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Particulars of Christianity:
312 The Church Ethic


Apostolic and Eldership Functions
in Acts and the Epistles


Introduction & 3 Models of Church Gatherings and Leadership
Examining the Models
Examining the Models Conclusions and Study Expectations
Examining Church Gatherings in the Gospels
The First Supper, Jesus' Specific Instructions, Conclusions
Survey of Post-Ascension Church Gatherings
Apostolic and Eldership Functions in Acts and the Epistles
1 Corinthians 1-10 & Introduction to 1 Corinthians 11-14
1 Corinthians 11-13
1 Corinthians 14
1 Timothy 2:12, Conclusions on Women in Church Gatherings
Conclusions: 1 Corinthians 14, Church Gatherings & Leadership




Examining Apostolic and Eldership Functions in Acts and the Epistles

 

Before we leave our examination of church gatherings and leadership in the Book of Acts, there are a few additional, important points that we should make. In the final chapters of Acts, beginning with Paul’s second missionary journey, Luke continues to provide indications and confirmation of the importance of teaching in the apostolic ministry and in the church in general.

 

For instance, in Acts 18:11, Luke explains that Paul stayed in Corinth teaching them for a year and a half (Acts 18:1, 11). The only instance of a church meeting in these chapters is found in Acts 20:7-9.

 

Acts 20:6 And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days. 7 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. 8 And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together. 9 And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. 10 And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. 11 When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed. 12 And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted.

 

Here in this passage, Luke records that Paul and the disciples in Troas gathered together on the first day of the week for the breaking of bread. Three times in this segment of chapter 20 the text notes that Paul spoke for a long time. So once again we have confirmation that having a single person dominate the church meeting through teaching was a characteristic feature of the early church gatherings (at least when an apostle was present.) And once again we have another meeting in which not everyone participates or shares equally and in which there is no segment of musical worship, no skits, and no poetry. And we still have no indication of a new non-apostolic meeting format.

 

As Luke continues to chronicle Paul’s stops along this second missionary tour, later in chapter 20 we come to additional relevant statements as the Ephesian elders meet with Paul before his departure from Miletus. This passage provides additional indications regarding the role and function of the elders in the absence of apostolic leadership.

 

Acts 20:15 And we sailed thence, and came the next day over against Chios; and the next day we arrived at Samos, and tarried at Trogyllium; and the next day we came to Miletus. 16 For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost. 17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. 18 And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons,19 Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: 20 And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, 21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: 23 Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. 24 But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. 26 Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. 27 For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. 28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (1985), to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch (1127), and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. 32 And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. 33 I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. 34 Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. 35 I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. 36 And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. 37 And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck, and kissed him, 38 Sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more. And they accompanied him unto the ship.

 

We should take note of several important statements from this lengthy passage. First, we must again note that there are multiple elders said to exist in the Ephesian church community, not just a single elder. This contradicts the Psuedo-traditional model’s notion of church leadership vested in a single head-pastor.

 

Second, Paul speaks of how he taught them publicly and from house to house. So, we have here another indication that the church meetings, which took place from house to house, were characterized by teaching (at least when an apostle was present.)

 

Third, and most significantly, Paul’s comments here are informative about the role and function of the elders in the church, including church gatherings. As such, starting with this passage in Acts 20, we will now begin to connect what we’ve learned from the historical narrative of the early church from the gospels and the Book of Acts to what we learn from the New Testament’s discussion of church gatherings and leadership throughout the epistles. In doing so, we will survey the remaining scriptural information on the topic of how the apostles understood and presented the role and function of elders in the church. We will be able to answer with finality such questions as whether the apostles intended for the elders to be their successors who would inherit the apostolic function and format for conducting church gatherings or if the apostles instead saw the function of the elders as entirely distinct from the apostolic role of dominating church gatherings through the teaching of the Word. And we will be able to see if there are any indications or instructions for a new mode of church gatherings and leadership given by the apostles to the elders.

 

All of this will be accomplished by looking at how the New Testament writers used terminology in their discussions and descriptions of the role and function of the elder/overseer in comparison to their descriptions of the role and function of the apostles.

 

As we start, we return to Acts 20, where Paul is speaking to the elders of the church at Ephesus. We note that in verse 28, Paul tells the elders to take heed over the flock over which the Holy Spirit made them overseers. Paul then tells them to feed the church of God. In verse 29-30, Paul adds that after he departs wolves will enter into the flock and speak perverse things to the flock. And after informing the elders of this, Paul again tells them to watch (verse 31).

 

Paul’s comments here fit very well with our assessment from Acts 14:23 that the elders were appointed to fill a need created by the absence of the apostles. However, here in Acts 20, we gain further insight into how the elders were to fill that need. As Paul states, after he departed men would come to teach the church (the flock) false doctrine.

 

Peter speaks similarly of false teachers entering into the flock in 2 Peter 2:1-2. Notice that just like Paul in Acts 20:29, Peter uses the phrase “among you” to designate a time when he himself is not present. Here are the two passages side by side for comparison.

 

2 Peter 2:1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.

 

Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (1985), to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch (1127), and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.

 

Likewise, Peter’s words to the elders in his first epistle mirror Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 (immediately above).

 

1 Peter 5:1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (1983) thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.

 

According to both Paul and Peter, the elders were the safeguard to protect against the infiltration and spread of false teaching. How were they to accomplish this task? Paul and Peter provide the answer. The elders were to keep the churches in sound doctrine by watching and taking oversight of the flock. But how did elders (also called overseers, bishops, or pastors) oversee the flock? One hint comes from Peter’s first epistle, where Peter refers to himself as an elder and then refers to Jesus Christ as the Chief Shepherd. John similarly introduces himself as an elder in his final two epistles.

 

2 John 1:1 The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth;

 

3 John 1:1 The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

 

And in Acts 1:15-26, Judas’ position (which was filled by Matthias) is referred to as that of an elder or bishop.

 

Acts 1:20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick(1984) let another take.

 

Peter even refers to Jesus as both Shepherd and Elder (or Bishop) in his first epistle.

 

1 Peter 2:25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd (4166) and Bishop (1985) of your souls.

 

The Greek word translated “bishop” in this passage as well as in 1 Timothy and 1 Titus is the same word that is translated “overseers” in Acts 20:28 (above) when Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders. It is the Greek word “episkopos,” Strong’s number 1985. Of course, Peter is not saying anything new about Jesus in this epistle. Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd in John 10:11, 14.

 

John 10:11 I am the good shepherd (4166): the good shepherd (4166) giveth his life for the sheep. 12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd (4166), whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. 13 The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd (4166), and know my sheep, and am known of mine.

 

The word that Jesus uses for “shepherd” is the Greek word “poimen” (Strong’s number 4166). It is the same word Paul uses in Ephesians 4:11, where it is translated as “pastors.”

 

Ephesians 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors (4166) and teachers (1320); 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: 14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; 15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: 16 From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.

 

And similarly, in his epistle James refers to himself among the teachers of the church with the same word for “teacher” that is coupled in Ephesians with the term “pastors.” It is the Greek word “didaskalos” (Strong’s number 1320.)

 

James 3:1 My brethren, be not many masters (1320), knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

 

Paul does the same in his two letters to Timothy, referring to himself with this Greek word for teacher that he identifies in Ephesians with the term “pastors.”

 

1 Timothy 2:7 Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher (1320) of the Gentiles in faith and verity.

 

2 Timothy 1:11 Whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher (1320) of the Gentiles.

 

So far, we are seeing the following terms used as synonyms. The Greek term “episkopos” is sometimes translated as “bishop” and at other times translated as “overseer” and it is applied to both apostles and elders. The term “elder” itself, which is the Greek word “presbuteros,” is applied to both apostles and the local church leaders appointed in each city by the apostles. Likewise, the term “episkopos” meaning “bishop” or “overseer” and the term “poimen” meaning “shepherd” are both applied to Jesus and to local elders. And lastly, as we will see below, the term for “teacher,” which is used side by side with “poimen” in Ephesians, is also applied to both elders and apostles.

 

From the interchangeable usage of all these terms, two interesting facts emerge. First, that these terms (bishop, elder, overseer, and pastor) are synonyms for one another. Second, and more relevantly to our study, the New Testament describes the role and function of the apostles using the same descriptive terms as it uses to describe the leadership role and function of Jesus. But more importantly, the New Testament also uses these exact same descriptive terms to describe the role and function of the local elders. This bears gives strong indications that the apostles themselves understood that elders had a function and role in the church that was similar to their own.

 

Moving forward, in order to understand how the elders were supposed to fill the need in the churches that was created by the absence of the apostles we simply need to understand how the apostles themselves acted as elders and how the apostles, the elders, and Jesus Christ oversaw God’s flock.

 

How did Jesus oversee God’s flock? He cared for it by giving it God’s commands, by teaching it God’s ways. Matthew 6 explains this concept, which Peter references in his epistle.

 

Mark 6:34 And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.

 

1 Peter 2:25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd (4166) and Bishop (1985) of your souls.

 

Jesus’ response to observing that the people were as sheep without a shepherd is to teach them. And we have seen from our survey of the gospels how Jesus’ teaching dominated the time he spent together with his disciples (and the crowds.) So, Jesus oversaw the flock by teaching them. He did not oversee the flock by letting them each share equally with one another as they gathered together.

 

In accordance with this, beyond proper character and behavior one of the qualifications of elders (or bishops) was that they had to be able to teach.

 

1 Timothy 3:1 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; 3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; 4 One that ruleth (4291) well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; 5 (For if a man know not how to rule (4291) his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)

 

Titus 1:7 For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; 8 But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; 9 Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

 

In these passages Paul provides instructions to Timothy and Titus, both of whom were elders according to the early church historians. Paul instructs these men to appoint elders (or bishops as they are called here in this passage.) In Timothy, Paul even compares the elder’s role as the father over his household to his own role in the church (Ephesians 6:4). In fact, Paul had specifically left Titus in Crete to ordain elders in each city just as he himself had done in Acts 14:23. (Note that in Titus 1:5 we have another indication that there were multiple elders appointed in every city and not just a single elder appointed in each city.)

 

Titus 1:5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:

 

Along similar lines, Paul instructs Timothy to find faithful men who will be able to teach the Word of Christ after Timothy and when Timothy himself is not present. This sounds very much like when the apostles appointed elders to carry on in their absence.

 

2 Timothy 2:2 And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.

 

Again, we see the same themes present in each of these passages. The theme is that elders (bishops, pastors, overseers) are to oversee and protect the flock from the infiltration of false doctrine. Furthermore, Ephesians 4:11, Paul couples the term “poimen” or shepherds with the term “teacher.” Once again we see that the elders’ prevention of the false doctrine is through teaching sound doctrine. Thus, elders follow the same pattern that Jesus and the apostles established by leading and teaching God’s flock during their gatherings. And as we demonstrated earlier, Jesus and the apostles’ pattern was one in which one or two speakers dominated the focus of the meeting.

 

Furthermore, we do have some direct indications from Jesus that he would appoint people to serve in this capacity while he was away. We have already seen how before he ascended, before he left the church, Jesus appointed the apostles to serve in overseeing the church after His ascension through the teaching of the word. From the quote in John 21 below, we can plainly see that Jesus even equated this teaching and oversight role to concept of shepherds feeding a flock, a role that both Peter and Paul specifically pass on to the elders using the exact same terms in 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20.

 

John 20:21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: 23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

 

Matthew 28:18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

 

John 21:15 So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. 16 He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. 17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

 

1 Peter 5:1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (1983) thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.

 

Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (1985), to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch (1127), and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.

 

Similarly, as we saw earlier, Jesus taught the disciples that he would appoint some of his servants to manage his household while he was away.

 

Matthew 24:45 Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler (2525) over his household, to give them meat in due season? 46 Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. 47 Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler (2525) over all his goods. 48 But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; 49 And shall begin to smite his fellowservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; 50 The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, 51 And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 

Luke 12:42 And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler (2525) over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? 43 Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. 44 Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler (2525) over all that he hath. 45 But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; 46 The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.

 

The word for “ruler” that occurs in both of these passages is the Greek word “kathistemi” (Strong’s number 2525). It means to “to set, to place, to put, to set one over a thing.” It denotes “to place one in charge of something, to appoint one to administer an office or duty.” Here, Jesus plainly uses this word to speak of appointing one of his servants over the other servants in his household. And according to Christ, that servant’s duty is “to feed them” and “to give them their meat in due season.” We have already seen this metaphor of “feeding” God’s house used to refer to the teaching of the word. So, again Jesus is presenting the idea that there will be those who will be “over” God’s house whose responsibility is to “feed” or teach them His word. And we see that these persons were appointed specifically to carry out this duty while Jesus, the master of the house, is away.

 

Consequently, we learn that in his absence, because he was leaving, Jesus Christ sent out the apostles as the Father had sent him. And in doing so, Jesus, the Apostle, the Chief Shepherd, commanded the apostles to teach all that he had taught them. And we have seen them doing so in the church gatherings that are recorded for us in Acts.

 

So, when Jesus was unable to be present with his disciples at their gatherings and to teach them in person, he appointed the apostles to continue this role and function. Later the apostles encounter the same situation. They will not be able to be present continually at church gatherings in every community of believers. They will not be able to continue to lead and teach during these meetings. So, what do the apostles do? They do as Jesus had done. They appoint or ordain elders to continue the work of overseeing the churches just as they had done and just as Jesus had formerly done at gatherings through leading and teaching the word.

 

Paul commands this very thing to Titus in Titus 1:5. Paul uses the same Greek word that Jesus used to for the servant who is “made ruler” over the household while the master is away and who is supposed to “feed” God’s word to the other servants. Below, Paul follows these instructions from Jesus when he himself instructs Titus to “ordain elders in every city.”

 

Titus 1:5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain (2525) elders in every city, as I had appointed (1299) thee:

 

The word “kathistemi” is being used in these passages to indicate someone being given the role of performing a particular function that is not equally shared by all of God’s people. Incidentally, in Hebrews “kathistemi” is also used of the high priest.

 

Hebrews 5:1 For every high priest taken from among men is ordained (2525) for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins:

 

Hebrews 7:28 For the law maketh (2525) men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore.


Hebrews 8:3 For every high priest is ordained (2525) to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.

 

But since Paul applies a word (“kathistemi”) that refers to the ordaining of Old Testament priests to the appointment of elders in Titus 1:5, how can Frank Viola confidently deny that elders were ordained or appointed into a hierarchical role or special function within the church and suggest instead that they were merely “recognized” for work they were already doing? In the quote below Viola argues that since Hebrews indicates the Old Testament priesthood is gone, therefore, there are no longer any special roles or functions in the church and instead every member of the church functions equally.

 

The modern-day pastoral office has overthrown the main thrust of the letter to the Hebrews – the ending of the old priesthood. It has made ineffectual the teaching of 1 Corinthians 12-14, that every member has both the right and the privilege to minister in a church gathering. It has voided the message of 1 Peter 2 that every brother and sister is a functioning priest. Being a functioning priest does not mean that you may only perform highly restrictive forms of ministry like singing songs in your pew, raising your hands during worship, setting up the PowerPoint presentation, or teaching a Sunday school class. That is not the New Testament idea of ministry! – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 5, The Pastor: Obstacle to Every-Member Functioning, pages 136-137

 

As we have seen, Viola is simply wrong here. By applying the same word for “ordain” that was used of the Old Testament priests to refer to the appointment of elders in the church, Paul’s idea carries with it hierarchical roles and special functions for elders/overseers. And as we saw earlier, the notion that every believer is a priest in no way denies that there are special roles or functions among the priests.

 

Again, in the quote below, Viola argues that elders were not appointed into special roles. (Notice, that Viola is again proof-texting the verses given that he merely cites them without providing their text, without discussing their context, without demonstrating that they are related. Instead, he assumes that just citing these verses proves his point against his opponent’s position.)

 

Strikingly, only three passages in the New Testament tell us that elders were publicly recognized. Elders were acknowledged in the churches in Galatia (Acts 14:23). Paul and Timothy acknowledge elders in Ephesus (1 Timothy 3:1ff). He also told Titus to recognize them in the churches in Crete (Titus 1:5ff.). The word ordain (KJV) in these passages does not mean to place into office. It rather carries the idea of endorsing, affirming, and showing forth what has already been happening. It also conveys the thought of blessing. Public recognition of elders and other ministries was typically accompanied by the laying on of hands by apostolic workers. (In the case of workers being sent out, this was done by the church or the elders). In the first century, the laying of hands merely meant the endorsement or affirmation of a function, not the installment into any office or the giving of special status. Regrettably, it came to mean the latter in the late second and early third centuries. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 5, The Pastor: Obstacle to Every-Member Functioning, pages 123-124

 

Elders exist in the church before they are outwardly recognized. Apostolic endorsement merely makes public that which the Spirit has already accomplished. The laying on of hands is a token of fellowship, oneness, and affirmation. It’s a profound error, therefore, to confuse biblical recognition with ecclesiastical ordination. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Appendix, Objections and Responses About Leadership, page 290

 

Note that one of the three passages that Viola himself mentions in the first quote above is Titus 1:5. As we have said, this very passage speaks of the “ordination” of elders using the same Greek word that is used to refer to the installation of the Old Testament high priests into their special function, special role, and hierarchical office. As such, how can Viola argue that elders weren’t “appointed” or placed into a special role? Viola’s argument essentially is that unlike Old Testament priests, elders are not appointed to special functions. However, the New Testament use of “kathistemi” in reference to the ordination of both Old Testament priests and elders contradicts Viola’s argument directly. It seems that Viola should not only have studied the New Testament historical narrative, but also its linguistic usage. If he had he would realize that it is simply not possible to argue against the idea of elders having a special role or function in the church any more than we can argue that high priests didn’t have a special role in Old Testament or that apostles didn’t have a special role in the New Testament.

 

At this point, perhaps Viola might argue that we are proof-texting by relating three disparate and unrelated verses from Hebrews (Hebrews 5:1, 7:28, and 8:3) to Titus 1:5. But are these passages unrelated? Consider that all four verses discuss the appointment of persons into a special role and special function that is not in general shared by all believers. And all four passages use the same Greek word when doing so. Viola himself even relates these passages when he contends that in contrast to the Old Testament priesthood, which Hebrews dismantles, elders had no special function in the church. Viola’s argument depends on connecting passages in Hebrews, which discuss the Old Testament priesthood to passages like Titus 1:5, which discuss the appointment and function of elders. Since, Viola himself connects these passages, he cannot object to our doing so in examination of his own claims.

 

Similarly, in three places Hebrews refers to “those who rule over” others in the churches.

 

Hebrews 13:7 Remember (3421) them which have the rule (2233) over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. 8 Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever. 9 Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein.

 

Hebrews 13:17 Obey (3982) them that have the rule (2233) over you, and submit (5226) yourselves: for they watch (69) for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.

 

Hebrews 13:24 Salute all them that have the rule (2233) over you, and all the saints. They of Italy salute you.

 

Here in Hebrews 13, in the context of warning them about false doctrine, we see Paul telling his readers to remember or be mindful of those that rule over them who speak the word to them. In verse 7, we see that “those who rule” speak the word to the church. And in verse 17, we see that they watch over the church. (It is also worth noting that this language seems remarkably related to Acts 20 and Peter’s first epistle, in which Paul and Peter speak of elders as “watching” to safeguard the church against “false doctrine.”)

 

The word translated as “rule” in this passage is the Greek word “hegeomai” (Strong’s number 2233.) It is the same word used in Matthew 2:6 to refer to Jesus’ rule as “Governor” over the flock of Israel as its shepherd. The word translated as “rule” in Matthew 2:6 is the Greek verb “poimaino,” Strong’s number 4165. It comes from the Greek noun “poimen” (Strong’s number 4166), meaning “shepherd” or “pastor,” which is used in Ephesians 4:11 and which is synonymous with overseer elsewhere in the New Testament.

 

Matthew 2:6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor (2233), that shall rule (4165) my people Israel.

 

“Hegeomai,” which is used in these three verses from Hebrews, is also used in Acts 7:10 to refer to Joseph’s appointment over all of Pharaoh’s house.

 

Acts 7:10 And delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made (2525) him governor (2233) over Egypt and all his house.

 

In this passage, in his speech, Stephen couples “hegeomai” with “kathistemi” to speak of Joseph’s being “made ruler” over all of Pharaoh’s house. Stephen here parallels Jesus’ own remarks from Matthew 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-46 to convey the idea of a servant being appointed over the house of his master.

 

From all these passages, the pattern is very clear and very apparent. The conclusion is unavoidable. All alternatives are shown to be without biblical support.

 

To understand how the elders were overseers of the flock we must simply recognize how the New Testament used this terminology and applied it to the apostles and to Jesus Christ himself. Oversight and feeding the flock largely involved the ministering and teaching of the word of God when the church gathered together. And we have only seen one model for how this was conducted. We have repeatedly seen Jesus and the apostles dominating the church gatherings through teaching the word. We have not seen a single instance of church meetings in which everyone shared, spoke, and participated equally. And throughout the course of New Testament history after Jesus’ ascension, after Pentecost, or even later in the lives and ministries of apostles like Peter and Paul, we have seen no indications that this model would be changed or did change.

 

Instead, in their discussions, descriptions, and instructions about elders, the apostles use the very same terminology that they applied to their own role and function in the church. They use terms like “ruler,” “rule over,” “oversight,” “feed the flock,” “shepherd,” “teacher,” “elder,” and “bishop.” They make no distinction between their own role and function in the church and that of the elders they appointed after them. Instead, they directly and repeatedly apply their same role and function to the elders.

 

 

 

Elders/Overseers Continued the Role and Function of the Apostles in the Church

 

As we have already seen, the New Testament indicates that elders took over the post of leading the church in the absence of the apostles. However, a few texts remain that we might examine in this study. The first text that we might look at is Matthew 18:17-19, which we looked at in our survey of the gospels. At the time we noted how Matthew 18 contradicts the Pseudo-traditional model’s notion of single-headed leadership because Matthew 18 instead places leadership of the church in the hands of a group of individual who together share authority. We left it to be explored further whether Jesus’ instructions in this passage would be altered later in the New Testament. By comparing this passage’s relationship to 1 Corinthians 5 we will find further evidence that no alteration was ever made.

 

Matthew 18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together (4863) in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

 

Here in Matthew 18, we have Jesus giving authority to his apostles to excommunicate persons who are violating his teachings. Jesus clearly has future gatherings of his followers in mind in this passage. First, in verse 17, he instructs that the final step is to bring an unrepentant brother before the church, or assembly. Second, in verse 20, we have Jesus stating that when two or three are gathered in his name he is there among them. The Greek word for “gathered together” is “sunago” (Strong’s number 4863.) We know that this “gathering” refers to church assemblies because Jesus makes this remark right after stating that two or three witnesses must bring the offending brother before the church. And third, we should also note from verse 20 that Jesus’ instructions were for a point in time when he would no longer be physically present among them.

 

In 1 Corinthians 5, we have an instance in which Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 are being practiced in the Corinthian church.

 

1 Corinthians 5:1 It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. 2 And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together (4863), and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. 6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company (4874) with fornicators: 10 Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. 11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company (4874), if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. 12 For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? 13 But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away (1808) from (1537) among yourselves that wicked person.

 

Here in this passage, Paul describes how a member of the Corinthian church community was in violation of Jesus’ teaching regarding fornication (verse 1.) Paul is clear that the Corinthians must put this man out of their church fellowship (verses 11-13.) The fact that Paul is discussing church gatherings is clear from this passage. He mentions the need for them to purge themselves in the context of the Passover meal in verse 7. The Passover meal was the meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples the night of his betrayal and arrest at the Last Supper. It is the meal that our Christian communal meal is based upon. And in verse 11, Paul states that they are not to eat with such a person (in this case, a man committing fornication.)

 

But even more relevant are Paul’s comments earlier in this chapter. In verses 3-5, Paul specifically instructs the Corinthians that when they are gathered together they should put this man out of their fellowship. This can be seen explicitly in verse 4. There are several important things worth noting from this. First, the Greek word for “gathered together” in verse 4 is “sunago” (Strong’s number 4863.) This is the very word Jesus used in Matthew 18:21 when he provided the apostles with the very instruction for excommunication that Paul is carrying out here and requiring the Corinthian church to follow. (This same word “sunago” is used in Acts 4:31, Acts 11:26, Acts 13:44, Acts 14:27, Acts 15:6, Acts 15:30, Acts 20:7, and Acts 20:8 to refer to church gatherings.)

 

Acts 4:31 And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together (4863); and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.

 

Acts 11:26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves (4863) with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

 

Acts 14:27 And when they were come, and had gathered (4863) the church together (4863), they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.

 

Acts 15:6 And the apostles and elders came together (4863) for to consider of this matter.

 

Acts 15:30 So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered (4863) the multitude together (4863), they delivered the epistle:

 

Acts 20:7 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together (4863) to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.

 

Acts 20:8 And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together (4863). 9 And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead.

 

Second, Paul’s instruction that the Corinthians cast this man out of their fellowship when they have gathered together perfectly follows Jesus’ instruction that they are to bring such a person before the church. Third, we should notice that Paul states in verse 4 that casting this man out of fellowship is done in the power of Jesus Christ. This again seems to be another reference to Matthew 18, which established the protocols for excommunication and which states that it was by Jesus’ authority that the apostles were to bind and loose sinful brothers. Consequently, the Corinthian church is acting in accordance with that authority and carrying out those instructions from Christ.

 

Fourth, we might take note that in following up on this matter in his second letter, Paul makes another comment that is similar to statements made by Jesus in Matthew 18.

 

2 Corinthians 2:3 And I wrote this same unto you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy is the joy of you all. 4 For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you. 5 But if any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all. 6 Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. 7 So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. 8 Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him. 9 For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things. 10 To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ;

 

Specifically, we take note of Paul’s statement that whatever the Corinthians forgive, he too forgives in the person of Christ. This parallel Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:18-20 where he states that whatever the apostles loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Of course, in the context of excommunication “loosed” means “forgive.” And “in heaven” here is a reference to Christ who would be in heaven after his ascension while the apostles were carrying out his instructions. (Once again, here we notice the familiar theme that apostles were to carry on Christ’s function when he was no longer physically present and elders were to carry on the apostles’ function when they were no longer physically present.)

 

Matthew 18:18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together (4863) in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

 

Fifth, notice is that Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 5:3-4 echo Jesus’ own statements in Matthew 18:20. When discussing the process of excommunication in the church, Jesus says that when just two or three are gathered “there am I in the midst of them.” Similarly, when discussing excommunication, Paul not only says that he is “absent in body, but present in spirit” but also that when the Corinthians are gathered together, his spirit and the power of Jesus are present with them. There is no doubt that Paul is borrowing from the language of Jesus’ teaching on excommunication.

 

But why is this relevant to our study? What do Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 have to do with the role of elders in the church when apostles weren’t present? The answer is this. Matthew 18 clearly establishes that the authority to excommunicate was given to the apostles to conduct after Christ’s ascension when Christ was no longer present Himself. 1 Corinthians 5 clearly shows that the authority to excommunicate which was given to the apostles had been given to the Corinthian church, when the apostles themselves were not physically present. It is apparent then that this practice and authority for excommunication, which was an act carried out at a church gathering, was transferred by the apostles to the church communities.

 

To be fair, there is no mention in 1 Corinthians 5 of the Corinthian elders specifically. And it is true that in1 Corinthians 5, Paul intended for a larger body of the church beyond just the elders to gather together for the purposes of excommunication, but the same is true in Matthew 18. In Matthew 18, Jesus refers to the church assembly as well as the two or three apostles who were charged to lead the process of excommunication. And yet we know that Matthew 18 places the authority and responsibility of conducting the excommunication with the apostles, not with the entirety of the church that they were to bring the offending brother before. Similarly, we can have just as much confidence that it was the Corinthian elders that lead the church gatherings and conducted the excommunication procedure before the whole church in Corinth. At this point what biblical motivation would we have for assuming otherwise when doing so would be contrary to such a comprehensive body of scriptural information on the topic of the function of elders during church gatherings?

 

But there is still an even clearer indication from the New Testament that the elders inherited the apostles’ leadership function in the churches and church gatherings when the apostles were not present. In our article entitled “Church Authority and Leadership Conditional,” we examine the significance of Paul’s statement regarding bishops/elders in 1 Timothy 5:17.

 

1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders (4245) that rule well be counted worthy of double (1362) honour (5092), especially (3122) they who labour in the word and doctrine.

 

The context of this remark is the distribution of the church’s regular collection, which helped in part to support the needs of widows in the church, as we have already seen in Acts 6.

 

Acts 6:1 And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.

 

As we have previously learned from our survey, the early church community shared their possession in order to support each other’s material needs (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:34-37). In 1 Timothy 5, Paul is discussing this same subject, taking care of widows and providing for the church.

 

1 Timothy 5:5 Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. 6 But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth. 7 And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless. 8 But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel…16 If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed. 17 Let the elders (4245) that rule well be counted worthy of double (1362) honour (5092), especially (3122) they who labour in the word and doctrine. 18 For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.

 

In the midst of his discussion Paul states in verse 17 that the elders were to receive a double portion. Viola explains in his book, Reimagining Church, that this passage does not indicate that elders held special roles in church leadership.

 

The elders were not regarded as religious specialists, but as faithful and trusted brethren. They were not clergy, but self-supportive family men with secular jobs (Acts 20:17, 32-35, 1 Tim.. 3:5, 7; Titus 1:6; 1 Peter 5:2-3). Because of their tireless labor, some elders received double honor from the church. But double honor is just that – extra respect. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 9, Reimagining Oversight, page 179

 

Again, those elders who serve well are to receive more honor – or greater respect. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 9, Reimagining Oversight, page 179

 

Viola is missing something very important to this passage and very significant to the role and function of elders when apostles were not present. As we explain in greater detail in our article, the significance of this statement is often overlooked. But the fact is that the double portion designates something very specific. It is not simply the idea of “greater honor” or “extra respect” as Frank Viola mistakenly asserts. Rather the giving of the double portion is the biblical way of identifying an heir or successor (Deuteronomy 21:17, 2 Kings 2:9). Under Old Testament law, the oldest son received a portion of his father’s inheritance, which was twice the size of the allotments given to the other children. In short, the double portion was the way of denoting which heir among all the heirs was the ranking and successor.

 

Another example that comes from the Old Testament involves Elijah and his successor Elisha. 1 Kings 2:7 describes how “fifty men of the sons of the prophets” accompanied Elijah and Elisha on the day when Elijah was to be taken away into heaven. Yet it is only Elisha that walks alone with Elijah. In verse 9, Elisha specifically asks to be given a “double portion” of the prophetic spirit that is upon Elijah. Why? Contextually it is clear. There are many “sons” or heirs of the prophets, but Elisha wants to inherit Elijah’s rank over them after Elijah is no longer physically present. Verse 15 records that Elisha’s request is granted and that the “sons of the prophets” recognized that Elisha had inherited Elijah’s rank and bowed down to him. Once again, we can see that the idea of a double portion denotes who had rank among the “sons” or “heirs” left behind when a leader was no longer physically present.

 

While Frank Viola fails to take this critical information into account or is perhaps completely unaware of it, Paul undoubtedly was not. If Paul had simply meant “more respect” why did he use the word “double?” This is not incidental. In 1 Timothy, Paul is discussing the distribution of material goods to support the needs of the community. In doing so he states that the “elders” who “rule well” and “especially those who labor in the word and in doctrine” receive a “double honor.” If Viola believes this “double portion” is simply added respect he is either being naïve or he is just wrong.

 

In saying that the elders were to receive a double portion, Paul is referencing this Old Testament code in order to identify that when the apostles were gone, the elders were the successors of the apostles and they inherited the apostles’ rank over the rest of the sons and heirs. Notice also from the text that Paul specifically designates that this applies to elders who labored in the word and in doctrine. Paul here unequivocally confirms our assessment that the elders were appointed in order to fill the need created by the absence of the apostles. In locations or times when the apostles would not be present, the elders were to take up the apostles’ role in the leading and conducting of the church meetings through the teaching of God’s Word. And in so doing, the elders were overseeing the flock and protecting God’s people from the infiltration of false teaching just as Jesus and the apostles had done before them.

 

Therefore Frank Viola is wrong to conclude that the elders (or presbyters) were in violation of the New Testament church model when they acted as the apostles successors and dominated church gatherings as the apostles had. Instead, as Paul himself indicates, the elders who functioned as the apostles’ successors in the local churches were right to do so. Therefore, it is Viola who’s got this wrong, not the first century elders.

 

Church leadership began to formalize at about the time of the death of the itinerant apostolic workers (church planters). In the late first and early second centuries, local presbyters began to emerge as the resident “successors” to the unique leadership role played by the apostolic workers. This gave rise to a single leading figure in each church. Without the influence of the extra-local workers who had been mentored by the New Testament apostles, the church began to drift toward the organizational patterns of her surrounding culture. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 5, The Pastor: Obstacle to Every-Member Functioning, page 110

 

Consequently, according to the New Testament, but contrary to Viola’s model, elders (or overseers) were the successors of the apostolic leadership role in the church communities.