Few Christian doctrines are more widely misunderstood than that of the authority structure God set up for the church. Men have substituted systems of their own invention for the pattern in the New Testament. Theories of church government go all the way from a rigid hierarchy in which the established leaders decide everything to a democracy in which nearly everything is decided by a congregational vote. But it is not our place to invent a system that will work. We are responsible to learn and follow the pattern laid down in Scripture.
The Holy Spirit defines two levels of leaders in a local church, namely bishops and deacons. In Titus 1:5-7 we learn that an elder is a man who serves as a bishop. We thus understand that a scriptural bishop is not some kind of a super-elevated supervisor over numerous churches, but simply an elder. This word elder is a translation of the Greek word presbuteros, meaning an elderly or older man, not necessarily an old man. Its main use in Scripture is in reference, not to a man's age, but to the respect due him as an older person. The word bishop is a translation of the Greek word episkopos, meaning supervisor. It refers to his responsibility. The word deacon, on the other hand is not a translation at all, but a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos, meaning servant, or attendant. This word was commonly used for lower level servants, such as table waiters. It does not mean a public servant, that is, a governmental official. Romans 13:4 uses it of a ruler, but only in stating that he is a servant of God. The words bishop and deacon would be much easier to understand if we used their true English translations of supervisor and servant. We all understand these words in everyday practice, and these are their true scriptural meanings in regard to the church. The relative importance of their functions can be seen by the basic meanings of their names and also by the fact that in every place where the Bible mentions them together, the bishops come before the deacons.
The apostles "appointed elders in every church," with prayer with fasting, (Acts 14:23) and Paul left Titus in Crete, that he "should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city." (Titus 1:5) From these Scriptures we learn not only that elders were needed in every church; but that without them something was lacking. A church was not in order if it did not have elders, not an elder.*3 An individual is mentioned as the leader of a church only once in the New Testament: "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words." (3 John 9-10) This man Diotrephes was specifically noticed as a rebel. No other Scripture mentions a single man as the leader of a church.
Some think that in Acts 15 James was mentioned as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. They think this because the council described in that chapter adopted his decision. A closer look, however, will show that this is an error. In Acts 15:1-2 a great "dissension and dispute" rose up. "Paul and Barnabas" strongly opposed "certain men" who "came down from Judea and taught the brethren, Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" In verse 2 the question was referred to "the apostles and elders" in Jerusalem. In verse 6 "the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter." In verse 22 "the apostles and elders, with the whole church," decided in favor of Paul and Barnabas. In verses 23-29 they drafted a letter from "the apostles, the elders, and the brethren," stating that they had reached their decision "being assembled with one accord." Some imagine that the final decision was made by James, and everyone else had to accept it. But nothing in this passage supports such an idea. The decision was made by "the apostles, the elders, and the brethren," and it was unanimous. They concluded that gentile believers were not required to observe the law of Moses. James was looked upon as a leader of the legalistic group, as we see in Galatians 2:12. So the Holy Spirit pointed out that James did not just passively assent to this decision, but was in fact the one who proposed it. (verses 13-21) In addition to this, Galatians 2:6-10 clearly states that Cephas and John were considered pillars of the church along with James.
We have already noticed that the apostles "appointed elders in every church" (Acts 14:23), and that Paul instructed Titus, to "appoint elders in every city." (Titus 1:5) Some think this means that every church should appoint certain men to be its elders. While this might appear to be correct, we must ask what Scripture gives them the authority to do this. It is important to notice that in each of these scriptures the appointing was not done by the church, but for the church. New Testament elders were neither appointed by a committee nor chosen by a vote. They were appointed by the apostles themselves or by individuals commissioned by the apostles. No Scripture authorizes a church to appoint its own elders. 1 Corinthians 12:28 says that "God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues."
While this Scripture specifically refers to gift ministries, rather than elders, it demonstrates a principle that God Himself appoints the leaders for the church. We see this again in Ephesians 4:11-12, where "He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ."
In the New Testament, the only leaders chosen by any church were those responsible for taking care of money or other contributions. We first find this in Acts 6:
"Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.' And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them." (Acts 6:1-6)
We see this again in 2 Corinthians 8:18-21, where we read:
"And we have sent with him the brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches, and not only that, but who was also chosen by the churches to travel with us with this gift, which is administered by us to the glory of the Lord Himself and to show your ready mind, avoiding this: that anyone should blame us in this lavish gift which is administered by us; providing honorable things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men."
Why should we concern ourselves about who appoints the leaders in a church? Because the Scriptures plainly tell us that these men have authority. If they have authority we are responsible to submit to them. But who are they? Does this mean every leader of any church? Are we responsible to obey anyone who manages to get himself appointed, elected, or otherwise recognized as a leader in a church? In the Old Testament we learn that Jeroboam "did not turn from his evil way, but again he made priests from every class of people for the high places; whoever wished, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places." (1 Kings 13:33) Did Jeroboam's priests have divine authority? Hardly, for he did evil in appointing them. Even so today, men disqualified by the word of God are often appointed to lead churches, and deeply spiritual men are often ignored. If simply holding a position of church leadership gave a man spiritual authority; we would be responsible to accept most of the evil in the church today. We all know about churches in which the established leaders include sexually impure persons, atheists, blasphemers, and even idolaters. Do their positions of leadership give them spiritual authority? If this were so, the church would be an instrument of evil.
Where does real spiritual authority come from? How are we to know who has it? We find the answer in 1 Thessalonians 5:12: "And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you." While we are not authorized to appoint our leaders, we are instructed to "recognize" them.*4 But how are we to recognize them? By their qualifications. The Holy Spirit has clearly set down the qualifications for bishops (that is, elders) and deacons. From these qualifications we can see who our true spiritual leaders are. Those of our number who have these qualifications are the men God has appointed to be our leaders. When we have thus identified them, we are responsible to recognize them and to submit to them, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 16:15-16; "I urge you, brethren; you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints; that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us."
This principle of recognizing the leaders that God has appointed for the church leaves no room for the common idea of a stipulated term of office. The New Testament contains no suggestion of such a concept; but rather that "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." (Romans 11:29) But this idea involves a greater error than how long a man serves. In the New Testament, church leadership is a function, not an office. The Greek New Testament never uses the word office or any similar word in regard to church leaders. This word occurs in up to three verses of a number of English translations, but W. E. Vine, in his well known and widely accepted reference work titled "An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words", says:
"In 1 Tim. 3:1, the word office,' in the phrase the office of a bishop,' has nothing to represent it in the original; the R.V. marg. gives overseer' for bishop,' and the phrase lit. is overseership;' so in vv. 10, 13 where the A.V. has use (and used') the office of a deacon,' the R.V. rightly omits office,' and translates the verb diakoneo, to serve, let them serve as deacons' and (they that) have served (well) as deacons.'"
- note (3) under the word office. The page number varies by edition.
There can be no question that this is correct*5
Many translators, however, have attempted to clarify the meaning of one or more of these three verses by inserting the word office or some similar word. This is apparently due to a notion that church leaders have authority by virtue of their positions. This, as we have seen, is an error. In the pattern set forth by the Holy Spirit, these men do not have authority because they have been recognized as leaders. Instead, we are responsible to recognize them as leaders because we realize that God has given them authority.
*3 Whenever the New Testament mentions elders in connection with a particular church, they are always in the plural. This includes all the places where they are called bishops. In every place where either of these words is used in the singular, it refers to an individual, without reference to the church in which he served. Return
*4 The Greek word here translated recognize is eidenai. It does not mean or imply a formal act of recognition, as in ordination, but rather has the sense of understanding who these men are. It is often translated know (see, for instance, Matthew 6:32; 7:11; 9:6; 15:12; 20:22, 25; 22:16; 24:42; 25:12, 13; 26:2, 70, 72, 74; and 28:5). It literally means to see. In this verse, (1 Thessalonians 5:12) nine of the authorities charted in the back of this book translate this word as know, and twelve give either respect or appreciate. Return
*5 While it may not be important, the phrases serve and served as deacons also involve adding a word to the Greek original of these texts. As Mr. Vine noted, the verb diakoneo literally means to serve. For either of these sentences to literally mean serve or served as deacons, some form of the Greek word diakoneo would have to have been in the sentence twice. But in each place it is only there once. The most accurate rendition of these phrases is probably that of "The Englishman's Greek New Testament", by Thomas Newberry, which gives let them serve in verse 10 and have served in verse 13. For a detailed comparison of the various translations, see the chart in the back of this book. Return
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