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Does the existence and recognition of elders indicate that they have positional authority?

Posted by on Sep 1, 2011 in discipleship, elders, office | 9 comments

Does the existence and recognition of elders indicate that they have positional authority?

This is the fourth post in my series on “Authority among the church.” In the “Introduction” post, I simply laid out the series of questions and issues that I plan to cover in this series. In the second post, I pointed out that Jesus responded negatively when asked about “positions of authority under his own authority.” In the third post, I answered the question, “How does someone lead without exercising authority,” by stating that among the church people lead from the influence of the life as an example to others, not by positional authority.

In Scripture, we see elders recognized/appointed among the church several times. Paul and Barnabas recognize/appoint elders when they were traveling back home on their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). There were elders among the church in Ephesus when Paul was returning to Jerusalem for the last time (Acts 20:17). Paul included the overseers among those he addressed in his letter to the church in Philippi (Philippians 1:1). (Yes, I’m using the terms elders and overseers interchangeably.) Paul told both Timothy and Titus how to recognize who was qualified to be elders/overseers (1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9). Peter and James talked about the elders among the scattered churches that they addressed (1 Peter 5:1-3 and James 5:14).

Doesn’t the recognition/appointing of elders indicate that these people had positional authority among the church?

No. To put it simply, elders (and other leaders) are always addressed as being among the church, and never over the church. Thus, they are not positional separate from the church, but are mature people who live in a way that makes them an example to others.

Two of the passages involved are usually thought to indicate that elders (or leaders) have some type of positional authority: 1 Thessalonians 5: 12 and 1 Timothy 5:17.

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you… (1 Thessalonians 5:12 ESV)

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)

The participial phrase “who are over” in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and the participial phrase “who rule” in 1 Timothy 5:17 are actually from the same verb: proistemi. This verb can mean “be at the head of, rule, or direct” which would point to positional authority. However, the verb can also mean “be concerned about or care for.”

There’s a huge difference between “those who are over you” and “those who care for you.” But, if we look back at Jesus’ statement about the “greatest” and the “leaders” among the church (Luke 22:26), it seems that he disallows the the “be at the head of, rule, or direct” meaning of the verb proistemi. But, his statement perfectly falls in line with the meaning “be concerned about or care for.”

So, even these two passages (1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 1 Timothy 5:17) cannot be used to suggest that elders are “over” or “rule” the church without contradicting Jesus’ statement in the Gospels. Instead, if we understand the passages to point to those among the church who are caring for others, then they not only fall in line with Jesus statement, they also show how the elders (leaders) are those among the church who are doing a good job of caring for others.

Furthermore, if we look at the fuller context of the 1 Thessalonians passage, we see that elders are not functioning or working separately from the church, but along with everyone in the church:

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you [are concerned about you] in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 ESV)

In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, we see Paul urging the “brothers and sisters” toward admonishing, exhorting, and helping others, just as he said the “leaders” were doing. We respect those who are doing a good job of caring for and admonishing others, but we also recognize that caring, admonishing, etc. are the responsibility of all the brothers and sisters.

In each case, we see that elders/leaders are not over or separated from the church and given positions of authority. Instead, they are those among the church who are doing the things that all believers should be doing. And, in doing what all believer should be doing, they become good examples for others to follow.


“Authority Among the Church” Series

  1. Authority among the church? Starting a new series.
  2. What did Jesus say about positions of authority under his own authority?
  3. In the church, how does someone lead without exercising authority?
  4. Does the existence and recognition of elders indicate that they have positional authority?
  5. Does shepherding and overseeing suggest exercising authority?

Addendum: The most pervasive argument against positional authority among the church


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-1-2011

    This is why I cannot be part of the institutional church.. under many “what we beleive” as members is that you submit to the rule of the elders..

  2. 9-1-2011


    Just remember that submission can only be offered freely on your part, never required or coerced by the other person. Anything required or coerced is not submission.


  3. 9-1-2011

    It also is weird to forcibly ‘under’ someone just because you chose to go to a certain congregation. Even as a young man I knew that most of my ‘elder rulers’ were not exactly fit to ‘rule’ me. It makes no sense. If we’re all under Christ and the ground is level at the cross…then why have we made a ladder to climb up to Him? We are just so dead-set against community it seems. My motto the last several years has been, “we’re all in it together or not at all”. And my leadership ‘over’ others has hopefully been one of service and not ‘title’.

  4. 9-1-2011


    “Doesn’t the recognition/appointing of elders indicate that these people had positional authority among the church?”

    NO!! And you make the point admirably. I love that last paragraph!

  5. 9-1-2011


    As a servant, I have no right to expect a position or title, and in fact, even being offered either would seem strange… for a servant?

    Aussie John,

    Thanks… and thanks for your example! I wish I could witness it first hand.


  6. 9-1-2011

    Spot on

  7. 9-2-2011


    Thank you for the thought, but my health has meant that I am unable to do anything for some time. I’m in the process of examinations and an MRI to ascertain if anything can be done to ease pain and allow some normality.

  8. 9-2-2011

    The Romanist Church, which perhaps can be charged with the formation of the distinct “clergy” rather than the organic Body of Christ system of Church governance, uses the example of the Last Supper.

    According to their doctrine, the Last Supper was where Jesus instituted the “priesthood” – those who were charged with maintaining the observance of Mass (Eucharist/Communion). It is this doctrine that seems to have sparked the belief in a hierarchical and authoritarian Church governmental system, and even after the Reformation, much of this belief lingered.

    Yet a reading of the Last Supper from English translations gives no evidence for this doctrine, and in fact it is countered in other parts of Scripture, not least the passage where all believers are called a “royal priesthood”.

    The Apostles were charged with ministering the Word, and their advice was often sought (such as in the matter of deacons in Acts), yet the only examples I can see where a authoritarian position is taken is in the instance where Paul excommunicates two of the brethren so that they “may learn not to blashpeme”. A similar exommunication takes place in 1 Cor, but here Paul offers his firm advice and not an authoritarian command.

    Overall, Alan, I follow your argument and see its Scriptural and Church history basis. I am also learning greatly about the need of being a servant not a master in the ministries I am moving in and can see great application, but I am still seeking an application to bring into my own church fellowship (which, by the way, is part of the Anglican hierarchy, yet is also much less “Anglican” than most Church of England churches).

  9. 9-2-2011



    Aussie John,

    Praying that God gives you more strength, health, and years to continue impacting people like me and my readers.


    Thanks for the great comment. I’m glad that these posts have been beneficial for you.