The local assembly is not, as some may think, a place where everyone does that which is right in his own eyes. Since it is God’s assembly, His order and not human expedients must be our guide. We lament the government that is seen in national systems of religion, where we can definitely see the departure from the will of God in that the rulers are appointed by higher ecclesiastics. Let us therefore turn from the traditions handed down from the early “Church Fathers”, from the decisions of all the “Church Councils” ever convened, and seek by the help of God to follow the simple pattern laid down in the Word of God. “God hath set some in the church … governments”, 1 Cor. 12. 28, and our responsibility is to recognize the Lordship of Christ by submitting to any rule that He may establish. This rule was administered (not legislated) by overseers or elders (otherwise called bishops or presbyters) in the New Testament churches. Since elders were needed in apostolic times, are they needed less now? Is there less need for godly rule and faithful shepherding now? Are there fewer wolves now than then?
The subject of assembly government, namely overseership, is one of the most important in connection with the local assembly found in the Epistles. We shall consider this subject under seven headings.
What chaos and confusion would exist in any sphere without rule of some sort. There would be no peace and prosperity in national or local spheres without rule. We could not imagine a country without a government, a city without local administration, a family without parental restraint, an educational institution without authority, our business systems without proper management, the armed forces without officers. We have an appalling description given us in the closing chapter of Judges, when there was no kingly rule, 19. 1; 21. 25. This is an illustration of what an assembly would be like without government. Since God is not the author of such disorder, it is His will that there should be godly rule maintained in His assembly. “Rule in an assembly is a spiritual matter and it is the spiritual who will own in heart and conscience those whom God has set in their midst to do a shepherd’s part. It is evidently the will of God that there should be rule in each assembly, and, where the Spirit of God and His prerogatives are honoured, leaders, sooner or later, will be raised within it” (W. R. Lewis).
They are designated “elders”, Acts 20. 17, “overseers”, 20. 28, “pastors”, Eph. 4. 11, “bishops” (overseer), 1 Tim. 3. 2. It is clear from these Scriptures that the terms are synonymous and refer to the same persons.
Some have the mistaken notion that all aged men are elders, but the Scriptures indicate otherwise. Paul writes of the “aged men” in Titus 2. 2, but this word is a different Greek word from that for “elders” in Acts 20. 17. Thus we are warranted in saying that overseership is not confined only to the aged, but to any who aspire to this work, who are called of God and able to instruct, guide and give godly counsel to fellow believers. The actual number of physical years neither qualifies nor disqualifies one for overseership. Rather the word “elders” refers to spiritual experience and maturity. W. E. Vine gives the meaning of “not a novice”, 1 Tim. 3. 6, “… not a recent convert, referring rather to want of experience than merely to youthfulness. Maturity of experience is not necessarily limited to men of older years: what is essential is that one whose duty it is to take care of an assembly should have had years of experience in the things of God; that is to say, in practical apprehension of the truths of Scripture and in matters relating to Christian life, as well as in those connected with a local assembly; thus, having been proved, he will be approved of God”.
We should also remark that what are usually designated “oversight meetings” are often nothing more than plain business meetings, and by attending such meetings some brethren think that they are elders in that particular assembly. This is a mistaken notion, as we shall see as we proceed with our study.
It is interesting to note, in the history of Israel, that there were always elders among them, functioning from the time of the bondage in Egypt, Exod. 3. 16, up to the days of the apostles, Acts 25. 15. Moses was instructed by the Lord to bring before Him men whom “thou knowest to be the elders of the people”, Num. 11. 16. Had he not made them elders? He had not! They had already shown themselves to be “elders of the people”, and because of this Moses chose them to share with him the responsibilities of leadership.
Who, then, authorizes or appoints elders? In the early days of the history of the church, it was the apostles or their delegates who appointed elders, Acts 14. 23; Titus 1. 5. We must be clear that there is no foundation for the present teaching in Christendom that this authority has been handed down to succeeding generations. A. G. Clarke has written, “We conclude then that the procedure was inaugural, and not intended to be continued once these assemblies were provided for”. Who makes or sets overseers in an assembly? The Holy Spirit. But it is very evident that there may be many self-elected overseers today and many assembly-elected ones as well. Some ask, “What would be the proper procedure if one had the desire for such a work and also possesses qualifications?” There are no specific directions in the New Testament for a procedure of any kind. Since the existing overseers are spiritual guides, should they not be able to guide the assembly in this matter also, being on the look-out for brethren having the requisite qualifications, indicating them to the assembly and having them join the others in their prayers and counsels? Some say, since the Holy Spirit appoints elders, we need do nothing. While it is true that a man will never be an elder unless he is made thus by the Holy Spirit, it has also been explained that “in the New Testament there were both human and the divine sides. On the one hand, the Holy Spirit fitted men for overseership; on the other hand, these men desired the good work, 1 Tim. 3. 1, and when qualified they were formally recognised as such”. So we conclude that the authorization is definitely from the Holy Spirit (the divine side), but that the aspiration is of men (the human side).
To be continued.
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