(Section from the book titled Which direction is the Church going to? by Sandor Abonyi)
This section can download in PDF form here: How does eldership function
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Now let us go into details concerning how the more than one person leading of a church can function. The answer is the following: in human ways it cannot! As a matter of fact this is also a case of leading through one person, but this person is not human but the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who leads the church through the prophetic Spirit and through more people in a Biblical way.
Eldership is not leading by a “committee” consisting of more people – as many people are inclined to think. Eldership means that many people are lead by the Holy Spirit and they act in unity of thoughts and deeds.
Is it necessary to have pre-eminence among the elders?
We should examine what the Word writes about presbyterian leadership in a church. Is it necessary to have a first among the equals? It is necessary to discuss this topic for this question spontaneously comes from our human way of thinking and many are of this opinion. However, the thoughts of God are not the thoughts of people.
In the mind of God elders are all entirely equal, there is no pre-eminence among them. Peter was not pre-eminent either, as a lot of people reckon. The expression “Peter stood up with the eleven” means that he was equal with the other ones. The reason why he spoke first was that they could not all speak at the same time avoiding this way chaos. (For example:the fact that Aaron spoke instead of Moses does not mean that he was over Moses (he was the boss). He spoke only because Moses didn’t want to speak and therefore God gave Aaron a gift to speak.)
Some negative examples from the Word:
“But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and said unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” (Mar. 9.34-35.)
“I wrote to the church: but Diophretes, who loves to have the pre-eminence among them, received us not. Therefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words: and not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to putting them out of the church.” (3Joh. 1.9-10.)
“Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mat. 20.28.)
“And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence.” (Col. 1.18.)
We can see clearly from the Word that there is no pre-eminence in the Church. God doesn’t allow it even if somebody is an apostle. Peter as an apostle calls himself a partner of presbyters.
“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:” (1 Pe. 5.1.)
Why is it important to speak about this? Because of the following: if there is a person who is the first among the equals, who has more rights than the others or in some well defined cases is over the others in certain aspects, then the seed of one person leadership is already in the ground and it is only a matter of time when it is grown and bears fruit.
Is it necessary to have anybody as a spokesman (representative) among the elders?
A solution might be if somebody among the elders as an appointed spokesman presents the opinion of the others. From the following verses Peter may seem to be a spokesman when speaking in the name of more people.
“But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, you men of Judea, and all you that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words:” (Act. 2.14.)
“And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, you know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.” (Act. 15.7.)
“And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:” (Act. 15.13.)
As we can see from the above examples Peter didn’t stand up alone but with the eleven. This expresses the equality of elders but it was him who actually spoke inspired by the Spirit. In another case we can see that it is James who stood up and asked permission to speak. It is the Holy Spirit that appoints the person and the occasion He wants somebody to stand up and speak.
The equality of the apostles is also shown by the following story: when at the house of Cornelius apostle Peter began new and important things initiated by the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit had filled the gentiles too), he had to give account to the other leaders. They decided together, with joint responsibility, about the things that had happened there.
In the Word we can find that among the leaders some people are considered pillars according to the grace given to them.
“And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. “ (Gal. 2.9.)
Pillars have the privilege to hold big burdens. Consequently they are several times in the center of attention, as for example Peter and John, but beside them there were the other apostles as well (the elders of the church in Jerusalem). The rest of the twelve apostles are little known about, nevertheless, they were apostles (the elders of the church in Jerusalem), too. With the presentation of Peter and John together the Word wants to express precisely that no single person but two people together at least who are to represent any church. It doesn’t mean that the pillar is a boss, because three bosses within the twelve could not have existed at the same time.
The importance of elders in a local church
Here arises the question whether there is any difference between the importance of the elders. The Word does speak about certain differences. We can read about presbyters whose rule should well be counted and who are pillars.
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine” (1Ti. 5.17.)
“Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all that others also may fear. I charge you before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.” (1Ti. 5.19-21.)
The elder of a church is an experienced, tested believer living an unimpeachable life which is an example to follow for other believers. However, the authority of the elder is set within boundaries by the Word, and God surely knows very well why it has to be so.
The fact that already two or three witnesses are enough to accept a charge against an elder means that the Word doesn’t allow big authority for an elder to have in the church.
Some words about authority
Different Bible translations use the words authority, greatness, power and richness as synonyms.
“And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold.” (Gen. 13.2.)
“For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed.” (Est. 10.3.)
“His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east. “ (Job. 1.3.)
“But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it makes no matter to me: God accepted no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me:” (Gal. 2.6.)
“Nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherished her children.” (1Th. 2.6-7.)
Leadership based on human authority and submission is not biblical. We have false understanding of the Word if we try to verify it by referring to the submission of the soldier to Cornelius centurion, because the kingdom of God is not a dictatorship.
God did give authority (empowerment) to us in the name of Jesus to destroy all works of the devil. This authority is only valid to be exercised over evil spirits and never over people. This was the new science shown by Jesus when He started his ministry. He took authority over evil spirits who were in the people and drove them out, but He never took authority over the people the evil spirits were in. These people could keep their free will and could carry out their own decisions. God gave the right to all people to decide freely over their lives. Man is allowed to choose good but is also given the right to choose bad if he or she wills. God advises us to choose good, because it is only the Creator who knows what is really good for His creatures. If man is not allowed to make his decisions it may lead to the formation of dangerous sects for a leader derived from the truth can browbeat many people into decisions they don’t really want.
The elder as an example
The Word obviously demands all elders to live committed lives to be examples for believers to follow.
“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.” (1Pe. 5.2-3.)
The Word is spiritual, however, it is very practical at the same time, for it shows younger believers how to follow Christ through the example of experienced believers. This is why the Word suggests that believers should pay attention to the lives of their elders (especially to the end of their lives) and learn from that.
“Remember them, which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.” (Heb. 13.7.)
It is interesting to note that right after mentioning the elders as examples the Word says that
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines.
This means that the life of Apostle Paul (and the end of his life) is an example for us to follow even in our days. The lives and work of present day elders should be judged on the basis of his example. What great courage and unimpeachable life is needed for the elders of churches to be able to state together with Paul:
“Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as you have us for an example.” (Phi. 3.17.)
“Be you followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” (Co. 11.1.)
“For even hereunto were you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps:” (1Pe. 2.21.)
“For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” (Joh. 13.15.)
The perfect example for us is Jesus therefore both elders and believers have to follow him. At the same time elders should be examples for less experienced believers, the same way Jesus is an example for them. No way is an elder a boss (absolute authority: dictator), but he is an example believers watch and obey him ” for their own interests because elders watch over their souls.”
Requirements for elders
Let us have a look at the requirements elders must meet according to the Word.
“This is a true saying, if a man desires the office of an elder, he desires a good work. An elder then must be
– the husband of one wife,
– vigilant, sober, of good behavior,
– given to hospitality,
– apt to teach;
– not given to wine, no striker,
– not greedy of filthy lucre;
– but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
– one that rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” (1Ti. 3.1-7.)
Today we would call it requirements for leaders. I believe that originally God thought this valid for all male leaders not only church leaders. Unfortunately, in the ungodly world of the last times these requirements can- not at all be expected of the leaders of the world.
Cabinet members are obviously known to be money-grabbers, corrupted, immoral and aggressive. Unfortunately the present condition of the world has an influence on the Church also, therefore if we look at our surroundings we can only find a few elders who are blameless. In the churches there are women-pastors, young pastors with only theoretic, theological knowledge, money-grabbers, competition, conflicts among denominations, the stressing of success and in some cases fornication. These are the things that are most characteristic of our church-leaders today. However, it would be necessary to have good testimonies towards the world as well.
God expects both leaders and believers to respect God’s Word from this point of view, too.
What can we do about this?
– We have to see clearly that God has not modified the above requirements in the meantime neither has He authorized anybody to change the Word.
– It is necessary for leaders to have sincere repentance.
– And finally, if nothing else helps, elders have to be admonished.
Man is not God, therefore elders are not infallible either. Since elders are not devoid from temptation it might happen that they need to be admonished because of something. If an elder’s life is not immaculate or does something wrongly the Word tells us what to do in such a situation.
“This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” (2Co. 13.1.)
“Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.” (1 Ti. 5.19.)
We can see that it is enough to have two or three believers as witnesses in a church to admonish an elder, like any other believer. These things are not meant against elders but are important for each one of us.
If elders cannot be or simply are not admonished if necessary, it will result in serious consequences for the Church, the Body of Christ. If the life or work of an elder can have anything against, he is a bad example for the others so he can cause a lot of problems in his church. God expects an elder to take an admonishment seriously and if it is rightful, to accept it and to change his life and work into the right direction. If he doesn’t accept the admonishment or accepts it only formally without actually changing his deeds, he is disobedient to God and cannot be taught. Such a person can become a dictator in the future and it is possible that it becomes too late for him to change his ways and to find the place of repentance. Believers have to subject themselves to the Word and keep the stages of the admonishment of elders. If this does not help, then God rejects the elder who has become unworthy and instead of him God finds a better one.
To ensure the purity of church life and in order to build the Kingdom of God it is very important for believers to exercise their responsibility to admonish the elders of the church. It is also in the interest of elders to have their attention called in time until it is too late. It is very important for elders to learn to accept admonishment and to remain in humility.
Can we find any examples in the Bible for the admonishment of elders? Certainly, there are a lot of examples for that in the Word. Prophets in Old Testament times admonished kings very often, but we can see plenty of other examples as well:
– Prophet Samuel admonished king Saul because of his disobedience.
– Prophet Nathan wisely admonished king David because of his adultery.
– Prophet Elijah admonished king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Apostle Paul admonished the apostle Peter because he was a hypocrite among the Jews.
Relationship between the ministry of elders and other ministries
Even if somebody has an apostolic ministry, he does not have the right to rule over the elders, to be their superior or boss.
“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:“ (1Pe. 5.1.)
In the Word we can find several verses where the leaders of the church are called apostles and elders; though most of the time they are mentioned as elders. Why are they called different names? Apostles usually go around visiting different local churches. They spend a longer period of time here and there, but mostly have a permanent residence, as well. Apostles are partners of presbyters in the work of the church where they live. In the case of having no apostles in a church elders themselves form the group which make decisions. This was the case in the church of Jerusalem, too.
“When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” (Act. 15.2.)
“And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.” (Act. 15.4-6.)
This central decision had a very big importance and was aimed to bring forth unity in a debated question that had divided Jews and Christians at that time. Later in the Bible we don’t find decisions of such big significance. Things that needed to be corrected were written in letters (e.g. Paul’s epistles) or communicated via delegates. They came in form of commands or recommendations. A lot of verses speak only about elders as leadership for a church, similarly to the example we find in Heaven where the elders are fallen down before the King (Rev. 4.10.).
The Ephesian letter mentions five ministries (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher). The relationship between these ministries and the elders can be seen from the following verses:
The apostle, who is also an elder:
“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:” (1Pe. 5.1.)
The prophet, who is also an elder:
„Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barnabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren:” (Act. 15.22.)
“And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.” (Act. 15.32.)
The elder as a teacher:
„Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” (1Ti. 5.17.9
The elders, who are also pastors:
Apostle Paul tells the Ephesian elders:
„Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit had made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he had purchased with his own blood.” (Act. 20.28.)
From the above verses we can see that an elder is a leader in the church which task often comes together with the ministry of an apostle, prophet, evangelist, teacher or a pastor. From the Word we know Philip evangelist as a deacon of the church at Jerusalem. Such relevances are obvious from the Word, however, it is not clear if Apollos, who was a famous teacher, or Agabus, the prophet were also elders or not.
The daughters of Philip evangelist were prophets, but they can’t have been elders, because ladies cannot serve as elders according to the Word.
The leading of the Holy Spirit in practice
Some church leaders to whom I talked to made the following statements:
It is impossible for any church to have no leader, because in that case it cannot function and there will be chaos and turmoil there.
If a church is lead by more than one person it is like as if a committee lead it.
The characteristics of eldership in a church could be put the following way:
– It is not that the church is lead by several people (a committee) rather
– it is the Holy Spirit who does the leading in one person through the elders and the Spirit of Prophecy in the prophets in a church.
When Paul called the Ephesian elders to himself he wrote:
„Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit had made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he had purchased with his own blood.” (Act. 20.28.)
In fact it is the Holy Spirit who would like to be the leader in any church and therefore He makes some people overseers (elders) so that as experienced supervisors they should watch over that the Holy Spirit remains the leader in every time.
Decision making in the church: the Holy Spirit decides
What might be the most interesting is the way God wants decisions to be made in the church. Because of man’s human sinful nature it is difficult for intolerant people who would like to dominate over others to accept it. Let us look at a few verses regarding this:
„As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate Paul and me Barnabas for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” (Act. 13.2-3.)
„It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;” (Act. 15.25-28.)
„Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, are thus minded: and if in any thing you were otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing. Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as you have us for an example.” (Phi. 3.15-17.)
What can we establish from these verses?
- Minister to the Lord and fasting as long as He reveals his will: Who decides is the Holy Spirit.
“As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said,” (Act. 13.2a.)
2. Its necessary that the revelation of the Holy Spirit should confirm things that had been revealed to somebody earlier.
„Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” (Act. 13.2b.)
- Human practical activity should only come after the spiritual part has been done.
„And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” (Act. 13.3.)
- Decision must be made in total unity among each other and with the Holy Spirit, avoiding majority voting, because this is what we and the Holy Spirit really like.
“It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men…” (Act. 15.25.a.)
For the realization of this elders must be in unity, because only if they are in honest community knowing each other’s mind very well can they really know what they should agree about.
„For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;” (Act. 15.28.)
If unity has not been reached (we do not have the same understanding) due to understanding things in different ways so thinking differently about things, the first rule becomes effective: Let’s start praying and God will reveal his will for us.
„…and if in any thing you be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you…” (Phi. 3.15.b.)
- Provided we have come to agreement with somebody can we start doing things which we should also do in unity.
„Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.” (Phi. 3.16.)
It is clear, that God only promotes unity which is based on praying and fasting, where the leader is the Holy Spirit who can guarantee leading if we are in complete unity of action. However, He does not promote us heading forward if we have different opinions. In case we do, we have to lay the differences aside until God creates unity through revelation. So many are the problems in present day churches that originate from not keeping ourselves to the rules the Scripture prescribes us to follow when making decisions!
In the light of the things above we should ponder upon why is it that there is weakness, drop in number and splits within and between churches because of traditional differences in opinion and lack of persistently praying believers.
Obedience is a basic matter in the eyes of God, but what or whom should we obey to actually realize our obedience?
Man – because of his sinful character – is basically rebellious. Everybody has to learn obedience for his or her own sake, because if we are “small gods”, who do not obey anybody, we are like Satan, the father of rebellion.
„Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account,…” (Heb. 13.17.)
Believers, being in their best interest, do well if they obey their elders except they are asked to do things like Peter and John were: not to teach in the name of Jesus. Their natural answer for such question was:
“….., We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Act.5.29.)
Everybody has to learn obedience, not even Jesus could be an exception. According to the Word in the “school of obedience” there are “two main subjects” and these are suffering and humility.
„Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;” (Heb. 5.8.)
„And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phi. 2.8.)
According to the Word obedience is very diverse. The obedience of believers is more than obeying to one person, because it can lead to autocracy and insults the believer in his or her personal freedom and in the practicing of his or her “priesthood”.
Obedience to the Lord and the Word:
„Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (Jam. 4.7.)
„And Samuel said, Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” (1Sa. 15.22.)
Obedience to the heavenly vision:
„Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:” (Act. 26.19.)
Obedience to elders:
„Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Heb. 13.17.)
Obedience to one another:
„Likewise, you younger, submit your-selves to the elder. Yea, all of you be subject to one another and be clothed with humility: for God resisted the proud and given grace to the humble.” (1Pe. 5.5.)
Wives’ obedience to their husbands:
„…Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the Saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.” (Eph. 5.21-24.)
Obedience of children to their fathers and mothers:
„One that ruled well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;” (1Ti.3.4.)
Obedience of the young to the old (elders):
„Likewise, you younger, submit your-selves to the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisted the proud, and given grace to the humble.” (1Pe.5.5.)
Obedience to higher powers:
„Let every soul is subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Rom13.1.)
Obedience to every human ordinance of man (civil laws):
„Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;” (1Pe. 2.13.)
We can see how diverse is the obedience the Lord expects us to perform. If we are able to keep these commands of His in our lives – which is not easy in such a rebellious spiritual world – it is enough if an elder is a model for the flock and he does not need to give commands.
It is very useful for us to learn obedience to all directions, because both obedience and disobedience have consequences.
Consequence of obedience: blessing
„Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; A blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day:” (Deu. 11.26-27.)
Consequence of disobedience: curse
„And a curse, if you will not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known.” (Deu. 11.28.)
„For which things’ sake the wrath of God come on the children of disobedience:” (Col. 3.6.)
„For the froward is abomination to the LORD: but his secret is with the righteous.” (Pro. 3.32.)
„For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you has rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” (1Sa. 15.23.)
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