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Church Polity:  Elders and three other passages

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Question #1:  

Bob, Do you have research or papers you have written on the number of elder(s) a local church should have? I am trying to assist a church which is thinking of restructuring from singular elder, to multiple elder board while they have no pastor to help them.

Response #1: 

While I don't have anything specific on this topic (partially for reasons that will become obvious on reading what is pasted in below), I do have some comments on local church government which I append here (they come from Coming Tribulation part 2A: The Seven Churches; subsection "Ephesus"):

"The end of all apostolic rule and of the miracles and miraculous gifts which had attended it meant that the Church would now have to become totally dependent upon the less spectacular (though intrinsically more powerful) procedure of administering the Word of God entirely through the Bible and the concomitant gifts of empowerment given by the Holy Spirit. For from the first days of the Ephesian era right up until our time, the work of the Church, salvation and spiritual growth, has been accomplished exclusively though ordinary Christians who have not possessed such impressive and extraordinary gifts. It has not been through healing, or tongues, or apostolic authority, or any other overtly miraculous means that the Church has spread the message of Jesus Christ and provided for its own growth in the power of the Spirit, but through normal evangelism, and teaching, and pastoring, and all of the myriad helps that each individual member of the Body of Christ has provided in support of the fundamental goal of the Church: to grow in Christ and to help others do likewise (Jn.21:15-17).

The true importance of the historical development of Church ritual and Church administration in the process of our collective salvation and spiritual growth has been highly overrated (at least as far as positive influence is concerned). Certainly, some basic administrative structure was and still is necessary for local churches to serve our Lord "decently and in good order" (1Cor.14:40; cf. 1Cor.14:33). But it can be fairly argued (as will be obvious even from our peripheral treatment of Church history which follows in this section) that over-enthusiastic, one might even say, morbid concentration on the forms of Church government and Church ritual have done far more harm than good in the past two millennia, and for one obvious reason: they have tended to attract attention to themselves rather than to the Word of God.

Jesus Christ Himself gave us the ceremony of communion (Matt.26:26-28; Mk.14:22-24; Lk.22:17-20; 1Cor.11:23-26), a ritual of remembrance of Him and His work and the only true Christian ritual, and even this has been abused – for its true purpose is not to "impart" grace or fellowship or anything else, but to remind believers of Him and His work and the choice we have made to follow Him. And as to the government of the local church, all the evidence points to the conclusion that flexibility of form in the implementation of the guiding principle of  "decently and in good order" is what the scriptures enjoin. There is no evidence in the Bible for any administrative superstructure superior to the local church following the (temporary) ministry of the twelve apostles.

For example, Paul goes to some lengths to describe the qualifications of deacons and elders (1Tim.3:1-13; Tit.1:5-9), but gives no suggestions about how these are to organize their church(es). Peter says nothing on the subject at all, and John in particular, although the last of the apostles, is most deferential in the use of his own authority, even in some very taxing circumstances (cf. 3rd John). We may compare the situation that confronted Moses in the organization of early Israel (Ex.18:13-26).  Although he would be given the most specific guidance on many subjects, administration was something that demanded flexibility as to time and circumstances, so that it fell to the lot of his gentile father-in-law to suggest better arrangements."

As is probably obvious from the above, I think there has been way too much focus on "polity" in Church history (the "Seven Churches" exposition in toto describes some of the abuses), and way too little attention on feeding the Body of Christ with the Word of God.

If you are asking me whether I think that the apostolic local churches had more than one elder, the short answer is "yes" (that seems pretty clear from 1Tim.5:17; Tit.1:5; Jas.5:14; 1Pet.5:1; 5:5). But there are also "bishops" (episkopoi), and they clearly have a large measure of authority (Phil.1:1; 1Tim.3:2; Tit.1:7; 1Pet.2:25). Now I do think it is pretty clear that bishops were [also] elders (cf. the Christian community in Philippi; was it really large enough to have more than one "bishop"-pastor-teacher? cf. the plural used at Phil.1:1). And since Peter commends the elders to whom he writes to "bishop the flock of God" (the verb episkopeo could hardly be heard and understood as having a different root meaning from the noun episkopos), there is a strong argument to made for elders being bishops too (compare also Acts 20:17 with 20:28, where Paul actually calls the elders of Ephesus "bishops"). Speaking in strict biblical terms, therefore, there is little to suggest that an elder and a bishop are not simply synonyms for the same thing. The former word is simply calling attention to the traditional nature of the position and the respect to be accorded to such an "old man", while the latter is stressing the oversight and care of the flock that the position entails (i.e., the subjective and objective chief characteristics of the ruling office respectively). Deacons, on the other hand, the only other biblically sanctioned office, are clearly administrators helpers who assist in making the church run smoothly but who do not have primary oversight of either teaching or governance (i.e., they "serve" as opposed to teaching and guiding; cf. Acts 6:1-6; Phil.1:1; 1Tim.3:1-13).

It seems to me that this issue has to be seen from the standpoint of the Jewish synagogue system, where there were always elders, respected older men who participated in the government of the synagogue, AND a "ruler" of the synagogue (who by definition would also be an elder: cf. Acts 18:8; 18:17). This system was a natural one for the Jewish apostles to build on, and one that worked well, given human nature and a situation where there was no overarching central authority beyond the local level (the biblically true situation for every local Christian church, even if an unbiblical superstructure of authority may exist).

However, while the Jewish synagogues took a staid approach to "preaching Moses", the new churches were to take an aggressive and enthusiastic approach to the preaching of the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Under such circumstances, those "elders" or "bishops" whose main duty was the teaching of scripture were certain to have a higher profile and a greater natural authority within the local church. This was neither an unexpected accident nor outside of any apostolic design as is clear from statements by both Peter (1Pet.5:1-4), and Paul (1Tim.4:13; 2Tim.2:15; 4:1-4; and compare the roles that Timothy, Titus and Apollos played in local churches, though they were not members of the college of the 12 apostles). Those who preach/teach the Word are to be deemed worthy of "double honor" (1Tim.5:17).

So no matter what form the formal structure takes in any local church, there will always be a teacher (usually and inevitably a single, primary one whose lead is followed by however many others there may be), and a group of influential members who support and, occasionally, check the teaching and the actions of that one. The effectiveness of the church itself will depend upon the dedication of that one, those few, and the congregation at large to the Word of God. Everything else is derivative. No system of polity, however ingenious, can compensate for a pastor-teacher, an elder board (or whatever the governing board is called), or a congregation that is not fully committed and dedicated to task #1: spiritual growth through hearing, believing, and applying the truth of the Word (and helping others to do likewise). Given that there will always be a need both for a person who takes the lead in the prime function of teaching the Word, and for a group of respected, vetted members to assist in the rule of the church, I make it a point always to counsel a balance between flexibility of implementation (so that rigid organization will not work at cross purposes to the primary goal of the church), and some minimal, reasonable, rational form of polity that fits the church in question (so that there is just enough "government" for things to proceed "decently and in good order).

Please also these links:

Some Questions on Church Polity.

Deacons and Elders

Church: The Biblical Ideal versus the Contemporary Reality

The Local Church and Personal Ministry I

The Local Church and Personal Ministry II

The Local Church and Personal Ministry III

Laodicean age of lukewarmness

The false doctrine of 'Institutional Security'

Mega-Churches, Emergent Christianity, Spirituality and Materialism.

Is the Local Church Meant to be a Patriarchy?

Best wishes for your work,

In our Lord Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd of Sheep,

Bob L.

Question #2:  

Dear Bob,

What is your take on 1st Corinthians 5:5?

Response #2: 

As to 1st Corinthians 5:5, here is how I translate it in part 3 of the Satanic Rebellion series under the section, The Human Spirit:

[For I have already decided, i]n the name of our Lord Jesus, when all of you are gathered together with my spirit by the power of our Lord Jesus, to hand such a one over to Satan for the destruction of his body so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.         
1st Corinthians 5:4-5

This flesh profits us nothing (Jn.6:63). It is our spirit that counts - that is who we really are, and that is the part of us that is saved (so that it may be united with a new body at the resurrection and that we may then be new whole persons apart from sin and mortality).

Paul is concerned for this believer who has fallen into the worst sort of sin, sin that will eventually result in the loss of faith if left to continue (cf. 1Jn.5:16-17). In such extreme cases of rebellion against the Lord on the part of believers, it would certainly be better for them to have their bodies subjected to discipline so intense that they could not stand it and so be led to repentance and restoration, than to be allowed to proceed down the road to spiritual destruction. Indeed, even a painful physical death under such circumstances is better than losing one's faith and falling away from the Lord. What Paul is talking about here is a unique apostolic authority to remove offending believers from the umbrella of divine protection that they may be made subject to unbearable satanic attack. It is a mark of the greatness and humility of Paul (and of the other apostles) that they did not make greater use of this gift (1Tim.1:20; cf. Matt.16:19; 18:18; 1Cor.4:18-21; 2Cor.1:23; 10:1-11; 13:1-10), even though there were many occasions we know about from scripture of severe opposition that must have mightily tempted them to do so (and many more about which we likely do not know). But whether one has been "handed over" by an apostle or no, it should be remembered that no believer who opposes the Lord will go unpunished, even if the rebellion does not rise to the level of risking loss of faith (Heb.12:1-13).

In Him who knows all our trials and tribulations, and is with us and in us to help us carry all burdens until the end, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

Question #3:  

I have to confess my faith starting falling today, then I started to read your material on Peter and was picked up again to my feet. As always the Lord knows what I need and when I need it. Would you explain Isaiah 24:21-22 for me? Thank you.

Response #3: 

It is difficult to keep our backs turned to the world and our faces to the Lord when the heat is on. But I encourage you to keep fighting this mental and spiritual fight, and to keep making the Lord your refuge from all the blows this life delivers. We know in our hearts that this life is a temporary situation, that in Him we can handle whatever heartaches come our way (because we have the promise from Him that we will not be tested beyond our ability), and that all our suffering is merely "momentary light affliction", "working out an eternal weight of glory" which is not to be compared to the glories to come. Take shelter under His eternal wings.

On Isaiah 24:21-22, here is how I translate it in part 4 of the Satanic Rebellion series, under the section "Angelic Combat":

And it will come about on that day (i.e., the 2nd Advent) that the Lord will visit punishment upon the host of the [heavenly] heights in the [heavenly] heights (i.e., the fallen angels), and upon the kings of the earth upon the earth (i.e., antichrist's elite following). And they will be crowded into a crowd, like prisoners in a dungeon, and imprisoned in a prison, and after many days they will be punished.         
Isaiah 24:21-22

One of the wonderful things that will happen at the Second Advent is the temporary removal of Satan from the world (Rev.20:1-3; cf. Rev.9:1-3; 12:7-9). While it does not say so in Revelation, the Isaiah 24 passage (and others: Ps.149:6-9; Is.14:3-23; 27:1; 34:1-5; Ezek.28:17-19; Jer.10:11; Lk.10:18; 1Cor.6:2-3) demand the conclusion we might come to anyway: along with their leader, the fallen angels will also be taken out of circulation during this time of world-wide blessing under the rulership of our Master.

All our enemies and all those who have opposed us on His account will meet their end and their just desserts, while we will glory with Him forever, and all the tears of this world will be long forgotten.

In that blessed hope,

Bob L.

Question #4:  

I am nothing but I love our Lord Jesus with all my heart. I have been reading and studying the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. I came across this note on Jeremiah 31:22 by Jerome saying about the "new thing" of "a woman should compass a man" that "the Father of all things should be contained in a virgin's womb". Please give me your thoughts. Thank You

Response #4: 

Praise be to God that none of us are anything apart from the One who sustains the universe by His Word of power, but in Him we have everything, for we are One with Jesus Christ and heirs of all things along with Him who bought us, completely apart from any merit on our parts.

I always take a second look when it comes to Jerome. For example, he is one of the few commentators of whom I know who understands that Daniel 11:21 is referring to antichrist (and not exclusively to Antiochus Epiphanes). On this passage though, I do feel that the context is not one of predicting the virgin birth. After all, in the sense that Jerome seems to understand a "woman encompassing man", it is clear that this is equally true of any women pregnant with a male child, and so not really the "new thing" proclaimed here. Here is what I have written about this passage in the past:

"Jeremiah 31:22, "a woman will surround a man", is a very much disputed verse, and has been for centuries. Assuming the text is correct (and I believe that it is) "a woman will surround a man" is represented here in Jer.31:22 as "a new thing", a change in the natural order of things, at least as far as the world is now constituted. This is the starting point of C.F. Keil's explanation and he gives a good parallel in Is.43:19. Keil stresses this verse in its symbolic meaning, namely, Virgin Israel (cf. v. 21) will "surround" (i.e., give loving attention to) her "husband", the Lord. This is certainly correct as far as it goes, and does, as Keil points out, provide motivation for Israel to "return" to Him in their hearts (i.e., with the prospect of a new, closer relationship with Him than has ever existed before as an incentive). However, based on the parallel of Is.43:19 and the very concrete nature of this prophecy, it seems clear that we are also (and first) to take these words to mean some clear change in the way things work at present. For women to give solicitous attention to men (in terms of protection, provision, affection, what have you), instead of the other way around, indicates a new set of circumstances in which the brutish, dangerous and materially restricted mode of living in general in the world has given way to one of justice, security and plenty (as will be the case during the Messiah's reign). So we are not meant to understand any change of male or female nature from these verses, but merely a recognition that life in the Millennium will be so serene, that previous protective male behavior patterns that have been universal (if occasionally muted in highly civilized societies) will be largely unnecessary under the perfect rule of Christ. So this verse predicts the Millennium, focusing upon the coming human security and ease of that blessed time, just as Is.43:19 does by focusing upon the ecological transformation that will take place. The fifth century Greek historian Thucydides said that "war is a violent teacher", noting that human conflict makes people more brutish by taking away the ease and security of normal life. In the Millennium, the trend will be in the opposite direction, so much so that behavior patterns of male/female (though not their natures) will reflect this unprecedented time of blessing and peace."

Given that the context in Jeremiah 31:21-25 is indeed the promise of restoration to Israel, an event that will not have its complete fulfillment until she is regathered by the Messiah when He takes up His millennial rule, I still feel that this interpretation which sees the "new thing" as a promise of peace and security as correct.

I commend and rejoice in your love for our Lord and in its clear expression through your diligent study of the scriptures.

In Him in whom all things have become new, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill

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