‘The idea that elders direct the affairs of the church, make decisions in all corporate matters, handle all of its problems, and supply all of its teaching is alien to New Testament thinking. Such an idea is pure fantasy and bereft of biblical support. It’s no wonder that in elder-led churches spiritual maturity atrophies and members grow passive and indolent… The elders were not part of a chain of command that put them under Christ and over the church. They weren’t part of a hierarchical pyramid. They were simply members of the body of Christ, not an elite oligarchy.’ Frank Viola in Reimagining Church.
I don’t want to nit-pick, but part of the problem I have with the above statements is their use of the word ‘all’. I don’t believe that elders make all of the decisions in a local church, but they do make the policy decisions; they don’t handle all of the problems, but they do get involved in key issues and major problems; they don’t supply all the teaching, but they are responsible for what is taught. My main concern, in interacting with Viola’s statements concerning eldership, is that they reflect a critique of a particular understanding of the role and function of elders. I don’t regard church government by a group of elders as rule by an elite oligarchy, and nor do I believe that government by elders causes members to grow passive and indolent. On the contrary, when elders function as they should then the members of the local church are freed and equipped to minister and mature.
I appreciate that we cannot be dogmatic concerning forms of church government because the biblical evidence is not conclusive. However, my conviction is that government by a group, a plurality, of elders under the leadership of a lead-elder is closest to the model presented in the New Testament. For instance, Paul told Timothy not to ‘neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you’ (1 Timothy 4:14). The book of Acts records that Paul stopped at Miletus on his way to Rome and called for the elders of the church of Ephesus to come down to meet with him. When they arrived he told them to ‘keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28).
Viola comments on Acts 20:28 that the word translated as ‘of which’ can equally be translated as ‘among which’ and he uses this observation to strengthen his contention that elders are merely mature and wise believers who function individually within a local church. I like the translation ‘among which’, as per the New American Standard Bible, simply because it says something about how elders ought to see their role. Elders are among the people, not above them; they serve the people, not lord it over them.
Viola also picks up on the Jerusalem council meeting recorded in Acts chapter 15 and contends that the whole Jerusalem church came together to decide on whether or not Gentile Christians needed to, in effect, become Jews. Verse 4 could, I suppose, give this impression because it reads, ‘When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them’. However, the passage continues with, ‘then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question (Acts 15:5-6). This group, guided by Peter and James, came to a conclusion and the account ends with the whole church choosing Judas and Silas to take a letter, setting out the ruling of the Apostles and Elders, to the Gentile believers.
In my final post in this series I will respond to Viola’s contentions regarding the professional clergy.