055 - The Great Eldership Fallacy
Charles D. Alexander
All By Grace
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All is not well today in the Camp of the Saints. There has been a subtle intrusion calculated by the Enemy to divert the energies of the Church into regions where the Devil has no fear for the stability of his enterprises. We refer to the new “Reform” movement in which the attention of the saints is being diverted from the real enemy to the domestic region of Church politics. Two thousand years of church History has apparently not sufficed to warn our present day “Reformers” against the perils of that ecclesiastical morass which has engulfed so many churches in the past, diverting their attention from the all-important priority of the preaching of Christ and Him Crucified, to the dangerous irrelevancies of how the sheep of the flock are to be governed, and who shall open the gate of the fold when night draws on and the wolves are abroad.

In short, the qualifications of the Porter (John 10:3) seem to be assuming almost magisterial proportions in the debate now raging. Like all ‘reforms’ in this region the emphasis is not upon the feeding of the sheep and where they may safely graze, but rather on the rights and privileges, if not the prerogative of those rams of the flock who are claimed to be the rulers thereof. The officers become more important than the sheep. Government is more important than feeding the flock. It is an easy step from this shift of emphasis, to the position where apportionment of duties and questions of reverence for those who bear office become of greater importance than the leading of the sheep into green pastures and beside the still waters (“water of comfort”   Prayer Book rendering). It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that the most important people in the Church are not the porters and shepherds, but the sheep of Christ’s pasture. The officers exist for the sheep, not the sheep for the officers. The Lord cares for the weakest sheep more than for the strongest and wisest shepherd.

That is a terrible indictment of the shepherds of Israel which we find in Ezekiel, chapter 34:1-14:

1 And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

2 Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves; should not the shepherds feed the flocks?

3 Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock.

4 The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost: but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.

5 And they were scattered because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered.

6 My sheep wandered through all the mountains and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.

7 Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord;

8 As I live, saith the Lord God, surely because my flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock;

9 Therefore, O ye shepherds. hear the word of the Lord;

10 Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them.

11 For thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out.

12 As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day.

13 And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country.

14 1 will feed them in a good pasture and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel.

It is our business in this paper to warn all whom it may concern that this new emphasis on “Elders and Deacons” is irrelevant and false. The Holy Scriptures are being wrongly used   and that by good men who have allowed themselves to be enmeshed in questions of Church polity and procedure instead of the great spiritual issues by which the church is now confronted.

Confusion of Offices

The confusion is created by the attempt to establish that there are three orders in Church government   Pastors, Elders and Deacons, each with its own prescribed area of operation. But there are only two orders of Church Government   Elders and Deacons. The Elders are in fact the pastors, usually ‘full time’ and remunerated. Their sole office is to preach the Word of God and feed and guide the sheep, caring for them in joy or sorrow, sickness or health, guiding, watching encouraging, strengthening. The Deacons are the ‘servants’ of the Church, whose function it is to ‘manage’ the temporal affairs of the congregation.

Proof of the confusion which has been caused through separating Eldership from the exclusive function of preaching the Word of God and ‘feeding the flock’ lies in the embarrassment of those who have been wrestling with the question of what remains for the deacons to do when all their temporal functions seem to be absorbed in the mixed jurisdiction falsely attributed to the Elders. We quote in proof of this confusion a recent article by that excellent man, the Rev. Herbert Carson, of Bangor, N. Ireland, formerly vicar of one of the leading Anglican churches in Cambridge, but who left the Church of England on grounds of conscience to occupy a Baptist pulpit. We know Mr. Carson as a man of integrity, of conscience, and of learning. He recently contributed an article on “The Role of Deacons” to the periodical “Reformation Today” of which the editor is Mr. Errol Hulse   whom we also recognize as a man of integrity and sincerity.

Mr. Carson begins his article by admitting his great difficulty in defining the duties of Deacons especially as distinct from the duties of Elders. He quotes from “The International Dictionary of the Christian Church” that there is “widespread uncertainty” concerning the role of the deacon. Indeed he is right. There is. But Mr. Carson fails to see that the “widespread uncertainty” is created by the failure to recognize the true nature of Eldership.

“In some cases”, says Mr. Carson, “they” (that is, the deacons) “are virtually treated as elders as far as their actual functioning is concerned. In others they may be little more than a blend of finance and building committees. But what their relationship is to the elders remains undefined”

Bishops, Elders and Pastors Identical

Though Mr. Carson quotes from John Calvin he does not quote enough from the passage to which he refers in Calvin’s “Institutes”. John Calvin clearly indicates that eldership is synonymous not only with Pastoral charge, but also with Bishopric. Hence he (John Calvin) writes:

“In giving the name of bishops, presbyters (elders) and pastors indiscriminately to those who govern churches, I have done it on the authority of Scripture which uses the words as synonymous" That is, the three terms mean the same. Calvin proceeds,

“To all who discharge the ministry of the Word, the Scripture gives the name of bishops. Thus Paul, after enjoining Titus to ordain elders in every city, immediately adds, ‘A bishop must be blameless’ (Titus ch. 1: vs. 5 7). And in Acts, the elders of Ephesus, whom he is said to have called together, he, in the course of his address, designates as Bishops (Acts ch.20: vs.17); and vs.28 – “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers” (Gk. Episcopous ‘Bishops’)
(See Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion” Book 4. Chapter 3, sections 7 10).

Pastor E.W. Johnson, U.S.A.

We are privileged to enjoy the acquaintance of a pastor in the U.S.A. whose grasp of the issues raised in the New Testament on this subject are of special value   Pastor E.W. Johnson of Calvary Baptist Church, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Mr. Johnson writes on the subject of the function of the bishop in the NT, as follows: “An overseer (bishop) in the NT church is a shepherd (pastor). He rules also with spiritual influence attending his person. Hence he is an elder in this one office, and as we look at one person in one office with three distinct functions we should see the point I am making, that distinction in gifts and offices does not necessarily imply separation in those gifts and offices. The teachers of a congregation of God’s people are overseers (bishops) of a flock of the sheep of the Lord and hence are shepherds, or pastors, and they have an influence within the congregation which causes them to be regarded as elders. But these bishops   pastors elders occupy one office in the three functions of that office. 1 Tim ch.5 vs.17 actually goes against our Presbyterian friends as they seek to separate the office of ruling elder from that of teaching elder, for that text says, 'Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the Word and doctrine.

“The apostle in this text is speaking of elders who rule in word and doctrine. Those who labour at this business of ruling in word and doctrine are especially signaled out as worthy of double pay. There is no text in the NT which teaches more clearly that 1 Tim. ch.5 vs.17 that ruling elders are teaching elders.

“The deacons with their administrative power over the purse, set over against the elders with their administrative power over the pulpit and its spiritual sword, establish a balance of power in human leadership in the church.

"The great problem in the independent Baptist churches among which I labour, where too often the pastor himself has become a Diotrephes, is not that these churches do not have ruling elders. It is that too often these churches do not have deacons, not really. These churches sometimes have deacons, but these are so much under the pastor’s thumb that the distinctiveness of their office is not truly recognized”

So far Pastor E.W. Johnson

Plurality of Elders at Ephesus

There is another point which requires elucidation   a point which had special relevance in the days of the apostles. We refer to the plurality of “bishops elders pastors” in certain areas, as for instance in the classic case of the elders from Ephesus to whom Paul gave that solemn, moving farewell charge when on his last journey to Jerusalem (Acts ch.20 vs.17 38). How does it come about that one church should hold so many bishops (ELDERS)?

The answer lies in the fact that at Ephesus Paul preached for more than two years, and the whole city was moved either to faith or to uproar as a consequence. The whole province of Asia (then only a portion of what we now know as Asia Minor) was penetrated by Paul’s preaching of the gospel. No doubt the church became so numerous that there would have to be some separation into communities to solve the problem of numbers and distance. Hence there would be a plurality of elders ordained to take care of the separate communities making up so vast a ‘church’. Even today in our own country it has been known that congregations may grow to such an extent as to require separation into two or more communities each of which has its own  pastor or ‘bishop’   yet there is  a community of interest and also co operation between them. Hence a plurality of pastors arises.

Our plea is for our friends who hold office in whatever degree in our Churches today, to consider these things, and abandon unhealthy office accumulation in their congregations, and be content with pastor and deacons, for whatsoever is practised more than these exposes the church to much confusion and unhappiness. Worse   the poor sheep become mere counters in the pursuit of power and of priorities, while the deacons are relegated to a mere culinary role in the ecclesiastical kitchen.

Addendum

The history of the Church from the days of the apostles has taught us that methods of Church Government have only subordinate significance in the fulfillment of the church’s mission in the world. All forms of Church Government during the last 2,000 years, have succeeded, and all have failed. What may be claimed to be the purest, most scriptural of forms of Church Government and order, have been proved by history to be no safeguard either to spirituality or to evangelistic success. It is men whom God uses, rather than methods. It is the faithful preaching of the Word of God and true pastoral care, which are the divine priorities. All else is secondary.

The art of government in the church of God is not the sealed door and the secret conclave.

Thence arise tyranny and the pride of rule. Those churches are governed well who do not know that they are governed. There is a “Parkinson's Law” in those church conclaves where rules are added to rules, and it is sought to legislate for all eventualities. Law begets law, and rule begets more rule. In a healthy church the only rule is love, where everyone esteems other better than themselves. "I am among you" said the dear Saviour, “as one that serveth” "he shall feed his flock like a shepherd. He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young”
(Isaiah ch.40 vs.11).

“Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture saith the Lord”.
(Jeremiah ch.23 vs.1)

Note: Herein may be a singular disagreement with Brother Alexander as he seems to argue against a plurality of elders in the local church. Having known the sweet spirit of Brother Alexander and having read almost everything that he put in writing, I believe that he would agree with what I will now say. It is my strong conviction that it is Scriptural and healthy for a local church to have plurality and equality of elders, each one a teacher of God’s Word with no class or distinction as to “ruling” and “teaching”. I stress the necessity of equality because it has been my sad experience to have served with three virtual dictators in three different local churches who “lorded it over the flock”. The Pastor – Deacon leadership model too easily leads to a pastor who manipulates the deacons and the flock. By having a plurality of equals there is a safeguard against one man being the “boss”. With honest equality there is no jealousy and grasping for power and the flock will be fed the Word of God.