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The Authority of Elders

Authority has fallen on hard times.  Once assumed to be central to civilized society, authority is now considered evil, awful, and overbearing in form.  French leader Charles de Gaul summarized our one-time attitude.  "I grew up to always respect authority," he said, "and respect those in charge."

Now, after the social revolution of the last decades of the last century, attitudes have changed Counter-culture 1960's hero Timothy Leary said, "Question authority."  The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards added, "Kick authority in the teeth (and) use both feet."

Changing attitudes toward authority have reverberated through the church.  Once it was said, "There are two absolute authorities on earth, captains on the bridge of their ships and elders in churches of Christ."  Now, elders worry about excercising any authority at all and members cringe whenever the words authority and elders are included in the same sentence.

Formal leadership in Churches of Christ is accomplished by elders.  The "office" (I Tim. 3:1) of elder is served by several (Acts 14:23, Tit 1:5) men (I Tim. 3:2, Tit. 1:8).  This "body of elders" (I Tim. 4:14, NIV) or "council of elders" (ESV) (a) feeds their flock with the word of God, (b) sees to their souls (Acts 20:28, Heb. 13:17), and (c) manages congregational affairs.  Accomplishing these tasks requires a fine balance of authority, qualifications, and openness.

Authority

Four different New Testament words are used to describe the authority of elders.  All are used interchangeably of the same office in Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5,7; and in I Peter 5:1-2.

  • Presbuterous conveys the influence of age and experience.
  • Episcopos conveys the guardian and superintending management of elders.
  • Poimen conveys the figurative "shepherding" influence of elders.
  • Oikonomos converys the "stewardly" say-so of elders as directors of church affairs.

Qualifications

Rigorous qualifications allow some men to make use of the four-fold authority as elders.  Three areas of skills, aptitudes and characteristics are outlined in I Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, I Peter 5:1-3.

  • Job related - elders must have lived lives that exhibit the skills and abilities required of their office.
  • Family related - elders must have demonstrated through the conduct of their families that they have been excellent leaders of their own homes.
  • Personal - elders must have displayed the highest in moral and ethical character.

Meeting those standards, elders deserve to be imitated (Heb. 13:7, I Pet. 5:3).  They are to be obeyed as those who have authority over us (Heb. 13:17, I Tim. 5:17).  The warm response due them (Heb. 13:24) includes a shield against malicious gossip (I Tim. 5:19) so their task of watching for our souls will be joyful and not burdensome (Heb. 13:17).

Balancing Limits/Openness

"Power corrupts," said Lord Acton, "and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  Because of this, no authority should exist without limits.  Beholding to "the chief shepherd" (I Pet. 3:4), elders are not to lead as overlords (I Pet. 3:3).  Further, they must continue to conduct their lives in honor of biblical expectations at the cost of public rebuke (I Tim. 5:19-20).

Quickly coming to mind is the Bible's expectation that "The wisdom from above is...peaceable, gentle (and) reasonable" (Jas. 3:17).  Being reasonable or "open to reason," elders should not back themselves into unyielding corners.  Wise elders, like the apostles in Acts 6:3, seek input from the flock they shepherd.

Conclusion

"Moral authority is never retained by any attempt to hold on to it," said Mahatma Gandhi.  "It comes without seeking and is retained without effort."  So it is with the delicate balance among authority, qualifications, and balancing limits in the work of elders.  Elders who stand only on their authority will ultimately fail.  Only elderships that earn and retain principled respect will stand.