Ephesians 2:14-17 describes Jesus as a unifier who broke down walls of separation and brought us all near to God. One of the most amazing things about being a Christian is that we share equality in the eyes of our creator (Gal.3:28). Still, in our human imperfection, we have built all sorts of divisions that fly in the face of the unity that we should share as God’s children. This is the second in a series of posts about “bridging the gaps” between us with the goal of figuring out how to achieve the unity that Jesus himself prayed for before he was crucified (John 17:20-21). You can read the first post here – Bridging the Gap Part 1.
This week we are going to explore some solutions to the age-old problem of tension between leaders and followers. We often think of leaders as high and mighty and we characterize followers as weak-minded and simple. That is not an extraordinarily flattering description, but it kind of sums up the way the Bible describes churches. God has authorized each church to be led by spiritual shepherds who guide the members (or sheep) down the paths they should travel. While God does not use the term in a derogatory way, he does tell us that we need biblically qualified leaders for the church to function properly.
Throughout history, God’s people have always needed leadership. In the Old Testament, the patriarchs provided leadership by their faith which was rewarded and left as an example to believers. Later, God chose Moses to lead His people out of Egyptian captivity and through the wilderness while Joshua was selected to guide them to the Promised Land. The Israelites were later ruled by a series of judges until they asked for a king, and beginning with Saul, they received the earthly king they desired. In addition to these roles, local elders and tribal leaders provided guidance based on their age and maturity.
In the New Testament, God’s Son came to earth with authority given directly to him by the Father himself (Matthew 28:18). He had twelve followers who became known as apostles that were given special abilities by the Holy Spirit so they could take the Gospel of Christ to the world and show that they were his messengers. One of the jobs of the apostles, particularly undertaken by Paul, was to establish churches and appoint local leadership. These were called elders (also overseers, presbyters, bishops, shepherds, or pastors – these terms are used interchangeably), and this system of leadership continues to govern Jesus’ Church today.
A major, practical concern in this discussion is the authority of elders. It has already been established that Jesus gave the apostles a command to be messengers of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit gave them the power to perform accompanying signs that authenticated their message. They, through inspiration, spoke and wrote authoritatively (i.e. Peter and Paul), and except for a few circumstances such as Paul in Corinth, their authority was never in doubt. The fact that they walked with Jesus and were witnesses to the events of the cross gave them unmistakable credibility. These were the men chosen by God in the flesh to represent Him to the world. Following the apostolic age, the task of leading the Church was handed down to elders. If the Apostles had ultimate authority handed to them by God himself through Jesus’ words and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, where did that leave the elders?
Some have questioned the term authority as it is applied to elderships. Lynn Anderson in They Smell Like Sheep says:
“Words can hurt churches, too. In fact, some unfortunate vocabulary has inflicted long-term damage to our understanding of spiritual leadership— words like rule, authority, submit, and obey. These words are especially damaging if we are among those who feel obliged to unquestioningly obey and submit to the complete authority of those in the “office” of elder/ bishop/ pastor” (p. 187).
The intent of God placing leaders among his people is not for them to be dictators. The very titles that are synonymous with elders such as shepherds and pastors illustrate that elders are to care for and guide their congregations, not be overlords. Anderson prefers the use of the term “moral suasion” to describe the authority of elders:
“The biblically shaped shepherd— a Christ-imitating elder— holds enormous moral suasion. In fact, so much so that his sheep will hear his voice and no other… If a Christian on the pew disagrees with the elders over a matter of conscience, the elders do not become that person’s law. However, in matters of judgment, we should be willing to be led by a plurality of elders who have been chosen by the congregation as leaders because they are the most spiritually mature people in the church. I cannot imagine why I should ever think myself too wise to follow their combined judgment. Something would be wrong with my heart (if not my head) should I choose to go my own way rather than respect the combined wisdom of such shepherds” (p. 208-209).
The Apostles too, had the role of Shepherd as Jesus told them in John 21:17 to feed his sheep. Their authority was never as rulers or lords, but in their spiritual guidance and maturity. They also led by “moral suasion,” and elders in the First Century followed suit.
Concerning the authority of elders, Everett Ferguson agrees with Anderson’s take, “What authority, then, does an elder have? The most important kind possible in the Christian system. It is the “moral authority” of service, of example, of spiritual knowledge and experience, of spiritual maturity.” Elders lead by example, and their lives are a pattern of faithfulness that encourages congregants to seek out their wisdom as pastors or shepherds.
Still, even understanding this key concept, there were certainly disagreements in the early Church that involved someone having to make a legislative decision (e.g. Acts 15). The Apostles spoke definitively and authoritatively, what about elders? Ferguson makes it clear that elders were and remain God’s decision makers once they are appointed by their local church:
“Recognition of a man as an elder is a declaration that he is a spiritual guide and that one defers to him in matters of opinion. Decisions have to be made. The elders are the ones to make those decisions. It is not “bossism” to expect the congregation to follow those decisions. Even as there is no justification for an eldership exercising arbitrary authority, there is no place for a congregation being rebellious at a whim or considering the eldership as an executive to carry out its wishes and to be dismissed if it does not.”
Certainly, the Word of God was and is the basis for decisions made concerning matters of doctrine, and elderships are not overlords or boards of directors sitting on high and handing down edicts. However, the authority for making decisions lies with those appointed as shepherds. The qualifications for the office are given in scripture, so anyone wearing the title of elder, shepherd, bishop, overseer, presbyter, or pastor, and meeting those qualifications, has authority given to him by the congregation and the Lord himself.
More next week…
- Anderson, Lynn. They Smell Like Sheep. New York: Howard Books, 1997.
- Ferguson, Everett. “Authority and Tenure of Elders.” Restoration Quarterly 18 (1975): 142-150.