THE AUTHORITY OF ELDERS

Mike Johnson

Elders have a very important function in the Lord’s church.  They are to oversee the flock; they are to feed or shepherd the local congregation of which they are a part of (Acts 20:17, 28; I Pet. 5:1-2).  Elders are to watch for grievous wolves (or false teachers) who threaten the flock (Acts 20:29-30), convict(or “refute”- NASB) the gainsayer (Tit.1:9-11), admonish the members (I Th. 5:12), and be good examples to the flock (I Pet. 5:3).

Another significant passage is Hebrews 13:17.  It says, in speaking of elders, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account….”  Members are to be subject to the authority of the elders who oversee the flock.  Most Christians recognize this principle.  However, there are times when elders lead the church into error.  They have the church involved in various activities which are without Bible authority.  What should be the attitude of the members at this point?

Frequently, error will creep into a congregation.  Some Christians will defend their involvement with that congregation on the basis of the authority of the elders. They might be heard to contend, “These men are our elders, and we are to be subject to them.”  The idea seems to be that the individual member is relieved of the responsibility of fellowshipping and rebuking error (Eph. 5:11, II Jn. 9) because the elders, who they are to be subject to, have made the decision that a particular practice is Scriptural. This thinking is erroneous. Let us apply this reasoning to some other realms of authority to which we are to be subject.

(1) Government/Citizen– The Bible teaches that we are to be subject to civil authority (Rom. 13:1-7).  Should the government be obeyed, however, if they tell us to do something which is contrary to God’s Word?  This very situation occurred in Acts 5 when the apostles were put into prison by the Jewish authorities for teaching God’s Word.  After an angel released them, they went back to the temple to continue teaching.  When brought before the council, the high priest asked them, “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name?”  Peter responded, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (vs. 29). Thus, when God’s law comes in conflict with the laws of men, God is to be obeyed!  The authority of civil government does not give us an excuse to disobey God.

(2) Husband/wife– The Bible also teaches that the husband is to be the head of the wife, and the wife is to be subject to her husband (Eph. 5:23-25).  However, if a husband were to tell his wife not to attend church services, for example, she should not obey him.  In that situation, she would have to obey God rather than man.  The wife would not be able to excuse herself before God for missing services on the basis of having to be subject to her husband.

(3) Parent/child- Another principle taught in the Scriptures is that  children  are  to  be subject to their parents (Eph. 6:1).  Again, they are to obey their parents “in the Lord” (vs. 1).  A child, for example, who is told by his father to lie for him could not do so as he is being asked to violate God’s Word.

The lesson from the above examples is quite clear.  Our participation in error cannot be justified on the basis of the human authority that we are under.  We are to be subject to the government, wives are to be subject to their husbands, and children are to be subject to their parents.  However, when any of the above authorities ask us to violate God’s will, we must disobey them, and we are responsible when we do not.

Similarly, we cannot justify our involvement with a congregation which practices error on the basis of subjection to the elders.  Elders leading a congregation into error do not serve as a “buffer” between the members and God.  The members are still responsible for their involvement with that error.

What if the elders of a congregation decided to put instrumental music into the worship?  Could a person justify his involvement with this innovation by saying that it was the elder’s decision, and after all, we are to be subject to the elders?  Would the person be any less responsible?

We must keep in mind Ephesians 5:11.  This passage says, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.”  II John 9 points out that it is essential that we “abide in the doctrine of Christ.”     Paul actually warned the Ephesians elders that after his departing “grievous wolves” would “…enter in among you, not sparing the flock.  Also of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30)

Christians must not tolerate error; we cannot fellowship it.  One day we must give an account of ourselves.  On the Judgment Day, the frivolous excuses which we make now for our involvement with error will not do us any good.