It is important to have regard to the way in which the Lord provides for the spiritual care of an assembly, as made known in the New Testament. Since the scripture constitutes ‘the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints’ (Jude 3, R.V.) – not delivered ‘once upon a time’ and subject to modification by ecclesiastical authorities or to suit modern conditions, – God’s people are responsible to adhere to the teaching and principles of the word of God. Any departure from what it teaches must incur God’s disapproval both here and hereafter. To disregard these principles and to substitute human devised arrangements is to act derogatorily to the authority of the Spirit of God, the divine author of the scripture, and to dishonour the Lord.
It becomes clear upon a consideration of what the New Testament teaches as to the appointment of men to exercise the oversight in an assembly, that such brethren receive their function from the Spirit of God and not from human appointment or ordination. When the apostle Paul sent from Miletus to Ephesus and called to him ‘the elders of the church’ (Acts 20. 17), that is to say, the elders of the church in that city, he said to them, ‘take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock in the which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops’ (verse 28, R.V.), or overseers. Overseers is a literal translation of the word episkopos, from which the word bishop is derived.
The care of the church or assembly at Ephesus, as recorded in that chapter, is given by way of illustrating the mind of the Lord concerning this matter, and is not an exceptional instance. In churches previously formed in Lycaonia elders in every church had been ‘appointed’ (14. 23, R.V.). The word rendered ‘appointed’ is the same as that in 2 Corinthians chapter 8 verse 19 (the only other place where it is used in the New Testament), where it says that men were to be ‘chosen’ for a special purpose. Those who were thus appointed for spiritual work were men evidently already fitted for it, and their fitness was the result of the Holy Spirit’s operation.
The Epistle to the Philippians is addressed to the saints there ‘with the bishops and deacons’, these together acting in one church. In the island of Crete, Titus was enjoined to set in order things that were wanting and ‘appoint elders in every city’ (Titus 1. 5), never a single elder or bishop over one church. The postscript in the A.V., at the end of the epistle, stating that it was written to Titus, ordained the first 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.
A number of elders together were exercising spiritual care of the church at Thessalonica. That is clear from the exhortation to that assembly, ‘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, RV). This is very instructive. It shows that the well-being of the church could not be maintained without them. It shows also that their authority was based, not on human appointment, whether by an individual or by the election of the church, but upon the relation of all to the Lord.
The way in which departure from apostolic instruction gradually took place is easily traceable. There is an intimation of it in the case of Diotrephes (3 John 9). That was not the only case. Moreover, the remedy for evils does not lie in human devices. To substitute clericalism for the principles and instruction of the Word of God was a gross departure front the faith. If we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, let us follow its teaching. Let us beware of professing one thing and following another. Let us obey God rather than men.
After the recent series of articles on the Book of Judges readers will better be able to appreciate the force of the following message.