The New Testament gives a constant and uniform testimony of the mind of God concerning the provision and work of those to whom is committed the care of local churches. The various passages relating to this subject are not merely the records of facts; what is written is the Divine will for all churches, not only in apostolic times but throughout the present era. As in other matters the Word of God is not only sufficient for all, it is binding upon all, and those who desire to be conformed to His will and to act in loyalty to Christ, will adhere to the teaching in subjection to Him. It requires no laborious scrutiny to observe from Acts 20, that elders are bishops (or overseers), that there are more than one exercising the care of a single church, and that they receive their function from the Holy Spirit. From Miletus the Apostle “sent to Ephesus, and called to him the elders of the church” (verse 17) – obviously the elders of the church in that city (cp. Rev. 1, 2). In his address he says, “Take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock in the which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops” (verse 28, R.V.). Not only, then, are the elders bishops, but they are figuratively regarded as shepherds, for the local church is spoken of as a flock, and their duty is to “tend it.”
In the churches previously formed in Lycaonia “elders in every church” had been “appointed” (14. 23, R.V.). Again, the Epistle to the Philippians is addressed to the saints there “with the bishops and deacons,” bishops acting in one church. Later, in the island of Crete, Titus is enjoined to “set in order things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every city” (Tit. 1, 5), never a single elder or bishop over one church, much less over a number.
This passage, again, shows that an elder is a bishop; for in describing the character requisite for an elder, the Apostle immediately says, “for the bishop must be blameless” (verse 7). The postscript printed in the Authorised Version at the end of the Epistle, to the effect that it was “written to Titus, ordained the bishop of the church of the Cretians,” is false in two respects, to say nothing of the wrong implication that he was to be resident there. For, firstly, Titus was not a “bishop,” and, secondly, there was not “a church of the Cretians,” there were churches in Crete.
That a number of elders were exercising pastoral care of the church at Thessalonica, is clear from the exhortation to that, church, “But we beseech you brethren, to know them that labour Among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thess. 5. 12-13). This passage is very instructive. That the recognition of the elders is urged shows that the well-being of the church could not be maintained without them. On the other hand, it is clear that their authority was based, not on human appointment, whether of an individual or by the election of the church, but upon the relation of all to the Lord.
The three characteristics of church leaders are again intimated here, namely, that the same persons are elders (men of experience), bishops (exercising the oversight), and shepherds (exercising a pastoral care of the flock).
The remedy for evils is not to be found in human devices. To substitute clericalism for the principles and instruction of the Word of God was a gross departure from the faith. Nor did the humanly devised system remove the evil of dissension. It existed, and still exists, even in the greatest religious systems, notwithstanding an outward semblance of unification.
Let us beware of professing one thing and following another. Let us obey God rather than men. Faithfulness, to His truth may mean suffering here, but it means peace and joy withal, and an eternal reward hereafter. Let us recognise and honour the prerogatives of the Holy Spirit in the churches, and the principles inculcated by Him in the Holy Scriptures.