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In every churcha plurality of elders was appointed.
When Paul and Barnabas revisited and confirmed the societies of
Christians they had established, and "when they had ordained them
ELDERS in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended
them to the Lord in whom they believed" (Acts 14:23). These churches
might have very few members, because of the great difficulties with
which they had to contend prevailing heathenism and persecution. Yet,
in the smallest church, elders – a plurality – were
ordained. There were elders in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, as in
Ephesus. The first place where the gospel was preached in Europe was
Philippi, a noteworthy city of ancient Thrace. There the Lord opened
the heart of Lydia; there the jailer and all his house, upon believing,
were baptised. A church was organised which met with determined
opposition. Ten or twelve years thereafter, Paul wrote, as we have
seen, to the church there: "Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus
Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus, which are at Philippi, with
the BISHOPS and DEACONS." The Epistle was not sent to one bishop or
elder, but to a plurality, along with the other constituent parts of
the Church. In Crete, too, Paul notes down that Titus was left there
for the special purpose of setting "in order the things that are
wanting, and ordaining elders" – a plurality – "in every
city". By apostolic appointment, no church was to be wanting in the
services of several ordained elders.
And there was a division of labour amongst these officers.
This was to be expected from the appointment of many. Had only
one bishop or elder been appointed, the entire duties had fallen to him
alone. Accordingly, it is found that –
THERE WERE PASTORS WHO BOTH TAUGHT AND RULED. "Know them WHO LABOUR
among you, and are OVER YOU in the Lord" (1 Thess. 5:12). "Remember
them which HAVE THE RULE OVER YOU, who HAVE SPOKEN UNTO YOU THE WORD OF
GOD"; "Obey them that HAVE THE RULE OVER YOU, and submit yourselves,
for THEY WATCH FOR YOUR SOULS, as they that must give account" (Heb.
13:7,17). Not only in the Church of Thessalonica, wherever the Hebrew
Christians are organised into companies of the called, they are
recognised as having pastors, who both instruct and regulate in the
THERE WERE ELDERS WHO ENGAGED CHIEFLY IN RULING. These do not appear to
have engaged in the public teaching of divine truth. In private
spiritual exercises, no marked distinction was drawn. When any were
sick, they were directed simply to call for the elders, who were to
pray in the name of the Lord, assured that "the prayer of faith shall
save the sick" (Jam. 5:14, 15). That they were not all public
instructors, appears from the distinctions employed to indicate their
several duties. "Having ministry, let us wait on our ministering"; "He
that ruleth with diligence" (1 Cor. 12:28, 29). The special work of
ruling is here carefully distinguished from that of the ministry of the
Word. Express mention is also made of 'governments', or governors, as
well as of 'teachers', when those officers are enumerated whom God hath
set in the Church. "Are all apostles? are all prophets, are all
teachers?" This last question, as much as in the two preceding,
indicates a special department for 'governments', or governors, as
distinguished from 'teachers', in the estimation of Paul. This division
of labour amongst the elders in each church is further marked in Paul's
directions to Timothy, which must be held applicable to all the
churches to which he was sent. "Let the elders that rule well be
counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the Word
and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17). The word 'especially' points out that some
not only ruled well, but, in addition, proclaimed the truth of God. If
especial honour was to be conferred on those who performed this
double duty, then there were some who had not the special labour of the
Word. There were elders who confined themselves to ruling well. Doing
so they were to be abundantly honoured. Those who were enabled to
discharge both departments were to be specially honoured. They were
entitled to this greater consideration, because of their full
employment in the entire duties of the eldership. The office of bishop
or elder is one; but it is for the edification of the body of Christ
that the elders, according to capacity and opportunity, occupy the
respective departments of that one office.
PRINCIPLE EVERY CONGREGATION SHOULD HAVE A PLURALITY OF ELDERS, AMONG WHOM THE DUTIES OF TEACHING AND RULING ARE DISTRIBUTED.
Occasion was not wanting for man's natural love of power disclosing
itself amongst the disciples of Jesus. Some desired preferment to a
higher rank than the others. These last were moved with indignation.
The Lord Jesus emphatically set the matter at rest. "Ye know that the
princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are
great exercise authority over them. But, it SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU:
but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; AND
WHOSOEVER WILL BE CHIEF AMONG YOU, LET HIM BE YOUR SERVANT" (Matt.
20:25-27). This rule of the King is for all the officers in His kingdom
in every age and place. The only gradation in rank which He allows and
acknowledges is zealous devotion in His service. Apostles, it is true,
held an exalted position. That was a special and temporary arrangement.
Their superintendence is still to be had in the principles and
practices which they disclosed. After them no superiority is found
amongst the ordinary ministers. The address of Paul to the Ephesian
elders proves that they occupied one platform of position and power.
These presbyters or elders were summoned as the representatives and
rulers of the whole Ephesian Church, whatever its subdivisions. These
officers were divinely appointed, and as such they were exhorted.
Through them all elders were instructed, whether then living, or in
aftertimes. They were overseers or inspectors who fed the flock
teachers and rulers. Bishop is the anglicised word employed for
overseer. Those who oversaw were
presbyters or elders, men of venerable parts. It was the flock of
Ephesus they were to feed and oversee. Elders and flock were not
subjected to one bishop. The elders were united in a common government.
They were, therefore, of equal position and power. All were to feed.
All were to take the oversight in view of approaching danger. The sole
charge of the flock was, by the authority of God, committed to their
care. Upon them unitedly was the full duty of the work of the ministry
laid, under solemn responsibility.
The same equality of position and power in the elders or bishops is
observable in other Churches. No higher position existed in the
Philippian Church, as has been seen, than 'bishops and deacons.' So in
all the other Churches. Therefore, let it be noted that (1.) equality
in the eldership or overseers is unmistakable, – divergence was
unknown; (2.) these officers were authoritatively appointed (3.)
ordinarily to administer divine ordinances; and (4.) to regulate the
interests of the Church, (5.) the members of the Church submitting
willingly to that government. Elders or presbyters are thus the only
ordinary administrators of the laws of the kingdom. They determine as
to the admission of candidates for its outward privileges. They
suspend, exclude, restore. They admit to or exclude from office. Every
case, common or difficult, is to be adjudicated upon by them. They are
to remove hindrances, devise and control helps. In a word, the
government of His little flock is, by the Great Shepherd, committed to
these under shepherds. Hence (1.) their rule is simply ministerial. It
must be in accordance with His laws, not by arbitrary human will. And
(2.) cheerful obedience is due to their authority, because the laws of
Christ are merely applied by these officers. His will and authority
must in them be recognised. Summed up, we have this –
PRINCIPLE – THE HIGHEST POSITION IS THAT OF ELDER OR BISHOP, WHOSE RULE IS WHOLLY MINISTERIAL.