It seems stage to me that a question of how much authority the elders have in the local church or if the preacher has any authority would ever arise. Perhaps that whole question is somehow tied to the subject of authority as it relates to husbands and wives or men and women in general. Any discussion of authority from the standpoint of Christians should start with Jesus statement in Matthew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” It was out of that authority that Jesus laid out the greatest commission for us as his disciples. Our mission on earth is to make disciples of his wherever we go and among whatever group of people we may find ourselves. We baptize those who would become disciples then teach them to observe all that Jesus has commanded.
Since Jesus has all authority, anyone else that has authority in any situation must have it delegated to them by Jesus and must operate under the authority of Jesus. One area where Jesus delegated such authority was to preachers in preaching the word of the Lord. Paul told Titus in Titus 2:15 to “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” It wasn’t that he carried authority by an office. But in preaching the word and in exhorting or rebuking those to whom he preached, he was to speak with all authority. Two other jobs mentioned by Paul to Timothy and Titus for the evangelist were to set apart elders and deacons in the church based on the qualities that were described and to rebuke an elder or elders who went astray in their work. Too often in churches everything imaginable has been done to remove any kind of authority to those who preach the word. Even in what he preaches it is too often thought that they should preach whatever the elders tell them to preach. Strangely, I’ve never seen anything like that in the Bible.
But what about the elders and their authority in the local church? The elders are spoken of in three different ways in the New Testament that each give insight into their work. They are often called “Elders” or “Presbyters” which related to age or maturity in the faith. It probably also went back to elders in the synagogue or even elders who led in a city or area. The second word is “Shepherd” or “Pastor”. Probably the best description of a shepherds work is found in Ephesians 4:11-16 where they are challenged along with the Evangelist, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ. Shepherds follow Jesus as the good shepherd that goes out to help and rescue the sheep. The third word is the word, “Overseer” or “Bishop”. All three of these words are used in text like I Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28. The overseer is looking after the souls of those who are part of their flock. Another word that is applied to the shepherds at times that is also used of many others is the word “Leader”. In I Timothy 5:17 it says, “The elders that lead well are to be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The King James translated this word as “Rule” which led some to think of the work as ruling over the church. It is the same word used of the woman who is to “Guide” or “Lead” or “Rule” the house in I Timothy 5:14. Quite often the word leader in Hebrews 13:7,17 is applied to the elders. Notice what they say. Verse 7 “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Verse 17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” In verse 7 the leaders were preachers who had spoken to them the word of life and are now dead since they were to consider the outcome of their faith and imitate them. In verse 17 it may well be elders since they are leaders and the people are to submit to them. In both cases it could be the apostles who would have spoken to them the word and have been leaders they were to submit to. In that case some were now dead and others were still alive. The truth is, it likely refers to all of them and is more generic to refer to all leaders in the church.
Think of any church where you have been a member. Who are the leaders in that church? In reality since leadership is influence, everyone there is a leader in some way to someone. But think deeper on the matter. Who are the leaders for you? Probably whoever teaches the Bible class you attend would be a leader for you. It may be a friend that has been there for you. It might well be a teacher or person who has helped your children. Leaders come in all sizes and shapes. When one Christian brings another person to Jesus they are their leaders. When we encourage and help a person with a problem we are serving as leaders. So, to think of elders as leaders is right but to think of them as the leaders or only leaders is ridiculous. Remember Paul challenged the young widow to marry, have children and lead her home.
I certainly believe that elders are intended to be leaders in the body. But I fear the picture that we have too often drawn of them as a board of directors meeting together to make decisions on everything that relates to the body of Christ is not one that comes from the Bible at all. How many times have you heard someone pray that our elders will make wise decisions? How many times have you ever read anything in the Bible that even came close to the notion of elders making a decision? Some wish to turn to Acts 15 as the apostles and elders met in Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas to discuss whether or not gentiles who became Christians had to be circumcised and keep the Old Law. First, this is apostles and elders. Second, we aren’t given the notion that these were elders of one local church. More likely they were elders from a multiplicity of churches that were in Jerusalem at the time. Third, God was speaking through inspired men to the group telling them what God was telling them on the matter. We don’t have that kind of situation now. One might turn to Acts 21 when Paul came to Jerusalem bringing an offering for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem and met with the elders one of whom was James, the Lord’s brother. They made a decision together that Paul was to go to the temple and pay for some men’s vows and make offerings himself to show the Jews who were Christians in the area that what they had heard of Paul’s preaching wasn’t true. In this case, one would be hard pressed to think that the decision made by the elders was a good one.
The leading and decision making of elders is intended to be in areas of judgment and application of that which the Bible teaches. It is not the job of elders to determine what the Bible teaches for the whole church. For too often I hear of some group of elders meeting on some Bible topic and coming to the conclusion that this is what the elders believe on this matter for the church to follow. Every Christian is a priest of God (I Peter 2:5,9). As such every single Christian is under obligation to read and study God’s word for themselves. Preachers should preach and teach the word in ways that correct wrong notions and help others understand. But no one has the right or ability to give an official church teaching on any matter. We must study for ourselves, grow, learn and apply what we learn to our own lives. If what I understand doesn’t agree with others, we need to talk and try to come to a better understanding. But no one has the right to bind their beliefs or conscience on anyone else. We will be judged by the word of the Lord, not on some person’s understanding of the word. It is certainly good and right for elders to study and pray together to try to come to clearer understandings of God’s word and His will for us. But it is not their job to determine the official right answer to what the Bible says. I’ve been preaching and working with elderships now for over fifty years. I’ve seldom seen all the elders agree on any doctrinal matter over which brethren have differences and that is on a whole lot of things. I even believe that one of the reasons God wanted a plurality of elders was so that there wouldn’t be such agreement. It shouldn’t affect their work. Because they aren’t there to agree but to look after the souls of the people and help them grow.
Many years ago I remember having a lengthy conversation with Brother Gus Nichols about a concern I had. Where I was preaching at the time we had just had a well known preacher to come for a revival and some of the things he said were just strange. I asked Brother Nichols about some of the things the man had said and he offered this advise. He said this brother was a good man, but he was fearful of people taking things he said and misusing them so he was constantly reaching conclusions that he had never run by anyone else and about which he refused to have discussions with anyone that might disagree so he didn’t get the help he needed. Brother Nichols turned to me then and said, “Leon, any time you are studying and you arrive at a conclusion that is extremely different from what most have understood on the text through the years, run it by others, privately to get their input and advise before you preach it to the crowd. You will avoid lots of wrong notions by doing so. We all arrive at some ideas on our own that if we could see from another person’s point of view we would know it was a mistake. We need each other. Never get the idea that you alone have the whole truth on anything.” It was great advice then and still is.
The Lord’s church has one infallible authority and it is Jesus. His word to us is meant to be studied and understood by all his people. We are all priest of God and all have been given the Holy Spirit to help us and enlighten us to better understand. But we need each other to help, encourage and correct us when we miss something. Don’t ever allow anyone else or any group of people to become the official interpreters of God’s word for you! That would include elders, preachers, Bible teachers or Christian schools. It would also include preachers schools, papers or churches. When we put anyone else in such a place it turns us away from Jesus as THE AUTHORITY and gives the place to someone else who doesn’t deserve such a place.