By Sam McKeen
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. Matthew 20:25-26
My goal in writing this article and subsequent articles is to share my own journey in how my understanding of the church has grown and developed. I have come to a place where I recognize that some of my views on the structure and function of the church are based more on traditions and culture instead of scripture.
I have been a part of a local church since I was a child. Every single church that I have been a part of over the years had a single Pastor and either a Deacon and/or Elder Board. All of these churches had a congregational form of government. This meant that the Pastor and the Elders and or Deacons served as elected “officers” of the church. In the day-to-day function of the church, these individuals were viewed as holding a position of authority over the rest of the church and the church was to submit to them. The authority these individuals had was based primarily on the position or office that they held within the organizational structure of the church.
For years I considered this to be a good and healthy form of church structure. I didn’t question this organizational structure as it was the tradition that I grew up with. It was familiar to me and I had been taught and knew all the biblical arguments in support of it.
I have since come to the realization that there are many issues with this structure and other structures of church government. While the scope of this article will not allow me to get into all the reasons; it is sufficient to say that this system has created an unhealthy culture within the church and is a departure from what is taught and modeled in the New Testament. There is a lot that could be said about the function and structure of the local church but let us get to the primary question that I want to address in this article:
Are Elders supposed to rule over the church and is the church supposed to obey them?
Do Elders really have the authority to rule over the church? Are those who comprise a local church supposed to obey and submit to the Elders? Note: I am including Pastors when I refer to Elders.
My initial questioning of this topic originated from both my experience and convictions. I have personally experienced and observed the abuse of authority and power by Pastors/Elders in the church. Also, my conviction about what the New Testament teaches about the church and how it is described seems to be disconnected from the structure and practices of the church today, especially when it comes to church governance.
Are Elders to rule over the church?
Let us look at two passages that are used to argue for Elders’ “ruling”.
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. – 1 Timothy 5:17 (ESV)
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 (ESV)
The words “rule” and “over” in these passages seem out of place in the context of the rest of the New Testament. The idea that certain members of a local church rule over others is in direct opposition to what Jesus taught about how his followers are to function in their relationships with one another. So why is this terminology used in these verses? Unfortunately, there are times when certain translations translate words in a way that is biased to their culturally conditioned religious terminology. This is one reason that you have likely heard a sermon where the speaker gave the original Greek word and explained its definition as it gave greater clarity to what the writer was communicating. Looking at the original Greek word for “rule” and “over” in these two verses does just that.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:12, the word “over” is translated from the Greek word, “proistemi”. This word communicates the idea of superintending, guarding, and providing care. In this instance, it is not used in the noun form so it does not have the force of an official designation. So instead of “over you” a better translation would be “care for you”.
In 1 Timothy 5:17, the same word “proistemi” is used. Again, it is incorrectly translated as “rule” in some translations.
The idea being communicated to the biblical audience in these two passages is that “of watching out for and guiding”, rather than ruling. Facilitating and superintending rather than dictating and dominating. So, from these passages, one could say that the function of an Elder is one who as a part of a church strives to guide and care for that church.
Okay, but isn’t the church commanded to obey its leaders in Hebrews 13:17?
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. – Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)
The word translated as “obey” is not the usual Greek word that is used in the New Testament for obedience. It is the Greek word “peitho”. Peitho means to persuade or to win over. In fact, in Greek mythology, Peitho is the goddess of persuasion. So, this verse could be translated “Allow yourselves to be persuaded by your leaders”. It is an exhortation to give weight to the teaching and guidance of the Elders in the local church and likely also the apostolic workers that ministered to the church.
The word “submit” is the Greek word “hupeiko”. It carries the idea of yielding or withdrawing. It is not a demand to submit. Those who serve as Elders by virtue of their wisdom, spiritual maturity, and godly example ought to be given respect. The church is encouraged to listen and be persuaded by them because of who they are and their sacrificial service to the church. Consider Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
Another aspect of this passage that is used to argue for the idea of hierarchical positional authority is that those who lead the church are held to a special level of accountability. However, there is nothing in this verse that demonstrates that this accountability is unique to a position of authority in the church. All believers are accountable to God for their actions including how their actions and words impact the family of God, the church. There are many “one anothering” passages in the New Testament that clearly communicate the responsibility we bear for one another as members of the body, the church, regardless of position.
It shouldn’t surprise us that God’s idea of leadership within the church looks so different from what we see in the world. After all the church is a living organism and not an organization. It should concern us that the church has taken the organizational structures of the world and forced the biblical roles and functions of the church into them. This has created institutional thinking within the church. As a result, the focus of many churches is primarily on the form instead of the proper functioning of the church.
In conclusion, arguing that the New Testament teaches that Elders have been given the authority to rule over the church and that the church is supposed to implicitly obey them is simply wrong. Jesus Christ is the head of the church. All believers derive their authority from him. All believers exercise spiritual authority when they are representing Christ with their words and deeds. It is an organic authority that should be demonstrated and communicated in love. The response when this type of authority is communicated ought to be a willingness to submit to one another in love.
I hope that this article has been helpful to you and at the very least has prompted you to consider your own views of church leadership and governance. There is a lot more that could be said on the matter but for now, I will leave it up to you to do further study if you so choose to.
God and His Word must be our source of truth and not our own knowledge, opinions, or traditions. It can be difficult to look at something that we assume is correct and question it, but at the end of the day if it moves us closer to our God and His will for us, it is well worth it.