In the Bible we are told of various positions within the early Christian congregations. Firstly, the disciples of Christ, known as the Apostles. These are the founding members of Christianity, hand chosen by Jesus, and are the ones who wrote the New Testament of the holy scriptures. But we are also told of others beside the Apostles who are in positions of Congregational teaching and leadership:
- 1 Timothy 3:1: “This statement is trustworthy: If a man is reaching out to be an overseer, he is desirous of a fine work…”
- 1 Timothy 4:11-16: “Keep on giving these commands and teaching them. Let no man ever look down on your youth. On the contrary, become an example to the faithful ones in speaking, in conduct, in love, in faith, in chasteness. While I am coming, continue applying yourself to public reading, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not be neglecting the gift in you that was given you through a prediction and when the body of older men laid their hands upon you. Ponder over these things; be absorbed in them, that your advancement may be manifest to all persons. Pay constant attention to yourself and to your teaching. Stay by these things, for by doing this you will save both yourself and those who listen to you”.
- 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the older men who preside in a fine way be reckoned worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching“.
- Hebrews 13:7, 17: “Remember those who are taking the lead among you, who have spoken the word of God to you, and as you contemplate how their conduct turns out, imitate their faith. Be persuaded (peitho) to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive, for they are keeping watch over you as those who will render an account, so that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to you”.
- Philippians 1:1: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and servants.
- Acts 6:3: “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them”.
Formal Positions (Overseers & Servants)
As we can see, we are informed that there are “Overseers”, of which derives from the Greek term; ἐπισκόποις (episkopos), and “Servants” which is derived from διακόνοις (diakonois).
Understanding these words we see that these ones are placed in position to “oversee” and “serve” the congregations. The Overseers perhaps as ministers or teachers, whilst Servants may be assistants to the Overseers, or perhaps are those who simply help in other ways in an official manner with their various gifts (Romans 12:4-8, 1 Corinthians 12:27-28). Whether these be formal or informal “titles” in the early Christian Congregation is uncertain and debated amongst various Christians, but it would certainly imply a form of organisation or arrangement within the early Congregation.
We are also told on several accounts of men known as “Elders”, which in Greek is known as πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros) and is the origin of the term “Presbyter”, used in many churches. It appears this is an alternate name for either an Overseer, or a Servant, as opposed to a separate position all of itself. It is helpful to note, that the term “Elder” has been used previously in the Old Testament also, to refer to “older men” or “mature men”, thus it seems likely that the terms “Elder” and “older men” merely refers to appointed ones in the congregations in general, as seems to be the case where the words are seemingly being used interchangeably at Titus 1.
Qualifications to be an Elder
In 1 Timothy 3, 2 Timothy 2 and Titus 1, we are given the qualifications of both Overseers and Servants:
- 1 Timothy 3:1-10: “This statement is trustworthy: If a man is reaching out to be an overseer, he is desirous of a fine work. The overseer should therefore be irreprehensible, a husband of one wife, moderate in habits, sound in mind, orderly, hospitable, qualified to teach, not a drunkard, not violent, but reasonable, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, a man presiding over his own household in a fine manner, having his children in subjection with all seriousness (for if any man does not know how to preside over his own household, how will he care for the congregation of God?), not a newly converted man, for fear that he might get puffed up with pride and fall into the judgment passed on the Devil. Moreover, he should also have a fine testimony from outsiders so that he does not fall into reproach and a snare of the Devil. Servants should likewise be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in a lot of wine, not greedy of dishonest gain, holding the sacred secret of the faith with a clean conscience. Also, let these be tested as to fitness first; then let them serve as ministers, as they are free from accusation“.
- 2 Timothy 2:24-25: “For a slave of the Lord does not need to fight, but needs to be gentle toward all, qualified to teach, showing restraint when wronged, instructing with mildness those not favorably disposed”.
- Titus 1:5-9: “I left you in Crete so that you would correct the things that were defective and make appointments of elders in city after city, as I instructed you: if there is any man free from accusation, a husband of one wife, having believing children who are not accused of debauchery or rebelliousness. For as God’s steward, an overseer must be free from accusation, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not a drunkard, not violent, not greedy of dishonest gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, sound in mind, righteous, loyal, self-controlled, holding firmly to the faithful word as respects his art of teaching, so that he may be able both to encourage by the teaching that is wholesome and to reprove those who contradict.
- James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly”.
As we can see an Elder must have the qualifications, to be in good moral standing, to be adhering all of the Biblical commands, an example to the community, not in words but in action.
And as much as he should openly be above accusation from others publicly, he also for the sake of his own salvation be above accusation in his own heart, and not committing or living a life of secret sin, lest he come under harsh judgement from Jesus and God. Thus, even if a Congregation wishes for a man to serve as an Elder for their local flock, he himself should be honest in his worthiness before taking up the position.
Shepherds, not Leaders
It is important to note the context of “Christian leadership” and organisation, through Jesus’ words in Matthew 23, who says we are “not to be called leaders” or “masters” (καθηγηταί/kathēgētai).
- Matthew 23:8-21: “But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your Teacher, and all of you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called leaders, for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
- 1 Peter 5:1-5: “Therefore, to the older men among you I give this exhortation, for I too am an older man with them and a witness of the sufferings of the Christ, a sharer even of the glory that is to be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God in you care, not under compulsion, but willingly; neither for love of dishonest gain, but eagerly; neither as lording it over those who are God’s inheritance, but becoming examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd has been made manifest, you will receive the unfadable crown of glory. In like manner, you younger men, be in subjection to the older men. But all of you gird yourselves with lowliness of mind toward one another, because God opposes the haughty ones, but he gives undeserved kindness to the humble ones”.
- Acts 6:5: “This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.”
- Acts 15:22-23: “Then the apostles and the elders, together with the whole congregation, decided to send chosen men from among them to Antioch, along with Paul and Barnabas; they sent Judas who was called Barsabbas and Silas, who were leading men among the brothers. They wrote this and sent it through them…”
This is implying that no Christian is seen to be superior to another, with any sense of overriding authority, but rather, these ones who “take the lead” are merely those who have qualifications to organise and teach on behalf of the Congregation, of whom are all in unity and agreement with one another on the matter, a form of democracy.
Such qualified ones should be “worked with” in humble cooperation by the congregation, submissive to them not as “god-like individuals” or as “unquestionable masters of our faith of our faith and doctrine”, but as to formal organisational arrangements in order that things run smoothly, in the manner that a family or group of close friends work together in cooperation of a project. For example, preparing for a family meal or a house party, one person may “take charge” of making the plans for the event, but they are not the “kings” or “masters” over their other friends or family members because of this (Hebrews 13:17).
Likewise, Elders are not “masters” of the Christian faith, they do not have the final say or authority on matters of Biblical interpretation, controlling the personal lives of the other members of the flock, nor are they to be judges declaring who will be saved and who will not be saved, for only Jesus the Anointed and Yehovah are the true judges of the Congregation and the world.
We are instructed in regard to those put in place as such organisers, to follow their “organisational directive” whilst making sure to “observe their ways”, meaning not to be in unquestionable enslavement to them, but to follow as we “contemplate their conduct and faith” (Hebrews 13:7), meaning we are not to do everything they say just because they say it, but only if it falls in line with what we read in the scriptures. At the same time, these Elders are not to “lord it over”, but are to be humble and open to the words, advice and concerns of others, be in matters of doctrine, teaching or other general matters of life (Timothy 2:24-25, 1 Peter 5:3). The purpose of the Elders is not to rule, but to merely strengthen the faith of others, and to impart loving encouragement and scriptural reminders to their congregation.
Elders are also not “self-appointed”, but rather are appointed by the Congregation as a whole in agreement, as a matter of wholesome and unified arrangement (Acts 6:3, 5, Acts 15:22-23). For example, there may be six Christians who gather together on regular basis, the whole group may notice the two most mature and seemingly knowledgable men of the group, and thus the six together may discuss in a family-like manner, to appoint these two men recognition and authority to take the lead in logistic affairs (just as such happens naturally in biological families, or amongst groups of friends or social clubs).
Thus, to follow in the organisational lead of the Congregation, is a matter of individual observation and conscience, and is not an arrangement of unquestionable totalitarian or autocratic church authority. This is why the passage in Hebrews 13 (which many Bibles wrongly render as “obey”) says “be persuaded” (peitho) or “convinced by” those taking the lead.
Whilst there is scriptural directive to limit our associations with wicked or unrepentant sinners in the Congregation (Matthew 18:15-17, 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15) there are no scripturally granted rights for Elders to punish or outcast those who merely disagree with their teachings or choose not to follow their arrangements. Likewise, neither is there any scriptural arrangement of “apolostic succession” (a successional hierarchy or dynasty of self-appointed leaders appointing other leaders over the Congregation, whilst denying the rest of the Congregation as a whole any say in the matter).
Such an attitude would be in blatant disregard of Jesus’ command to “not be leaders or masters of the faith”, and as such, individuals who merely seek power over others should be watched with caution, lest they become the creators of a “sect” (putting one’s faith and complete unquestioning obedience in uninspired men).
On the contrary, no scripture advocates “you go along with your leaders and their false teachings even if you know they are wrong”, but many scriptures say to keep away from false teachings, teachers, and those who make the uninspired commands of men into doctrines:
- Revelation 18:4: “Then I heard another voice from heaven say: “’Come out of her, my people,’ so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues”.
- 1 Corinthians 10:21: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons”.
- Matthew 15:9: “It is in vain that they keep worshipping me, for they teach commands of men as doctrines.’”
- “I know your deeds, your labor, and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate those who are evil, and you have tested and exposed as liars those who falsely claim to be apostles“. – Revelation 2:2
- “When Peter came to Antioch, I told him face to face that he was wrong… when I saw that they were not really obeying the truth that is in the good news, I corrected Peter in front of everyone… – Galatians 2:11,14
Because nobody today is inspired, nobody can claim the right to infallible teaching or absolute authority over other Christians, and so no Elder, church, organisation, congregation or group can demand absolute obedience or submission to their word, nor to their Biblical interpretations (unlike those of the first century disciples appointed directly by Jesus of whom through holy spirit wrote the New Testament to be the final authority on matters; 1 Corinthians 4:6).
The first century Apostles had the right to tell other Christians what they could and could not do only when under divine inspiration, for they did not speak their “own” words, they spoke “Christ’s words”, and in turn, “God’s words” (1 Corinthians 7:10), but when they did speak their own words they made it clear that it was so, as not to impose their own subjective opinions upon the brothers as if they were unquestionable commands (1 Corinthians 7:12, 25).
No uninspired Christian Elder may claim that a person can only approach God or Jesus through “them” or by loyalty to “them”. In Christ’s own words, he alone is the mediator between God and men. Salvation is not found in loyalty to any man, group, or church, but through the Anointed Jesus.
- “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me‘.” – John 14:6
- “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus“. – 1 Timothy 2:5
In contrast, however, we also should be wary that those in turn who do not wish follow the agreed upon leadership of a congregation are not themselves those lacking humility, and are not merely jealous individuals who want positions of power or influence for ego driven attention, or to gain disciples after themselves, using accusation and projection as their tools of deceit, perhaps even seeking to become Sectarian themselves. A balance is to be struck between refusing to submit to men’s commands, and merely refusing to be cooperative.
- 1 Peter 2:16: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.”
Complaining against and removing an Elder
If there is cause or reason that a Christian should not be in the position of an Elder in a congregation, be it sinful conduct, the promotion of pagan teachings or the committing of a crime, the scriptures state a principle that the accuser must provide a form of evidence of which more than one person can then attest to upon beholding (be it the word of more than one brother testifying, a picture, video, or similar evidence which would convict the accused before others).
- 1 Timothy 5:19: “Do not accept an accusation against an older man except on the evidence of two or three witnesses, Those who sin should be reprimanded in front of the whole congregation; this will serve as a strong warning to others“.
Upon conviction, the other Elders of the Congregation should remove the accused from his position, informing the Congregation.
If a Christian cannot provide evidence, but knows the accused to be in the wrong, they would be in their personal right to follow their own conscience to not follow the organisational lead of that Elder, for it is not said in scripture to be an offence or sin. Refusing to follow the directive of an Elder for personally justified scriptural reasons is not a form of sectarianism, neither is it a sin to report an Elder when being the only witness to him committing a crime. If anything, not reporting a crime as the only witness could be seen to be as “hiding and partaking in his sin” (Ephesians 5:11).
If known to be guilty of a crime, a Christian would be in their rights to report such an accused should they see fit, even if there are no other witnesses to the crime but themselves, for this does not break Congregational law, but falls in with “exposing the works of darkness” and being in submission to “Caesar’s law” of the land (Romans 13:1).
There are scriptural principles in that certain scenarios that such Elders may be reported to authorities and removed from the Congregation without the need of other witnesses, such as sexual assault, rape or child abuse, of which such in such cases, there are never other witnesses by the very nature of the crime committed, being that of a private/hidden crime with the victim as the only witness, and as such the principles of the law and love would override the need for two to three witnesses in this case:
- Deuteronomy 17:6, 22: 25-27: “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.… But if the man encounters a betrothed woman in the open country, and he overpowers her and lies with her, only the man who has done this must die. Do nothing to the young woman, because she has committed no sin worthy of death. This case is just like one in which a man attacks his neighbor and murders him. When he found her in the field, the betrothed woman cried out, but there was no one to save her“.
- Matthew 12:3-7: “He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent“.
Thus, we come to an overall understanding that an Elder is to be scripturally qualified and in good moral standing, not to lord over his position as a pedestal of authority, but is to be appointed by the Congregation in agreement, and is to act as a comforting shepherd and humble arranger of worship and teaching, not coercing anyone to follow them or to obey them, and likewise members of the Congregation are to try and humbly work along with the arrangements of Elders, whilst also making sure not to be enslaved to them as unquestionable leaders or masters of their faith. Everything then is in balance and unity.
“Dishonest scales are an abomination to Yehovah, but an accurate weight is His delight. When pride comes, disgrace follows, but with humility comes wisdom”.