The Government of the Assembly

G. B. Fyfe, London

Part 5 of 7 of the series The Assembly - its Fellowship and Functions

It is axiomatic that in the assembly everything should be done in a becoming and an orderly way - "by arrangement". In God's house there must be no confusion. All things must be subject to a divinely-appointed system of control. As we well know, the Head of the Church is Christ in heaven, and the Holy Spirit is on earth resident in the Church. The Spirit's sovereignty must at all times be acknowledged by the saints and, in an instrumental way, godly order in the local assembly must be maintained by the elders in particular, and, in a lesser sense, by the deacons. In this article we focus our attention first of all on the elders.

The Elders. 1. Their Designations. We encounter three different words in the New Testament which all refer to the same individuals in the assembly, namely, "bishops", "overseers" and "elders". The term "bishop" is exactly the same word in the Greek as that translated "overseer" (episkopos). It is regrettable that "bishop" appears as an Anglicized term, and is not uniformly translated in the Authorized Version (as it should have been) by the word "overseer". With complete accuracy, therefore, we can substitute "overseer" for "bishop" wherever it occurs in the New Testament Scriptures.

Overseer describes the function of those so designated, and the third word "elder" (presbuteros) alludes to the person, indicating spiritual maturity, wisdom and experience. Thus, in the New Testament, "bishop", "overseer" and "elder" all stand for one and the same person. Much confusion is avoided when we bear this fact in mind. Christendom has departed from the divine pattern of church government, and none of the divisions therein, such as Papacy, Episcopacy, Presbyterianism, complies with the Scriptural teaching.

2.    Their Ordination. Having cleared the ground concerning their designations, we now consider how those individuals became elders or overseers. In the early days, elders were ordained in the assemblies in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch by the apostles, Acts 14.21-23. Apostolic authority was operative then^ sometimes even by those delegated by Paul, like Timothy and Titus. But now elders are appointed neither by men nor by a local church. God appoints them. "Take heed ... to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers", Acts 20.28. The saints are simply required to recognize by their moral qualities, and their ability to do the work, those God-appointed men. Not a few assemblies in our day seem to be uncertain about this procedure and as a result, act contrary to the Scriptures. We have even heard of elders being elected by the vote of the assembly members.

3.    The Qualifications. A review of the qualifications of the elders or overseers, as prescribed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus I, show these to be moral rather than spiritual in nature -qualities as distinct from gifts. Limited space compels us to condense and summarize them under the following keywords :

Ability - ability to rule their own homes and control their own families. Aptitude in teaching the Word (not necessarily from a public platform).

Maturity, An overseer had not to be a novice - that is, not a man who had been recently saved.

Integrity, He had to have a good report of them to whom he was known outside the circle of the assembly - an honourable man in his dealings with his fellows.

Morality. The moral qualities recorded in detail in I Timothy 3 and Titus i had to be in evidence in his life.

Sobriety. He had to be capable of controlling himself. A man temperate in all things.

Identity. One readily recognized as displaying the characteristics and performing the work of an elder.

Hospitality - A lover and giver of hospitality.

As we can see, the conditions are exacting. How many fulfil them all? The standard is very high.

4. Their Administrations. Firstly, we must note the sphere of their functions. It is the local assembly. Theirs is a local charge and responsibility, in "the flock of God which is among you", 1 Pet. 5.2. Elders and deacons must be distinguished from those possessing spiritual gifts, whose ministry may be itinerant as well as local.

Then, the nature of the elders' functions may be defined, in the main, in three words:

Leading. Leadership by example is their role. The eastern shepherd went before the flock and led the way. Elders are guides, 1 Pet. 5.3.

Feeding. "Feed (or shepherd) the flock of God", that is, the part of God's great flock locally, over which they have been made overseers. The sheep and the lambs must be suitably fed and tended.

Overseeing. They are responsible, under Christ, for the moral government of the assembly, 1 Tim. 5.17; Rom. 12.8. To them is given not dictatorial rule, but a supervisory capacity, the exercising of moral authority, expressed in a care for the spiritual welfare of the saints and the glory of Christ in the assembly, (i Tim. 3.5 - here "rule " means "take care of"). They are the guardians of God's order.

Other ministrations, stemming from these, are also ascribed to the elders in the Scriptures.

5.    Their Position. Elders do not form an elite class in the assembly. They are certainly not ecclesiastical officials who constitute the hierarchy of the Church. The term "office" in this context is not found at all in the Greek of the New Testament (although it does incorrectly appear some five times in the Authorized Version). No, the elders do not occupy an elevated position. They are "under-shepherds" who labour among the saints, and are conspicuous by their character and work and not by any badge or insignia of office.

6.    Their Recognition. By reason of their moral qualities, and the fact of their performing the task of oversight, the assembly will recognize those who are the true elders in the local company, 1 Thess. 5.12. They have to be respected, 1 Thess. 5.13; they have to be responded to, Heb. 13.17 and remembered, v.7. If they rule well they have to be doubly recompensed, 1 Tim. 5.17 - in some cases, perhaps even in a material sense, v. 18.

7.    Their Reward. In a coming day they will receive from the hand of the Chief Shepherd Himself an unfading crown of glory - admirable reward for all the labour expended and the weariness experienced by the diligent overseers.

The Deacons. These are different from, although associated with, the elders in the local assembly. We confine ourselves to several of their salient features.

1. Their Functions. As we have already seen, the elders' function is to rule (or, oversee). The deacons' purpose is to serve. The word "deacon" is the Anglicized form of diakonos", which means "a servant". Not, however, a bond-servant (doulos) in this case, but a ministering servant (diakonos). In the New Testament the word is used generally to denote all forms of service, not only temporal, but spiritual as well. It designates (in the technical connection being considered here) those who serve the assembly in temporal and material things. The service may be intermittent, or it may be of a regular kind. We may discern in the seven men appointed to serve tables in Acts 6 an example of "diaconite" service. Two of those, be it noted, were spiritually gifted in a marked way also - Stephen as a teacher; Philip as an evangelist. Moreover, a brother might well be an elder and a deacon at the same time, provided he possesses the necessary and separate qualifications for both ministries.

2.   Their Appointment. It would appear that when the service involved was of a temporal and material nature, men appointed them (e.g. - the service of assembly treasurer), but when of a spiritual order, it was God who did so (e.g. - a teacher or evangelist).

3.    Their Qualifications. The qualifications of the deacons are less exacting than those of the elders, as indeed are their functions. Their credentials, enumerated in 1 Timothy 3, are in some cases similar to those of the overseers. One important omission though (understandable in those concerned with temporal and material duties) is the aptitude to teach.

In conclusion, concerning the elders we read, "The word is faithful: If any one aspires to exercise oversight, he desires a good work", 1 Tim. 3.1 j.n.d. Relative to the deacons, Paul also writes "those who shall have ministered (diakoneo) well obtain for themselves a good degree, and much boldness in faith which is in Christ Jesus", 1 Tim. 3.13 j.n.d.