Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 23, 1954
NUMBER 20, PAGE 1,13-14a

The Province And Prerogatives Of Elders

Bryan Vinson, Houston, Texas

We are told that everything is to produce after its kind, and it isn't surprising to note how error begets error quite prolifically in the field of religious thought and practice. Starting with the error of inherited depravity, Catholicism and the Protestant denominations have spawned a horde of other errors. If, then, erroneous conceptions entertained by others can be so prolific in producing ever-spreading departures from the apostolic pattern it is equally plausible to concede that such may well develop among us. To err is human, we are told, and we are all human. Every danger which exists either actually or potentially in the church is to be ascribed to the human side rather than the divine. The constitution of the church is divine but the constituency is human, and in the latter reside all the errors and dangers which may possibly beset us.

The current issue of institutionalism both in its evangelistic and benevolent aspects is rooted in the misconceptions regarding the province and prerogatives of elders. At least I so think, and, therefore, feel disposed to offer some observations on the subject. It is an important one, and it is one of continuing interest and controversial in the treatment often accorded it. It has involved in it the elementary urge for power and the too frequent hunger to ever enlarge it. If this were untrue there would not be the history of the long and bitter struggle for ascendancy which was carried on for centuries between the Eastern and Western church from their respective capitals of Constantinople and Rome, with the final separation in the eleventh century. It had its inception in one man aspiring to preeminence over his fellows, and then spread to one church striving for dominion over other congregations. The result has been the political and spiritual tyranny of Rome for many centuries over the benighted legions of many nations.

Human nature remains the same. The love for the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues together with the greetings in the market and imposing titles has not ceased. It was true of the Pharisees, and it was true with Diotrephes and subsequent history reveals no abatement of this spirit. It is quite likely that many of those whom the Savior thus described were unaware of this spirit, but we cannot question the accuracy and justice of his judgment of them. Neither is the indictment pronounced against Diotrephes by the sainted John to be disputed. And certainly the long and cruel history of the Papacy with all its proscriptions, anathemas and persecutions of dissenters bears incontestable proof of the lust and greed for power sought and exercised. In all its course, however, there has been the pious pretensions of concern for the welfare of man, temporally and eternally.

This reference is not intended as a reproach against any elder or elders today, but is designed as a brief reminder of the dangers resident in enlarged and unwarranted powers assumed and asserted by any one elder or elders today. It is obvious that whatever prerogatives, rights or powers of an authoritative character reposed in elders must be within the province of their authorized field of operation. It can never legitimately transcend these limits. To assume prerogatives beyond those authorized in the scriptures even when confined within their proper sphere of operation is an act of usurpation, and to exercise such legitimate functions outside this province would also be an act of usurpation. Politically we would regard such usurpation of power to be an act of tyranny; in the sphere of the spiritual it can be no less in effect though not in intent. There need be no doubt as to the exact limitations and boundary of the rightful province wherein the elders are to function and, consequently, over whom they are to exercise spiritual oversight.

The familiar statement of Paul to the elders of the Ephesian church affords full and satisfactory information on this point. "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." These men had been made overseers by the Holy Spirit. They were not self-appointed. How were they made thus by the Holy Spirit? To reason that they were directly and supernaturally so constituted is equal to denying there are any legitimate elders today, for such means and method is obviously not employed now. In discussing the issue of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion able brethren often reason from the promise that what is essential in making a Christian in one case is essential in every case.

This premise is unimpeachable, and I am unable to detect any error in its applicability to the question before us. The Holy Spirit made, and does make, Christians by a process of enlightenment effected by the gospel of Christ, with the duly stipulated conditions therein set forth which must be complied with to change a person into a child of God. True, multitudes believe they are Christians who have never fully and properly complied with the terms, conditions and qualifications required by the Holy Spirit through the apostles to constitute them as such. This, however, doesn't prove them to be Christians. Equally true may it be observed that it is possible for many who regard themselves to be overseers in the church to be deficient in meeting the requirements the Holy Spirit has stipulated in this matter as is true in the instance above referred to. It is quite likely that the general lack of regard for the terms of pardon arises from a corresponding lack of appreciation of the vital and comprehensive change designed to be wrought in the convert; and, finally, this lack of appreciation arises from a failure to properly evaluate the relation and duties thus to be sustained toward the Lord.

Paralleling this observation it may be noted that a great deal of the confusion and disagreement respecting the qualifications of elders might readily disappear if more emphasis was placed on the study of their work and the scriptural duties enjoined on them. The former must be interpreted in the light of the latter, since they were stipulated by the Lord out of regard for and in view of the functioning of the latter. The office of a bishop is no mere honorary position vesting the holder with a dignity and recognition above his brethren; it is a position imposing grave responsibility and requiring diligent and faithful service. "If any man desire the office of a bishop he desires a good work" certainly assigns great emphasis on that which is to be done in conjunction with that which such a one is to be. Observation would lead anyone to the conclusion that some desire the office without desiring the work, as evidenced by a failure to do the work. To wear the name and hold the authority vested in the office while neglecting to do the work creates an abnormal condition and contributes to a large measure of disruption and disorder in the churches. Too often a failure to do the work may be rightfully ascribed to a deficiency in character or ability to perform it, while neither is essential to wearing the title and asserting the authority of the office. It is my persuasion the work of elders is of such magnitude and importance within the rightful operation and province of their assignment as to preclude any ability and to dissuade any inclination to transcend its limits. That is, in overseeing the flock, feeding and watching after their souls as those for whom they shall have to give account, should be so time and energy consuming as to render impossible the oversight of far-flung endeavors reaching far beyond their own communities. The passage referred to restricts their responsibility to those over whom the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, and identifies these as those — and only those — who have been purchased by the blood of Christ. The children of the members, who themselves aren't Christians, do not become the subjects of their oversight; their relation as elders or bishops is solely sustained to those who are the members of the Lord's body in that community of believers. The Holy Spirit has never, so far as the scriptures reveal, made any group of men bishops over anything but a local congregation of disciples. It is, therefore, an unwarranted assumption of authority for them to endeavor to exercise any oversight over anyone or anything other than the local congregation.

The recent, and I assume the present, position of Brother Oler of Boles Home that the home at Quinlan should not be under the oversight of elders is eminently correct. While the charter of the home dearly reposes in the elders at Terrell the power of selecting directors to fill any vacancy it is hard to harmonize this with that position. Though it is said these men, the elders, aren't acting as elders of the church in this capacity it is difficult to see how they are acting otherwise. This is true since to function in this capacity is made to depend on being elders of this congregation, and that position is the sole means of identifying those who shall so do. As in a recent announcement from a sponsoring church that the elders were acting as individuals and not as elders, or for the church, in their receiving and disbursing of funds for this project, it is difficult to distinguish between the official and private acts of these men. In the first place, how did they come to engage in this except the fact they are the elders of this congregation? If they had not been elders would they have assumed this sponsoring position? If so, would they be subject to whoever the elders may have been in the execution of this work?

The fallacy in the matter of elders having the oversight of any institution or project other than the local congregation is in thinking that to thus do is to radically transform or convert the institution from an unscriptural to a scriptural status. So pronounced is this change evidently regarded to be that it is virtually an act of metamorphosis — a change wrought by enchantment. It is vested with a sanctity by the simple and single act of being brought under the oversight of elders, when before or without such it is unscriptural and unsanctified. Before it isn't fit for the master's use; now it is hallowed and rendered holy and pleasing to God in all its endeavors. It wouldn't be surprising to find this sort of reasoning leading some to conclude that any congregation without elders is an unscriptural body, though the apostles established this kind and subsequently returned to ordain elders in them. No congregation becomes scriptural by appointing elders — it has to be scriptural before, if it is to be afterward. No institution lacking scriptural sanction for its existence and functions can ever be made scriptural by simply putting elders over it. Not only is this true but equally so may an institution have a scriptural right to exist, and forfeit that right by being placed under elders. This is a point to which attention shall be directed in a later issue. The question shall be raised and the answer sought as to how an orphan home may scripturally exist and operate. Too often is the wild and inflammatory charge hurled that the critics of the present system criticize without constructively setting forth how the work may be done. Attention shall be given to this later.