The Authority of Elders: "It Shall Not Be So Among You"
Recently a friend wrote me the following note:
"The issue of elders and authority has been a topic of much discussion in our house for quite a while.
"Ive been characterizing it as the difference between a corporate executive and a group of grandfathers watching over the family.
"I think that I grasp what you are getting when you make a distinction between jurisdictional and spiritual authority. But can you ...help me understand you more fully?"
What does the Bible say about the authority of church elders in the New Testament churches? It seems to me this is a critical issue, needing to be humbly and prayerfully explored in the church today. Jesus said (Matt. 20:25-26), "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" (emphasis added).
How would you answer this brothers question? I would welcome your comments at the conclusion of the article I wrote in response.
The Authority of Elders:
It Shall Not Be So Among You"
by Jonathan Lindvall
I like the metaphor of contrasting corporate executives with a group of humble grandfathers. In ancient Israel, the elders of the city joined the other men at the city gates, where decisions were made. They didn't impose anything on the others, but when they spoke, their words were given greater weight to the degree that they had demonstrated wisdom with fruitful lives.
Let me share some things that might be helpful. There are several scriptural examples I think the Lord has used to clarify the role of elders for me. The Lord will likely use differing pictures to clarify His ways with different people, depending on their personalities, past experiences, and general frame of reference.
First let me lay a foundation, and then I'll share some scriptures that have helped me. Jesus chose to use the term "ekklesia" (translated "church," "assembly," or "congregation" in English) in describing his people. He used this term in two instances (Matt. 16:18 "On this rock I will build my church," and Matt. 18:17 "tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church...").
What did the word "ekklesia" mean? Many have focused on the etymology of the word ("ek" meant "out of" and "kaleo" meant "called") to indicate the word means "called out ones." Etymology can be helpful, but it should not replace the way the word was actually used in the day of the speaker/writer. How was the word "ekklesia" actually used in the first century?
The word ekklesia was used in the first century to refer to the body of people who came together in a community to make decisions. Today we would use a term like "legislature" or "senate" or "parliament." There are three instances in the New Testament when the term ekklesia is used that are clearly not references to the church of Jesus Christ. They are references to political gatherings.
You may recall that a silversmith in Ephesus was concerned that sales of his images of the Greek goddess Diana were declining due to the spread of the gospel in that region. He and some of his fellow tradesmen provoked a riot against the Christians. Acts 19:32 describes how, in the confusion "Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused." The word translated "assembly" here is "ekklesia." The church wasnt confused. The gathered pagans wanting to suppress Christianity were confused. Their gathering was referred to as an "ekklesia."
The account continues with the city clerk addressing the mob, saying (Acts 19:39), "But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly." Again, the word translated "assembly" was "ekklesia." The "lawful assembly" was an orderly gathering of citizens or representatives gathered to make decisions for the community.
The account concludes with the statement (Acts 19:41), "And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly." For the third time, the word "assembly" is translated from the Greek word "ekklesia."
In the days of the New Testament, the word "ekklesia" referred to a group that came together to make decisions. Jesus chose to use this word when identifying his people when they gather together. Every member is to be connected to the Head of the church (Jesus), and decisions that are made are to simply reflect each of them listening for His direction. When they are correctly connected to the Head and to one another, they speak with one voice.
The church is not a democracy (where the majority rules), nor a republic (where representatives make decisions for the masses). The church is a monarchy. We have a King. We are all to listen to Him and obey Him. However, He has chosen to speak through His people, thus creating a "parliamentary monarchy." Each of us is a member of His "parliament" (ekklesia), and we are to speak as He directs us. If we are all listening to the His voice, we will speak His will unitedly.
Yet there is clearly a role for leaders in the church (the Bible typically refers to them as "elders" or "shepherds" (pastors). What is their role? And more to the question, what is their authority?
New Testament eldership was built on the foundation of Old Testament eldership. Throughout the history of Israel, God had ordained a role for elders in the congregation. The elders were generally not princes (political rulers) but rather older men who were esteemed for their wisdom. When the men of a city would pass through the gates, they would pause and discuss the issues facing their community. The voices of the elders had no more legal authority than those of others, but when they spoke the younger men listened more closely. Elders had more influence, though not necessarily any more jurisdiction than others.
Jesus was abundantly clear when he said (Matt. 20:25-26), "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." He predicted (or was this actually intended as a command?) that leaders in the church would "not exercise authority over" the others. While there have been outstanding examples of servant leadership throughout the history of the church, this stands starkly in opposition to much current Christian tradition and ecclesiology. Today, most churches are structured in such a way that there is a position (regardless of who fills it) that is expected to "exercise authority over" the rest of the flock. But Jesus said, "It shall not be so among you."
The account of Jesus' discussion of this (verses 20-28) occurs in both of the other synoptic gospels (see Mark 10:35-45; Luke 22:23-27). In each account the Lord challenged the assumption that someone must "exercise authority over" others of God's servants. In Luke's account He uses a particularly striking phrase, saying (verse 26), "But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger." I find it interesting to contrast the rest of the New Testament's frequent references to "elders" to Jesus' reference to "the younger." In the congregation how much authority does "the younger" have? Does "the younger" exercise authority over others in the congregation? We would all find this questionable (although in some traditional churches with elderly congregations, "the pastor" may actually be the youngest man).
Jesus seems to acknowledge that there will be leaders (I would go so far as to say there "should be" leaders), but their leadership function is entirely different (perhaps even opposite) that of leaders in the world. They lead by serving, by humbling themselves, and by considering all the others more important (higher in rank?) than themselves. How is this possible?
Peter discusses this in his admonition to elders (1 Pet. 5:1-4). He told the elders to avoid leading "by compulsion" (possibly "with compulsion"), or to acquire unfair advantages, "nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." What do "lords" do? They "exercise authority." They require others to obey them. They make decisions others are expected to follow.
This is appropriate in business and the family. Masters, husbands, and fathers are to command those entrusted to them. They have jurisdictional authority they must exercise. But in the church the leaders are not to "lord over" the others. They are not to make decisions the others must follow. Instead, Peter says, they lead by "being examples to the flock." That leaves each member of the body of Christ with the responsibility to decide whether or not to follow the example of the leaders.
Certainly there is some point at which believers who are in sin must be disciplined by the church by being excluded. But notice that in the passages dealing with such matters (Matt. 18:15-20 and 1 Cor. 5) there is no reference to a specific role for elders. Such discipline is carried out by the Lord through the whole church. No doubt the elders will have significant influence in the process, but the church (Greek ekklesia = parliament) is the body that pronounces the decision revealed by the Lord Jesus in such matters.
Peter says the elders lead by example. Even in his directives to feed or shepherd (poimaino) the flock, and to serve as overseers (episkopeo), these are things everyone in the congregation has a responsibility to do toward one another. The elders serve as something of a safety net, but they are not solely responsible for either the feeding or the watching out for others. These responsibilities don't become some sort of right exclusively within their domain. Instead, elders are to fulfill their responsibilities by being examples of what everyone is to do.
So once again, we find the scripture calling the leaders of the church to lead without exercising authority. Yet doesn't leadership imply authority? If God calls someone to lead, isn't he to boldly lead?
Deborah and Barak began their victory song in Judges 5:2 with the line, "When leaders lead in Israel, When the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the LORD!" Leadership is a good thing, and it is good for all of us to follow God-appointed leaders. May the leaders lead boldly! But may they also lead humbly, without lording. How is this possible?
It seems to me one key is in recognizing the distinction between jurisdictional authority and spiritual authority. (Some will prefer to articulate this as the distinction between authority and influence, and perhaps for some people that is a clearer metaphor. But I find it clearer to recognize that there is such a thing as "spiritual authority" that doesn't imply the right to command in the visible realm, but is more powerful in the spiritual realm.)
In the home, God has ordained that the husband be the head of the wife, who is to submit to him (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Pet. 3:1-7), and that children obey their parents (Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20-21; Heb. 12:5-11). This is jurisdictional authority. It is right for husbands to lovingly command their wives (though even here, a wife's submission is not to be coerced). God actually requires parents to use physical chastening when a child violates their jurisdiction over him. In these relationships it is right for leaders to "exercise authority" because their authority is jurisdictional.
But what is "spiritual authority?" Spiritual authority is not exercised in the visible realm. Spiritual authority is something recognized in the spiritual realm. Those who are oblivious to the spiritual realm will not recognize this authority, but will nonetheless be powerfully affected by it. This realm is what I believe Jesus was referring to when He told Nicodemus (John 3:3), "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Most human beings are not "born again" and are oblivious to the reality of the spiritual realm all around them. They cannot "see" it. But those who are truly "born again" find they have been given a capacity to discern this reality they previously were blind to.
How is "spiritual authority" manifested? Although Jesus had no jurisdictional authority on earth, He had incredible spiritual authority. Even the demons were subject to Him. Spiritual beings (angels & demons) recognize and honor the reality of spiritual authority. (Is this possibly what the reference to "because of the angels" means in 1 Corinthians 11:10?) And even physical beings that are oblivious to spiritual realities are more affected by spiritual realities than they realize.
When a Christian with true spiritual authority prays (by definition, this is praying in Jesus' name--as authorized by Jesus directly), his prayers are powerfully effective. This is because he has spiritual authority, even if no one in the visible realm recognizes it. How was Paul able to encourage the believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 5:5) to "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus"? He was "exercising" spiritual authority, and encouraging them to follow his example in this. I'm persuaded this is what he was talking about when he said (2 Cor. 10:4), "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds" Those with true spiritual authority use spiritual "weapons" (Paul called them "might") rather than carnal means to accomplish God's purposes. (Note that in this context Paul continued in verse 6, "being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled." Was Paul going to "punish" people in the physical realm?)
Finally (with the foundation of all that has preceded), let me give a couple of scriptural examples that help me to clarify this issue in my own understanding. In 1 Peter 3:1-2 he admonishes wives to "be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear." This promised result could be attributed simply to the godly example of the wife. But I suspect there is something deeper.
If a godly woman's husband is disobedient to God, who has the jurisdictional authority in the relationship? Despite his disobedience, he still has the jurisdictional authority in his home. By God's design, "the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church" (Eph. 5:23). But who has the spiritual authority in this situation? Whom does God honor? What do the angels and demons recognize? Despite the husband's jurisdictional authority, the wife's cheerful submission and yieldedness to God produces a spiritual authority in her that is powerfully effective in opening up her disobedient husband to the work of the Holy Spirit.
This helps me distinguish between jurisdictional authority and spiritual authority. It doesn't undermine the husband's jurisdiction, but recognizes a reality above the plane he is operating in. That spiritual dimension is where the supernatural power and grace of God affect our human existence.
Let's consider another scriptural example. Paul puzzles many of us with his contention (1 Cor. 7:14) that "the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy." Is a non-believing husband automatically saved because his wife is a believer? Most of us would see this as contradictory to the whole counsel of scripture. Yet this statement must be dealt with. What does it mean?
If there is an "unbelieving husband" whose wife is a believer, who has the jurisdictional authority in their marriage? Despite his unbelieving state, he still has the jurisdiction and is the head of his wife. But who has the "spiritual authority" in this relationship? I believe the wife has tremendous spiritual authority that somehow sets this man apart, and makes a place (grounds, if you will) for God's unique intervention in his life. In this sense, this unbelieving husband is set apart (or sanctified) by his believing wife.
Again, this helps me to distinguish between jurisdictional authority and spiritual authority.
So in the case of the elders of the church, if they are not to "exercise authority" how can they lead? They are not to "lord over" the flock by making decisions others must follow. Instead, they lead by their humble, godly example, demonstrated by the fruit of their walk with God, and by the power of God flowing from their spiritual authority.
Others' Deference to Elders
Finally, this leads to the question of how the others in the church are to relate to their eldership. While the scriptures call elders to not be "lords over" the flock, it does call for the church to honor, follow, and even obey (in some sense) the elders.
Just two verses after warning elders not to be lords over the church, Peter went on to direct (1 Pet. 5:5), "Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders." While there is some question whether this is talking about submitting to those in the office of elder, or just submitting to those older than oneself, the context of the previous mandates to elders may lead to the conclusion that this is what Peter was talking about. (Yet, if Peter was speaking of submitting to those who have the recognized position (or office) of elders, then that raises the question of the contrasting term "younger people." What if the recognized elders are physically younger than some in the congregation? There certainly is no "office" of "younger people" that is hierarchically inferior to the "elders.")
But if someone wants to quibble, Peter goes right to the heart of our independence by continuing, "Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for 'God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.'" Ultimately all of us (elders and youngers alike) are to be submissive to one another, recognizing that the Lord can work through anyone He chooses as a vessel.
Perhaps the most frequently-used passages to contend that churches must obey their leaders are in Hebrews 13. As he begins to conclude the epistle, the writer says (Heb. 13:7), "Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct." The phrase "rule over" certainly implies someone exercising authority. And yet, this word (Greek: hegeomai) is the same word Jesus used in the Luke passage referred to (but not fully quoted) above where He questioned exercising authority. He said (Luke 22:26), "But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs (Greek: hegeomai) as he who serves."
"Hegeomai" is the Greek word translated "leading men" in Acts 15:22 when referring to Barsabas and Silas, who were sent by the church in Jerusalem to Antioch to confirm the consensus of the "Council of Jerusalem." Interestingly, this is the word Paul used to encourage the believers in Philippi (Phil. 2:3) to "let each esteem (hegeomai) others better than himself." In 1 Thessalonians. 5:12-13 Paul admonishes the church (apparently regarding its elders) "to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem (hegeomai) them very highly in love for their work's sake."
The word hegeomai apparently has many uses, but typically is translated "thought," "counted," "considered," or "esteemed." It is often used for leaders, in the sense of those who stand before the others. The New American Standard Bible, considered by many scholars to be the most accurate word-for-word rendition of original languages available to English readers, translates Hebrews 13:7, "Remember those who led (hegeomai) you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." It seems that the implication is that Christians are to look to those who led them to the Lord, or who otherwise have led them spiritually, and to follow their example, if (and only if) they see good fruit. This is consistent with the leaders avoiding "lording" while the rest of the church shows special deference to the wisdom and fruit of the elders.
We have all heard of religious leaders who dominate those they lead, as tyrants requiring others to bend to their will. This is spiritual abuse, and is more common than most of us care to admit. Probably the verse most frequently used to defend such behavior comes a few verses later in Hebrews 13. In verse 17 we're told, "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you." When congregations embrace the heart of this direction toward true, servant leaders, the result is a sweetness the Lord delights in. However, when leaders (to whom this was not addressed) use it as a manipulative tool, it becomes bondage with the potential (if not likelihood) of abuse.
Because this is the verse most often used to defend jurisdictional authority of church leaders, let's take a few moments to explore it closely. The Greek word that is translated "obey" here is "peitho." The word means to change one's mind. In the King James Version it is translated "agree," "assure," "believe," "have confidence," "be (wax) content," "make friend," "obey," "persuade," "trust," and "yield." The most frequent translation of the word is "persuade." It is seldom translated "obey," and even when it does, the context makes it clear the meaning is persuasive rather than coercive. In the very next verse (18) peitho is used, but translated "confident" ("Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience").
So it appears questionable to use this phrase "Obey your leaders" here as a mandate to hierarchical obedience, but rather a call to teachable deference, a sincere (and perhaps eager) willingness to be persuaded by those who have demonstrated maturity with the evidence of good fruit in their lives.
But then the passage goes on to say, "and be submissive." Some have argued that the redundance of "Obey your leaders and submit to them" provides unequivocal evidence that church members are to operate under the jurisdiction of the church leaders. But let's explore this further.
When the New Testament directs wives to "submit" to their husbands, children to "obey" their parents, servants (employees) to submit to their masters (employers), or civil subjects to the governing authorities, the writers of scripture consistently used one of two Greek words ("hupotasso" or "hupakouo") which both have the sense of hierarchical subordination. However, here the word used is "hupeiko," meaning "to yield." (This is the only place in the New Testament that this term is used.) Again, it has the sense of willing deference.
Of course there are some who are more scholarly than I am who hold to a more hierarchical view of church leadership. They could undoubtedly argue their perspective from these same Greek words. I only dare to address this for the sake of demonstrating that it is possible to interpret Hebrews 13:17 consistently with Jesus' clear command for leaders not to "exercise authority over" their brothers in the church, and Peter's admonition to elders not to "lord over" the flock.
May the Lord raise up shepherds among His people who are humble servants, and resist the temptation to manipulate or coerce others to bend to their will.
Copyright 2008 Jonathan Lindvall