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Obedience to Elders in Matters of Opinion

By Terry A. Martin

religion, articles, christianity

In the April, 1989 issue of the Harding Graduate School of Religion Bulletin brother Jack P. Lewis in an article entitled, "Sow the Wind; Reap the Whirlwind," wrote: "There is neither a statement nor a specific example in the Bible teaching that members are obligated to obey elders in matters of judgment." Brother Lewis also wrote, "The contention that elders are to be obeyed in matters of judgment is a deduction men draw, not an explicit biblical teaching.

Respectfully, I disagree with Jack Lewis on this subject. He sets aside the teaching of God's word on the authority of elders.

Brother Lewis' mastery of the Greek language is well known. Yet in his article he did not deal with specific verses that instruct us about the work and authority of elders, and he didn't discuss the meaning of important Greek words in those verses. These verses and Greek words show the weakness of his article and are destructive to his position.

Let's consider what the Bible says about the authority of elders.

"Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor" (I Tim. 5:17). The Greek word translated rule means "to be over, to superintend, preside over" (Thayer). The same Greek word is translated over you in I Thessalonians 5:12, which says, "know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord."

I Timothy 3:4-5,12 says elders and deacons are to "rule" their children and their houses well. This is the same Greek word as found in I Timothy 5:17 and I Thessalonians 5:12.

Does "ruling his house" mean his children and house are to submit to him in matters of judgment? Of course it does! Furthermore, an eldership "ruling" a congregation has the right to expect members of the church to submit in matters of judgment.

The Hebrew writer says, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves" (Heb. 13:17). The Greek word translated obey means "to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with" (Thayer). The word rule means "to be a leader, to rule, to command, to have authority over, with gentleness of person over who one rules, so of the overseers or leaders of the Christian church" (Thayer). Submit means to "retire, withdraw, hence, to yield to authority and admonition, to submit."

The Bible clearly teaches that we are to "obey" and "submit 'to the "rule" of elders. To sweep under the rug passages quoted above, brother Lewis says, "None of these passages (or like passages) actually defines the limits of 'rule' or of 'obedience."'

The main defense brother Lewis gives in his article for denying elders authority in matters of judgment is the potential for abuse. Everyone realizes that this potential exists, when someone is given authority. Elders have abused their authority, although God's word says elders are not to be "Lords over God's heritage" (I Pet. 5:3). 1 offer no defense for elders who use their authority simply to impose their self-will. Neither do I deny the clear teaching of the Bible about the authority of elders simply because they may sometimes abuse their authority.

Abuse of authority may exist in many areas, but it does not change what the Bible teaches in those areas. For example, abuse of authority may exist between husband and wife. The Bible still says, "Wives, be in subjection to your husbands" (I Pet. 3: 1). Abuse may exist between parents and children. Still, the Bible still says, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord" (Eph., 6: 1). Potential for abuse of authority exist between you and the government. Yet the Bible says, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man" (I Pet. 2:13). Difficult questions, hard situations, and abuse of authority may arise between elders and members of a congregation, but the Bible still says, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves" (Heb. 13:17).

To help protect against abuse of your God-given authority, I plead with elders to remember that you need to be extremely open, flexible, and considerate when it comes to matters of opinion. Don't use your authority to brush aside everyone who gets in your way. Listen to the congregation and their opinions. A good husband will listen to his wife. Good parents listen to their child. A good eldership will respect and listen to the congregation they serve.

The Bible says,

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others (Phil. 2:34).

Brother Lewis wrote,

Not one of us believes that the domineering elder is to be obeyed in all matters of his judgment. There are none of us but who would draw a line somewhere as we encounter elders who are near or far from what we understand to be the truth.

It is true, the time may come when we must draw the line and say we will not submit to the elders of a given congregation. This also could be true of wives submitting to their husbands, children submitting to their parents, and citizens submitting to the government. This does not change the teaching of the Bible about submission in those areas.

I encourage every Christian to be extremely careful in drawing that line. Make sure that it is not your arrogant, self-imposed will that is motivating your decision not to submit to the elders. Many have rebelled against elders not because of matters of right and wrong, but because of pride. Remember, in every institution someone must be responsible for making the final decision, and this is even true in matters of opinion. Brother Lewis says,

Having sown the wind in trying to persuade people that they must obey elders even in matters of judgment, we now reap the whirlwind of Crossroads and Boston movements where all sorts of regimentation is demanded. Within these movements it is only the personnel to be submitted to which has changed.

The charge this statement makes is completely backward. To blame the teaching of submission to elders in matters of judgment for the development of the Crossroads/Boston movements is nothing short of ridiculous.

Those familiar with these movements know very well that the problems they cause in our brotherhood are not because some teach that elders should be submitted to in matters of judgment. To the contrary, it is rebellion against this Bible truth that has produced this movement's most destructive forces.

The Crossroads/Boston movement has divided congregations because they moved in and taught that one did not have to submit to elders in matters of opinion, while teaching the unbiblical ideas of "evangelistic authority" and church "reconstruction."

Part of the reason we reap the whirlwind of the Crossroads/Boston movements is that people have refused to follow the Bible in submitting to elders.

Having sown the wind in teaching a lack of respect for biblical authority of elders, we now reap the whirlwind of the Crossroads/Boston movements. They deny the Bible arrangement of authority and have devised their hierarchy. Who knows what other destructive forces await the church simply because people will not "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves" (Heb. 13:17)?


Published October 1992