Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Church polity: Biblical church polity (part 2)

[continued from previous posts here and here]

Since Scripture seems to indicate only two offices, let us look at each of the offices in detail.

The office of the elder

The office of the elder is first stated in Scripture in Acts 14:23, whereby we read that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. From this passage, we can see that every church has elders (plural) in them, which thus show that nowhere in Scripture is the single elder/pastor-led church polity ever mentioned. This concept of the plurality of elders is thus the biblical norm, and practically it benefits the church as there should be less of a tendency to elevate any single person to a higher status than allowed by Scripture. This is opposed to the idea of a single elder/pastor-led church, where whatever the only elder or the pastor says is near infallible, as unless the elder or pastor is himself humble enough to receive criticism and evaluate his teachings according to Scripture, nobody has the formal authority to rebuke him.

We shall next look into the functions and roles of the elders. The elders or overseers/bishops were seen to preside over the first and only infallible Council of the Church, together with the apostles, in Jerusalem (Acts 15: 1-32) in deciding over a doctrinal dispute. From this, we can see that it is the job of the elders in discussing and presiding over a doctrinal dispute, and handling down a decision over the matter. More on this issue later.

In the pastoral epistles, we are told that elders are to above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, must manage his household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, not a recent convert, well thought of by outsiders (1 Tim. 3:3-7), not quick-tempered, upright, holy, disciplined, holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught, able to give instruction in sound doctrine and to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:6-9).

The list of qualifications for elders can be hereby seperated into two categories; their personal conduct and their aptitude for the office, as follows:

Above reproach Able to teach
Husband of one wife Not a recent convert
Sober-mindedHolding firm to the trustworthy word as taught
Self-controlledAble to give sound instruction in sound doctrine
RespectableAble to rebuke those who contradict it
Not a drunkard
Not violent but gentle
Not quarrelsome
Not a lover of money
Must manage his household well
Well thought of by outsiders
Not quick-tempered

As it can be seen, the qualifications which fall under the conduct category can be summed up in the observation that these people are constantly living a life in submission to Christ, being filled with the Spirit. A person who loves Christ and desires to obey Him in every way he can would naturally possess these quatities in ever-increasing manner, proving his Christian faith by bearing fruits in accordance with it (Mt. 7:16-20); the fruit of the Spirit would become evident in his life (Gal. 5:22-24). In other words, this list of qualifications is not meant to function as a proponent of moralism, as a judge of whether the person is moral or not. It is definitely not meant to function just as a list of criteria that you tick off in evalutaing whether someone is 'fit for the job'; as a 'minumum requirement list' for elders, but rather to know that such a person is mature enough spiritually for the job and would not dishonor Christ on the job by his behavior and conduct.

I would like to just mention a bit more on two of these qualifications: the qualification that he must manage his household well, and that of being well-thought of by outsiders. The qualification that an elder must manage his household well is evident in the fact that his children are submissive (1 Tim. 3:4), believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination (Titus 1:6), and the rationale behind that given by Scripture is that if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church (1 Tim. 3:5). Practically speaking, what that means is that an elder must be passionate enough about God that he will teach his children about God and discipline his children, such that his children will grow up to embrace the faith and be obedient to Christ in their personal walk with Him too. However, someone may well ask, what about the free will of the children? What if the children decide of their own free will to reject Christ? This shows a lack of understanding of the Covenant of Grace towards the children of believers. Also, if the father really loves Christ, that would be seen by the children in his life and his conduct. Even if they rebel, the father should be constantly praying for them to turn to Christ, and God may well reward his perseverance in prayer, for ultimately salvation belongs to God (Rev. 7:10), and if God wants the person to be an elder, would he not be able to convert his children also? Is the arm of God too small to accomplish this?

The children of elders must not be open to the charge of debauchery and insubordination. What that means is that the children must be living lives holy and pleasing to God. No one should be able to say that they saw or heard the child of an elder committing various sensual and sexual sins, and that charge be found to be indeed true. It reflects badly on the Church and on her leaders when the children of leaders behave like the world and adopt its practices and sensual pleasures. As we shall see later, this criteria also applies to deacons, and obviously deacons who do not fulfil this criteria do not glorify God in their conduct.

The next qualification of elders of being well-thought of by outsiders basically means that no charge of immorality or wickedness can be validly leveled at them by anyone; similar to the qualification of being above reproach, except that this qualifcation emphasizes that even hostile witnesses cannot find fault with them. This obviously does not mean that outsiders necessarily love them; as we know that the world would hate us because we follow Christ (Jn. 15:18-20). In fact, sometimes if we are well-thought of by outsiders in the area of being loved by them, it may not be a good thing. For example, if we are loved by the world because we refuse to preach the Gospel to them; because we are so 'loving' that we refuse to put forth the exclusivity of the Christian faith, then obviously we are not obeying Christ. For elders, they would have violated the qualification of being holy. Although they seem to be well and truly 'well thought of by outsiders', they are acutally well and truly disqualified from holding the office of an elder.

Next, we would look to the aptitude of an elder. An elder must not be a recent convert, the reason being that he might be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil (1 Tim. 3:6). What this means is that a recent convert is not spiritually mature enough to handle the power and authority that comes as part of the job scope and would thus abuse it. As Christians, we slowly learn of the biblical concept of servant leadership (Mk. 9:35), of our inability to do right (Rom. 7:14-25) and thus of our total dependence upon God (Rom. 7:24-25). Only upon one who submits to Christ would God be able to use him mightily for his glory.

The other aptitudes has to do with doctrines. As the elders are tasked to lead the church, and in fact are the successors to the Apostles (without infallibility though) in their roles within the Church, this is not surprising. We have seen earlier on that the elders of Jerusalem took part in the Jerusalem council, and that Paul appoint elders in every church they planted. The elders are also called overseers or bishops because they have been tasked with tending to the flock of God; to care for them. In Acts 20:28-31, we can see the Apostle Paul instructing the Ephesian elders to take care of the flock which God has given to them, and protect them from the wolves. All of this has to do with doctrines, since doctrines delineate who God is and how we can come to be saved and how we can know Him, and consequently false doctrines promoted by false techers are analogous to poison by wolves who seek to devour the spiritual lives of the sheep. The Bible is abundently clear that false doctrine = false Christ or Gospel, which will lead to damnation (Acts 20:30; 2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 6: 3-10; 2 Tim. 3:1-8, Jude). Thus, an elder has been taked to hold firm to the sound doctrine as taught by the apostles, to be able to teach, to give instruction in sound doctrine, and to rebuke those who contraduct sound doctrine, in order that he might fulfil his role as an overseer.

An elder must hold firm to sound doctrine. An elder must be someone who knows his doctrines well and is able to defend it, not looking lost whenever a doctrinal controversy errupts, or worse still, being unable to differentiate orthodoxy from heresy. The contemporary craze over preferring and appointing successful and especially business people to be elders is notably absent in Paul's description of what an elder's aptitude must consist of. Instead of knowing how to sucessfully manage a company, which will be translated into proper 'efficient mangement' of the church, the apostle Paul is more concerned that an elder must be able to contribute to the doctrinal health of a church. Any elder who cannot do so is not fit to be an elder, scripturally speaking, which certainly disqualifies quite a lot of people in contemporary, anti-intellectual Evangelicalism from that role.

An elder must be able to teach. Closely related to that is that he must be able to give sound instruction in sound doctrine. Elders who cannot preach and teach obviously was not something that the apostle Paul had in mind when he penned the pastoral epistles. Furthermore, if elders are to tend to the flock, how can they not be able to feed the flock with the spiritual food of Scripture? A shepherd who doesn't feed his flock would be negligent, what more spiritual shepherds who don't feed the flock of Christ?

The last aptitude mentioned is not something which modern effeminate Evangelicalism has the stomach to accept. An elder must be able to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine. He DOES NOT have the liberty to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude to the issue. As false doctrine has the potential to destroy the spiritual lives of the flock, he of necessity must rebuke false teaching, unpopular though it may be. A shepherd would be very cruel towards his flock if he allows the wolves to go in and devour them, but yet why it is that our spiritual shepherds do not seem to see anything wrong with allowing false teaching into the church? Why is it that they do not rebuke false teaching and false teachers? Do these leaders love the wolves more than the sheep? Modern Evangelicalism current pre-occupation with 'unity' has allowed the wolves into the flock, and the leaders of the church are in fact showing their hatred of the fock when they do so.

Leaving these passages, let us look at another passage, 1 Tim. 5:17. The passage says that elders are to rule well, and double honor is to be given to those who labor in preaching and teaching. I have already commented on this passage before, and I would be applying some of the points I have made later, but suffice it is to say that a surface look at the passage shows that elders are to rule the church. What the concept of ruling refers to is that elder are to be in charge of the church's spiritual direction and overall thrust, and that not by lording it over the flock like Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9). They are to provide pastoral care, not leaving that to the pastor only. Such pastoral care is in the form of visitation, praying for the flock, counselling the flock, admonishing the flock, encouraging the flock etc. In fact, what are pastors but full-time elders, in the biblical sense of the word? The office of pastor is never mentioned at all in the Scriptures. Yes, it is mentioned in Eph. 4:11, but that is meant to describe the various functions the ministers of God function within the Church, not on the offices of the church. After all, do we have an office of the Evangelist, the Prophet, or do we call teachers an office within the church? Or do we want to follow the Charismatics in promoting the 'five office view', which is unbiblical? (Briefly, the reason why they are not offices is because they are not spoken as such by the Scriptures. We are not told to select apostles, prophets or evangelists and install them as such but rather that people function in such a manner.)

As I have mentioned before in my exposition of 1 Tim. 5:17, elders rule and teach within the church, and thus there is no clear distinction between 'ruling elders' and 'teaching elders', contra classic Presbyterianism. The 3-office view is definitely erroneous, as there is no office of Pastor stated in Scripture, nor are the 'ruling elders' and the 'teaching elders' totally seperate offices. In fact, they are almost identical, but for the fact that the word 'especially' shows that some elders may not be as proficient at teaching as others, therefore this view is not a 2-office view, but rather a π-1 (2.14159...) office view. As an aside, a glance at Phil 1:1 would show that Paul only regarded two offices in the church, that of overseers or elders and that of deacons.

We would next look at the office of the deacon, before looking at the interactions between the two offices.

[to be continued]

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