OceanSide church of Christ
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THE DIFFICULT LINE BETWEEN
AN ELDER’S RULE AND LORDING OVER THE FLOCK
Victor M. Eskew
One of the titles of an elder is overseer. When Paul spoke to the elders of Ephesus, he said: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). As overseers of the church, the Lord has delegated the authority to rule to these men. “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17).
The rule of elders involves two things. First, they are to make certain that the church abides in the doctrine of Christ. Note, the elders cannot add to, subtract from, or change the doctrine of Christ in any way. Their responsibility is to make sure the local church continues in the teachings revealed by the Christ in the pages of the New Testament. They understand that if another doctrine is followed, those who walk therein will be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9). They also are aware that if a person fails to abide in the doctrine of Christ, he does not have God (II John 9-11). If anyone seeks to lead the church astray in a false way, the elders are to arise and rebuke the individual. Listen to Paul as he writes to Titus about the duty elders in this regard. “Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayer” (Tit. 1:9).
Second, elders also must rule in matters of option. Optional matters involve matters of decency and order. They involve decisions about worship, the work of the church, and the maintenance of the facilities of the church. Here are a few of the decisions that elders can and must make.
- Who will preach for the local congregation?
- What will be the times of services?
- How long will services last?
- Which versions will be used from the pulpit?
- Which missionaries will the church support?
- Which works will the church maintain?
- How much money can be allotted for various purchases?
- What curriculum will the church use?
- Will the church purchase a building, or, rent a facility?
These are just a few of the decisions that elders must make. Unless one has been closely associated with an eldership, it is hard for one to imagine just how many decisions there are to be made. Some involve big matters such as which mission fields will the church be involved in. Some involve very minute matters such as the type of unleavened bread that will used on the Lord’s Table (whole loaves, pieces, homemade bread, bread bought from a store). The Lord put elders in charge of these matters because He understood the chaos that would result if the church tried to follow a democratic process and vote on all of these issues. Churches would be ripped apart over all kinds of things if every person were involved in the decision-making process.
With these thoughts in mind, the church has been commanded to obey them that have the rule over us. Hebrews 13:17 is clear: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” The inspired penman uses two words to describe our responsibility to the eldership, “obey,” and “submit.” Thayer gives this definition of obey: “To listen to, obey, yield to, comply with.” The word “submit” means: “to yield, surrender,” and “to resist no longer, but to give way to.” Most of the time, it is very easy to obey and submit to the eldership. The reason is because we agree with the decision of the elders. In essence, we are getting our way. It is when we do not agree with one of their decisions that we are put to the test. We must ask: “Is this a matter of option?” If the answer is: “Yes,” then, we are COMMANDED by God to obey and submit. We must not resist, but give way to their decisions. One of the reasons we are to do this is so that the elders can serve with joy and not with grief. We are not to make their jobs harder than they should be. Over the years, this writer has had to submit to several decisions of elders that he did not favor. He did not raise “a stink” in the church. He did not quit and go elsewhere. He did not get upset and hide his talents. He did not withhold his contribution. He did not become involved in a power struggle with the elders. He did not split the church. The Bible says to obey and submit to them that have the rule over you.
On the other hand, there is one thing about which all elderships must be aware. The Scriptures warn them that they are not to “lord over” the flock. When Peter, who was an elder, addressed elders of the church, he said: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lord over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (I Pet. 5:2-3). Sometimes power can corrupt an individual. It did Diotrephes (III John 9). An eldership can put burdens on a church that are too demanding. In fact, they might become like the Pharisees who “bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:4). This is why Peter adds: “…but being ensamples to the flock.” If elders are going to require something of the flock, these men need to be out front leading the church in those efforts.
The line between ruling a congregation and lording over the flock is a difficult one. Most of the time elders are accused of lording over the flock when someone does not agree with one of their decisions. The accusation is totally false most of the time. A person merely wants his way instead of following the rule of the elders. They falsely accuse and cause problems so the elders will submit to their wishes. Dear readers, these types of behaviors do not conform to the organizational pattern of the New Testament. Elders have been appointed for reason. They have been delegated authority by the Chief Shepherd (I Pet. 5:4). The sheep are to hear their voice and follow them. Problems develop when sheep want to be shepherds. May each of us resolve to obey and submit to our elders in matters of option. Let’s allow them to rule with joy and not with grief.