Response to the House-Church Movement: Part Four
Written by Keith Throop
What kind of authority – if any – do elders have in the churches?
When I first encountered the particular branch of the House-Church Movement (HCM) to which I have been responding in this series of posts, the issue of the authority of elders occupied much of the discussion. The HCM advocates I met seemed to be questioning whether elders were intended to have any real authority at all. They seemed to view them merely as enablers rather than genuine leaders. Seeing that I was puzzled by their views and desirous of a clearer understanding, they graciously referred me to House-Church.org (website of the Chigwell Christian Fellowship) and NTRF.org (website of the New Testament Reformation Foundation) for more information.
The website of the New Testament Reformation Foundation had the most detailed information dealing with the role of elders in the church, and I found much there with which I agreed. For example, they correctly hold to the concepts of plurality and parity of elders and also rightly understand that the terms elder, overseer, and pastor are used interchangeably in Scripture to refer to the same office. They also rightly understand that this office is to be held only by men. I was very pleased to find such a Biblical approach, but my enthusiasm soon began to wane as I discovered what I believe to be the source of the weak view of elder authority I had been encountering in my discussions with HCM advocates. I found at best a real lack of clarity on the issue and at worst a complete denial of elder authority – from Steve Atkerson to some extent in the former instance and from Hal Miller in the latter.
Where I began to encounter some difficulty was when I tried to understand more clearly what their doctrinal statements concerning elders as those who lead and govern really mean. For example, their webpage entitled “Our Beliefs” declares the First London Baptist Confession of 1644 to be their “favorite statement of faith.” This confession states regarding elders:
BEING thus joined, every church hath power given them from Christ, for their wellbeing, to choose among themselves meet persons for elders and deacons, being qualified according to the word, as those which Christ hath appointed in His testament, for the feeding, governing, serving, and building up of His Church; and that none have any power to impose either these or any other.
Without getting into much detail at this point, I observe that this statement says that elders are appointed by Christ for “governing… His Church.” This would seem to imply a ruling function with some degree of authority. However, I was then confronted with this statement on the “Our Beliefs” page itself:
Consensus decisions made by all the brothers, following Christ as Head of His church. Thus, elder-led more so than elder-ruled churches. Though elders are very important to the functioning of the church, decisions are generally to be made by the church corporately, not by its elders only (Mt 18:15-20, Lk 22:24-27, 1Pe 51-4).
Although I agree that the best way to lead a church in accordance with Scripture is through the building of consensus among the members, I confess that I have a hard time grasping the difference between “elder-led” and “elder-ruled” in this context. For example, I struggle to understand what it means that elders are those appointed by Christ to govern in the churches, but that they are not really supposed to rule. What, exactly, is the difference between governing and ruling? I think the distinction is being made in order to stress the importance of elders leading with humility and by example rather than in a domineering way. And if this is all that is intended by it, then I agree that elders should not be domineering or self-serving in their leadership (see, e.g., 1 Pet. 5:2-3). As we shall see, however, some HCM advocates seem to mean more than just this. In fact, they seem to question whether elders are intended to have the kind of authority implied by such terms as governing and ruling in the first place. This is especially clear when reading one of the online articles that seeks to explain the HCM point of view, an article by Hal Miller entitled “An Elder’s Authority: That of Children and Slaves.” In this article Miller attempts to argue that “the New Testament does not say anything about one believer having authority over another. We have plenty of authority over things, even over spirits, but never over other Christians.” Miller obviously believes that this includes elders.
On the other hand, Steve Atkerson is more cautious at this point and does believe that elders have some degree of authority in the churches. For example, in an interesting article entitled “New Testament Church Leadership,” Atkerson states:
[E]lders that [Timothy and Titus] appointed could be expected to do the same types of things that the temporary apostolic workers did on the local level (1Ti 1:3, 4:11 , 5:17 , 6:17 , Tit 1:12 -13, 2:15 , 3:10). From this is it clear that it is proper for elders, in exercising leadership, to authoritatively reprove, speak, teach, and guide. Elders are to “rule well” and “oversee” the churches, taking the initiative in prompting and guarding. (Italics mine.)
Atkerson also later argues that “each elder is equal in authority to all the other elders in the city (there is to be no ‘senior’ pastor nor presiding bishop over a city). A leader’s primary authority is based on his ability to persuade with the truth” (Italics mine).
So, unlike Miller, Atkerson clearly does believe that elders have authority in the churches where they serve, even if he believes it must be exercised with great humility and caution and with due appreciation for the proper role of the congregation in making important decisions. He also rightly sees their authority as based on their “ability to persuade with the truth.” In this regard, Steve Atkerson seems to be on pretty much the same page as the typical Reformed Baptist on this issue. It is baffling to me, then, that Atkerson can go on to cite Miller’s aforementioned article as approvingly as he does:
Jesus’ comments on leadership truly must be the starting point and final reference in our understanding of an elder’s authority. Hal Miller has insightfully observed, “Jesus’ disturbing teaching about authority among his followers contrasts their experience of it with every other society. The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects and make that appear good by calling themselves ‘benefactors.’ They exercise their power and try (more or less successfully) to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church. There, on the contrary, the one who leads is as a slave and the one who rules is as the youngest (Lk 22:24 -27). Lest this lose its impact, you should stop to reflect that the youngest and the slaves are precisely those without authority in our normal sense of the word. Yet this is what leadership among Jesus’ people is like.”
Since Atkerson approvingly cites Miller’s article as an insightful explanation of the Scriptural teaching on the authority of elders, I will turn my attention to it for the remainder of my examination. I will cite and respond to key passages from the article. All texts cited by me are from the New King James Version.
Response to Hal Miller on Elder Authority
Miller begins his Biblical discussion of the issue with an appeal to Jesus’ teaching of the disciples in Luke 22:
Jesus’ disturbing teaching about authority among his followers contrasts their experience of it with every other society. The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects and make that appear good by calling themselves “benefactors.” They exercise their power and try (more or less successfully) to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church. There, on the contrary, the one who leads is as a slave and the one who rules is as the youngest (Lk 22:24-27). Lest this lose its impact, you should stop to reflect that the youngest and the slaves are precisely those without authority in our normal sense of the word. Yet this is what leadership among Jesus’ people is like.
What is interesting about this citation is what it leaves out. Let’s have a look at the whole passage in order to see what I mean:
Luke 22:24-27 “24.Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. 25 And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called “benefactors.” 26 But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. 27 For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.’”
Notice the final statement of Jesus, in which He gives His own practice as an example of what He means. He says, “Yet I am among you as the One who serves.” But the question that immediately comes to mind for me is, Did Jesus set aside His authority when He acted among them as One who serves? The answer to this question demonstrates the problem with Miller’s view of the passage. Unless he wants to argue that Jesus had no authority or never exercised His authority as One who came to serve – a truly incredible position to have to take – then I fail to see how he can say that Jesus intended by this teaching that the disciples would have no authority as future leaders of the Church. After all, if He is the example they are to follow in leading the Church, and He did not set aside His authority when He acted as a servant to them, then why should we think that He intended that they have no authority? Now, of course, we shouldn’t think that they would possess the same authority as Jesus in every way – there are degrees of authority, and they would always be under His authority – but the notion that His teaching here requires that they have no authority at all strikes me as going well beyond anything the text clearly asserts or even implies. But Miller’s claims get even more outrageous:
The most obvious aspect of what the NT has to say about leadership and authority is its lack of interest in the subject. In all of Paul’s major letters, for instance, leaders only appear in Php 1:1, and there only in passing. For the most part, he ignores them, as do the other writers. Jesus’ immediate followers were strangely silent about leadership and authority. This silence, it turns out, is quite significant.
First, Miller apparently doesn’t see either 1 Timothy or Titus as among the “major letters” of Paul. The problem is that they are definitely the major letters in which he addresses the role of elders in the churches. I guess you could say that Paul has a “lack of interest in the subject” if you only want to consider his “major letters” and if you first decide that the letters in which he discusses the subject most fully don’t count as among his “major letters,” but it hardly amounts to a serious line of Biblical argument. One cannot just choose to count only the Biblical evidence that he thinks will suit his purpose and ignore the rest. At least he cannot do this if he accepts all of Scripture as his authority. But, then, Miller seems to have a problem with the very idea of authority, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me.
Second, I find it incredible that Miller can say that “Jesus’ immediate followers were strangely silent about leadership and authority” when there is plenty of indication that they took the issue very seriously indeed. For example, there is the account in Acts of the appointment of elders by Paul and Barnabas in the churches they founded, which means that it obviously was an important issue for them (14:23). And there is the account of the elders’ leadership in bringing the Church to a Biblical decision about the matter of circumcision and the role of the law in the early Church (Acts 15:6-29; 16:4). There is also the account of Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders, which shows how important he thought their leadership to the church there really was (Acts 20:17-35). Then there is the teaching of Paul in the Pastoral Epistles, which serve as handbooks to the proper leadership of the churches for Timothy and Titus, including the proper qualifications for those who would serve as leaders after them (see, .e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:5f.). As a matter of fact, he seems to regard churches as properly ordered only where elders have been appointed:
Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you….”
Paul must have thought proper leadership for the churches was pretty important! But to his testimony we could also add Peter’s instruction to elders in 1 Peter 5:1-4, as well as the important teaching of the author of Hebrews (13:7, 17). Given all such evidence, how Miller could say that Jesus’ immediate followers were “strangely silent about leadership and authority” is beyond me. But he has still more astounding claims to make. For example, after discussing the Greek word dúnamis as not indicating that Christians are to have power over each other, Miller then says:
Things become even more interesting when we turn to the other relevant Greek word: exousia. This word is usually translated as “power” or “authority” and is the closest equivalent to our English word “authority.” The NT’s list of those who have exousia is essentially the same as those who have dunamis: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels and demons. But now, the list extends to humans who are not merely energized by heavenly authority but have authority themselves.
Thus, kings have authority to rule (Ro 13:1-2) and Jesus’ disciples have authority over diseases and spirits (e.g., Mt 10:1). Believers have authority over the various facets of their lives – their possessions (Ac 5:4), and eating, drinking, and being married (1Co 11:10). What is striking, however, is that the NT does not say anything about one believer having authority over another.
The New Testament does not say anything about one believer having authority over another. We have plenty of authority over things, even over spirits, but never over other Christians….
We have plenty of authority over things, and even over spirits, but never over other Christians. Considering how much energy we put into discussions of who has authority in the church, that should be surprising. Kings have authority over their subjects; Paul had authority from the high priest to persecute Christians (Ac 9:14; 26:10-12). But in the church, one believer is never spoken of as having exousia over another, regardless of their position or prestige. The New Testament does not say anything about one believer having authority over another. We have plenty of authority over things, even over spirits, but never over other Christians. With the exception, that is, of 2Co 10:8 and 13:10. In these texts Paul speaks of having “authority” to build up, not tear down. It seems that he, at least, has exousia over other believers. Admittedly, one has to over-interpret the texts in order to make them a real exception since in both cases this is not an authority “over” anyone but rather an authority “for” a purpose.
First, I do not think it is an “over-interpretation” to say that Paul uses the term exousía to describe his Apostolic authority over the church at Corinth. In the context, he is clearly indicating that he has authority to correct them and to command them as he does. That this authority is given for the purpose of building rather than tearing down the churches does not in any way diminish the fact that it is an authority he clearly possesses.
Second, Miller has continued with his practice of selectivity in setting forth Biblical evidence. Why should we look only at the most common Greek word for authority – exousía – and ignore any other terms that might apply? For example, what about Paul’s use of authentéō in 1 Timothy 2?
1 Timothy 2:12 “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority [authentéō] over a man, but to be in silence.”
To be sure, Paul here denies that women may teach or have authority over men in the churches, but does he not indicate by this very exclusion that there are some who may teach and have authority over men, namely other men? Does he not clearly assume a role of teaching and authority in the churches for at least some men here?
Also, what about Paul’s use of kephalē to describe the husband as head of the wife and hupotássō to describe a wife’s submission to her husband as an authority?
Ephesians 5:23-24 “23 For the husband is head [kephalē] of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject [hupotássō] to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.”
Wayne Grudem addresses the meaning of these two important terms in his “An Open Letter to Egalitarians”:
1. kephalē: Where the Bible says that the husband is the “head” (kephalē) of the wife as Christ is the “head” (kephalē) of the church (Eph. 5:23), and that the head of the woman is the man (1 Cor. 11:3), you tell us that “head” here means “source” and not “person in authority over (someone).” In fact, as far as we can tell, your interpretation depends on the claim that kephalē means “source without the idea of authority.”
But we have never been able to find any text in ancient Greek literature that gives support to your interpretation. Wherever one person is said to be the “head” of another person (or persons), the person who is called the “head” is always the one in authority (such as the general of an army, the Roman emperor, Christ, the heads of the tribes of Israel, David as head of the nations, etc.) Specifically, we cannot find any text where person A is called the “head” of person or persons B, and is not in a position of authority over that person or persons. So we find no evidence for your claim that “head” can mean “source without authority”….
2. hypotassō [same word I have cited; different transliteration]: Where the Bible says that wives are to “be subject to” to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5; and implied in Eph. 5:22, 24), you tell us that the verb “be subject to” (hypotassō, passive) is a requirement for both husbands and wives-that just as wives are to be subject to their husbands, so husbands are to be subject to their wives, and that there is no unique authority that belongs to the husband. Rather, the biblical ideal is “mutual submission” according to Ephesians 5:21, “be subject to one another,” and therefore there is no idea of one-directional submission to the husband’s authority in these other verses (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5; and Eph. 5:22, 24).
But we have never been able to find any text in ancient Greek literature where hypotassō (passive) refers to a person or persons being “subject to” another person, and where the idea of submission to that person’s authority is absent. In every example we can find, when person A is said to “be subject to” person B, person B has a unique authority which person A does not have. In other words, hypotassō always implies a one-directional submission to someone in authority….
So, as Grudem so clearly shows, Paul teaches that Christian husbands have authority over their wives, to which their wives are to submit. This will become even more relevant to the issue of elder authority later when I address the qualifications for elders. For now I would just add that Paul also clearly teaches that Christian masters have authority over their slaves and Christian parents have authority over their children. For example:
Ephesians 6:1 “Children, obey [hupakoúō] your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”
Ephesians 6:5 “Bondservants, be obedient [hupakoúō] to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ….”
In both cases Paul clearly sees those to whom obedience is commanded as being under the authority of those to be obeyed. What else could he possibly mean, especially since he tells the slave to be obedient to his master “as to Christ”? Would Miller seriously expect us to deny that this refers to a relationship of authority or to deny that parents have authority over their children?
Well, these are examples of ways in which Scripture can speak of authority relationships within the Church without ever using the word exousía. Miller appears to have committed what I call the word-concept fallacy here. That is, he has assumed that because a particular word for “authority” isn’t present in a text, that the concept is therefore not present. But my previous examples have shown the problem with this, namely that it assumes that there can be only one way that the Bible describes or discusses the concept of authority, and it ignores any other ways in which the Bible might speak to the issue. We will see just how problematic this is with regard to the role of elders in particular as I consider next the terms used to describe elders and their qualifications.
Terms Used For Elders and Their Qualifications
1. Elder (presbúteros): This is a term that was used in the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is important because the LXX was the common Bible for the Apostles and early Christians in the first century, and it provides the proper background for understanding much of the language in the New Testament. And the LXX uses presbúteros to refer to the leaders among the people of Israel. For example, Moses chose to delegate authority to these leaders to judge the people of Israel in many cases (Exod. 18:12-27; Num. 11:16-17). The elders of the people were already regarded as their leaders, but these special men chosen by Moses were also empowered by God to fulfill this ministry of judging the people. From that time onward their were elders who would judge matters among the people, commonly sitting at the city gates (Prov. 31:23). In the first century the elders of the people were still considered to be leaders among them and were commonly listed in this regard along with the other leaders, such as the chief priests (Matt. 21:23). Sadly, they even took part in the judgment of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (Matt.26:57). Although the term undoubtedly took on a slightly different nuance when used by the early Christians, there can be no doubt that it continued to be used by them as a title of respect and authority (See, e.g., 1 Timothy 5:17).
2. Overseer (epískopos): This term also had an established LXX usage. For example, it could refer to Eleazar the son of Aaron as the one in charge of the tabernacle (Num. 4:16), to leaders of the army (Num. 31:14), or to those in charge of public works such as the restoration of the temple in the time of Josiah (2 Chron. 34:12, 17 ). In each case it refers to a position of authority. This term was then taken up by the Apostles as a reference to leaders in the churches (See, e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:2). Can it be that they used the term with no intention of communicating a position of authority? Hardly.
3. Steward (oikonómos): This term was also used in the LXX to describe one who was in a position of authority over a household (Isa. 36:22). In the New testament it is used literally of one who was put in charge of an estate (Luke 12:42) or of an official in charge of public funds and properties (Rom. 16:23), but it was also used by Paul to describe the office of an elder or overseer (Tit. 1:7). The church can be described by Paul as a household (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19), so it is not surprising that he would refer to overseers as stewards, or those in authority over this household.
4. Pastor (poimēn): Paul uses this term to describe the elder office in Ephesians 4:11, in which he refers to it as the office of pastor (or shepherd). This word is used “1) literally, [of] one who takes care of a group of animals shepherd, sheep herder (LU 2.8); (2) metaphorically, [of] one who assumes leadership over a group of believers; (a) as picturing Christ as the head of the church (HE 13.20); (b) as human leaders over a community of believers pastor, minister (EP 4.11)” (Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, by Timothy and Barbara Friberg, Bible Works #22408).
That pastor (poimēn) is another term used in reference to elders is clear when we see that the related verb meaning “to shepherd” (poimaínō) is also used to describe their ministry. For example:
Acts 20:28 “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [epískopos], to shepherd [poimaínō] the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
1 Peter 5:1-2 “The elders [presbúteros] who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder [sumpresbúteros] and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: “Shepherd [poimaínō] the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers [episkopéō], not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly….”
This terminology also has a rich LXX background, being used to describe the leaders of Israel, such as David when he was inaugurated king of Israel (1 Chron. 11:2), the judges that God raised up for Israel (1 Chron. 17:6), or the leaders of Israel in the time of Ezekiel, who had failed as shepherds of the people (Ezek. 34:1-10). In all such cases it refers metaphorically to those who were in positions of authority in Israel. So, when the terminology is used of the leaders of the churches, the connotations of authority would not have been missed by the saints, especially since this terminology was combined with so many other terms indicating authority, as we have seen.
5. Leader (hēgéomai): This is actually a verb used as a participle, the plural form of which is employed as a substantive by the author of Hebrews to refer to “those who rule over you” (13:7, 17, 24). Not surprisingly, this term also has a LXX background, and was sometimes used to describe those who were made rulers (Deut. 1:13) or kings (1 Kings 1:35) over Israel. Again, the connotations of authority are clear.
6.“Those over you in the Lord” (proïstēmi): Paul uses this verb several times with reference to the leaders/elders of the churches. For example, he uses it to refer to the elders at Thessalonica:
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 “12 And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you [proïstēmi] in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.”
Paul also uses the word to teach that one of the qualifications of an elder is that he rule his own household well:
1 Timothy 3:4-5 “4 one who rules [proïstēmi] his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5 (for if a man does not know how to rule [proïstēmi] his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)”
And that Paul sees such rule as indeed extended to the elder’s role in the church is also clear:
1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule [proïstēmi] well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.”
Paul uses the very same word for the elders’ ruling of the churches as he has used of their ruling of their own homes.
An Elder’s Authority: That of Husbands and Fathers
Elder leadership, then, involves the kind of authority that these men exercised in their homes as husbands and fathers. As we have already seen, the husband is the head of the wife, who must submit to his authority (Eph. 5:23-24). And his children must also submit to his authority by being obedient (Eph. 6:1; 1 Tim. 3:4). But if this is what it means for a man to rule his own house, and this is the analogy used by Paul to describe an elder’s rule of the church (which he views as a household, e.g. Gal. 6:10 and Eph. 2:19), how can it be denied that he sees the elders as having similar authority in the church to that of husbands and fathers?
So, the New Testament consistently uses terminology to refer to the elders as those having a position of authority. But this doesn’t mean that such authority is to be exercised as it was by the judges or kings of Israel, for example, for the exercise of authority in the churches is qualified in several ways.
First, as we have seen the authority of the elders is to be exercised in a way similar to that of a husband or father, not a judge or a king. This means, for example, that they will exercise their authority with love, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). They will lead the church “with understanding,” honoring their brothers and sisters in Christ as those who are “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7). They will never exercise their authority in such a way as to exasperate those under their charge, leading them to become discouraged (Col. 3:21).
Second, elders will exercise their authority as those who are mature and posses the fruit of the Spirit. They will exercise their authority with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22). This kind of self-restrained and caring exercise of authority is very different from that of the world.
Third, to sum up, Scriptural elders will exercise their authority as Christ taught and exemplified. When He was preparing the disciples for their future role of leadership in the Church, He said, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42b-45).
But, as I previously pointed out with regard to Miller’s citation of Luke 22:24-27, Jesus did not set aside His authority, or the exercise thereof, when He came as the great Shepherd (Pastor) of the sheep (Heb. 13:20 ; see also John 10:1-30). So there is no reason to think that the elders who serve as His under-shepherds should exercise no authority, as Miller suggests. It only means that they will not lord their authority over the churches in a self-serving way, but instead will follow Christ’s example and exercise their authority with self-sacrificing love, understanding, patience, and humility.
But how might this look in practice? Well, we do have some examples of how the Apostles and their fellow-elders led the early Church when making some important decisions, so let’s examine a couple of them.
First, when there was discord in the church at Jerusalem over the way that some of the widows were being neglected in the daily distribution for the poor, we find that the Apostles developed a plan of action that involved bringing the congregation along in the process. The Apostles determined that it would be good for the congregation to choose from among them seven qualified men that they would appoint over the daily distribution (Acts 6:1-7). But notice that the Apostles themselves determined the plan of action and appointed the men for the task, even though they wisely sought the input of the congregation as to who would be the best men for the job. In other words, they exercised their authority with love and humility. But they did not set aside their authority. After all, the congregation did not come up with the plan or appoint the men to serve. This was a leadership role that the Apostles reserved for themselves. And the congregation clearly looked to them for such leadership, which is why they brought the problem to them in the first place.
Second, when there was a great division over the issue of circumcision, we are told that “the Apostles and elders came together to consider this matter” and that they had much debate about the issue (Acts 15:6-7). But we are also told that there was a “multitude” present that “kept silent and listened” as Paul and Barnabas reported to the them and then James responded with a plan to solve the problem (vs.12-21). Then we are told that James’ plan “pleased the Apostles and elders, with the whole church” to send chosen men with a letter to the other churches describing the decision they had reached. But then later, in Acts 16, we are told that as Paul, Silas, and Timothy “went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the Apostles and elders” (vs.4). So, even though the members of the church at Jerusalem are said to have been present at the Apostles’ and elders’ discussion of the matter and were pleased with the outcome of the discussion, it is also clear that it is the Apostles and elders themselves that determined what was to be done. Thus we have a situation in which the leadership exercised their authority to determine what was to be done, but that they apparently did so in such a way as to establish a consensus on the matter among the brethren in Jerusalem.
What the example of the Apostles and elders shows us is that it is best for the leadership of the churches to lead in such a way as to seek peace and to establish a consensus on important matters, and that they should exercise their authority to that end. Where the elders have done their job and have communicated a wise, Scriptural answer to an issue, the response of the congregation should be that they submit to their leadership in such a way as to make their work a source of joy rather than grief. This is what the author of Hebrews commands, when he says, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (13:17).
In conclusion, it can be said without reservation that Hal Miller is wrong when he tries to argue that “the New Testament does not say anything about one believer having authority over another.” Steve Atkerson is much closer to the Scriptural teaching here, which is why it is hard for me to see how he can recommend Miller’s article as he does. It would seem that there is not a clear consensus between them on the issue. But this lack of clarity does, perhaps, explain why I keep running into HCM advocates that seem to have a hard time admitting that elders should have authority in the churches. It also helps to explain why I see among so many of them such a de-emphasis on the role of elders when compared with Scriptural teaching. Perhaps I will deal with another possible reason for this de-emphasis in a future blog post focusing on the misunderstanding of the word ekklēsía among some HCM advocates.