It is a stable principle that those who are ordained as elders [through fasting, prayer, and the laying on of hands] are men who are already doing the work of elders: their service is what qualifies them, as it is the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work and calling in their heart.
Therefore, the apostles were simply recognizing and confirming God’s work when they ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23), a fact that is evident in that they did so on their return trip to these cities:
And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
Notice, even in signifying the Lord’s work in these men, their dependence and faith was upon God to finish the work that He had begun in them.
While we most definitely can declare that the apostles were especially used by God [He established the foundation of New Testament doctrine and practice through them], they were like all saints in 3 important ways:
Their calling was confirmed in their demonstrated character and service (James 2:20, 26).
The sole basis of their authority was their agreement with God.
They exercised authority by persuading and serving under the power of the Holy Spirit.
This kind of authority is contrary to the world’s understanding [and the corrupted lens of the modern, traditional church experience] because it is founded upon service and example [a lifestyle of lifting others up], not lordship.
The example of the apostles is that their words and actions were intended to confirm what God had already done:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
— Acts 20:28
No elder exercises authority over men after the fashion of this world (Luke 22:25-27)–for the conscience of man is to be bound to God–not man. Christ’s charge to His apostles [and Peter in particular, as well as every elder] is to “feed my sheep,” which is to strengthen believers’ understanding of Christ’s doctrine and practice, as examples in the faith.
This is all that Christ has authorized them to do.
Tragically, many believers have been taught to view the body of Christ as an organization, rather than as a holy nation, chosen people, and royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).
This has corrupted men’s understanding of what spiritual authority is and how it operates–for the form expressed in the traditional church system is inconsistent with the nature of the New Covenant–what Christ died on the cross to achieve.
We are no longer under a Levitical priesthood in which only select men have been chosen to minister in a physical temple. Rather, Christ fulfilled these priestly duties by dying for all: and now, as our Chief priest, He has authorized and commissioned every believer to act as His ambassador.
This explains why no one saint is more important than any other: while roles and gifts may differ, we are all equal in Christ.
In fact, Christ’s first act upon ascending into heaven was to distribute His authority among His saints, handing out gifts to men (Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 7:17, 12:7): this demonstrates that the Lord’s sacrifice has effected a change in the law for New Testament believers–a change in how we are to worship [for every saint is personally guided by the Holy Spirit (John 10:3; 1 John 2:27)]–and a change in how authority is expressed under the new covenant (Romans 8:2; Hebrews 7:12).
Now, the function of the New Testament elder is no longer to serve in a physical temple, but to nurture other saints to maturity (Ephesians 4:11-15), helping believers to learn how to use their gifts and fulfill their callings, so they, in turn, can raise up spiritual children of their own.
New Testament elders no longer lead worship [for that is the Holy Spirit’s job under the New Covenant], but rather, assist the Lord in encouraging, comforting, and building up His saints (1 Corinthians 14:3).
Elders are called to strengthen the body of Christ by addressing heresies and speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:11-15), but the true strength of the body is in its joints [the relationships that exist among its members]. We see this unity of purpose and distribution of gifting and authority among the saints in Ephesians 4:11-16:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.
What is the fruit of every saint understanding their responsibility to use their gifts according to the leading and direction of the Holy Spirit?
The saints are unified under Christ’s Headship
The Holy Spirit organizes the relationships among the faithful for purposes of ministry
The influence of every saint’s gift is magnified by its coordination with all of the other gifts in the body
The influence of the body is magnified by the gifts functioning in concert with one another–for the nature of what Christ accomplished on the cross is more clearly communicated–and therefore, the image of Christ is more fully revealed in the earth
More and more souls are saved, and the body is continually built up in love [for God and one another]
Every evil work and hindrance of Satan is defeated due to the saints operating as one body under the headship of Jesus Christ: for His sheep hear His voice, and the voice of a stranger they will not follow (John 10:4-5).
Paul teaches that an authentic revelation of Christ’s atoning work is dependent upon saints being properly positioned within the body, so that they all function according to divine design in accord with every other member. When the joints [the coming together of the 2’s or 3’s] are strong, the body is strong; when our own homes are in order, the whole church will be in order (Matthew 18:20; 1 Timothy 3:5).
Therefore, we see that the structure of the whole church setting is the same as the small group setting: it is like the difference between a single family and a larger family reunion; the size of the group may dictate some practical considerations, but the nature of the interactions remains unchanged.
Of course, the fruit of not following the apostolic pattern of unified worship is perfectly exemplified by the modern, American church system and is described in Ephesians 4:17-19:
This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
Do we not see all of the following in the institutional churches?
The judgments of man in place of the judgments of God
Spiritual blindness [concerning foundational, doctrinal truths and practices]
Spiritual isolation [a lack of real love for and connection to others in the body of Christ]
The headship of men in place of the Headship of God
“Face time” in place of the real sharing of our daily lives
One gift functioning in isolation in place of all the gifts functioning in concert
A lack of conviction and repentance for personal sin
Reprobate lifestyles and a lack of corporate discipline
The teaching of what is wrong in place of what is right
The love of mammon in place of the love of God
Notice, authority on the basis of relationship with God and unity with one another is contrary to the ego-centric pattern of worldly men, which is based upon lust and greed and division and competition (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Conversely, here is our charge:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Notice, real [spiritual] authority is always accompanied by great humility of mind (Philippians 2:3): for which cause, elders are quick to consider the counsel and witness of all the saints:
I said, Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom. But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.
God speaks to His people; and the witness of the Holy Spirit is given to all.
This great truth is apparent in the following account in which there is a dissension because some are falsely claiming that Gentile converts must be circumcised in order to be saved:
And when they [Paul and Barnabas] 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.
–Acts 15:4 [words in brackets mine]
Notice, the whole church receives them [along with the apostles and elders]; and it is the whole church whom they address.
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. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren …
Notice, the apostles and elders were all in one place with the rest of the gathered saints–but now they come together to reason–for they were distributed throughout the assembly. [Is this not the best way for them to strengthen the people?]
Pointedly, they were not sitting together on a raised dais or platform: but had taken their placeas brothersamong the saints of God.
Moreover, they reason publicly [in the midst of the assembly], and their conclusions are addressed to all the saints.
Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.
The assembly recognizes the function of headship and is willing to consider Barnabas and Paul’s words because it is evident to them that their concern is for the people.
Notice, also, how headship functions are rooted in submission–first, to God, and then to one another and all the saints of God–as evidenced by the fact that they submit their reasoning to the people.
And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.
And here, we see the participative nature of the New Testament assembly at work among the whole church [a gathering of all believers from that area]: “Let the prophets [teachers] speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace,” (1 Corinthians 14:29-30).
Again, the elders are persuading not simply one another, but the whole church, for all the saints have the same Witness.
Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church [a unified witness], to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: and they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: 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.
Notice, they act as one body: the elders confirm true doctrine, the Lord chooses His emissaries, and the Witness is given to all the people.
And this is the pattern we see over and over again in scripture when matters of controversy arise, including issues related to church discipline, questions of doctrine, and the ordaining of new elders: principally, the Lord speaks to His people, and the elders confer, but take counsel with all the saints of God.
The people belong to God; and the elders rule according to that pattern, as servants of God and the people:
But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.
And here we see the divine dichotomy of God at work among the elders: they are charged with the oversight of the people; but their authority is expressed in acts of service, as one under the people instead of over them.
Why is it that ruling one’s own home well is a necessary qualification for functioning as an elder within the assembly?
The chief charge of the elder is the same as that of a husband: they are to be the first example of everything they want to see in their homes and assemblies—as servants to their wives–and the people.
[It should be noted that elders are to give themselves to prayer and study of the word, according to Acts 6:2.]
Their example in service is what qualifies them to lead.
Moreover, this is why they are valued and respected by the people.
And these things lead to peace …
And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves.
–1 Thessalonians 5:13
Notice, there is a mutual submission at work here–for the elders are only able to exercise authority as agents of the Holy Spirit called to teach the Lord’s truths–to the extent that the people are willing to esteem them highly in love for their work’s sake.
Does a husband force his wife to do anything?
Neither do elders exercise authority in this way either.
Consider the example of the husband and wife. The husband has authority, which in actuality is a responsibility to be the first example in everything godly. What happens to his authority when his wife submits to his example?
Is it not true that God blesses her for her submission by granting her grace and every godly petition, including those relating to her husband?
Who then has the authority: the husband or the wife?
God’s authority flows through all believers to the extent that they come into agreement with the word and will of God. We are all alike in that way.
Therefore, allspiritual authorityis exemplified through submission to God and one another: and perfect peace and divine order [in marriages and assemblies] manifests throughmutual submission, as the following verses attest:
If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth. How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
–1 Corinthians 14:23-26
We know that Jesus is the leading Personality of an assembly when we see elders encouraging these “all things” to be done, which is the people of God participating as one body with the work of the Holy Spirit.
We would do well to continue in the Lord’s teachings.