‘God is not the author of confusion but of peace’ - ‘Let everything be done decently and in order’ are instructions from God to an assembly of Christians, 1 Cor. 14. 33, 40, and so to all His assemblies. We can well imagine, then, that He would not want assemblies of believers to be leaderless and out of control. In Acts 19 we saw what a leaderless assembly can be like, and it is not a pretty picture. How did the first Christians meet and what has God said about leadership in His assemblies? The apostle Paul was probably the first Christian preacher to reach the city of Ephesus. He and his companions arrived there and preached for a number of years, and many were saved, baptized and gathered together as an assembly of believers. Eventually Paul moved on and many years later, on one of his journeys past Ephesus, called the elders of the assembly in Ephesus to come to the port where his ship had docked so that he could see them one last time and say to them, ‘Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood’, Acts 20. 28, 29.
Paul here likens a Christian assembly to a flock of sheep, God’s sheep. The Lord Jesus Himself spoke of His people as sheep. ‘Other sheep I have which are not of this fold, them also I must bring’, John 10. 16. To His people, He is the Good Shepherd, John 10. 11, and the Great Shepherd, Heb. 13. 20. Now that He has returned to heaven He has left elders to be under-shepherds of His sheep. Paul tells elders that they are to ‘feed’ the assembly of God. The word is to ‘shepherd’, Acts 20. 28. Peter tells elders to ‘feed the flock of God’, 1 Pet. 5. 1-2. Again the word ‘feed’ means ‘shepherd’. Elders are to be shepherds, whilst Christ Himself is the Chief Shepherd, 1 Pet. 5. 4.
Looking at Acts 20 again, we discover two words used to describe elders. Paul ‘called the elders (presbuteroi) of the church and … said unto them, Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers’ (episcopoi), Acts 20. 17 with 28. Notice that the elders are overseers, for Paul called the presbuteroi and said, ‘God hath made you episcopoi’. From these two Greek words we get the Englishwords presbyterian (having to do with elders) and episcopalian (having to do with bishops). Here in Acts 20 the word episcopoi is translated ‘overseers’, but in1 Timothy 3 the same word is translated ‘bishop’. The two words come together again in Titus 1 where we read that Titus had been instructed by Paul to ordain elders in every city in Crete. These elders (presbuteroi) had to be ‘the husband of one wife, having faithful children … for a bishop (eposicopos) must be blameless as the steward of God’, v. 5 with v. 7.According to the New Testament, then, the elders are the overseers/bishops. A local church should not have elders and,above them in authority, a bishop or bishops. The elders are the ‘bishops’. Why then does the Bible use these two words, if they are not two different offices held by different men? The two words actually describe different aspects of the same thing. The word ‘elder’ refers to experience in the things of God. An elder need not be an old man in terms of age, but he ought to be old or mature in terms of Christian experience. This is emphasized in 1 Timothy 3. 6 where Paul says of an elder that he must not be a novice, lest he be lifted (puffed) up with pride. The word ‘overseer’, however, refers to the responsibility the elder must take. He must ‘oversee’. He must take care of the flock, look after the assembly, and ensure that all things are done decently and in order. Peter brings it all together well when he writes, ‘The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder … Feed (shepherd) the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof (acting as overseers/bishops)’, 1 Pet. 5. 1.
In New Testament times the pattern seems to have been that, in each local assembly, there was more than one elder, James 5. 14; Acts 20. 17; Tit. 1. 5. An important distinction needs to be made here between the local church and the universal church. The universal church is made up of all God’s spiritual children, all those truly born again of the Spirit of God over the thousands of years from the Day of Pentecost when the church first began, Acts 2, right up to the day when the Lord will appear to take away His people, 1 Thess. 4. This vast gathering-together of God’s children consists of all true believers from every century, every continent, and every denomination. It is made up of believers now dead (‘with the Lord’ in heaven), of believers now saved and still alive on earth, and of those who are not yet saved but who will be before the Lord comes. This universal church has never yet met in its entirety, because all of God’s people are not in heaven yet. What a thrilling moment that will be when, for the first time ever, the whole church of God is gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb in heaven! When our Lord said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ He spoke of the assembly/church in the singular – and has in mind the universal church. It is this same universal church that is in view when we read that Christ ‘is the head of the body, the church’, Col. 1. 18, and that God ‘made him to be head over all things to the church which is his body’, Eph. 1. 22, 23. Only the apostles,the twelve plus Paul, had authority to lay down doctrine and establish practice in this universal church which, as the household of God, is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles’, Eph. 2. 20.The apostles had the right to take care of many assemblies of Christians because they had an unique authority from God. Yet once these apostles died no one took their place or exercised their authority. We do not see a Timothy, or a Titus, young men closely associated with the apostle Paul, acting as apostles. The only One who moves among the candlesticks in the book of the Revelation (and the seven candlesticks are seven assemblies), and has authority over them all, is the Lord Himself.There are many scriptures, however, that speak of local churches/assemblies. Paul writes to the ‘assembly of God which is at Corinth’, 1 Cor. 1. 2. He writes to ‘the assembly of the Thessalonians’, 1 Thess. 1. 1, sends greetings through Philemon to the ‘church that is in thy house’, Philm. 2, and in the book of Revelation the Lord writes letters to seven different assemblies, one in Ephesus, one in Sardis, Philadelphia, etc., Rev 2 and 3.Now these assemblies are local assemblies in that, firstly, the members lived locally and, secondly, it is impossible for every believer in the history of the church to be a member of that local assembly. I may be a member of an assembly that meets in the city of Bath, but I am not also a member of an assembly that meets in Brisbane, because I live in Bath, not Brisbane. It would appear, too, that each local assembly was autonomous, which means it was overseen by its own elders. Elders of one assembly have no authority over another. This means that any attempt to make regional and national bodies of elders is to go contrary to the teaching of scripture. So, also, is the idea that some ‘full-time’ preachers have of trying to control the assemblies in their area or amongst which they move. They may advise and teach, but they must not dictate. The Victorian concept of a senior missionary in an overseas country is also unbiblical, especially if it leads to interference in local assemblies where that missionary is not in fellowship. In fact, anyone who tries to exercise authority over and beyond his own authority as an elder in the assembly in which he is in fellowship needs to justify his actions from scripture. Such attempts often smack of misuse of authority and are to be deplored.
What are elders to expect from the sheep in the flock of God? The Scripture is quite clear what our attitude to elders should be. We are to ‘know (recognize) them’ and ‘esteem (honour) them very highly in love for their work’s sake’, 1 Thess. 5. 12, 13,‘obey them’ and ‘submit’ to them, Heb. 13. 17, ‘receive not an accusation’ against them without clear evidence (trust them), 1 Tim. 5. 19, and remember them , Heb. 13. 7. In other words, we are not to be overly critical of them, disrespectful, disobedient, or dismissive. But what if they are wrong? God knows that better than you or I do, and we must pray that He will change them, if they are wrong, or change us if they are not. Elders are in the assembly as God’s under-shepherds, and any hand raised against an elder of an assembly is a hand raised against the authority of the One he represents.Their task is difficult enough - do you make it easier or more difficult? The Chief Shepherd is watching.