Tag Archives: elders

Church Government and the COVID-19 Pandemic — Jon Mitchell, Editor (Editorial: May/June, 2020)

In light of current events, it is appropriate for this series of editorials which examine biblical teaching concerning governing authorities to also discuss what the Bible says about church government and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  In recent weeks, many local congregations’ leaderships have chosen to suspend normal worship assemblies in favor of members worshiping from their homes via the Internet.  These decisions were made in the interest of slowing the spread of the virus and keeping the brethren and those in the community who are more susceptible to it from coming down with it.  Some in the brotherhood have disagreed with these decisions, calling them unscriptural and those who make them in error.

Concerning the governance of the church, Jesus has all authority (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:22-23; 5:23).  The church universally is required to submit to his teachings and commands which make up the New Testament.  Much of his will is given in generalized commands and principles, thus leaving it up to us as to how to fulfill them.  This is one reason he also designated that local congregations be overseen by biblically qualified shepherds or elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:17, 28-32; 1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17; cf. Phil. 1:1; Eph. 4:11).  The elders of each church have the authority to decide how to best implement commands of Jesus which lack specificity.

Concerning worship assemblies, the New Testament shows that Christians assembled to worship God every Sunday (1 Cor. 11:17-33; 14:26-40; 16:1-2; Acts 20:7).  God commanded that Christians avoid the habit of forsaking or deserting the assembling of themselves together (Heb. 10:25).  Yet there is no specific biblical instruction concerning exactly when to meet on Sundays, how often to meet on Sundays, whether to have additional assemblies for worship or Bible study on other days, and similar questions.  Thus, elderships have the authority to make those decisions.  As long as their decisions fall within the parameters of what is commanded and instructed in Scripture, the shepherds of each local congregation have authority concerning those decisions and the members of those local congregations must submit to them (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:17, 28).

The question before us is whether churches and elderships have gone beyond what is scripturally authorized by suspending worship services altogether while the COVID-19 pandemic is occurring, and whether the decision to worship via the Internet is scripturally allowed.  To answer the question, let’s start by examining the Hebrew writer’s exhortation, “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25, NASB).

Several things are worth noticing.  For example, the term  “forsaking” (egkataleipo) literally is defined as “to abandon, desert…to desert, forsake, to leave behind…” (Thayer).  Paul used the same term to describe what Demas and everyone else had done to him in his hour of need (2 Tim. 4:10, 16).  Likewise, the term “habit” (ethos) literally refers to a “custom, manner, (something to) be wont (to do)” (Strong).  It’s used repeatedly in the New Testament to refer to something people had the tradition of doing (cf. Lk. 22:39; John 19:40; Acts 25:16).  Thus, the command in Hebrews 10:25 is against the habit or custom of abandoning and deserting the assemblies.

Are churches and elderships promoting the habit of complete abandonment and desertion of worship assemblies when they decide to temporarily suspend worship assemblies at the church building until this pandemic passes, at which time regular assembling would automatically resume?  The obvious answer is no.  Let’s consider why.

Before this pandemic, it had been generally recognized that missing worship assemblies temporarily under extenuating circumstances was permissible.  I’ve yet to see an eldership or church rebuke a member if that member was sick, their loved one was sick, their job required them to miss a couple of worship assemblies but they regularly showed for the rest of them, or if they were out of town on vacation or business but once they returned they were regularly at worship.  In the past some churches among us have called off worship services if a hurricane or large forest fire was approaching their city, or in cases of icy roads or blizzards which would make travel to the church building extremely dangerous.  Was it an absolute guarantee that one’s life would be forfeit if one came to assemble to worship during such circumstances?  No, but the risk was substantially greater.  Thus, the assemblies were temporarily suspended.  Once the danger had passed, they resumed.  No habit of abandoning the assemblies was started or sustained, and thus Hebrews 10:25 was not violated.  The same holds true for those churches and elderships who are temporarily suspending worship assemblies in the interest of public safety concerning this pandemic.

Concerning the interest of public safety, consider this also.  While other passages show that the purpose of assembling was to worship God, Hebrews 10:24-25 shows that an additional reason behind assembling was to exhort each other to be involved in love and good deeds (v. 24).  This is in keeping with other passages that call on us to do good to others and be interested in others’ well-being (cf. Gal. 6:10; Phil. 2:4; Rom. 12:10; 1 Cor. 10:24; 1 Thess. 5:14-15).  Would temporarily suspending worship services be a good deed that does good for others and is in the interest of the well-being of others if all available information from experts shows that a hurricane or forest fire is coming or the roads are very icy and driver visibility is low because of a blizzard?  Would a Christian’s decision to miss a few worship services to care for himself or his loved one if they are sick with a contagious disease and do not wish to infect anyone else be a good deed that puts others before themselves?  Of course.

In like manner, the decision to temporarily suspend worship assemblies based on information that a deadly and infectious disease could be easily and asymptomatically spread to many if those assemblies occur is also a good deed made in the interests of the well-being of others.  Thus, the leadership of these churches are completely within their scriptural rights to make such decisions and should be supported rather than criticized.

Some also criticize some elderships’ decisions to offer the members of their local congregations the opportunity to be in their homes and participate in worship services led by Christian men remotely via the Internet.  The charge is made that this violates scriptural command and precedent since it was said of the early church, “Therefore when you come together in one place…” in the context of partaking of communion (1 Cor. 11:20, NKJV).  This charge is also worthy of examination.

“One place” comes from the Greek term autos, which is a reflexive pronoun and is generally translated “himself,” “herself,” “yourselves,” and “themselves” (Strong).  Thus, one could say that the better translation of 1 Corinthians 11:20 would be, “Therefore when you come together among yourselves.”  Indeed, several translations simply have it as “come together,” omitting “in one place.”

Those who criticize online worship emphasize “in one place,” stating that God desires only that communion be observed by the whole church meeting together in one place.  When one remembers God’s command against habitual abandonment of forsaking the assembly (Heb. 10:25), it is certainly the correct conclusion that God desires the normative situation for worship to be Christians assembling together in the same place.  However, one must also remember that the actual divine command is against the habitual abandonment of the whole church assembling together.  Thus, extenuating circumstances which would cause Christians to temporarily not assemble together would be allowed.

This also was better understood before the pandemic.  I have known of members of local churches who have vacationed together on cruise ships.  When Sunday came, they were away from the rest of their home congregation. Yet they still gathered together in one of their cabins and worshiped together, which included partaking of communion together.  By how autos is generally used in the New Testament, they had “come together amongst themselves” (1 Cor. 11:20).  Should they not have partaken of communion or worshiped at all that day due to not being with their home church?

Consider shut-ins who are either permanently or temporarily  unable to assemble with the rest of their home congregation.  Should the brethren who have visited them on Sunday afternoons and worshiped with them in their homes, bringing them communion in the process, not have done so because they weren’t among the whole worship assembly earlier that day?  Was it not still the case that they had “come together amongst themselves” in that Christian shut-in’s home?

Consider Paul, who for two years was under house arrest in Rome and for several years had been in prison before that (Acts 21-28).  Brethren had visited him in prison and while he was under house arrest.  Were they not allowed to worship with him and partake communion with him because he and they were not part of the whole worship assembly in that locale?  Did Paul not partake of communion for literally years because of this?  Consider those who were “scattered abroad” from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1ff).  It must have taken them weeks or even months to find a new place to live and a new congregation with which to worship  while being fugitives from the Jews.  Did they not worship together and partake of communion at all during that time?  Or, among however many brethren they were, did they “come together amongst themselves” until they found a new church home?  It is clear which scenario is more reasonable and likely.  Extenuating circumstances allow for worshiping together outside of the normal assemblies.  Thus, extenuating circumstances allow the use of technology to expedite worshiping together outside of the normal assemblies.

I’ve even seen it said that worshiping online is not actual worship.  Yet I’ve observed my children watch a video which taught them about the Bible.  Were they not actually taught simply because it was a video?  I’ve worshiped in song while singing along to a recording of Christians singing praises.  Was I not actually worshiping simply because I used an MP3 recording?  To ask is to answer.

The newness or atypicality of something does not inherently make it sinful, nor is it required to permanently take the place of the norm once things return to normal.  Our God is wiser than us.  His wisdom is seen in wording the scriptures we’ve studied here in such a way to  allow us to adapt to the unusual circumstances of life.  Elders are called to lead in making those adaptations.

These days, many elders are making hard decisions.  The benefit of the doubt must be given that they have studied the Scriptures and are doing their best, both during and after this pandemic, to abide within divine parameters concerning both the assembly and the care of others.  They need our support, encouragement, prayers, and gratitude.  Church autonomy should be respected.  Righteous judgment must be given to all (John 7:24).

— Jon

Editor’s Note:  Due to space, I was not able to include the entirety of my thoughts about this matter in this editorial.  I have included a couple of more points in an extended version of this editorial which I published on my blog.  You can access them here.

Scriptural Points on Church Government — David R. Pharr

There is an obvious contrast between the ecclesiasticisms of modern religious groups and the simplicity of church government in Christ’s original plan. Solomon wrote: “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccl. 7:29). Though this observation can have broader application, it certainly fits the way denominations have invented unscriptural schemes by which their churches are governed. The great apostasy which resulted in the hierarchy of Catholicism grew out of men assuming high positions of authority for themselves (Acts 20:29ff).  Protestantism and the denominations which followed broke free of many of the errors of Rome, but for the most part could not give up the politics of centralized control. Even those which claim congregational autonomy may feel constrained by and be pressured by denominational conventions.

Christ the Head

In the scriptural plan Christ is the only head of the church and the only headquarters is Heaven (1 Pet. 3:22; Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22-23). He has absolute authority (Matt. 28:18-20) and no legislation is acceptable from any other source. It is not our purpose in this article to argue that the Scriptures alone reveal the instructions of our King, but knowing that to be the case, we surely see the error of councils which claim authority for themselves. It has been demonstrated over and over that the larger and more prestigious denominational organizations become, the further will be their departures from the truth. A recent egregious example was in a council voting to ordain homosexual bishops. That was a case of an unscriptural board approving an immoral lifestyle for a non-biblical position.

His Ambassadors

The Head of the church commissioned the apostles to be his representatives on earth (2 Cor. 5:20; 1 Cor. 14:37). These ambassadors of Christ declared the gospel and guided the proper formation of the congregations. It was through them that the commandments of Christ are made known (Matt. 28:18-20). It is important to understand that their instructions originated with and had the authority of Christ. He told them: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:18, NASU, emp. mine). This reminds us of David’s assurance: “Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven” (Ps. 119:89).

The ministry of the apostles was in the context of history. Revelation of the pattern was progressive. That is, in various places situations arose which required apostolic guidance. The instructions they gave in those situations demonstrate the principles by which the church is to be guided today. In this way the New Testament gives a pattern which ought to be followed.

In telling the apostles that their authority would originate in heaven, he added: “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matt. 18:19-20). This is sometimes thought to be assurance for those in small church gatherings, but that is hardly the application. In Acts 15 we find more than “two or three” of the apostles (and others) being together to affirm the truth regarding the Gentiles. This is the only time recorded of apostles meeting together over a doctrinal issue. However, it was not to legislate but to affirm for the brotherhood what Christ had already revealed.

Pattern Unchanged

This emphasis on apostolic authority is necessary because the world is not satisfied with the ancient order of things. The common notion is that the apostles’ teaching and practice was satisfactory back then, but hardly suitable for changing times. This presumes the Lord’s failure to provide a plan suitable for all nations and all times. Such presumption ignores not only the intended universality of the apostolic commission (Great Commission), but also Christ’s assurance regarding the apostles: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

There were movements even in New Testament times to depart from the original order. As a reason for not being “carried about with divers and strange doctrines,” the Hebrews writer emphasized: “Jesus Christ [is] the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:7-9). Whatever in any creed, discipline, manual, or private opinion that is thought to be an improvement on the Scriptural pattern is an affront to the infallibility and unchangeableness of the risen Lord. The “faith,” the true Christian system, was “once for all delivered” (Jude 3).

The biblical pattern makes no provision for succession of the apostolic office.  This is evident when after the martyrdom of James no one was chosen to replace him.  (Paul’s commission without being one of the twelve was unique, with a special purpose regarding Gentiles, but was not to be in place of James).

Local Congregations

Baptized believers who worked and worshiped in a given area constituted a local congregation. Their assemblies together identified them as a church of Christ. Though in each Christian’s relationship with Christ he or she was part of the universal church, earthly membership was in local congregations. Each congregation organized after the New Testament pattern and faithfully serving Christ was in itself as completely a church of Christ as was any other congregation in the whole world.  Christian were expected to assemble together (Heb. 10:25). Those who traveled to other places were expected to connect themselves with the local church there (Acts 9:26; 11:26; Rom. 16:1ff).

Local congregations were known collectively as “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). These were all part of the same cause and cooperated with one another, but were autonomous bodies. Unlike the inter-congregational arrangements of denominations, there was no hierarchy ruling over districts, states, or the world.

The letter Paul wrote to the church of Christ at Philippi was addressed: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). The term “saints” applies to all Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). “Bishops and deacons” refers to men qualified for leadership and service positions in the congregations. Another word for “bishop” is “overseer.” This implies leadership. The scriptural pattern is for a plurality of bishops to guide a local congregation. A church was not “set in order” until qualified men could be given this responsibility (Titus 1:5-9).

Other New Testament terms are used interchangeably in reference to the role of bishops. They are called “elders” (“presbyters”), reflecting their being men of experience. They are called “pastors” (“shepherds”) to show their loving care for the “sheep” in their charge. A review of various passages, such as Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1-4,  where these terms are used will prove that all applied to the same office. One will find, however, that the ways the same terms are frequently used today are different from the simplicity found in Scripture. Bishops/elders/pastors must meet qualifications (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). They are themselves subject to Christ and must never yield to their own self-interest (1 Pet. 5:1-4).

Another point about church government which denominations often choose to ignore is the pattern of male leadership. Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, wrote: “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:12). Only men were chosen to be elders. We should take note of the fact that Christ chose no female apostles. This is not to be interpreted to mean spiritual, moral, or intellectual inferiority, only that God made us male and female and has assigned different roles.

The deacons in New Testament congregations met qualification which made them suitable for special service assignments. It is likely that the seven men chosen to serve a special need in Jerusalem were deacons, though the term is not used in the text (Acts 6:1-6). (Diakoneo, a derivative of diakonos, the Greek term transliterated “deacon,” is used in Acts 6:2.)  Deacons are not overseers. Instead, they are expected like all the members to obey those who have been scripturally appointed to rule the congregation (Heb. 13:17).  The Acts 6 example indicates they are “special servants” whom the leaders of the church put in charge over various ministries of the local congregation.

Ephesians 4:11-12 indicates that in addition to the inspired apostles and prophets who gave the church the New Testament (cf. Eph.  3:3-5; 2 Pet. 1:19-21) and the pastors who oversaw the church as elders, evangelists and teachers also worked in the local congregation to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”  The work of evangelists is to bring the gospel to the lost, while the work of teachers is to teach and spiritually build up the saints.  Preachers and ministers such as Timothy were given the responsibility to “do the work of an evangelist” and to “teach others” (2 Tim. 4:5; 2:2).  Many preachers are financially supported in their work by local congregations (1 Cor. 9:4-14; 2 Cor. 11:8-9; Phil. 4:14-19).  Serving under the oversight and authority of the overseers of the local church, they are to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2) “with all authority” (Tit. 2:15).

“Follow The Pattern”

In spite of the apostasy of many in departing from the simple organization found in the New Testament, churches of Christ must still heed “the pattern of sound words” which are found in the inspired writings of the apostles and prophets and in so doing, “guard the good deposit” entrusted to us (2 Tim. 1:13-14).  The biblical pattern for church organization exists and is clearly seen in Scripture.  We must work hard “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6) and submit to the wisdom of God as shown in his plan for the organization of his church.

David is the former editor of the Carolina Messenger and serves on its board of directors. 

Making Elders Stronger — Anonymous

Editor’s Note:  When thinking of who best to write an article about making elders stronger, I went to one of the most sound and stable elderships I know in the body of Christ.  They graciously agreed to write this article collectively, but requested to remain anonymous.  I thank them for their thoughts expressed here and for the great work they do as shepherds of the flock.

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Ro. 5:1-2, NKJV).

Christians, elders and even an entire eldership can sometimes lose perspective during our Christian walk.  The struggle to remain balanced is tested for every person, but sometimes has heightened challenges for elders who are called to stand for truth, enforce God’s discipline, help individuals on a variety of other fronts often unknown to others and plan budgets, annual calendars, and Bible classes…sometimes within the same month.

Elderships therefore need reminders to ground themselves while calling to remembrance the fundamentals of the blessings of God.  We can do this by regularly examining ourselves with what God desires for us first as Christians, and then as the best elderships we can be.  Let us consider together some basic building blocks and apply them to the role we have as elderships.

If Paul was chief among sinners (1 Ti. 1:15), where does that leave each of us?  Haven’t we all been justified by faith?  We can thank the Lord’s wisdom in prescribing the Lord’s Supper for the opportunity to reflect on just this (1 Co. 11:28).  The result is the humility which lays the foundation for all who seek God.  If we don’t think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Ro. 12:3), we will find it much less difficult to esteem others more highly than ourselves.

Consider how this will impact our view of the flock which serves with us.  Certainly we will be more skilled at noticing all the parts of the body which contribute to the flock’s successes.  Skills and talents of deacons, teachers, encouragers, preachers, song leaders, hard workers and the kindhearted are precious.  Just as Elijah discovered as he withdrew into a cave (1 Ki. 19), we may need to “rediscover” the faithful brothers and sisters surrounding us.  We can avoid the caves of loneliness, bitterness, and pessimism by not only recognizing our faithful family, but by rightfully esteeming them.

As an eldership, we must never lose the humility we found when facing the cross.  In nature we can see things which are callused over time by circumstances endured.  We too can become callused from hard work and hard stances.  How easy is it for us to now move with compassion?  Do we earnestly love the brethren as well as the lost?  Do we feel for them as Christ felt for the lost, the sick, the challenged or those that had no direction?  We must be careful not to allow the things we must do as elders to abridge our compassion for the saints, nor dull our focus on seeking and saving the lost.

Christ had no place to sleep and was just as hungry as those whom He fed (Mt. 8:20).  He was God in the flesh but was still rejected by those whom he came to serve and save (Jn. 1:9-14).  Yet those circumstances never thwarted the compassion our Lord had for others.  Through the life Jesus lived He claims the role of the perfect mediator because He has felt our trials (He. 4:15-16).  We too can seek to use our circumstances to soften rather than harden us.  Likewise, we must share the joy, peace and justification we have found in the grace of God.  Just like Christ, this requires us to see the condition of others as they are rather than through eyes which are dimly lit.

An eldership, like any Christian, must remember to ground itself in the role of a suffering servant.  Paul reminded his Philippian brethren that it had been granted to them to not only be believers, but also sufferers for Christ (Ph. 1:29).  Expect ridicule, unthankful attitudes, contempt from friends and even from those upon whom you rely.  Bear all things and bear one another.  Know that valuable time will be spent away from family while you handle the Lord’s work.  Endure by recalling that we willingly crucified ourselves so Christ will live in us and be glorified by the lives we now live.  Remember that God’s grace is more than sufficient for our needs.  Oh, how blessed we are to suffer for the name of Christ!

Think on spiritual things, elders.  From time to time we must think about how large to make the building, choose between new songs books or new carpet, consider nursery items to procure, figure out how to array security equipment or even organize the meeting notes and record keepings.  All these things may have to be done, but keep them in perspective.  Remember that Martha was anxious and troubled about many things, but it was Mary that chose the good portion (Lk. 10:38-42).  We might have to do this kind of work, but we must not allow it to distract from our more important duties.  When urgent worldy matters demand our attention, ensure that we set a firm time to address the good portion.  Utilize God’s organizational skills and delegate to fellow servants (cf. Ac. 6:1-6).  At the end of the day, we are all sojourners in a strange land trying to get home while delivering unto the Lord those whom He has entrusted to our care.

There are times to gird up our loins and quit ourselves like men (1 Co. 16:13).  In other words, get ready for what’s coming and be courageous.  Strife within the church, helping couples work through marriage and divorce issues or even what to do in light of recent government activities can sometimes make us weak-kneed.  That is exactly the time for courageous leadership.  Who knows if God has put us here for such a time as this?  (Est. 4:14)  Trust in Him.  Stay true to His Word and we will never go wrong because His foolishness is far greater than any man-made wisdom (1 Co. 1:25).  As David did in the face of the giant, we must rely on His strength and not ours.  We can look back within our own past and recall the lions and bears we have overcome, reminding us of the Lord’s presence, strength and wisdom.  Even when we feel powerless or out of control, we must remember the Lord’s strength is shown through our weaknesses.

In all things, whether they be like those listed above or in other considerations, we must remain positive.  Without question, that can be hard to do.  Like Elijah or John the Baptizer, we too can find ourselves in doubt and fear.  When we fall to negativity, that is just our lack of faith.  The Lord has provided numerous reminders that He is victorious.  That is why we “stand” in His grace (Ro. 5:2).

Keep in mind the words of Paul as he looked forward to the prize (Ph. 3:14).  We too can remain faithful unto death by understanding the battle is not that daunting compared with the spoils which belong to the victors (Re. 2:10).  Keep heaven and our presence with Christ in the forefront of longings and optimism will abound.

Optimism and a positive outlook are contagious.  We all want to be positive, but sometimes life has a way to beat us down.  Stand in God’s grace by putting our trust in God and finding comfort in the knowledge that Christ is preparing a place for us.

Finally, Christians — and even more so, elderships — must be thankful for God’s blessings.  How can we rejoice in the hope of His glory and not in turn be thankful?  Be thankful for the world the Lord has made.  Enjoy the beauty of it and the joys it can bring.  Be thankful for His church, which from the beginning was the manifestation of His infinite wisdom, and has been purchased by the priceless Savior’s blood.  Be thankful for His Word which enlightens our very steps and guides us in a blessed life.  Be thankful for Christ, our Creator and Sustainer.  Be thankful for those around us who support us and provide strengths we may not possess, including our fellow elders, those in the church, and those at home.  Be thankful to serve in the role in which the Lord has blessed us to serve.  All roles come with challenges, but these challenges only help us better serve God.  It is through this fire that our gold can be purified.  “O give thanks to the Lord; for He is good: for His mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 118:29, KJV).

Individually and as an eldership, we can focus on maintaining balance while pursuing our responsibilities.  Christian building blocks will help elders and elderships weather the storms they face.  Reminding ourselves of the graces in which we stand, and how we cam to now stand in them, can benefit us greatly.


Shepherds of the Flock – Wesley Walker

Leadership in the church is about service. It is not about a position one holds or the perceived attaining of rank. As Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not that way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Mt. 20:25-27). Leadership follows the pattern of Jesus, who came not to use His position to be served by others, but rather to serve.

Within the body of Christ, God has given us the gift of leadership. I use the word gift on purpose because that is how Paul describes it in Ephesians 4:7-11. Not everyone has the gift to be leaders of God’s people. Paul states he has given “some” to be leaders (4:11). Certain individuals have the gifts necessary to lead God’s people. Included in that list of leadership gifts are those who are to be pastor-teachers, or as we more commonly call them elders. This article will focus on this group of servants.

The controlling metaphor to describe elders, and leaders in general, in Scripture is that of a shepherd. Ezekiel 34 provides the richest background to what it means to shepherd the people of God. The chapter lays out the expectations of leadership with the first four verses describing the reasons for God’s anger. They used their status as shepherds for their own gain and treated the flock cruelly. They were supposed to feed, protect, seek, and strengthened the sheep under their care. However, these evil shepherds were so busy caring for their own needs that they completely neglected the needs of the sheep. As leaders they were given the call to aid and strengthen God’s people in their walk. They should have frequently and openly exalted the law of Lord before the people, but they had failed to do so.

They had mistaken the role God had given them. They were to care for the Lord’s possession, not treat the people as if they were their lords. The repetition of the phrase “My flock” (v. 6) demonstrates how the leadership had failed—not with their own possession, but with the possession of the Lord.

Certain principles emerge from this chapter. First, the shepherd is responsible to God for how he guides the sheep, since the flock is God’s. Second, the shepherd is to be in the lives of the sheep providing for them what is needed to keep them safe and healthy within God’s flock. Finally, the shepherd is not to use his position for personal gain, but rather to serve others.

In the New Testament we are presented with certain texts that help us see the characteristics of shepherds today. 1 Timothy 3 is the most used one. Much of the list of characteristics in this chapter simply portrays a godly life and thus is showing that elders must be an example to the flock as to what a godly life is to entail. This is in contrast to the life which the false teachers were portraying to the church at Ephesus. In fact much of what Paul condemns the false teachers for doing in Timothy and Titus finds its antithesis in the characteristics Paul states an elder should have. The elders are to be the exemplars and the teachers of God’s people, leading them away from unhealthy teaching and to the teaching that confirms with the words of Christ. Interestingly, the entire list of qualifications of elders is one that is not extraordinary. Elders are simply asked to exemplify characteristics which all Christians should aspire (minus the need for marriage). Thus, as J.W. McGarvey points out, from 1 Timothy 3 the main function we find from elders is that these individuals are to be exemplars of the Christian life

The second text is similar to the one found in 1 Timothy, but places a greater emphasis on the teaching role of the elder. This text is Titus 1. Specifically verse 9 states: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” The shepherd has a responsibility to feed the flock of God. They do this in both a positive and negative light. Positively, they are to be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Negatively, they are to be able to rebuke those who teach falsely.

The third text is in Acts 20. In verses 17-38 Paul speaks with the elders at Ephesus at the port city of Miletus. Paul discusses his work amongst them and then he turn his attention to what the elders should do in his absence (v. 28-31). The main point of this section is seen in Paul’s chiastic argument. In the chiasm the central point of this section is Paul’s departure. The point is the elders had to take the place of Paul in aiding the church in their defense against false teachers. Thus the role of the elder is portrayed in this passage as one who defends the flock against those who would harm it.

The final text is 1 Peter 5:1-3. In these verses Peter urges the elders to do the work of shepherding and taking care of the flock of God. This text gives us a positive understanding as elders being proactive shepherds. They are men who are overseeing the spiritual wellbeing of the flock. Like a shepherd would check over his sheep to make sure they were whole, the elder examines his congregation to ensure they are healthy. This text adds to our discussion the limits Peter puts upon the elders, reminding them that they are not to “lord it over the flock” nor participate in the work for “gain,” something Peter borrows from the teachings of Jesus and Ezekiel. The point here is that pastoral leadership must be freely and willingly undertaken with no trace of self-serving or “lording it over” the flock. This passage establishes that the function of the elder is not that of a domineering leader, but rather one of service rendered as an “under shepherd” of Jesus the chief shepherd.

I hope you see that the overarching motif for elders is they are to function as shepherds to God’s people. Using the principles from the texts earlier, I want to share some practical ways elders accomplish that role.

First, shepherds need to guide and lead. This requires vision. A clear vision of where your flock needs to go. Vision requires a goal and the goal of the flock is to become like the Chief Shepherd, Jesus. Elders need to know where the church is at the moment and develop a plan to mature the people of God. Vision requires telling the truth about where you are and then giving clearly defined directives of how we will grow into the image of Christ.

Second, this means the shepherds must interact with the sheep. There is no such thing as shepherding from a distance. Shepherds have a close relationship with their sheep. As Jesus illustrated, the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. Elders are in the life of the congregation. They must be able to see when the sheep are hurt, weak, and in need of care. They must know what food the people need to grow. The work of the shepherd must be done within a relationship. This means shepherds need to create spaces where they can develop bonds with the people. This could be informal gatherings or it can mean regular meetings with the members in order to know their needs. This is why Paul was concerned with the elders’ ability to lead his own home. If the shepherd does not have the sort of relationship in his own family that leads to godliness, how will he do it within the family of God?

Third, shepherds are not the only “gifts” of leadership God has given the church. In Ephesians 4 we also have Paul calling evangelists gifts to the church and in 1 Timothy Paul places elders alongside deacons as those who serve the church. Shepherds need to work well with these other leaders as well. Deacons have the responsibility to serve in various areas. Most churches have found it helpful for the elders to assign these areas. Once assigned elders should allow the deacons to function and do the job given them. Preachers and elders have complementary and overlapping roles. For the elder their emphasis is within the congregation itself, while the emphasis of the evangelist should be upon those who have not heard the truth (although both have a vital function to perform in regards to evangelism and edification). The evangelist’s primary function is in the study and proclamation of the word of God. The elder has this same need to know the word of God, but also must have enough wisdom to handle the interpersonal problems which occur within the congregation. Elders need to allow preachers to time and opportunity to do the work God has given them.

The job of an elder is a difficult one. God has gifted the church with these men because they are needed in helping the entire body grow up and become like Jesus. The primary role of an elder is to shepherd of the flock. A role where he cares, guides, protects, and feeds the sheep.



Complaining and the Christian — Stephen Hughes

When I was a teenager, I hated doing chores. My parents would tell me to clean my room, wash the dishes, or mow the lawn. I would eventually do it, but I would grumble and complain the whole time. The problem is I did not fully appreciate Paul’s exhortation: “Do everything without complaining and disputing” (Phil. 2:14, NKJV). Unfortunately some Christians ignore this exhortation, too.

The purpose for doing things without complaining and disputing is so “that [we] may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom [we] shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:15). We need to be bright, shining beacons of God’s truth in this world. When we complain and dispute amongst ourselves, we tarnish that light and threaten to put it out—this harms our evangelistic efforts immeasurably. In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus also tells us that we are lights to the world, a shining city on a hill, and that we should shine our light before men for the purpose of glorifying God in heaven. We cannot do this if we are complaining and disputing.

Earlier in that passage, Paul says that we should be humble toward one another, fulfilling his joy by being like-minded (Phil. 2:1-4). As we continue reading, Paul calls to mind the example of Jesus since “in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). When we get to Philippians 2:14, Paul has already exhorted us to be humble, and the image of Jesus’ perfect humility is fresh on our minds. If our Lord can be humble and not complain as He is being led to the cross to suffer and die, then we also can be humble and cease our complaining and disputing in our lives.

When we complain about things, we send a message to those who hear it. It shows a lack of humility and a lack of respect for those in authority. Peter offers his own exhortation in regard to church conduct: “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. 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’” (1 Pet. 5:5). With pride comes a lack of humility. When we complain and dispute with those in authority, whether it be in our local congregations, our jobs, or even our government, we are in danger of losing the grace of God.

Such an exhortation is not limited to New Testament times. The Israelites in the desert after their exodus from Egypt constantly complained and disputed with Moses and the Lord. Paul tells us about his ancestors, “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not … complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:6,10). Throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers we see how much and how often they complained to bring about their destruction.

There are six main instances in these books, three in Exodus and three in Numbers, where the Israelites complained and disputed. On the fourth occasion in Numbers 11, Moses found it difficult to continue as their leader through the desert since he had to bear the brunt of their constant complaining. This time they were complaining that they only had manna to eat—manna that they did not have to plant or harvest, but that the Lord provided for them. This trap of ungratefulness and taking things for granted is unfortunately easy to fall into; I am sure many of us would feel the same way if we had only one thing to eat for several months. In the very first verse of Numbers 11, we see the Lord’s anger was kindled due to their complaining. “Now when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; for the Lord heard it, and His anger was aroused. So the fire of the Lord burned among them, and consumed some in the outskirts of the camp.”

Even after Moses pleaded on behalf of the people to cease this destruction, their complaining did not end. They craved meat despite their constant supply of manna. We see in Numbers 11:11-15 just how much the people had driven Moses to anger and despair, to the point of praying for his life to end. As a result of his pleading, the Lord told Moses to set up a group of seventy elders to handle the day-to-day affairs of the people, to take the bulk of the burden off Moses’s shoulders. One wonders if this is a reason for a plurality of elders governing the church today.

Regardless, God sternly granted the Israelites’ prideful demands. “You shall eat [meat] … until it … becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the Lord who is among you …’” (Num. 11:19, 20). We see in this passage that God did this, not because of their complaining, but because they despised the Lord. Therefore we can conclude that the Israelites despised the Lord through their complaining.

After the Israelites complained again and threatened to stone Moses, Aaron, and even Joshua when they heard a negative report from ten of the twelve spies sent into Canaan, the Lord appeared to Moses and said, “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?” (Num. 14:11). Once again, we see that complaining is not mentioned here, but rejection and unbelief. The Lord equates such complaining and disputing with rejection of God and a lack of belief and trust in Him.

The Lord then said, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me?” (Num. 14:27a). Those who complain against God are called an evil congregation. A few verses later, God informs Moses and Aaron that because of their complaining and disputing, because they have despised and rejected the Lord, because they do not believe and trust in Him, and because they are an evil congregation they will be forced to wander the desert and never enter into the Promised Land. No one twenty years old or older will be allowed to enter, except for Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who offered a favorable report of Canaan.

Sometimes, however, the Israelites complained for very legitimate needs such as food and water, but they did not make their requests humbly and respectfully. There will be times when we may have a legitimate need that we must take before the elders. In Acts 6:1, we read, “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.” Here we see that the Hellenists had a legitimate need, and that they presented it to the Twelve, who did not chastise them for this complaint, but instead tended to their needs (Acts 6:2-6). It is not recorded how the Hellenists made their needs known, but because the response was not like that of God to the Israelites when they complained, we can conclude that there is an acceptable way to make a complaint.

If a congregation has qualified elders, they must “be blameless, … of good behavior, … able to teach, … gentle, not quarrelsome, … not a novice” (1 Tim. 3:3-6). These are qualities an elder must possess; therefore if one has a complaint, the elders will listen. If the complaint is just, they will follow the example of the Twelve by tending to one’s needs. If the complaint is not just, they will be able to teach the individual gently why it is not just. It is each elder’s responsibility to “[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” (Tit. 1:9).

When we complain and dispute with our elders and those in authority, we must not do so in the manner the Israelites complained to Moses, with a lack of humility and respect. If we do, we would be in danger of bringing anger and despair to our elders just as the Israelites did to Moses. We would also be in danger of despising and rejecting God, showing a lack of belief and trust in Him, and being an evil congregation. My brethren, we ought to avoid this at all costs. Sometimes, however, we do have legitimate needs that must be heard. These must be made humbly and respectfully before the elders, and we must adhere to their scriptural decisions.


Church Leadership Causes Growth – Jon Mitchell (Editor’s Page, November/December 2013 Issue)

Church growth.  Growing the church.  Causing both spiritual growth in the brethren through edification and numerical growth of the congregation via evangelism.  I’ve yet to meet any Christian, especially any preacher, elder, or deacon, who honestly denied wanting their congregation to grow in these ways.

To my knowledge, there is only one passage in the entire Bible that very specifically spells out what causes church growth.  Sure, there are many passages to which one may go which give principles and examples of church growth…but only one which directly says, “Do this, and the church grows.”  That would be Ephesians 4:16:  “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (ESV, emp. added).  Contextually, Paul defines the body as the church (1:22-23; 5:23).  Therefore, God is basically saying that the church grows “when each part is working properly.”  The church grows when each member is working.

That’s where godly leadership comes in.  There’s a reason God refers to the church as a whole as “the flock” (Acts 20:28) and to elders as shepherds or pastors (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).  In his wisdom, God knew that Christians, no matter how sincere, do not grow properly without proper leadership, just as sheep never get where they need to go without a shepherd to guide them.  That’s why just a few verses earlier in Ephesians 4 he mentioned the very reason he gave the church the New Testament writings of the apostles and prophets and the teaching and guidance of evangelists, shepherds, and teachers:  “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12).  Proper church leaders will equip each and every saint in the flock to serve the Master and spiritually build up each and every soul under their care.  When that happens, the church grows.

This issue is dedicated to church leadership.  You’ll read an article about elders written by an elder, an article about deacons written by a deacon, and an article about preachers written by a preacher.  You’ll also read about how God wants us as Christians to treat the leaders of the church, something which many in the church need to know if the church is to grow.  After all, the people perish without vision from their leaders (Prov. 29:18), and leaders can’t develop a proper vision for the church when they’re continually distracted by the fires of ungodly backbiting, petty criticism, and unrighteous judgment.

Elders, deacons, preachers, teachers…read these articles with an open heart and an open Bible.  Study 1-2 Timothy and Titus to see what kind of men God wants preachers, elders, and deacons…and all Christians…to be.  Elders and deacons, study the example of Acts 6:1-6 and apply it to your relationship with each other.  Preachers, deacons, and members, study the commands of 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 and Hebrews 13:17 and apply them to your relationship with your elders.   Shepherds, study John 10:1-5, Acts 20:17-32, 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15, and 1 Peter 5:1-4 to see what your job description is according to your Lord.

May we all strive to work harder to serve our Master in his kingdom!


“The Elders Who Are Among You I Exhort” – Garland White

After Jesus told His apostles that He would build His church, He said to them, “Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).   Christ commissioned the apostles and they were inspired to set in order those things to be taught and practiced by Christians.  “And 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,  till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).   In the early church members had various abilities, some were given spiritual gifts by which to promote its growth.  When the apostles had finished their work and the complete word of God had been revealed, spiritual gifts ceased (1 Cor. 13:10).   Mankind now has access to God’s word which contains “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3).  The inspired word converts the sinner and leads him or her in becoming a mature Christian.  Every Christian is to “grow in grace and knowledge” (2 Pet. 3:18) and practice those things set in order by the apostles.  The apostle Paul admonishes us to grow, “For when the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not strong meat” (Heb. 5:12).   It is our responsibility to become a mature Christian so that we may save our self and bring others to Christ.

The church found in the New Testament was organized according to God’s word and this spiritual order has been sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ.   Spiritual leadership as ordained by God involved the appointment of qualified men to guide the local church.   The same holds true today, qualified men are appointed as elders with the responsibility to function as shepherds and overseers in leading the local congregation in the way of truth.    With this in mind, let us consider some of the responsibilities of elders to the congregation and the members to the elders.

Hebrews 13: 17 describes the personal work of an elder:  “for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief.”  Elders, are you watching over the souls for which God holds you responsible?   In order to do so, it is imperative that you personally know each member of the flock you oversee, much like a good father knows his children.   An elder must have more than just a casual knowledge of the members he oversees – watching over souls is a fearful responsibility.  This duty is carried out by a man who is “a lover of hospitality” (Tit. 1: 8) and possesses “a sincere love of the brethren,” an elder who “loves one another fervently with a pure heart” (1 Pet. 1:22) and places the value of a soul above all else.  Joy awaits faithful elders who lead the flock to eternal bliss, while grief and sadness lie ahead when members perish by the way.

An elder must have a good knowledge of God’s word and practice it.  2 Timothy 2:15 commands all children of God to “study (be diligent) to show yourself approved unto God…”    Elders are ordained by God to teach and enforce His laws without compromise.  Everyone likes to be accepted, but on occasion an elder may become unpopular for taking a biblical stand for the truth.  Many times an elder has lonely and soul searching issues to contend with and may be tempted to make concessions for the sake of keeping the peace.   However, he must remain strong, keeping in mind that the truth of God’s word cannot be altered to satisfy man.

It is equally important that each member be a good student of the word and respect the qualifications required to be an elder. When considering someone to serve as an elder, it is important that the congregation know the individual well enough to compare his manner of life with God’s word.   Men, both young and old should make it a personal goal to live according to the qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Elders must regularly compare themselves against these standards.  “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith, test yourselves…” (2 Cor. 13:5).   The apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders to 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” (Acts 20:28-31).  Elders must be diligent and ever watchful for the adversary, “taking the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17) “which is able to build them up and give them an inheritance among all them which are sanctified”  (Acts 20:32).

Having served as an elder, I know it is one of the most awesome responsibilities a man can have.  Elder, you have been asked to be keepers of the flock and will have to give account.  That’s awesome!  “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Pet. 5:1-4).  The impact an elder has on the local congregation affects the lives of each member, as well as his own…with eternal consequences.  Elders must serve as patterns to the church and set a good example in their service to the Lord.  A common pitfall facing an elder is “sleeping on the job” by placing emphasis on material things (housekeeping) rather than the spiritual welfare of the church.  It is a grave responsibility to serve as an elder, as he will give an account to God of how he discharged his duties.  This fact requires an elder to get on his knees often and ask the Lord to help him.

Just as elders have divine responsibilities, the Lord has also instructed individual members in their roles and obligations to the local church.  Each Christian is commanded to “obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves” (Heb. 13:17).  The inspired writer wrote these words to the early church and it applies to all Christians until the end of the age.  It is the duty of members to yield to the instruction and governing of faithful elders.  With this in mind, let us all reflect on the following questions:

  1. Have I considered my duty toward the elders?
  2. Am I in submission to the elders and willingly do what I am called on to do?
  3. What is my attitude when I need to make correction in my life and the elders call on me to do so?
  4. What is my relationship to Christ, to His church, to the elders, to my brethren, and to the world?

The lives each of us lead will have eternal consequences.  May God bless our efforts as we continue in prayer and earnestly contend for the faith.

Garland has served the Lord’s church in numerous positions, including as an elder.  His son, Michael, is also an elder at the Duncan Church of Christ in Duncan, SC.  Garland may be reached at gjwhite@tds.net.