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In the Bible, there are clear guidelines concerning the qualifications of the elders. They must be able to rule themselves and manage their own family, and they must know how to deal with outsiders. They must have much assurance concerning God’s truth and must be able to teach it. We will list the qualifications as follows:
(1) Ruling themselves. Why does a person have to rule himself? When a person cannot rule his own temper, he cannot manage the church of God. Subduing one’s own heart and spirit is the most difficult thing to do. If a man cannot submit to the authority of Christ, he cannot make others submit to Christ’s authority. In 1 Timothy and Titus, the words concerning an elder not being one who drinks excessively, or who strikes others, etc., refer to the aspect of the self-control of an elder. In short, an elder must be one who can rule himself.
In addition, an elder must be the husband of one woman. All those who have had concubines cannot be an elder because this means that such a person cannot control himself.
(2) Managing one’s own house. If a man cannot manage his own house, he cannot manage the church. If he cannot manage his own children, how can he manage the brothers? The eldership is a position; it is not a gift. Teachers, shepherds, and evangelists are gifts. But eldership refers to a person’s position in the church. Therefore, such a person must be experienced and capable. His house is his testing ground. If he cannot make his wife and children submit to him at home, and if he cannot be a good husband or a good father, he cannot be a good elder in the church. In dealing with his own wife and children, God puts him to the test to see if he can deal with the brothers and sisters.
At the same time, God also uses our job and the things related to our office, school, and hospital as a test. If a man is efficient at his business, in managing a school, in conducting himself in his office, and in directing his children and servants, he can manage the church well. If a man cannot manage these things, he cannot possibly manage God’s church in a proper way.
(3) Having a good public testimony. An elder is a person who represents the church. Sometimes an elder has to represent the assembly to deal with outsiders. If he does not have a good testimony, the whole church will be slandered. When a person has a bad reputation in public testimony it does not necessarily mean that he is bad. However, if a person has a good reputation in public, it surely means that he is somewhat good. Therefore, a good reputation is important, while a bad name does not necessarily mean much. In this world, men primarily say bad things about others; few say good things about others. The Chinese say that those who are in the public eye are “under ten eyes and under ten fingers.” Few people say good things about others. Most people tend to destroy the reputations of others. If men can find something good to say about a person and give good marks to him, then he surely must be somewhat good. If a greedy, self-centered, and defiled son of Adam can call a Christian a good man, then the Christian surely must be good.
(4) Having much assurance in the truth of God. Since the work of an elder is related to the church and not to a worldly organization, he needs to have much assurance in God’s truth. To do other things, it is not absolutely necessary to have a good reputation or to have much assurance in the truth; one does not need to be apt at teaching the Bible to do other things. Yet an elder must be apt to teach the brothers and sisters. An elder is a doorkeeper of the church. What happens when all the brothers want to preach? The elders must consider who should preach and who should not preach. They should find out who are flippant ones, undesirable ones, and incapable ones. They should be able to render the brothers much encouragement as well as discouragement. If they do not have much assurance in the truth, they will think that all the brothers are equally good and that everyone can preach. In this way, they will be men of no discernment.
At the same time, an elder must be one who can differentiate and judge. He should be able to judge the kind of teachings that should be introduced to the church and the kind of teachings that should be rejected. If the elders do this, the brothers will not become confused in the messages they hear. (For a detailed discussion of the above qualifications of an elder, see 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1.)
(1) The elders are the overseers. The Bible calls the elders the overseers. The work of an overseer is to oversee, which is to observe from above. In particular it means to detect the dangers that are coming to an assembly and to be aware ahead of time of the dangers that may come to individual brothers or to the whole assembly. Among us, we have many brothers and sisters. It is hard to avoid problems or weaknesses or to be free from sin, discord, dishonesty, failure to repay loans, disgraces, or scandals in dealing with outsiders. When these things happen, the responsible brothers or those who are doing the work of an elder should step forward to deal with such matters. They should not allow the leaven to enter the assembly. These unofficial elders should deal with all these shady matters among the brothers. This is their responsibility. They should come to your house to ask about these matters and deal with them. When they come into your house, you should submit to their decision because their decision is the Lord’s decision; their authority is the Lord’s authority.
The authority asserted by the Catholic Church is too much. Its failure lies in its outward practice. However, the inward reality of their proposal is correct. The problem is that they only have the outward form without the inward reality. If they had the inward reality, they would be right. They would have the proper authority if they were joined to the source in exercising their authority.
(2) The elders express opinions and make judgments on various matters. Only the elders can express their opinion concerning certain matters. No brother can stand up in the meeting at will to express his opinion concerning what to believe and what not to believe. If any brother does such a thing, he is overturning the authority of the elders. Therefore, only the elders have the authority to judge, utter declarations or announcements that are directed toward the public, and make judgments concerning disputes in truths; this is not the work of ordinary brothers. An ordinary believer can only speak on his own behalf. An elder can speak on behalf of the whole church. This is because he is under the Head and is speaking on behalf of the church. This relates to the order in the church.
(3) The elders manage the matters and meetings related to the sisters. In the Bible, we see only brothers as elders; we do not see sisters as elders. The place God has assigned for the sisters is to be under someone’s ruling; they do not have a place in ruling over others. God does not allow women to manage the church. In the Bible, there are deacons and deaconesses, but there are no female elders. This shows that in managing the affairs of the church, God wants the man to be the head of the woman. Therefore, the sisters should learn to submit by the grace of God. If there are some among the sisters who can serve others, they can do the work of this service. But if anything needs to be decided, the decisions should be made by those who are responsible as the elders. For example, if some among the sisters want to be baptized or be received for the bread breaking meeting, the sisters can testify for them, but the final decision rests with the elders. Some sisters may have the gifts and may be respected by other brothers and sisters, but the question of position and authority is more important in the Bible than the question of gift, and the question of God’s truth is more important than the question of ability. Suppose the sisters would like to have a sisters’ meeting at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. The sisters can express their opinion and check with the responsible brothers. If the brothers think that this is proper, they will not stop it and will allow the sisters to meet accordingly. If the sisters do this, they are not acting independently but properly and in oneness. This shows that their meetings are not private meetings but meetings of the church.
Why do the sisters have to follow this procedure? The reason is that the sisters tend to be emotional and are easily deceived. The elders are there to protect the sisters. If everything concerning the church is decided by the brothers, the sisters will be protected and preserved in their covered position, and they will avoid many problems.
Every problem that arises is corporate in nature and is not the problem of an individual. The elders have a responsibility to properly oversee the matters related to the sisters. While the sisters are standing on the ground of submission through submission to Christ’s authority, the elders should not shun their responsibility through fear of offending the sisters or of arousing suspicion. Of course, there are limits to the authority of the elders. But we must not forget that Barak was before Deborah and became the head covering to Deborah (see Judg. 4:4-7).
(4) The elders should manage the matters related to the church meetings and preaching. The elders should control and forbid errors that may arise in the church. For example, in the meeting, some brothers may stand up to say some improper words. Those who do not have the gift of teaching desire to speak many times; it seems as if they are addicted to preaching. Those who have the gifts, on the other hand, do not like to speak and would rather hide themselves. Therefore, when the elders notice that men who are not suitable to conduct Bible study or to preach are trying to do these things, they should stop them. If some brothers pray, preach, or give announcements in an improper way, the elders should notify them after the meeting, explain their mistakes to them, and forbid them from doing similar things again. If the elders do not do this, these brothers will go on with their behavior. You may think that you should be patient with these ones. But the weaker ones will not be able to stand them. For this reason, you have to take up the responsibility to notify them.
Please understand that there is not a strict organization among us. Even when believers who have not left the denominations request to be received, we receive them. Our door is wide open. Everyone in the denominations who is saved can come and break bread with us. Suppose that some of them purposely try to entice some of our brothers and sisters to join them in their Bible study in their homes, after breaking bread with us, or suppose that they gather some of the brothers and sisters who are meeting with us to listen to their opinionated doctrines. When this happens, the church will be divided through their speaking. Whenever things of this nature occur, any brother or sister should report it to the “elders.” We must wait until the responsible brothers announce in the meeting that certain people will have meetings in their homes before we can all go. Otherwise, these kinds of meetings in the homes should not be held. It does not mean that we have no personal liberty. But we should submit to God’s authority and control and enjoy the liberty of the limitations of the meetings. Our familiarity with certain persons often brings in leaven through conversations with them, and a sect is formed which endangers the whole lump. Therefore, the brothers have to pay attention to this matter, learn to submit to authority, and not do things that the elders have not endorsed.
(5) The elders make decisions concerning the Lord’s Day meeting and write letters of recommendation. Whether the Lord’s Day meeting should be held in the morning or in the afternoon is a matter to be decided by the elders. The writing of a letter of recommendation is also not something that every brother can do. Sometimes, you may write a letter recommending a person to the brothers in another locality. However, only letters written by the elders can represent the church. This shows once again that the elders represent the whole church. They are responsible for overseeing the church and keeping the church from trouble. Therefore, the elders have to learn to serve properly and exercise their authority properly, while the brothers have to learn to submit.
(6) The elders are the patterns. After the elders are appointed and acknowledged, they should be respected by the brothers. At the same time, the elders themselves should take up their responsibility with fear and trembling. They should consider themselves as having no authority. The Bible tells us these two aspects of the truth in a wonderful way. To the brothers and sisters, the elders represent God’s authority, and everyone should submit to them. But to the elders themselves, they have no authority. After hearing about the authority of the elders, are we not afraid that the elders may misuse their authority? What would happen if they began to lord it over us? But God tells the elders, “Therefore the elders among you...shepherd the flock of God among you, overseeing not under compulsion but willingly, according to God...nor as lording it over your allotments but by becoming patterns of the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1-3). The elders do not have any authority in themselves; they only have the authority of God. If you are in Christ, understand God’s heart, and are able to tell others about God’s heart, you are the true authority. The elders should not lord it over the flock. They should be careful to submit to God’s authority and be a pattern to the flock. Only then can they demonstrate their authority to the brothers and sisters. On the one hand, the brothers should submit to Christ’s authority, which the elders represent. On the other hand, the elders themselves should realize that they have no authority in themselves and that they are there merely as patterns. (Concerning the authority of the elders, please see the books of 1 Timothy, Titus, and Acts 20.)
(7) Accusations against the elders. The books of Timothy tell us, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19, KJV). In this matter, we should pay attention to two points. First, there must be a written accusation; words from the mouth do not count because many times words alone are groundless and can easily be denied or changed. Second, there must be two or three witnesses; the testimony of one is not reliable. In the Bible, two or three witnesses constitute the word of testimony. The apostles and those whom they have specifically assigned should be responsible for handling such accusations. I would draw your attention again to the fact that because there are no official apostles today, there are no official elders. There is only a group of people who are doing a part of the work that the apostles did at the beginning. Since they are responsible for appointing elders, they are also responsible for dealing with elders.
God’s gifts transcend local boundaries, but position is strictly related to the locality. God’s gifts, such as the evangelists, shepherds, and teachers, can function anywhere because these gifts are given by God to the whole church (Eph. 4), and they are for all the local assemblies. No worker can rule over any one particular congregation, as pastors do today in the denominations. In the Bible one cannot find such a thing. If you can edify the believers in Shanghai, you can also edify the believers in northern Kiangsu. If you are a teacher, you can teach the Bible in Shanghai and also teach the Bible in northern Kiangsu, Nanking, or Tsinan. You will never lose your ability as a teacher by moving to another place. If you are an evangelist, you can preach the gospel in Shanghai, and you can preach the gospel in northern Kiangsu, Nanking, or Tientsin. If you cannot preach the gospel in Shanghai, you cannot preach the gospel anywhere else. It is impossible to find a person who cannot work in one place but can work in another place. This is not a question of knowledge. It is absolutely a question of whether or not one is a God-appointed gift. If you have the gift, others will be saved and helped through you, no matter how much knowledge you have. The amount of knowledge you have will not make any difference. What is a gift? A gift is an ability that God gives to the Body of Christ through Christ the Head. This ability does not change. I can illustrate this with an example. Suppose that there is a concrete worker in Shanghai. If he is in Nanking, he is still a concrete worker. Suppose that there is a tailor who is very skillful at sewing. Whether he is in Shanghai or Peking, he can still make a good dress. In the same way, circumstances will not change a gift.
But the same is not true with the eldership. The eldership is absolutely a question of locality. A person who is an elder in Shanghai is not an elder in Nanking. Because of differences in spiritual conditions, backgrounds, circumstances, educational standards, and the habits of different local assemblies, a man can be an elder in Shanghai but may no longer be able to serve as one in northern Kiangsu. A man may be an elder in the village, but not an elder in the city. This is absolutely a matter of locality. The gifts in the Bible are for the whole church, while the elders in the Bible are for the local churches. Therefore, those who have the gifts should not remain in one place all the time; they should instead go to other places and distribute their gifts to others. An elder should take responsibility in his own locality all the time. Consider the illustration of the concrete worker again. Suppose that you are a foreman among numerous concrete workers in Shanghai. If you move to Nanking, you will still be a concrete worker by profession, but you may not be able to be a foreman anymore. Doing concrete work is your ability, and your ability remains with you even after you have moved to Nanking. But the foremanship is a position; when you move to Nanking, your position as a foreman is gone. In the same way, there is a difference between office and gift in the Bible. An office and a position is for a local church, while a gift is not just for a local church. However, the mistake most easily committed is that when an elder in one locality moves to another locality, he asserts his own opinion there as well. This is wrong. Do not think that just because things are done one way in northern Kiangsu, it has to be done the same way in Shanghai. The educational standard and means of communication, etc., in northern Kiangsu may be different from those in Shanghai. You cannot use the same method in different places. However, gifts are different; if you are a gift in northern Kiangsu, you are one in Shanghai also.


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