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