The Rule of Elders
Reading: Matthew 20:20-28
I. Consider an imaginary congregation
A. It is a fair-sized group with an abundance of men, but few are actively involved in the work of the church.
B. There are two active and very visible elders.
1. They exclusively teach the adult Bible studies. After all, elder are to be apt to teach.
2. They keep their own counsel, do all their planning alone, and implement decisions which the congregation is often unaware until the semi-annual congregational meeting.
3. The meetings are not so much a meeting with the elders as it is an update by the elders about all they have planned and done.
C. Everything is neat and efficient.
D. Occasionally, a member might hesitantly venture a suggestion to the elders. There was once a suggestion that instead of having the elders make the announcements at every service, the various men could share the task.
1. More participation would encourage men to grow.
2. Children would see their fathers active in the church and become more interested in the church.
3. But the elders decided they should retain the responsibility. Someone might say something wrong after all.
4. When it was suggested that the announcements could be listed in advance and given to the announcer, the answer was “We thought about that, but decided that since we are supposed to run things, we will just run them.”
E. The sad thing is that many Christians do not see the problem here. We have generations of people growing up in the church with wrong ideas about elders and their work.
1. After all, aren’t elders to oversee everything in the church?
2. Some confuse overseeing with authoritarian control.
a. Authoritarian: “exercising complete or almost complete control over the will of others” – Random House Dictionary
b. Of course, it is always asserted that elders must exercise this control without being lords.
F. Is this what the Bible calls for in the work of the elders?
1. Let us study the words rule, oversight, and submission and see what the rule of elders should be.
II. Blind followers
A. “If the elders decide a matter, then it is their responsibility. It is my responsibility to support them.”
1. It seems to be a prevalent idea in regards to leadership today.
2. While a Christian should avoid a rebellious attitude toward elders, he must realize that the elders cannot answer for him in judgment.
a. Each individual answers for his own actions, regardless of the position and responsibility they hold.
b. Matthew 23:2-3 - The Jewish leaders of Jesus day taught the law. Jesus said to do these things, but when they impose traditions, however hallowed by time, they were not to follow them.
3. Matthew 15:12-14 - The leading Jews were offended by some of Jesus’ remarks, but Jesus said “If the blind lead the blind, they both will fall into the ditch.”
4. If Christians blindly follow elders, and those elders stray, then both will lose their souls.
B. A poor decision was once made by an eldership, and a Christian was heard to say, “I am heartsick, but I have never questioned an elder in my life.”
1. Elders can and do stray - Acts 20:29-30
2. If elders can never be questioned, they there would be no way to stem a digression headed by elders.
C. Have you heard someone say, “The elders withdrew from sister Spiteful”?
1. This gives a view of withdrawal as a formal pronouncement by the elders, who by imposition of their decision have just closed the door of salvation.
2. First, withdrawal is not a decision for elders to unilaterally make.
a. I Corinthians 5:4-5 - It is the saints (all members) who withdraw.
b. The elders would certainly lead the congregation towards making this difficult decision, they would watch over the brethren as the decision is made, but it is the will of the congregation, not the elders, which is being exercised.
c. The saints face the necessity of backing away from relationships with the erring brother, leaving him with the company of Satan – unrelieved by their own.
d. The saints in Corinth did not just listen to an announcement by the elders. The order was directed to the congregation and they, in mutual resolve, withdrew their company from the impenitent one.
3. Second, some suppose a withdrawal by the elders removes a person from the book of life.
a. Only Jesus opens or closes the door of salvation - Revelation 3:7
b. Withdrawal is a recognition by brethren that one is for the moment irreconcilably rebellious to God’s Law and that they can no longer keep company with them.
c. If God accepts someone, elders who withdraw from them, do so in vain - III John 9-10
d. If God rejects someone, ten thousand elders extending him fellowship will not save him.
III. Authoritarian rule prohibited
A. There was a case when a group of women were planning a baby shower for an expectant young mother. One of them spoke up, “Have you asked the elders?”
1. The spiritual shepherds of God’s people do not oversee showers.
2. They would be concerned if drinking or gambling occurred there, or if only the rich were invited and the poor were neglected.
3. Yet, some see the elders having such an authoritarian role that any relationship between brethren is deemed to be under their oversight.
B. The versatility of words
1. The same word often has different shades of meaning
a. What does “fast” mean?
(2) to go without eating
(3) to bind tightly.
b. What does “quick” mean?
(2) an inner feeling (“He cut me to the quick”)
(3) alive (“the quick and the dead”)
c. What does “cleave” mean?
(1) to part or to divide
(2) to adhere closely, to cling
2. The English word “rule” has various meanings.
a. Hebrew 13:17 - “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.” (NKJV)
b. To understand what it teaches about elders, we must arrive at a meaning that fits the context of each passage and which harmonizes with everything else the Holy Spirit says about the conduct of elders.
c. Our one word rule is used to translate eight different Greek words.
d. To assume one meaning for all uses of the word will cause problems and misunderstandings.
C. The Greek words not used to describe the rule of elders.
1. The words having to do with principality and power (arche, archo) are not used.
2. The word for master (despotes) is not used.
3. The word used for province or measuring the standard (kanon) is not used.
4. Simply put, all the authoritarian words are not used.
5. This same conclusion can be reached without knowing the Greek by a careful study of the English Bibles.
D. Lording over
1. Elders are not to lord over the flock - I Peter 5:3
2. The word translated “lording over” means, “to domineer, to exercise complete control” - A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Reineker
3. Remember, “authoritarian” means, “exercising complete or almost complete control over the will of others.”
4. Lording over the flock and being authoritarian are the same thing.
5. Elders are forbidden to be authoritarian – they are forbidden to assume complete control.
E. Dominion and Authority
1. Matt 20:20-28 - Here is that word “lord it over” again.
a. Another definition of this word is “rule ... over someone or something”
b. “Rule over, subjugate, lord it over” Dictionary of NT Theology
c. To have dominion or to lord it over, means to rule.
d. This kind of rule is forbidden among God’s people.
e. Yet elders are to rule
(1) There is a rule which elders do not have and there is a rule which elders do have.
(2) Elders do not have the rule of dominion
(a) The rule of kings over his land - Psalms 72:1,8 – the same word is used in verse 8 in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament.
(b) The rule of law over a man’s life - Romans 7:1 (same word)
(c) Even the apostles did not claim such authority over a person’s life - II Corinthians 1:24 (same word)
2. Jesus also prohibited authority (Matthew 20:20-28)
a. It is also translated as power.
b. In the Septuagint, the same word is used in Ecclesiastes 8:4
(1) You don’t question a king
(2) But no man has unquestioned authority in Christ’s kingdom.
c. The same word is used in I Corinthians 7:4
(1) The power husbands and wives have over the body of the other.
(2) We understand this power is not complete. It has to be tempered by respect (I Peter 3:7) and love (Ephesians 5:28)
(3) Yet, elders don’t have power over the flock as husbands and wives have over each other’s bodies.
3. Not having this kind of power, elders do not act with the authority of a boss or a board of directors, making all the decisions and then imposing them by announcement.
IV. The rule elders do have
A. Rule in Hebrews 13:17 is from the Greek word hegeomai, which is consistently defined as “to lead, guide”.
1. It is often translated as “leader”
2. Also in Hebrews 13:24
B. This word describes a quality possessed by chiefs, princes, and commanders – all authoritarian figures.
1. But in possessing this quality, the authoritarian shares it with those who are not authoritarian.
2. Being the chief or greatest in Christ’s kingdom is accomplished by service (Luke 22:25-26), not by the power princes wield.
C. Thayer defines this word “leading as respects influence, controlling in counsel.”
1. The position is exerted by influential counsel and not by dogmatic control.
2. Same word is used of Judas and Silas, chosen by the apostles, elders, and the whole church at Jerusalem to go to Antioch - Acts 15:22
3. The term is to “have rule” is not something that is exclusively applied to elders.
D. Hebrews 13:7 - Those that have rule do so by their influence as teachers.
1. It does not mean authoritarian control of a congregation
2. It is a term referring to those who are chief in influence, who lead by the influence of their counsel.
V. Obeying those who have rule
A. There is a compound Greek word which means obedience to authority - peitharcheoô
1. Acts 5:29 - We must obey God
2. Titus 3:1 - to be obedient.
B. This is not the word used in Hebrews 13:17, which is peitho
1. It means “to obey, follow”
2. “To listen to, obey, yield to, comply with” - Thayer
3. “To be persuaded, to listen to, to obey” - Vine
4. This is not subjection to orders and pronouncements, but following and yielding to respected persuasion.
C. This requires the leader who bears the burden of persuading to acknowledge his brotherhood to the follower.
1. The follower shows pliant respect for the leader, not mindless enslavement.
2. “The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.” - Vine
D. It is the responsibility of elders to be of such stature (possessing chiefness earned by service) that they can lead by persuasion rather than by command.
1. In appointing elders, churches have chosen to respond to their leadership and give them their support, cooperation, and encouragement.
2. God’s flock yields to good shepherds.
E. Notice that being designated bishop doesn’t in and of itself equip a person to fulfill such a role.
1. If he does not possess the qualification, he is not equipt to function as an elder.
2. Such a one will likely resort to dominion to maintain control.
3. They will not have the love for the sheep - John 10:12-13
4. Elders are to be shepherds - Acts 20:28
VI. Submit to those who have rule
A. There are people who will chafe at the fact that others have great influence over them. They may be jealous of the respect accorded to elders.
1. They gain attention, hoping for sympathetic response, by questioning everything the congregation does in following their elders.
2. They need to learn to submit.
B. Submit means to “yield to, be retiring” in relation to others.
C. When elders rule well, we are to esteem them
1. If they are the kind of man they should be, we know their leadership is not self-serving, but is in consideration of the whole congregation.
2. If the consensus they bring about should conflict with my personal preference, let me yield, retiring my preference, and likewise act for the good of the flock.
3. This is easy to do when elders have a reputation for thoughtfulness, fairness, and honor.
D. Arrogance hands down decrees, but special leadership is needed to bring about consensus and respect.
E. Elders have authority, but they are not authoritarians.
1. They have the authority to lead
2. Christ has the authority to exercise power or command - Matthew 28:18
a. Elders do not have this kind of authority - I Peter 5:3
b. No one in the kingdom has this kind of authority - Matthew 20:25-28
c. The example of Paul - Philemon 8-9
3. Elders have a power to influence the conduct and actions of others. They have personal or practical influence.
F. The flock is not required to submit to straying wolves - Acts 20:29-30
1. When an elder becomes self-willed or behaves badly, they ought to be set aside. They are no longer qualified.