What kind of authority – if any – do elders have in the churches?
When I first encountered the particular branch of the House-Church Movement (HCM) to which I have been responding in this series of posts, the issue of the authority of elders occupied much of the discussion. The HCM advocates I met seemed to be questioning whether elders were intended to have any real authority at all. They seemed to view them merely as enablers rather than genuine leaders. Seeing that I was puzzled by their views and desirous of a clearer understanding, they graciously referred me to House-Church.org (website of the Chigwell Christian Fellowship) and NTRF.org (website of the New Testament Reformation Foundation) for more information.
The website of the New Testament Reformation Foundation had the most detailed information dealing with the role of elders in the church, and I found much there with which I agreed. For example, they correctly hold to the concepts of plurality and parity of elders and also rightly understand that the terms elder, overseer, and pastor are used interchangeably in Scripture to refer to the same office. They also rightly understand that this office is to be held only by men. I was very pleased to find such a Biblical approach, but my enthusiasm soon began to wane as I discovered what I believe to be the source of the weak view of elder authority I had been encountering in my discussions with HCM advocates. I found at best a real lack of clarity on the issue and at worst a complete denial of elder authority – from Steve Atkerson to some extent in the former instance and from Hal Miller in the latter.
Where I began to encounter some difficulty was when I tried to understand more clearly what their doctrinal statements concerning elders as those who lead and govern really mean. For example, their webpage entitled “Our Beliefs” declares the First London Baptist Confession of 1644 to be their “favorite statement of faith.” This confession states regarding elders:
BEING thus joined, every church hath power given them from Christ, for their wellbeing, to choose among themselves meet persons for elders and deacons, being qualified according to the word, as those which Christ hath appointed in His testament, for the feeding, governing, serving, and building up of His Church; and that none have any power to impose either these or any other.
Without getting into much detail at this point, I observe that this statement says that elders are appointed by Christ for “governing… His Church.” This would seem to imply a ruling function with some degree of authority. However, I was then confronted with this statement on the “Our Beliefs” page itself:
Consensus decisions made by all the brothers, following Christ as Head of His church. Thus, elder-led more so than elder-ruled churches. Though elders are very important to the functioning of the church, decisions are generally to be made by the church corporately, not by its elders only (Mt 18:15-20, Lk 22:24-27, 1Pe 51-4).
Although I agree that the best way to lead a church in accordance with Scripture is through the building of consensus among the members, I confess that I have a hard time grasping the difference between “elder-led” and “elder-ruled” in this context. For example, I struggle to understand what it means that elders are those appointed by Christ to govern in the churches, but that they are not really supposed to rule. What, exactly, is the difference between governing and ruling? I think the distinction is being made in order to stress the importance of elders leading with humility and by example rather than in a domineering way. And if this is all that is intended by it, then I agree that elders should not be domineering or self-serving in their leadership (see, e.g., 1 Pet. 5:2-3). As we shall see, however, some HCM advocates seem to mean more than just this. In fact, they seem to question whether elders are intended to have the kind of authority implied by such terms as governing and ruling in the first place. This is especially clear when reading one of the online articles that seeks to explain the HCM point of view, an article by Hal Miller entitled “An Elder’s Authority: That of Children and Slaves.” In this article Miller attempts to argue that “the New Testament does not say anything about one believer having authority over another. We have plenty of authority over things, even over spirits, but never over other Christians.” Miller obviously believes that this includes elders.
On the other hand, Steve Atkerson is more cautious at this point and does believe that elders have some degree of authority in the churches. For example, in an interesting article entitled “New Testament Church Leadership,” Atkerson states:
[E]lders that [Timothy and Titus] appointed could be expected to do the same types of things that the temporary apostolic workers did on the local level (1Ti 1:3, 4:11 , 5:17 , 6:17 , Tit 1:12 -13, 2:15 , 3:10). From this is it clear that it is proper for elders, in exercising leadership, to authoritatively reprove, speak, teach, and guide. Elders are to “rule well” and “oversee” the churches, taking the initiative in prompting and guarding. (Italics mine.)
Atkerson also later argues that “each elder is equal in authority to all the other elders in the city (there is to be no ‘senior’ pastor nor presiding bishop over a city). A leader’s primary authority is based on his ability to persuade with the truth” (Italics mine).
So, unlike Miller, Atkerson clearly does believe that elders have authority in the churches where they serve, even if he believes it must be exercised with great humility and caution and with due appreciation for the proper role of the congregation in making important decisions. He also rightly sees their authority as based on their “ability to persuade with the truth.” In this regard, Steve Atkerson seems to be on pretty much the same page as the typical Reformed Baptist on this issue. It is baffling to me, then, that Atkerson can go on to cite Miller’s aforementioned article as approvingly as he does:
Jesus’ comments on leadership truly must be the starting point and final reference in our understanding of an elder’s authority. Hal Miller has insightfully observed, “Jesus’ disturbing teaching about authority among his followers contrasts their experience of it with every other society. The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects and make that appear good by calling themselves ‘benefactors.’ They exercise their power and try (more or less successfully) to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church. There, on the contrary, the one who leads is as a slave and the one who rules is as the youngest (Lk 22:24 -27). Lest this lose its impact, you should stop to reflect that the youngest and the slaves are precisely those without authority in our normal sense of the word. Yet this is what leadership among Jesus’ people is like.”
Since Atkerson approvingly cites Miller’s article as an insightful explanation of the Scriptural teaching on the authority of elders, I will turn my attention to it for the remainder of my examination. I will cite and respond to key passages from the article. All texts cited by me are from the New King James Version.
Response to Hal Miller on Elder Authority
Miller begins his Biblical discussion of the issue with an appeal to Jesus’ teaching of the disciples in Luke 22:
Jesus’ disturbing teaching about authority among his followers contrasts their experience of it with every other society. The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects and make that appear good by calling themselves “benefactors.” They exercise their power and try (more or less successfully) to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church. There, on the contrary, the one who leads is as a slave and the one who rules is as the youngest (Lk 22:24-27). Lest this lose its impact, you should stop to reflect that the youngest and the slaves are precisely those without authority in our normal sense of the word. Yet this is what leadership among Jesus’ people is like.
What is interesting about this citation is what it leaves out. Let’s have a look at the whole passage in order to see what I mean:
Luke 22:24-27 “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. 25 And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called “benefactors.” 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 as he who serves. 27 For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.’”
Notice the final statement of Jesus, in which He gives His own practice as an example of what He means. He says, “Yet I am among you as the One who serves.” But the question that immediately comes to mind for me is, Did Jesus set aside His authority when He acted among them as One who serves? The answer to this question demonstrates the problem with Miller’s view of the passage. Unless he wants to argue that Jesus had no authority or never exercised His authority as One who came to serve – a truly incredible position to have to take – then I fail to see how he can say that Jesus intended by this teaching that the disciples would have no authority as future leaders of the Church. After all, if He is the example they are to follow in leading the Church, and He did not set aside His authority when He acted as a servant to them, then why should we think that He intended that they have no authority? Now, of course, we shouldn’t think that they would possess the same authority as Jesus in every way – there are degrees of authority, and they would always be under His authority – but the notion that His teaching here requires that they have no authority at all strikes me as going well beyond anything the text clearly asserts or even implies. But Miller’s claims get even more outrageous:
The most obvious aspect of what the NT has to say about leadership and authority is its lack of interest in the subject. In all of Paul’s major letters, for instance, leaders only appear in Php 1:1, and there only in passing. For the most part, he ignores them, as do the other writers. Jesus’ immediate followers were strangely silent about leadership and authority. This silence, it turns out, is quite significant.
First, Miller apparently doesn’t see either 1 Timothy or Titus as among the “major letters” of Paul. The problem is that they are definitely the major letters in which he addresses the role of elders in the churches. I guess you could say that Paul has a “lack of interest in the subject” if you only want to consider his “major letters” and if you first decide that the letters in which he discusses the subject most fully don’t count as among his “major letters,” but it hardly amounts to a serious line of Biblical argument. One cannot just choose to count only the Biblical evidence that he thinks will suit his purpose and ignore the rest. At least he cannot do this if he accepts all of Scripture as his authority. But, then, Miller seems to have a problem with the very idea of authority, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me.
Second, I find it incredible that Miller can say that “Jesus’ immediate followers were strangely silent about leadership and authority” when there is plenty of indication that they took the issue very seriously indeed. For example, there is the account in Acts of the appointment of elders by Paul and Barnabas in the churches they founded, which means that it obviously was an important issue for them (14:23). And there is the account of the elders’ leadership in bringing the Church to a Biblical decision about the matter of circumcision and the role of the law in the early Church (Acts 15:6-29; 16:4). There is also the account of Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders, which shows how important he thought their leadership to the church there really was (Acts 20:17-35). Then there is the teaching of Paul in the Pastoral Epistles, which serve as handbooks to the proper leadership of the churches for Timothy and Titus, including the proper qualifications for those who would serve as leaders after them (see, .e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:5f.). As a matter of fact, he seems to regard churches as properly ordered only where elders have been appointed:
Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you….”
Paul must have thought proper leadership for the churches was pretty important! But to his testimony we could also add Peter’s instruction to elders in 1 Peter 5:1-4, as well as the important teaching of the author of Hebrews (13:7, 17). Given all such evidence, how Miller could say that Jesus’ immediate followers were “strangely silent about leadership and authority” is beyond me. But he has still more astounding claims to make. For example, after discussing the Greek word dúnamis as not indicating that Christians are to have power over each other, Miller then says:
Things become even more interesting when we turn to the other relevant Greek word: exousia. This word is usually translated as “power” or “authority” and is the closest equivalent to our English word “authority.” The NT’s list of those who have exousia is essentially the same as those who have dunamis: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels and demons. But now, the list extends to humans who are not merely energized by heavenly authority but have authority themselves.
Thus, kings have authority to rule (Ro 13:1-2) and Jesus’ disciples have authority over diseases and spirits (e.g., Mt 10:1). Believers have authority over the various facets of their lives – their possessions (Ac 5:4), and eating, drinking, and being married (1Co 11:10). What is striking, however, is that the NT does not say anything about one believer having authority over another.
The New Testament does not say anything about one believer having authority over another. We have plenty of authority over things, even over spirits, but never over other Christians….
We have plenty of authority over things, and even over spirits, but never over other Christians. Considering how much energy we put into discussions of who has authority in the church, that should be surprising. Kings have authority over their subjects; Paul had authority from the high priest to persecute Christians (Ac 9:14; 26:10-12). But in the church, one believer is never spoken of as having exousia over another, regardless of their position or prestige. The New Testament does not say anything about one believer having authority over another. We have plenty of authority over things, even over spirits, but never over other Christians. With the exception, that is, of 2Co 10:8 and 13:10. In these texts Paul speaks of having “authority” to build up, not tear down. It seems that he, at least, has exousia over other believers. Admittedly, one has to over-interpret the texts in order to make them a real exception since in both cases this is not an authority “over” anyone but rather an authority “for” a purpose.
First, I do not think it is an “over-interpretation” to say that Paul uses the term exousía to describe his Apostolic authority over the church at Corinth. In the context, he is clearly indicating that he has authority to correct them and to command them as he does. That this authority is given for the purpose of building rather than tearing down the churches does not in any way diminish the fact that it is an authority he clearly possesses.
Second, Miller has continued with his practice of selectivity in setting forth Biblical evidence. Why should we look only at the most common Greek word for authority – exousía – and ignore any other terms that might apply? For example, what about Paul’s use of authentéō in 1 Timothy 2?
1 Timothy 2:12 “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority [authentéō] over a man, but to be in silence.”
To be sure, Paul here denies that women may teach or have authority over men in the churches, but does he not indicate by this very exclusion that there are some who may teach and have authority over men, namely other men? Does he not clearly assume a role of teaching and authority in the churches for at least some men here?
Also, what about Paul’s use of kephalē to describe the husband as head of the wife and hupotássō to describe a wife’s submission to her husband as an authority?
Ephesians 5:23-24 “23 For the husband is head [kephalē] of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject [hupotássō] to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.”
Wayne Grudem addresses the meaning of these two important terms in his An Open Letter to Egalitarians:
1. kephalē: Where the Bible says that the husband is the “head” (kephalē) of the wife as Christ is the “head” (kephalē) of the church (Eph. 5:23), and that the head of the woman is the man (1 Cor. 11:3), you tell us that “head” here means “source” and not “person in authority over (someone).” In fact, as far as we can tell, your interpretation depends on the claim that kephalē means “source without the idea of authority.”
But we have never been able to find any text in ancient Greek literature that gives support to your interpretation. Wherever one person is said to be the “head” of another person (or persons), the person who is called the “head” is always the one in authority (such as the general of an army, the Roman emperor, Christ, the heads of the tribes of Israel, David as head of the nations, etc.) Specifically, we cannot find any text where person A is called the “head” of person or persons B, and is not in a position of authority over that person or persons. So we find no evidence for your claim that “head” can mean “source without authority”….
2. hypotassō [same word I have cited; different transliteration]: Where the Bible says that wives are to “be subject to” to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5; and implied in Eph. 5:22, 24), you tell us that the verb “be subject to” (hypotassō, passive) is a requirement for both husbands and wives-that just as wives are to be subject to their husbands, so husbands are to be subject to their wives, and that there is no unique authority that belongs to the husband. Rather, the biblical ideal is “mutual submission” according to Ephesians 5:21, “be subject to one another,” and therefore there is no idea of one-directional submission to the husband’s authority in these other verses (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5; and Eph. 5:22, 24).
But we have never been able to find any text in ancient Greek literature where hypotassō (passive) refers to a person or persons being “subject to” another person, and where the idea of submission to that person’s authority is absent. In every example we can find, when person A is said to “be subject to” person B, person B has a unique authority which person A does not have. In other words, hypotassō always implies a one-directional submission to someone in authority….
So, as Grudem so clearly shows, Paul teaches that Christian husbands have authority over their wives, to which their wives are to submit. This will become even more relevant to the issue of elder authority later when I address the qualifications for elders. For now I would just add that Paul also clearly teaches that Christian masters have authority over their slaves and Christian parents have authority over their children. For example:
Ephesians 6:1 “Children, obey [hupakoúō] your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”
Ephesians 6:5 “Bondservants, be obedient [hupakoúō] to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ….”
In both cases Paul clearly sees those to whom obedience is commanded as being under the authority of those to be obeyed. What else could he possibly mean, especially since he tells the slave to be obedient to his master “as to Christ”? Would Miller seriously expect us to deny that this refers to a relationship of authority or to deny that parents have authority over their children?
Well, these are examples of ways in which Scripture can speak of authority relationships within the Church without ever using the word exousía. Miller appears to have committed the word-concept fallacy here. That is, he has assumed that because a particular word for “authority” isn’t present in a text, that the concept is therefore not present. But my previous examples have shown the problem with this, namely that it assumes that there can be only one way that the Bible describes or discusses the concept of authority, and it ignores any other ways in which the Bible might speak to the issue. We will see just how problematic this is with regard to the role of elders in particular as I consider next the terms used to describe elders and their qualifications.
Terms Used For Elders and Their Qualifications
1. Elder (presbúteros): This is a term that was used in the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is important because the LXX was the common Bible for the Apostles and early Christians in the first century, and it provides the proper background for understanding much of the language in the New Testament. And the LXX uses presbúteros to refer to the leaders among the people of Israel. For example, Moses chose to delegate authority to these leaders to judge the people of Israel in many cases (Exod. 18:12-27; Num. 11:16-17). The elders of the people were already regarded as their leaders, but these special men chosen by Moses were also empowered by God to fulfill this ministry of judging the people. From that time onward their were elders who would judge matters among the people, commonly sitting at the city gates (Prov. 31:23). In the first century the elders of the people were still considered to be leaders among them and were commonly listed in this regard along with the other leaders, such as the chief priests (Matt. 21:23). Sadly, they even took part in the judgment of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (Matt.26:57). Although the term undoubtedly took on a slightly different nuance when used by the early Christians, there can be no doubt that it continued to be used by them as a title of respect and authority (See, e.g., 1 Timothy 5:17).
2. Overseer (epískopos): This term also had an established LXX usage. For example, it could refer to Eleazar the son of Aaron as the one in charge of the tabernacle (Num. 4:16), to leaders of the army (Num. 31:14), or to those in charge of public works such as the restoration of the temple in the time of Josiah (2 Chron. 34:12, 17 ). In each case it refers to a position of authority. This term was then taken up by the Apostles as a reference to leaders in the churches (See, e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:2). Can it be that they used the term with no intention of communicating a position of authority? Hardly.
3. Steward (oikonómos): This term was also used in the LXX to describe one who was in a position of authority over a household (Isa. 36:22). In the New testament it is used literally of one who was put in charge of an estate (Luke 12:42) or of an official in charge of public funds and properties (Rom. 16:23), but it was also used by Paul to describe the office of an elder or overseer (Tit. 1:7). The church can be described by Paul as a household (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19), so it is not surprising that he would refer to overseers as stewards, or those in authority over this household.
4. Pastor (poimēn): Paul uses this term to describe the elder office in Ephesians 4:11, in which he refers to it as the office of pastor (or shepherd). This word is used “1) literally, [of] one who takes care of a group of animals shepherd, sheep herder (LU 2.8); (2) metaphorically, [of] one who assumes leadership over a group of believers; (a) as picturing Christ as the head of the church (HE 13.20); (b) as human leaders over a community of believers pastor, minister (EP 4.11)” (Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, by Timothy and Barbara Friberg, Bible Works #22408).
That pastor (poimēn) is another term used in reference to elders is clear when we see that the related verb meaning “to shepherd” (poimaínō) is also used to describe their ministry. For example:
Acts 20:28 “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [epískopos], to shepherd [poimaínō] the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
1 Peter 5:1-2 “The elders [presbúteros] who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder [sumpresbúteros] and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: “Shepherd [poimaínō] the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers [episkopéō], not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly….”
This terminology also has a rich LXX background, being used to describe the leaders of Israel, such as David when he was inaugurated king of Israel (1 Chron. 11:2), the judges that God raised up for Israel (1 Chron. 17:6), or the leaders of Israel in the time of Ezekiel, who had failed as shepherds of the people (Ezek. 34:1-10). In all such cases it refers metaphorically to those who were in positions of authority in Israel. So, when the terminology is used of the leaders of the churches, the connotations of authority would not have been missed by the saints, especially since this terminology was combined with so many other terms indicating authority, as we have seen.
5. Leader (hēgéomai): This is actually a verb used as a participle, the plural form of which is employed as a substantive by the author of Hebrews to refer to “those who rule over you” (13:7, 17, 24). Not surprisingly, this term also has a LXX background, and was sometimes used to describe those who were made rulers (Deut. 1:13) or kings (1 Kings 1:35) over Israel. Again, the connotations of authority are clear.
6.“Those over you in the Lord” (proïstēmi): Paul uses this verb several times with reference to the leaders/elders of the churches. For example, he uses it to refer to the elders at Thessalonica:
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you [proïstēmi] in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.”
Paul also uses the word to teach that one of the qualifications of an elder is that he rule his own household well:
1 Timothy 3:4-5 “… one who rules [proïstēmi] his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5 (for if a man does not know how to rule [proïstēmi] his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)”
And that Paul sees such rule as indeed extended to the elder’s role in the church is also clear:
1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule [proïstēmi] well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.”
Paul uses the very same word for the elders’ ruling of the churches as he has used of their ruling of their own homes.
An Elder’s Authority: That of Husbands and Fathers
Elder leadership, then, involves the kind of authority that these men exercised in their homes as husbands and fathers. As we have already seen, the husband is the head of the wife, who must submit to his authority (Eph. 5:23-24). And his children must also submit to his authority by being obedient (Eph. 6:1; 1 Tim. 3:4). But if this is what it means for a man to rule his own house, and this is the analogy used by Paul to describe an elder’s rule of the church (which he views as a household, e.g. Gal. 6:10 and Eph. 2:19), how can it be denied that he sees the elders as having similar authority in the church to that of husbands and fathers?
So, the New Testament consistently uses terminology to refer to the elders as those having a position of authority. But this doesn’t mean that such authority is to be exercised as it was by the judges or kings of Israel, for example, for the exercise of authority in the churches is qualified in several ways.
First, as we have seen the authority of the elders is to be exercised in a way similar to that of a husband or father, not a judge or a king. This means, for example, that they will exercise their authority with love, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). They will lead the church “with understanding,” honoring their brothers and sisters in Christ as those who are “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7). They will never exercise their authority in such a way as to exasperate those under their charge, leading them to become discouraged (Col. 3:21).
Second, elders will exercise their authority as those who are mature and posses the fruit of the Spirit. They will exercise their authority with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22). This kind of self-restrained and caring exercise of authority is very different from that of the world.
Third, to sum up, Scriptural elders will exercise their authority as Christ taught and exemplified. When He was preparing the disciples for their future role of leadership in the Church, He said, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42b-45).
But, as I previously pointed out with regard to Miller’s citation of Luke 22:24-27, Jesus did not set aside His authority, or the exercise thereof, when He came as the great Shepherd (Pastor) of the sheep (Heb. 13:20 ; see also John 10:1-30). So there is no reason to think that the elders who serve as His under-shepherds should exercise no authority, as Miller suggests. It only means that they will not lord their authority over the churches in a self-serving way, but instead will follow Christ’s example and exercise their authority with self-sacrificing love, understanding, patience, and humility.
But how might this look in practice? Well, we do have some examples of how the Apostles and their fellow-elders led the early Church when making some important decisions, so let’s examine a couple of them.
First, when there was discord in the church at Jerusalem over the way that some of the widows were being neglected in the daily distribution for the poor, we find that the Apostles developed a plan of action that involved bringing the congregation along in the process. The Apostles determined that it would be good for the congregation to choose from among them seven qualified men that they themselves would appoint over the daily distribution (Acts 6:1-7). But notice that the Apostles themselves determined the plan of action and appointed the men for the task, even though they wisely sought the input of the congregation as to who would be the best men for the job. In other words, they exercised their authority with love and humility. But they did not set aside their authority. After all, the congregation did not come up with the plan or appoint the men to serve. This was a leadership role that the Apostles reserved for themselves. And the congregation clearly looked to them for such leadership, which is why they brought the problem to them in the first place.
Second, when there was a great division over the issue of circumcision, we are told that “the Apostles and elders came together to consider this matter” and that they had much debate about the issue (Acts 15:6-7). But we are also told that there was a “multitude” present that “kept silent and listened” as Paul and Barnabas reported to the them and then James responded with a plan to solve the problem (vs.12-21). Then we are told that James’ plan “pleased the Apostles and elders, with the whole church” to send chosen men with a letter to the other churches describing the decision they had reached. But then later, in Acts 16, we are told that as Paul, Silas, and Timothy “went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the Apostles and elders” (vs.4). So, even though the members of the church at Jerusalem are said to have been present at the Apostles’ and elders’ discussion of the matter and were pleased with the outcome of the discussion, it is also clear that it is the Apostles and elders themselves that determined what was to be done. Thus we have a situation in which the leadership exercised their authority to determine what was to be done, but that they apparently did so in such a way as to establish a consensus on the matter among the brethren in Jerusalem.
What the example of the Apostles and elders shows us is that it is best for the leadership of the churches to lead in such a way as to seek peace and to establish a consensus on important matters, and that they should exercise their authority to that end. Where the elders have done their job and have communicated a wise, Scriptural answer to an issue, the response of the congregation should be that they submit to their leadership in such a way as to make their work a source of joy rather than grief. This is what the author of Hebrews commands, when he says, “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” (13:17).
In conclusion, it can be said without reservation that Hal Miller is wrong when he tries to argue that “the New Testament does not say anything about one believer having authority over another.” Steve Atkerson is much closer to the Scriptural teaching here, which is why it is hard for me to see how he can recommend Miller’s article as he does. It would seem that there is not a clear consensus between them on the issue. But this lack of clarity does, perhaps, explain why I keep running into HCM advocates that seem to have a hard time admitting that elders should have authority in the churches. It also helps to explain why I see among so many of them such a de-emphasis on the role of elders when compared with Scriptural teaching. Perhaps I will deal with another possible reason for this de-emphasis in a future blog post focusing on the misunderstanding of the word ekklēsía among some HCM advocates.
17 thoughts on “Response to the House-Church Movement: Part Four”
The following is taken from <>Pagan Christianity: The Origin of Our Modern Church Practices<> by Frank Viola, pp. 143-144:>>“The Greek word translated “Pastor” is <>poimen<>. It means shepherds. (“Pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd). “Pastor,” then is a metaphor to describe a particular function in the church. It is not an office or a title. [The NT never uses the secular Greek words for civil and religious authorities to depict ministers of the church. Further, even though most NT authors were steeped in the Jewish priestly system of the OT, they never use <>hiereus<> (priest) to refer to Christian ministry. Ordination to office presupposes a static and definable church leadership role that did not exist in the apostolic churches. Marjorie Warkentin, <>Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View<> (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 160-161, 166; Frank Viola, <>Who is Your Covering<>, Chapters 1-3]. >>A first century shepherd had nothing to do with the specialized and professional sense it has come to have in modern Christianity. Therefore, Ephesians 4:11 does not envision a pastoral office, but one of many functions in the church. Shepherds are those who naturally provide nurture and care for God’s sheep. It is a profound error, therefore, to confuse shepherds with an office or title as is commonly conceived today…..Richard Hanson makes this point plain when he says, <>“For us the words bishops, presbyters, and deacons are stored with the association of nearly two thousand years. For the people who first used them the titles of these offices can have meant little more than inspectors, older men and helpers….it was when unsuitable theological significance began to be attached to them that the distortion of the concept of Christian ministry began.”<>[Richard Hanson, <>Christian Priesthood Examined<> (Guildford and London: Lutterworth Press, 1979), pp. 34-35]
Kurt,>>I wonder if you even read what I have actually written before you post. As with previous comments you have posted on this series of articles, you seem either not to have read, or to be simply ignoring, the arguments I have made and the evidence I have set forth. This will become apparent in my response to your assertions.>><>First<>, the Greek word <>poimēn<> is a noun that is used metaphorically to refer to a person who shepherds the church. It does not refer to a function, but to the person who fulfills that function. And, when we look in Scripture to see who it is that is especially charged with fulfilling that function in the churches, we discover that it is the elders/overseers who are so charged. This is clear, as I demonstrated in my article, from such passages as Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1-2, which use the related verb <>poimaínō<> to describe their role in the churches:>>Acts 20:28 “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [<>epískopos<>], to shepherd [<>poimaínō<>] the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”>>1 Peter 5:1-2 “The elders [<>presbúteros<>] who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder [<>sumpresbúteros<>] and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: “Shepherd [<>poimaínō<>] the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers [<>episkopéō<>], not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly….”>>Thus the term <>poimēn<> is another word used to refer to the same office as that described by the terms <>epískopos<> (overseer) and <>presbúteros<> (elder). And this is a fact that HCM advocates such as Steve Atkerson readily admit. >><>Second<>, I refer to the <>office<> of elder/overseer/pastor because this term indicates a position of responsibility and authority, which is exactly what the elders occupy according to the New Testament. The terms <>overseer<> and <>elder<> clearly refer to such a recognized and “definable church leadership role” to which men were appointed (or ordained)(Acts 14:23), Viola’s protestations notwithstanding . And, given that the term <>pastor<> refers to the same <>role<>, it thus also refers to the same <>office<>.>><>Third<>, it is ridiculous to assert, as Hanson does, that those who spoke of overseers or elders in the New Testament would have meant little more than “inspectors” or “older men.” Such an understanding completely ignores the background and usage of these terms. As I have shown in my article, for example, these terms had a well established LXX usage with which the Apostles would have been very familiar. They didn’t, after all, just pick these words out of thin air. They chose them from among an already well-understood Old Testament vocabulary of leadership and authority.>>Anyway, I think it will be obvious to most any reader of both my article and your comment that you haven’t really dealt at all with the arguments I have made. You just give a couple of quotes from authors who disagree, but whose quoted assertions don’t really address my arguments either.>>So, I find myself right back where I was with you in previous discussions, at the point where I have to remind you to actually pay some attention to what I am saying if you are going to attempt to respond <>to me<>.
Keith,>>I’d really like to deal with all your arguments which you supported admirably through prooftexting. However, as with most arguments, if one starts with the wrong presuppositions, everything that follows as support, will fall away being built on sand.>>The problem we have is that our modern day meanings for words like “office” and “ordain” have been forced onto the text to make it fit these beliefs. >>You really need to prayerfully examine, first and foremost, how the words “office” and “ordain” were used in the NT and what the audience at that time understood them to be. >>I suggest you look at the four different Greek words used for office (<>heirateia, diakonia, praxis,<> and <>episkopay<>)and do a thorough study on them. >>Don’t forget to consider that Scripture does not support an ongoing authority, beyond the special 13 men chosen by Jesus and the apostolic assistants to whom they delegated authority, to appoint men for different functions in the body of Christ.>>As an elder who desires to exercise authority over God’s people, you owe it to them to simply prooftext your way to support your position.
<>Kurt:<> “I’d really like to deal with all your arguments which you supported admirably through prooftexting.” >><>Keith:<> Your excessively sarcastic tone aside, your accusation of the error of “prooftexting” on my part is nothing more than that – a bare accusation. You see, there is nothing wrong with my citing Biblical texts in support of my position. I would only have committed the <>error<> of proof-texting if I cited these texts in manner which violated the meaning they have in their original contexts. But, of course, you haven’t demonstrated that I have done this at all, because you haven’t actually interacted with my understanding of any of these passages.>>So, if you wanted to credibly accuse of me of simply proof-texting, then you should have made the effort to prove it.>><>Kurt:<> “However, as with most arguments, if one starts with the wrong presuppositions, everything that follows as support, will fall away being built on sand.”>><>Keith:<> <>First<>, I absolutely agree that one’s presuppositions can color his interpretation if left unchecked. But if we are aware of our presuppositions, then we can consciously pray about it and allow Scripture to challenge them. This is what I and other Reformed Baptists have always been striving to do.>><>Second<>, you have said that you would really like to deal with all my arguments, but then you don’t do it. You just imply that I have the wrong presuppositions and go on continuing to avoid any concrete attempt to answer my Scriptural arguments by showing exactly how I am wrong in my interpretation.>>This looks like a cop-out on your part. You just accuse me of proof-texting and assume my presuppositions are wrong, apparently thinking this relieves you of any obligation to actually answer my arguments with arguments of you own. But, Kurt, bare assertions or accusations are <>not<> arguments.>><>Kurt:<> “The problem we have is that our modern day meanings for words like “office” and “ordain” have been forced onto the text to make it fit these beliefs.”>><>Keith:<> Again, where is your <>proof<> that I have read a modern meaning of the terms <>office<> or <>ordain<> back into the Scriptural text?>>Regarding the term <>office<>, I have already explained to you why and in what sense I and other Reformed Baptists use the term. We use is because it can refer to a position of leadership and authority and because the Scriptures clearly regard the role of elders and just that. In other words, we do not read the modern idea of an <>office<> back into the New Testament. Instead, we use the modern term <>office<> in the sense that we use it because it clearly represents a Scriptural idea about the role of elders as a position of leadership.>>As a matter of fact, the Greek word <>episkopē<> is used to refer to the office of an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1 and is commonly defined as “office of an overseer” in standard Greek lexicons. See, for example:>>1) <>Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament<>, by timothy and Barbara Friberg (#10981, BibleWorks).>>2) <>Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains<>, by Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida (#2643 [53.69], BibleWorks).>>3) UBS Greek Lexicon (#2496, BibleWorks).>>This is why so many modern versions, such as the ESV, NASB, or the NET Bible, translate <>episkopē<> this way. The NKJV translates it as “position of overseer,” which is another way of saying the same thing.>>As for my use of the term <>ordain<>, I placed it in parentheses following the word <>appointed<> as found in Acts 14:23, indicating that I use it synonymously with that term. The Greek word used by Luke in that passage is <>cheirotoneō<>, a term that literally refers to “stretching out the hand” and can describe <>voting<>. This is the apparent usage in 2 Corinthians 8:19, the only other New Testament passage in which the word occurs. It refers there to the Gentile churches having appointed a particular brother to travel with Paul as their representative to Jerusalem.>>However, in Acts 14:23 the word does not refer to such a choice by the congregations in Lycaonia and Pisidia, but rather to Paul and Barnabas as having appointed men as elders in the churches there (See, e.g., BAGD3 #7912, BibleWorks). I think the word was probably used in this context because of the common practice of laying hands upon those who are set apart for such tasks (see, e.g., Acts 6:6, 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22).>><>Kurt:<> “You really need to prayerfully examine, first and foremost, how the words “office” and “ordain” were used in the NT and what the audience at that time understood them to be.”>><>Keith:<> Well, I <>have<> prayerfully examined such concepts in Scripture, and it has led me to my current position. Or, to put it more accurately, I derived these concepts from Scripture after careful and prayerful study.>><>Kurt:<> “I suggest you look at the four different Greek words used for office (heirateia, diakonia, praxis, and episkopay)and do a thorough study on them.”>><>Keith:<> Why would you assume that I haven’t already done so? As you can see from my previous response above, I have already indicated the results of my study of the term <>episkopē<>, which reinforces my position. As for <>hierateía<>, it refers to the office of priest, not overseer, and so has no real bearing on understanding the role of elders. As for the terms <>diakonía<> and <>práxis<>, I obviously do not think that the uses of these terms in any way contradicts my understanding of the Biblical teaching regarding elders. If you think so, then make your case. But you will need to deal with the arguments I have already presented as well.>><>Kurt:<> “Don’t forget to consider that Scripture does not support an ongoing authority, beyond the special 13 men chosen by Jesus and the apostolic assistants to whom they delegated authority, to appoint men for different functions in the body of Christ.”>><>Keith:<> Well, thus far we haven’t gotten into how elders are to be appointed Scripturally. That is certainly a worthy and important topic of discussion, but for now I think we should stick to the specific issue at hand. If you want to know about how we view this at Immanuel, please feel free to read our Constitution and Statement of Faith: http://www.immanuelhomepage.org/AboutUs.html>><>Kurt:<> “As an elder who desires to exercise authority over God’s people, you owe it to them to simply prooftext your way to support your position.”>><>Keith:<> I have already dealt with your false accusation of proof-texting. I will say, however, that you have <>no idea<> what my <>desires<> are. But I can tell you that my desires include following Scripture on this matter and doing my best to serve the Church as God teaches me in His Word.>>I will conclude by observing that you have consistently adopted a sarcastic and condescending tone toward me in your comments on this blog and in our discussions over at TheKingdomCome.com. And you have rather consistently avoided clearly dealing with any of the Scriptural arguments I have made. You have also made accusations that you have not bothered to defend. Such things led me to break off prior discussion with you, and I am close to doing so again. My patience for such things only goes so far, and I have no interest in wasting my time talking with someone who doesn’t really want to listen anyway. If you really have an interest in interacting with me on these issues, I would suggest making some changes in your approach.
Keith,>>I regret that you may have misinterpreted the tone of my postings as “sarcastic and condescending.” If you don’t want to take my suggestion for a more in depth study of the four Greek words translated as “office” that’s your decision, of course. I can only offer up the encouragement to do so. >>I once held your position about authority in the body of Christ, but have changed as a result of my continual pursuit of the truth. I can do no other. My God bless you in your walk with Him, and my He bless His people that you gather with.
In most evangelical churches isn’t the pastor viewed like a localized pope. The congregation views whatever he says as gospel, even when it clearly contradicts Scripture. If anyone outside that particular church were to point to such a Scripture the people have been trained (it seems) to consistently retort “but my pastor says…” This sort of eldership stunts real spiritual growth and any true understanding of the Scriptures, as the people simply rely on what they perceive to be an infallible magesterium to spoon feed them everything. This is clearly not what God intended. In fact, by labeling elders as oversees, not decreeers, it seems that God was setting them up to check the doctrine of the church not to control it personally. The elders therefore should be such as make sure that the teachers teach the truth, but there should not be one man who does all the teaching and thus takes on a papal quality.
So, Kurt, you assume that the only reasons I could have for disagreeing with you must be that I have not done a proper study and haven’t pursued the truth as I should have? But why would you assume that? And if you <>are<> assuming that I can’t possibly have studied the right words in the right manner, then why don’t you share with me the results of your own “in-depth study” in order to demonstrate where I have gotten it wrong?>>Again, you haven’t offered any <>arguments<> against my view at all. <>Saying<> that I am wrong because I haven’t fully grasped the import of the right Biblical terminology is a far cry from <>demonstrating<> it through Biblical argument.>>So, you just assume you know what my desires are and that I can’t possibly have studied the issue as I should have and that I haven’t handled the Scriptures properly, etc. But you haven’t attempted to <>prove<> any of this by making any kind of clear, Biblical argument.>>I find it rather ironic that you are telling me that I have not properly studied the Scriptures on the matter when I am the only one of the two of us who has actually taken the time to set forth Biblical arguments.>>At any rate, there is nothing left for us to say to each other until such time as you want to actually respond to my arguments with arguments of your own. This is what is required of you if you are going to attempt to correct me.
EgoMakarios, >>I completely agree that it is a serious error when Evangelical pastors assume such a position as you describe. For what it’s worth, I have not seen this in the Reformed Baptist churces I am aware of or have been associated with. In fact, we consistently point people to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice, and we encourage everyone to be good “Bereans.”>><>Act 17:10-11<> “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”>>At Immanuel, we constantly admonish our brothers and sisters in Christ <>never<> to accept things “just because the elders say so,” but to examine everything we say in light of Scripture, to which are are all to be held accountable.
<>At Immanuel, we constantly admonish our brothers and sisters in Christ never to accept things “just because the elders say so,” but to examine everything we say in light of Scripture, to which are are all to be held accountable.<>>>Keith,>>Cult leaders are fond of saying this, too. It begs the reality.>>The problem is the explicit or implied authority of elders ( especially those who have been to seminary) that exists as a barrier or excuse for God’s people, the “sheep,” to defer to the “underShepherds” who are supposedly charged to defend the church from false teachings. It’s a catch-22.
“Cult leaders are fond of saying this, too. It begs the reality.”>>Not really sure where you’re going with this one. Are saying that we should not exhort one another to study The Word? Or are you saying that Keith is a cult leader attempting to lead “his” church on his own authority?>>Not really sure that either of those options stands up very well to even a cursory examination. I’m also trying to figure out where Keith has said that Elders who attend seminary have more authority than Elders who do not?>>I’m not here to make this an argument about Keith. I’m quite certain that Keith did not post this as an attempt to get into a discussion about himself either. So, having followed this thread intently so far, I’m waiting for a Scriptural argument for the opposing position. A position you seem to hold, but can’t defend. I sincerely would like to read a reasoned, Biblical response.
<>Kurt:<> Cult leaders are fond of saying this, too. It begs the reality.>><>Keith:<> So now you are insinuating that Immanuel is in reality a <>cult<>? Well, we happen to be Scriptural in what we do and are firmly established in the orthodox Christian faith.>>So now you are implying insulting things about the church I serve and about myself and my fellow-elders, but are still not backing up anything you are saying with any real arguments or evidence.>><>Kurt:<> The problem is the explicit or implied authority of elders ( especially those who have been to seminary) that exists as a barrier or excuse for God’s people, the “sheep,” to defer to the “under Shepherds” who are supposedly charged to defend the church from false teachings. It’s a catch-22.>><>Keith:<> <>First<>, I have defended the concept of elder authority — and something of the limits of that authority — in my recent article on the issue, and you still ave not actually responded to the arguments made there.>><>Second<>, showing some deference to and respect for those who may be more knowledgeable about the Scriptures or a particular area of Scriptural teaching is a wise thing to do, so long as we do not set them as an authority above Scripture. In fact, I sometimes defer to the greater knowledge of some of my brothers (whether fellow-elders or not) on issues I haven’t yet had the chance to study more thoroughly. But I do this only where I have learned to trust their judgment and ability to interpret Scripture. Such deference is often also shown to me, but I always welcome disagreement and take those seeking my guidance to the Scriptures for the answers. They regard me as a trusted teacher because I have earned that trust — by God’s grace — over years of careful study and proper teaching. Recall that I agreed with Steve Atkerson that “a leader’s primary authority is based on his ability to persuade with the truth.” This is certainly true at Immanuel. And I have consistently demonstrated my commitment to this concept by setting forth Biblical passages in defense of all that I have argued. <>You<>, on the other had, have consistently <>avoided<> doing so, apparently expecting the blog’s readers to simply take your word for things. Now, I ask you, which one of us has demonstrated to the blog’s readers a true commitment to Scripture as the ultimate authority? Which one of us has demonstrated a true commitment to pointing away from himself as the real authority and toward the Bible? The answer is obvious! All you apparently want to do is throw out your own opinions, whereas I am concerned to establish all that I have said directly from scripture.>><>Third<>, you referred to elders as those who “are <>supposedly<> charged to defend the church from false teachings”(italics mine). So, it would appear that you question the idea that elders have been so charged. But this is beyond question in Scripture, and it is another point upon which I find agreement with Atkerson.>>Here are just a couple of passages that make this aspect of the elders’ responsibility very clear:>><>Act 20:28-31<> “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.”>>Paul clearly clearly commands the elders to watch out for the flock as they shepherd them, especially against the false teachers that will arise, even from among their own ranks. He clearly sees this as one of the reasons the Holy Spirit had appointed them as overseers.>>Also, in <>Titus 1:7-9<>, Paul lists some of the requirements for elders, and among these requirements he says that an elder must hold fast “the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” And some of the reasons for this requirement are given in the following verses: “For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain” (vs.10-11).>>Again it is clear that the elders are responsible for guarding the churches against false doctrine.>>In conclusion, I have to point out once again that you haven’t offered a single Scriptural <>argument<> in defense of your criticisms and accusation (whether directly stated or insinuated). I have repeatedly asked you to set forth Biblical arguments for your assertions and challenges, but you have refused to do so. I am, therefore, finished interacting with you on these matters.
Hi, one thought regarding your comment, “First, Miller apparently doesn’t see either 1 Timothy or Titus as among the “major letters” of Paul. “>>I think much of this is influenced by Robert Bank’s book, “< HREF="http://www.morethancake.org/2008/07/pauls-idea-of-community.html" REL="nofollow">Paul’s Idea of community”<> Banks, and many in the HCM, take a text critical approach that call into questions Paul’s authorship of these letters and thus they dismiss some of these teachings that bring balance to their view. >>Some of the specifics are covered in the book review I linked to above.
Thanks for the information, Joe. I am still pretty new to the whole movement and the literature associated with it, and your blog has been helpful, even though I just discovered due to your recent comments here.
Hi Keith, just got a ping from your blog and tit brought me back to this article. I reread it and all the comments. You did a great job outlining the main points and I applaud your effort here brother. Your writing complements well my series on “Elders”. http://www.morethancake.org/archives/1137
I don't discuss authority as you have done here so well. We do have some slight difference on how to use the word “pastor”, but in the substance of what we have both written I think we share agreement.
Maybe we should mesh our stuff together and make a book out of it 🙂
Thanks for the encouraging word, brother. I look forward to reading your upcoming series on elder leadership. Perhaps you could continue to post a comment here with a link to each new post?
Also, I am not opposed to combining our efforts at some point on a book. Lets' see how your own posts unfold and how the Lord may lead.
Hi Keith, actually the series is already done and the link above is to the first of 13 posts in the series. I can post all 13 if you still want me to. Let me know brother and keep in touch.
O.K. I went back and saw them listed. I don't know how I missed them before, but I will be sure to read them all. Thanks!