one's favour, gain one's good will, or to seek to win
one, strive to please one. To tranquilize. To persuade unto i.e.
move or induce one to persuasion to do something. Be persuaded.
To be persuaded, to suffer one's self to be persuaded; to be induced
to believe: to have faith: in a thing. To believe." (Thayer
and Smith’s Greek Lexicon)
"peitho, to persuade, to win over, in the Passive
and Middle voices, to be persuaded, to listen to.... (Acts 5:40,
Passive Voice, "they agreed"); The obedience suggested
is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion."
(W. E. Vine Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words)
Acts18:4 is a good example of how this word is used in the NT:
“And he (Paul) reasoned (dialegomai…'To think different
things with one's self, mingle thought with thought. To ponder,
revolve in mind. To converse, discourse with one, argue, discuss'.
Thayer and Smith's Greek Lexicon) …in the synagogue every sabbath,
and persuaded (pietho) the Jews and the Greeks."
Here Paul is reasoning with Jews and Greeks in the synagogue.
He did not command them to obey him. Rather, he persuaded them.
In this verse pietho means “listen to the reasoning of
your leaders” or “be persuaded by your leaders”, but not “obey
The Greek word that was translated submit in verse 17 is
hupeiko. It occurs only here in the NT and means yield.
Hupeiko in no way infers any kind of outward force being
placed on the person yielding. It is a voluntary act. In the body
of Christ you cannot demand that someone “submit” to your authority.
If you do, it proves that you really do not have authority. He
is not fit to lead who is not capable of guiding.”
The context of Hebrews 13
is of course the long list of faithful believers who have gone
before, which we find in Heb. 11 and commented upon in Heb. 12. The
positive lesson from all this is that the records of so many lives
which we find in Scripture should persuade us, we should
be so frequently reflective upon them that we feel those characters
jumping out of the page and persuading us. It is they whom we
should obey, follow, hold as role models.
(1) For more
on this see Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries:
The Making of the King James Bible (San Francisco: