In my last few newsletters I have tried to depict an ideal of the church as seen through the lens of the NT alone. I am deeply convinced that if we see “the Bride” living and functioning as she was intended to be – which I am confident means meeting in homes – we will be utterly captivated! What Elton Trueblood has written in regards to depicting the Christian family motivates me to keep writing about the true, hidden, biblical NT church: “The intention is to depict an enduring ideal which is practically realisable and which, we believe, has such inherent attractiveness that its very depiction becomes a factor in the recovery and development of what is most precious in our civilisation as well as an antidote to some of our most distressing ills." (E. Trueblood)
The subject at hand here is leadership and authority in the NT church.
Perhaps no other subject on the life of the early church needs more discussion or causes more heated debates (most likely because money is involved!?!?) Indeed, I write with weak knees, knowing that I might be dismissed as a radical, fanatic or, in some other way, misunderstood! Yet the passion for the “NT design” burns within me stronger than ever!
First, let’s ask ourselves this question: “Who did Paul write to when he wrote to the Corinthians, the Thessalonians, the Romans?” Can’t remember, read on…
Paul, called to be an apostle… to all that are in Rome, beloved of God… Rom. 1:1,7
Paul, called to be an apostle… unto the church of God which is at Corinth 1 Cor. 1:1-2
Paul, an apostle… unto the churches of Galatia Gal. 1:1-2
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… to the saints that are at Ephesus, and the faithful in Christ Jesus Eph. 1:1
Paul and Timothy… to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons Phil. 1:1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ that are at Colossae Col. 1:1-2
Paul, and Silvanus, and Timothy, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God… 1 Thess.1:1
Paul wrote to “the whole church” — men, women, young people and, even, children!! (Consider: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” Eph. 5) He wrote to ordinary, regular believers. People like you and me- “working stiffs” struggling to make both ends meet at the end of the month! And he expected everybody to read/hear the letters and understand them.
As Robert Fitts points out: “…each letter was written to the people of God and not to an elite group of ‘clerics’ who were to explain the meaning of the letters to the people. The letters were to be read to the people and that implied that they could understand the content of the letters. Of course there is nothing wrong with explaining difficult passages, but the Holy Spirit can and will reveal the meaning of his word to his people through his people. (Robert Fitts, The Church in the House, robertfitts.com)
“Is there an elder in the house?”
What then is the church, a leaderless movement of believers, the “family of God” joined organically through love and commitment? YES! Is there a place for leadership and authority in the church? The answer is also an emphatic: YES!
The plain teaching of the NT is that “elders are the leaders of the church”.
Paul and Barnabas quickly appointed elders in each Galatian church after their apostolic tour there had ended (Acts 14). Later, at the great council in Jerusalem, we find the apostles and the elders gathering together to consider the “Gentile question”. Afterwards, they gathered together with the whole church to choose men (Silas and Judas) to send with Paul back to Antioch. When the decision of the council was read throughout the Syrian and Cillician churches, the letter was written on behalf of “the apostles and the elders” of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15).
As Paul travelled from Macedonia, he called the Ephesian elders to come to the beach at Miletus, where he would exhort them and encourage them one final time, never to see them again (Acts 20)! At the end of his life, Paul left Titus – his co-worker for over 20 years – behind in Crete for the main purpose of appointing elders in every town (Titus 1). The apostle James wanted the elders of the church to be called to lay hands on the sick and to pray the prayer of faith so that many would be healed. The apostle Peter exhorted the elders to tend the flock that is in their care willingly, not just for shameful gain.
The problem, in our day, is that two millennium of church life has distorted and obscured the role and function of elders. Added to this distortion – which came chiefly through the “imperial church” of the Roman Empire/Constantine era – is the striking fact that the word pastor is used only once in all of the NT, even though we can hardly talk of church today and not ask: “So who is your Pastor?”
Of course, in Ephesians 4, we do read of the gift of pastor but here its used strictly in connection with the “pastor/ teacher” gift and is used solely in the context of a group of “extra-local” church ministries (the five-fold gifts) for “equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry”. If the church is ever to regain her early church impact– "These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” – we must move away from the system that brought us the clergy- laity schism and recover the NT functioning of elders (notice the plural usage!) in every church.
I like how Link Hudson describes elders:
“Elders are not really introduced in the NT. They just show up [Acts 11]. There were already elders in the OT, and Jews in Jesus’ day had elders. So Jewish believers in the early church already understood what elders were… An elder in a church generally builds upon a foundation of another man’s work. His authority doesn’t necessarily come from being called and sent to lay a foundation in a particular church, but rather he reaches a point where he is recognised having a position of authority and responsibility because he has been faithful in his own life and in his own household.” (homechurch. com)
Many of us today are uneasy about using the actual biblical language (ie. elders) because it has lost its meaning through the centuries and has come to refer to so many different things to so many different people. I don’t see this as helpful! If something is lost, before we replace it with something new, I say we should try and find the “original” again… If we lose the biblical terms and replace them with ones of our own (ie. visionary, interns, cell leader, pastoral care team, etc.), when we look at the Scriptures as our mirror, however, we can’t find ourselves! (James 1)
Yours for the Kingdom,