by Al Maxey

Issue #133 ------- July 8, 2004
Perhaps the most central characteristic of
authentic leadership is the relinquishing
of the impulse to dominate others.

David Cooper (1931--)
Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry

Edicts of Elderships
Are Opinions of Shepherds Binding?

Sheep need shepherds. Without responsible guides to lead them, and bereft of benevolent pastors to care for them, sheep will stray and become prey for predators or they will become sickly and die through neglect. Jesus often felt a great sense of compassion for the multitudes, for "they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36). Moses appreciated the fact that men without leadership would stray, thus he petitioned the Lord to "appoint a man over the congregation who will go out and come in before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd" (Num. 27:16-17). Without godly guidance from special Spirit-led shepherds, the flock of the Lord will become an easy target. "They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill, and My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth; and there was no one who would search or seek for them" (Ezek. 34:5-6).

God desires for His sheep to have shepherds, however these shepherds must be sheep-centered, not self-centered. Bad shepherds can do as much damage as good wolves! There are many characteristics of worthless pastors that could be presented, but in the passage from the prophecy of Ezekiel we see that two of the chief failings are found in self-centeredness and severity. They are harsh, forceful, and domineering. They "lord it over" the flock. Jesus told the Twelve, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not to be so among you" (Mark 10:42-43). Shepherds are NOT commissioned by God to be little lords over the flock. Rather, they are to be spiritual guides. In other words, they lead by example, not by edict. "Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:2-3).

There is no question that God's design for the church includes recognized leadership. The members of the universal One Body are uniquely gifted by the Spirit in many different ways .... "if it is leadership, let him govern diligently" (Rom. 12:8). "And in the church God has appointed ... those with gifts of administration" (1 Cor. 12:28). "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). "Appoint elders in every city as I directed you" (Titus 1:5). The flock is to have shepherds among them -- good leaders and administrators; that is the will of God. But, they must be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led men, otherwise they will inflict greater harm than good upon the flock.

In the context of such considerations there always arises the concern over just how much power an elder, or eldership, actually has. What is the scope and extent of their authority over the flock? Is their every utterance LAW? Must they be obeyed without question by the members of the congregation? Are their opinions equivalent to edicts from on high? These are questions that need to be addressed, for there are some shepherds in various folds throughout the flock who do indeed "lord it over" the sheep entrusted to them, and who "with force and with severity have dominated them." This is not to be so among the people of God, but, sadly, it sometimes is. Too frequently we see such shepherds forcing the flock to conform to their personal preferences. After all, they are the elders, and they must be obeyed. This raises the vital question of just how far the sheep in the local fold are bound by the pronouncements of their pastors. Simply stated: are the personal opinions of pastors binding upon the congregation they oversee? What authority does an eldership have to insist upon congregational compliance to their dictates? Consider the following email I received the other day:

This person's email goes to the very heart of the problem, and presents the dilemma in a most compelling manner. Obviously, in the absence of any leadership and guidance, anarchy will reign. That is unacceptable for any group. Thus, someone must take the lead and provide direction. I believe the Lord, in His inspired writings, has provided us with the information needed to wisely establish such leadership in each fold of His universal flock. Those who will provide the daily direction for the church and guide the way for the flock are to be the shepherds (elders). Good shepherds have the best interests of the sheep in mind, and thus their guidance, even if it is in the area of opinion, should not be lightly dismissed. After all, these are Spirit-led and Spirit-appointed men (or, they should be). In 1 Cor. 7 Paul several times stated that some aspects of his teaching was "opinion," and not direct commands from the Lord. However, he also declared that he was in possession of the Spirit of God and therefore should be regarded as "trustworthy" in his personal words of guidance to the people of God. I believe this same principle can apply to elders of a local congregation in their efforts to render godly guidance. If a congregation's shepherds are genuinely being led by the Holy Spirit of God, then their judgments should be given due weight by the members. "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account" (Heb. 13:17).

Reflecting on Hebrews 13:17

In this passage from the epistle to the Hebrews the author makes four statements about those who were serving God as "leaders" among the brethren and the responsibilities of the disciples of Christ to them:

ONE --- "Obey your leaders..." (NASB, NIV, CEV, TEV, RSV, NEB, SEB, NAB, Berkeley, Williams, McCord). "Obey your spiritual leaders" (LB). "Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you" (NWT). "Listen to your spiritual leaders and obey them" (Lamsa). "Be responsive to your pastoral leaders" (The Message). "Obey them that have the rule over you" (KJV, ASV). It is difficult to determine with any degree of exactness the identity of these "leaders." The two most likely identifications are: elders and/or evangelists. Prophets, deacons, and apostles have also been suggested by various scholars. The fact that they are spiritual guides to the congregation, individuals with some degree of authority to exercise oversight, seems rather obvious by the wording of the text.

The word translated "obey" is peitho = "to obey; listen to; follow; confide in; trust; rely on; place confidence in" (Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 314). "Depend on; trust; put one's confidence in; take the advice of; obey; follow" (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 639). This suggests the disciples obediently follow the example and lead, with full confidence and trust, of those who are guiding the flock spiritually. "They were to show their religious teachers proper respect, and to submit to their authority in the church, but only so far as it was administered in accordance with the precepts of the Saviour. The obligation to obedience does not, of course, extend to anything which is wrong in itself, or which would be a violation of conscience" (Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: Hebrews, p. 323).

TWO --- "...and submit to them" (NASB, RSV, ASV, NAB). "...give way to them" (Goodspeed). "...submit yourselves" (KJV). " what they say" (CEV). " submissive" (NWT, Williams, McCord). "...yield to them" (Berkeley Version). "...listen to their counsel" (The Message). "...defer to them" (NEB). " willing to do what they say" (LB). The NIV reads, "...submit to their authority." This is an addition! It is not in the original text! "There is nothing in the Greek to correspond to the NIV's 'their authority'" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 152).

This is the Greek word hupeiko = "to yield; submit; give way to; defer to." "A church can't go forward with elders going in one direction and the membership trying to go another. Of course, not every elder is qualified to lead. Many problems arise when churches carelessly elect unqualified leaders. If elders are qualified, the members will be glad to submit" (Don Earl Boatman, Helps From Hebrews, p. 446). "He is not fit to 'rule' who is not capable of 'guiding'" (Adam Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 788).

THREE --- "They keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account" (NASB). The phrase "keep watch over" is the Greek word agrupneo = "to stay awake and watchful; to be vigilant." Other translations are: "They are keeping watch in defense of your souls, as men accountable for the trust" (Goodspeed). "They are watching over you, and they must answer to God" (CEV). "They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God" (The Message).

"The leaders are concerned for the deep needs of their people, not simply for what lies on the surface. We see here a reference to spiritual well-being" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 153). "They have no selfish aim in this. They do not seek 'to lord it over God's heritage.' It is for your own good that they do this, and you should therefore submit. As they must soon be called into judgment ... they will pursue only that course which will be for your good" (Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: Hebrews, p. 324). "Those who are called to watch are to give the alarm at the approach of danger; they are to give it early enough so that those who are watched over may meet the danger or may escape it. When an appointed watchman proves a dumb dog, calamity results. Woe to the people whose leaders are blind watchers, unable to distinguish foe from friend or to recognize danger before it is too late" (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 490).

FOUR --- The author of Hebrews gives the following extremely sound advice to those being led by these leaders, "Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you" (NASB). The NIV says, let "their work be a joy, not a burden." "Try to make their work a pleasure and not a burden --- by so doing you will help not only them but yourselves" (Phillips). "So act that they may fulfill their task with joy, not with sorrow, for that would be harmful to you" (NAB). "Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?" (The Message). God's people can make the work of leadership either a joy or a burden! "It is a joy to be a leader of a devoted congregation" (Don Earl Boatman, Helps From Hebrews, p. 446). "I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth" (3 John 4).

A Word of Caution

Shepherds among the flock of the Lord are to be guides to the sheep, not gods; spiritual examples, not secular executives. Although they are empowered with the Spirit for the purpose of leadership, they are not commissioned to be lords and tyrants over those entrusted to their care. The good shepherd does not live off the sheep, but for the sheep. Indeed, he is willing to make personal sacrifices to see that the needs of the flock are met. Jesus said that "the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11), but that the hireling "is not concerned about the sheep" (vs. 13). The disciples of Christ must not be like the Gentiles, whose leaders sought to be lords over the people. Rather, "whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:43-45). Shepherds are servant leaders, and good shepherds understand this. Thus, the best interests of the flock are always uppermost in their minds. Their focus is the flock, not themselves! "Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord" (Ezek. 34:7,9).

Nevertheless, shepherds are placed over the flock for a purpose, and that purpose is to lead, guide, nourish, and protect the sheep in the various folds. If shepherds are commissioned by the Lord to lead, then sheep must of necessity follow. At times this will involve judgment calls on the part of the shepherds, but if they are Spirit-led, sheep-focused men then their judgments will most often be in the ultimate best interests of the flock they oversee. If a congregation is blessed with good leaders, then the members should trust their elders and submit to their vision and guidance. No, they should not be gullible and just swallow anything an elder utters; they should examine all things carefully in light of the guiding principles and precepts of God's Word. But, in areas of personal opinion, when the direction of a congregation is being considered, someone must lead, or there is chaos. That direction should be ultimately determined by the spiritual leadership. If these leaders are good leaders, they will involve the members in the process of coming to a decision. Decisions affecting the direction of a congregation should not be made behind closed doors and then later "sprung" on the unsuspecting members. That is asking for conflict!

Shepherds are to shepherd. In the use of this term, however, "it is the guiding and protecting --- not the domineering or ruling --- of the flock that is stressed" (Dr. Jack P. Lewis, Leadership Questions Confronting The Church, p. 27). "In Palestinian shepherding the shepherd leads the sheep; he does not drive them. We must move from the 'board of directors' mindset in our congregations and create a situation in which the shepherd is leading sheep!" (ibid, p. 30). Confucius (551-479 B.C.) certainly captured the essence of effective leadership when he stated, "Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs." Good shepherds are involved with the sheep ("I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me" -- John 10:14), and they lead by the example of their lives (1 Peter 5:2-3).

On the other hand, we cannot discount the administrative and managerial aspects of serving as an elder in the church. Paul indicates that a man must be able to manage the household of God (1 Tim. 3:4-5), and that "elders who rule well" are to be considered worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). The words "manage" and "rule" in these two passages are both translated from the same word in Greek --- Proistemi, which means "to preside over; to superintend; to manage; to govern." It appears eight times in the NT writings, and is only used by Paul. Some feel this word is also used with respect to "elders" in 1 Thess. 5:12, but this is extremely unlikely due to the fact that the congregation in Thessalonica had only been established three months prior to the writing of this epistle to them!

Although the word Proistemi does mean "to preside over; direct; govern," one must not overlook that it has several other meanings as well, and since ultimately the context must determine which meaning is utilized in a particular passage, these other meanings should at least be considered: "To be a protector or guardian; to give aid; to care for; give attention to" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 539). "To be concerned about; care for; give aid; busy oneself with something; engage in something" (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 707).

"Translations such as the KJV leave the impression that 'ruling' is an important function of elders ... however, reading into these texts the idea of ruling comparable to political rule is not justified by the meaning of the Greek words" (Waymon D. Miller, The Role of Elders in the NT Church, p. 36). "The word was usually applied to informal leadership and management of all kinds rather than to definite offices, and was associated with the services rendered ... thus 'helpful leadership in Divine things' would be approximately the thought suggested" (F.J.A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia, p. 127). The task of these men, in light of this Greek word, "is in large measure that of pastoral care, and the emphasis is not on their rank or authority but on their efforts for the eternal salvation of believers. Their attention is primarily directed, not to the exercise of power, but to a sincere care of souls" (Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6, p. 702).

Returning to the Question

With this background study in mind, let's return to the question posed by the minister of the gospel in the state of Tennessee. "When a local eldership makes a decision on a matter of opinion, doesn't that decision of theirs become binding for that congregation?" I believe the answer to this question, again keeping in mind the above qualifiers, is Yes. Let's use the example (given by the querist) of a congregation considering a Small Groups Ministry on Sunday evenings (which many congregations are opting for). If the shepherds of a congregation, after extensive research and careful, prayerful consideration, and after soliciting the input of the whole congregation to determine their feelings, decides their flock would spiritually benefit from such a ministry, and they move to implement it, then the congregation should submit to and support that vision and direction. As long as such a change in no way violates any principle or precept of God's Word (and I do not believe it does), then I believe the Scriptures obligate the sheep to follow the shepherds without complaint.

Will there be those who are not pleased with the decision? Absolutely! There almost always is an element within virtually every congregation that will not be happy with a decision ... no matter what that decision is. When church discipline was administered in Corinth, for example, Paul spoke of this punishment being "inflicted by the majority" (2 Cor. 2:6). Not all agreed with it. It is rare that one will find 100% agreement on anything done in a local congregation. Good leadership, however, will go ahead and do what is best for the flock, and good sheep will follow, if they can do so without violating their consciences. Those few members who simply can't live with the decision, or whose consciences may be violated by the direction chosen, may well opt to associate with a congregation more suited to their personal preferences. There is sufficient diversity within the universal One Body that most people's needs can be successfully met; if not in one congregation, then in another. There is nothing wrong with such diversity, as long as unity, harmony and fellowship are maintained. After all, we don't have to be twins to be brothers.

I was also very, very pleased to see the minister from TN state the following mindset of the shepherds who lead the flock where he serves --- "I truly believe our elders understand that many of these issues are just matters of opinion, and they have simply chosen a conservative opinion for our congregation. They do not enforce their opinion on other congregations, nor do they condemn to hell those who disagree with their opinions." AMEN! What a fabulous and godly attitude! This is exactly how it should be. If more elderships had this same spirit .... well, just think how much nearer we would all be to the realization of our Lord's prayer in John 17.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in California:

I just read your latest Reflections, and thought you might find this little story interesting. For years I was a part of the Boston Movement, leaving in 1994. Kip McKean was adamant that all the leaders have all of their children faithful, stepping down and making confessions of failure if any of their children fell away. A part of the blow-up that toppled Kip from leadership stemmed from the fact that Kip's own daughter fell away ... and Kip did not step down. He was unwilling to take his own medicine, and it was resented by several who saw the hypocrisy. No one can control what a person does after he reaches adulthood. I do not agree with the view that ALL of one's children must remain faithful to God for ALL of their lives in order for a man to serve as an elder.

From a Minister in Louisiana:

Today, after worship, a dear brother informed me of you and your writings. I just read your article on elders and their children concerning the matter of the children being baptized. I was beginning to believe I was alone in my opposition to the traditional understanding -- which shuts the door to many well-qualified men. Years ago I found information that revealed the current interpretation of "baptized" children had come about in approximately 250 A.D. I mentioned this information one day in an afternoon class and I was quickly informed by one of the class participants, "Well, I never heard of such a thing." I have always felt the traditional interpretation created more problems than providing good answers. I grew up in the church and had (have) some serious issues with the way tradition has turned the simple New Testament pattern of Christ's church into a "Church of Christ" church. I wish we could get back to the early cry of the preachers who said, "Let's just be called Christians." I do look forward to reading your material. I do have a very strong Berean spirit, a strong desire to know more, and a will to follow where God's "old paths" (not man's) and God's traditions (not man's) lead me. It usually leads me into a firing squad of hard-core traditionalists.

From a Bible College Director in Alabama:

Dear Al, I am involved in a unique international Bible teaching program designed to teach people to study for themselves. The teaching program is a welcome relief to the legalistic spoon-feeding so common among a certain part of our fellowship. Thank you for the good work you are doing in teaching people to think and to examine the evidence. Unfortunately, too many are persuaded that they have to rely on our self-appointed (so-called "faithful brethren") spokesmen to understand what they call "truth."

From a Minister in Washington:

Wow! Great Reflections article this week (The Children of Elders)! I hope your vacation has given you much rest and stimulated your mind for more Reflections this coming year.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, thanks for sharing this story. My wife and I rented the video (The Pianist) when it first became available for public viewing. It was a magnificent movie. It is very sad to see so many people today who are imprisoned by traditions passed down to them by their forefathers ... traditions that have become laws. There is definitely a parallel between spiritual and secular bondage!

From a Noted Leader/Author in Texas:

Al, your last piece was a different kind of essay, but it points to the broader exposure to our world that we need. Thanks for honoring Szpilman, and for recommending The Pianist. I had never heard of either. I'm taking your advice by making plans to see the movie. Soldier on!

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