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 act in loyalty to Christ, will adhere to the teaching in subjection to Him.
The instruction given does not admit of human accretions. The devices of men, however specious and plausible, fail to accomplish the designs of the Lord, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. The teaching, unvarying as it is throughout the canon of the New Testament and the apostolic ministry which it records, should have been heeded and followed throughout subsequent centuries, instead of being modified and adapted to suit human opinions and convenience. If we hope to receive the approval of the Head of the Church hereafter, let us submit to the claims of the Word of God, and follow it at all costs, in devotedness to Him whom we recognize and own as Lord.
Bishops in every Church
We turn then, to what is set forth in the Word of Truth. 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’, v. 17, – obviously the elders of the church in that city. In his address he says, ‘Take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock in the which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops’, v. 28, R.V. (Authorized Version ‘overseer’ is a literal translation of episkopos, from whence also the word ‘bishop’ is derived).
Not only, then, arc 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’. The word in the original denotes not simply ‘to feed’, but to do all that devolves upon a shepherd. They arc therefore to exercise pastoral care, acting together as pastors over the local company.
The case of the church at Ephesus is illustrative and not exceptional. In the churches previously formed in Lycaonia ‘elders in every church’ had been appointed, 14. 23, R.V. (The word cheirotoneo, rendered ‘appointed’ [A.V. ‘ordained'], is the same as in 2 Cor. 8. 19 [the only other place where it is found in the New Testament]); at Corinth men were to be ‘chosen’ to take a monetary gift to Judaea. Here in Acts 14. 23 a formal ecclesiastical ordination is not in view. The apostle chose men who were already evidently fitted for the work. The churches did not choose their leaders. The context makes that clear. (Sheep do not choose their shepherds). 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 ciders in every city’, Titus 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’, v. 7, R.V. The definite article here obviously does not point to a particular individual, but represents a type (cf. 1 Cor. 12. 12). The passage clearly provides no ground for the functioning of a single bishop. The postcript printed in the Authorized Version at the end of the epistle, to the effect that it was ‘written to Titus, ordained the first bishop of the church of the Cretans,’ 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 Cretans; there were churches in Crete. That neither Timothy nor Titus was a ‘diocesan bishop’ is clear from 2 Tim 4.9 and Titus 3.12. 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 Thcss. 5. 12, 13, R.v. 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 the individual or by the election of the church but upon the relation of all to the Lord. When the qualifications of overseers had been put on record, to guide the churches in the recognition of those who had been put over them in the Lord, apostolic appointment became unnecessary. That the elders ‘are over’ them (literally ‘stand before’, and so lead and care for them ‘in the Lord’) limits the scope of their authority to matters spiritual. See also Heb. 13. 7, 17.
Tending the Flock
Elders are to ‘tend the flock of God … exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according unto God, nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock’, 1 Peter 5. 2, 3, R.V. 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). It is highly significant, too, that the word kleros, from whence the word ‘clergy’ is chiefly derived, and which is here rendered ‘charge allotted’, stands not for church leaders but for members who are cared for by them! How glaringly Christendom, owing to the force of unscriptural influences and the bias of human opinion and tradition, has reversed the situation! The medieval and modern ecclesiastical systems, so far from being founded upon the Word of God, are contraventions thereof.