Friday, January 10, 2014

Spiritual Gathering Center (Part 9)

Elders, Overseers, and Deacons
"Elder" is a word that has descended from the patriarchal times of Israel (Ex. 3:16). The family was the model of government, and in the family the father, as the elder, had authority. This was transferred to the nation, where the heads of houses became the heads of the nation and in this sense we have frequent mention of the word in the Gospels and in the book of Acts (Matt. 26:3, 47; Acts 4: 5, 8). In Acts 11: 30 we have the first application of the word to the leaders in the Church of God and thereafter it is quite frequently so used.

Elder was, as we have seen, the ordinary title of the leading men among the Jews-the rulers. It simply means an older person, and is used apart from the idea of office in such passages as I Timothy 5:1, 19; I Peter 5:1; II John 1; III John 1. Older men were naturally qualified for the work of oversight and from them the apostles appointed bishops, or overseers, which has the same meaning as "bishop." Elder, then, designates the person, and bishop or overseer, the work or office to which he is called. (From "The Church and Its Order," by S. Ridout). I Timothy 3:1 speaks of the "office of a bishop," and Titus 1: 5-7 shows that elders and bishops, or overseers, were the same persons.

Overseers and deacons were local officials in the Church and must be distinguished from gifts. Elders and deacons might or might not have the gift of preaching or teaching. Such gift was quite independent of their special office. There might be, and were, many elders and deacons in any given church, and yet there was still the fullest and freest liberty for any one to exercise his gift in ministry when the whole Church came together in one place. Elders were not to preside in a public meeting, but to oversee, feed, and care for the flock of God (Acts 20:28).

Apostolic Appointment
In Acts 14:21-23 we have the first of the two instances recorded in Scripture where elders were ordained. This was in the Gentile Assemblies which were formed by the missionary labors of Paul and Barnabas. After preaching the Gospel in various places, they returned again to the scene of their former labors at Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch and confirmed the souls of the disciples and exhorted them to continue in the faith and "ordained them elders in every church." Elders were not ordained in an infant Church. Time had to be given for the development of spiritual and moral qualifications and the manifestation of those who were gifted with wisdom and competent for such work of shepherding or ruling the Church of God. The qualifications required for elders are given in the first Epistle to Timothy, chapter 3, and in the Epistle to Titus, chapter 1: 6-9.

But notice who it was that ordained or appointed elders in these Churches. It was not the Churches who chose and appointed their own elders, as is practiced today, but it was the apostle Paul and Barnabas who ordained them. They were appointed by apostolic authority. Notice, too, that in Titus 1: 5, the only additional place in Scripture where we read anything about ordaining elders, it was Titus who was to do the ordaining in the Assemblies in Crete, as Paul had appointed him. It is a probable inference that Timothy also ordained elders as an apostolic delegate since he was given instructions as to the qualifications needed for such, but there is no mention made that he did.

No Such Authority Today
We find, then, throughout the Bible that none but an apostle or an apostolic delegate was empowered to appoint elders. Moreover, we read not a word therein about perpetuating this apostolic power of appointment after the apostles left the earth. Not a word is given to Titus or Timothy about continuing this task, or that Titus himself was to continue it after the apostle was dead. Neither was Titus to appoint whom he pleased, but the apostle assigned him the sphere of his commission-in Crete only. He was apostolically commissioned to ordain elders in Crete and could produce an inspired letter of instruction to him personally. Who can do anything similar today?

Furthermore, we never find in any part of Scripture any such thought expressed as a congregation choosing and appointing its elders. Therefore, in view of the foregoing undisputable facts, we affirm that there is no man or body of men now upon earth possessing power to ordain elders, nor was that power or authority ever committed to the Church.

What then are to do? Are there to be no elders or overseers in the Church of God today? Thank God, there are, but they are not, and cannot be, officially appointed as such because there is no apostolic power or authority to ordain them.

The Holy Spirit Appoints
Acts 20:28 will help us as to God's path for us today. Paul, here addressing the Ephesian elders, said: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers to feed the church of God." It is only God the Holy Ghost who can make and appoint overseers over His flock and He still does so today. We believe that when Paul or Titus ordained elders, they did so as acting by the power and direct authority of the Holy Ghost and their appointment was to be regarded by the Church as divine.

In the absence of such apostolic power or delegated authority, we can still rely upon the Holy Spirit to raise up qualified and able men and energize them to take the oversight of His flock and to feed His lambs and sheep. It was the Holy Ghost at work then, and it must be the Holy Ghost now. Il God raises up an elder or elders in an Assembly who go after the wanderers, warn the unruly, comfort those cast down, counsel, admonish, and guide souls, it surely becomes us to thankfully own such and to esteem them very highly for their work's sake. We are to love and acknowledge them as those who are over us in the Lord (I Tim. 5:17). Such are doing the needful work of overseers and are to be looked up to as such, though they cannot be officially appointed for there is no duly authorized power to do so.

Is it not becoming for us now to say that, not being apostles, we do not pretend to exercise their function in ordaining elders, though we do heartily recognize men possessed of the requisite qualifications for this local office and doing the work of overseers? This may seem very strange to some of our readers who have been used to churches appointing elders, but we ask you to search the Scriptures and see whether these things are so or not.

Instructions for Our Day
If we search the Bible, we will discover in the Epistles that a state of things substantially similar to our imperfect condition today is described for our help and profit. The Lord in His wisdom let such wants be felt in the early Church. Thus the apostle was inspired to write Epistles to churches where there were no elders ordained as, for instance, the Epistles to the Thessalonians and to the Corinthians. The last was distinctly a disorderly church, and elders might have been thought useful there. But there is not the least word or hint about elders throughout the Corinthian Epistles.

While the Assembly at Corinth abounded in gift, elders are seen nowhere among them. Yet the household of Stephanas devoted themselves regularly to the service of the saints and the apostle beseeches the brethren to submit themselves to such, and to every one who helped and labored (I Cor. 16:15, 16).

Likewise in I Thessalonians 5:12, 13 we have the very important instruction given to the saints who were a young church, yet they were told to own those that labored amongst them. "And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." The presence of ordained elders is not necessary in order to have and to own those who are over us in the Lord. There is much of importance for us now in that Scripture, for we, like they, have no official elders.

Thus God provided instructions for Assemblies where there would be no official oversight, and herein is seen His far-reaching wisdom in meeting the difficulties of days such as ours when a valid authority to ordain, as the apostles did, is not left on earth. We also see for our encouragement that at Corinth and Thessalonica, where there were no official elders, there were those raised up of God in the midst of the saints who showed spiritual ability in guiding and directing others and who manifested power to meet difficulties in the Church and to baffle the efforts of the enemy. In the one Epistle the apostle exhorted subjection to such and in the other Epistle he spoke of them as "over you in the Lord." This provision from the Lord we can expect even today and subjection to and esteem for such becomes every one in each Assembly.

As already stated, the qualifications for an overseer are given in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1: 6-9. They are clear enough and require no explanation here. Strong moral qualities are required as well as spiritual capacity for the work. But let us note in closing this subject that the apostle says, "If a man desire the office of a bishop (overseer), he desireth a good work" (I Tim. 3:1) . The work of overseer in God's Assembly is a good and most necessary work which should be desired by those duly qualified. Sometimes this good work is left undone in Assemblies which would indicate a lack of spiritual exercise and desire on the part of some whom the Holy Spirit would undoubtedly use. Thus perhaps some need to be exhorted to desire to do this good and needful work. This we find Peter doing in his first Epistle, chapter five. There he urges the elders to take the oversight of the flock willingly, setting an example for the others. A crown of glory from the Chief Shepherd will be the reward.

It remains for us now to briefly consider this branch of service in the Assembly. "Deacon" is an untranslated Greek word and always rendered simply "servant," or "minister.". The work of a deacon is to look after the temporal, -material things of the Assembly, while the elder has to do with the spiritual care of the Church. This word deacon is only found in Philippians 1:1 and I Timothy 3:8-13, the latter passage giving the qualifications required for such. We get an example of the service of the deacon in Acts 6:1-6 where seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom, were chosen by the Church in Jerusalem and appointed by the apostles over the material business of caring for the widows in the daily ministration. Though they are not called deacons here, this is what they were servants of the Church in administering the material things. Here we notice that the Church chooses and the apostles officially appoint them. For if the Church gives money and material things it is God's will that she should have a voice in the selection of those whom she feels will, with wisdom and good conscience, distribute these offerings wisely. So today the Church can choose those it wishes to take care of its material things. But as to formal appointment and laying on of hands, this likewise can only be done by apostles if we would follow the divine pattern closely.

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