Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
December 1, 1955
NUMBER 30, PAGE 10-11b

The Extent Of Their Authority

Bill Cavender, Nocona, Texas

The question of authority in religion is the most fundamental of all religious questions. Divisions exist among major religious bodies in so-called "Christendom" because of a failure to recognize a common authority in religious matters. And even though our plea through the years has been that the scriptures compose the sole source of authority in all religious matters, and we have urged the sects to unite on the basis of the scriptures only, divisions have periodically come to our ranks because we have not put into practice that which we preached. It is the common failing of many of the brethren to preach the authority of the scriptures and yet when the scriptures do not authorize some of their plans and projects and the organizations formed to carry out these projects, to set aside the scriptures and continue in the plans of human wisdom that they have devised, regardless of the consequences.

In the great brotherhood promotional schemes in vogue among us today, elders with itching ears and urged on by preachers that will scratch them, have taken the lead in promoting the "universal church" projects and the result is that elders of various congregations have assumed prerogatives and the supervision of tasks that do not lie within the pale of their God-given authority. In the supervision of such projects they have gone beyond the scriptural limits of their authority and the result is that they transgress God's will and reject the scriptures as the authority governing them in their work as overseers.

The authority of a group of elders is limited to the congregation of which they are elders. This is so fundamental and basic that it seems almost strange to have to emphasize it; yet perhaps more than any point of Bible teaching, this needs to be emphasized to the brethren today. Elders are the overseers only of the local congregation where they are elders and the Bible so teaches. Elders have the authority to plan and to carry out the work of the local church where they serve as the bishops. They have no right to make plans involving another local and independent congregation of God's people. The elders in every church are to use the abilities and resources of the church that they serve. God expects every local church, under its overseers, to do all possible in spreading the gospel, edifying the saints and caring for the needs of its benevolent wards. God doesn't expect the elders of one church to supervise the work of another church in any of these fields of responsibility.

There are two passages that make this teaching crystal clear and set the limits upon the authority of elders. They are Acts 20:28 and 1st Peter 5:2-3. In Acts 20:28, Paul said to the elders of the church at Ephesus: "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit bath made you bishops, to feed the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood." Here the injunction to these elders is that they are to feed "all the flock" in which the Holy Spirit had "made them bishops." They were bishops of the Ephesian flock and it was this church to which they were responsible. Their authority was limited to the feeding of this flock. They were not brotherhood feeders, responsible for many churches. In 1st Peter 5:2-3, the Holy Spiritthrough Peter tells the elders: "Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God; nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock." This was said to elders, and the instruction is that they are to "tend" the flock of God "which is among you." So this passage likewise limits the responsibility of the elders to "tending" the flock of which they are overseers and no others. Why is it that sensible men, elders of God's people in different places, who, for the most part, desire to do right, can read these passages and then still think they are justified in "overseeing" some project that involves the funds of many churches, and a work to which all churches have an equal relationship? Why can they not understand that if they will "feed" and "tend" the flock of which they are elders that they will have ample work to do, will be pleasing to God and will be staying within the limits of scriptural authority given them?

The "scholars" among us are assuring the elders of the churches that all is well in Israel and that what few ills there are can be remedied by "quarantining with a yellow tag" all the anti-progressive brethren who still teach that the New Testament is the sole and specific authority in religious matters and who still insist that there are only three ways to prove a matter scriptural, either by command, example or necessary inference. They assure the elders of the churches that they are still doing their work as elders even though they "delegate" their responsibility in some given fields to the elders of other churches to oversee for them. They are sure that no church has lost its autonomy or independence by its elders thus delegating their work to other elders to do for them. I do not know of anyone who has argued that a church has completely last its autonomy and independence by the elders delegating their responsibility to another group of elders to oversee for them. What is argued is that if such delegation of authority is scriptural, then a principle is established whereby ALL the work of one church could be delegated to the elders of another church to oversee and thus the complete independence and autonomy of a local church would be destroyed. If elders of one church can delegate their responsibility of overseeing a good work to the elders of another church, why can't they delegate all of their responsibility? Where is the line to be drawn? Would a church have to completely lose its autonomy and independence before the "universal church" brethren would say that elders have exceeded their authority?

God never gave any responsibility to one group of elders that he did not give to all elders alike. None is charged by God to accomplish some work that all are not equally commanded to accomplish. Every church has the same work to do and every group of elders has the same work to do. Yet many elders today assume to do a work and oversee a work for the elders of some other church. In so doing they have exceeded the bounds of their scriptural authority.

Division, discord and strife should not prevail among us on this point. This is the doctrine of the New Testament that no gospel preacher would have denied a few years ago. It is the doctrine with which the faithful defeated the Missionary Society Advocates. It is the doctrine that needs to be preached today, even though when it is preached and practiced it will uproot some of the benevolent and evangelistic schemes that are under the "oversight" of the misguided elders of some church. It is the only doctrine that is pleasing to God concerning the authority of elders in the church because it is Bible teaching. Faithful men will teach it; men-pleasers, soft-peddlers and ear-scratchers will shun to declare it.