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Cornerstone Fellowship News
  Vol. II,  No. 2 January 15, 2003  
Building Up the Body - Part 5

Building up the Body of Christ entails more than just encouragement. Remember that the word edifice, from which we derive edify and edification, refers to a structure, usually a large or imposing one. A building has many aspects, many uses, many needs. The same is true of the body of believers, for the New Testament indeed calls us God's building (I Cor. 3:9).

One of the great needs in the Body is that of understanding and rightly applying the divine principles of structure and administration. In any kind of group situation, there is always a need for the appropriate kind of leadership, order, and direction. Regrettably, almost all the examples we have, either from religious history or currently among most organized churches, present a distorted, erroneous picture of authority and how it should be properly exercised. And, unfortunately, this is as true of the Sabbath-keeping world as much as it is in Catholic and Protestant circles. The Scriptures, however, do provide enough guidelines to permit truly converted believers to be appropriately organized without being authoritarian in nature.

Corporate Christianity has certainly given the true religion of the Bible a bad name. So many things that it has done or taught or stood for have been a kind of syncretism, a combination, often subtle, of differing religious beliefs, a sinister amalgamation of truth and error, producing a hybrid faith, a mongrel theology of the most deceptive and dangerous kind. The objective is always to cloak the truth in ways that are not obvious to the average church member, indeed to cause them to appear as beneficent or at least as innocuous as possible. Once a truly thinking person compares the doctrines, interpretations, opinions, agendas, structures, and practices so prevalent in organized religion with what the Bible actually says or means, it is no wonder that a virtually unbridgeable chasm is perceived to exist between the two sources of authority. This fact has been especially present with respect to what is generally referred to as church government!

Due to the turmoil and upheaval that has transpired among most of the churches of God (COG) in more recent years, the issue of church government has become a item of much discussion and a wide variety of opinion. Today, we find many who still cling to the need for authoritarian control in the churches. When one autocratic organization falls into disarray, most of the members simply gravitate to another group with a similar style of management. This is, of course, the easiest pathway for someone to follow, requiring little or no thought on the part of the person involved. And, among domineering churches, the definitive word to describe the authorities' categorization of their lay members is indeed uninvolved! In highly structured church organizations, the reins of power are usually held quite tightly by those in charge. Active participation at the local, grass-roots level is, at best, generally discouraged, and at worst, simply not permitted or tolerated whatsoever, and with stiff penalties for those who do wish to become really involved.

Then, of course, there are those believers who, after experiencing years of harsh ecclesiastical control, break away from their church affiliation, and simply turn their backs on any form of organization or administration. While this may be an understandable reaction to the past, it unquestionably does not lead to the kind of group success that God desires to be present in the Body. The solution to the problem, therefore, must be located somewhere between these two extremes, and a little investigation on our part should uncover enough sound evidence upon which to base a right and good approach to this sensitive issue of church government.

When the apostle Paul wrote his first recorded epistle to the church at Corinth, he was forced to confront a number of serious issues with regard to the conduct and the overall spiritual lives of the brethren in that city. Problems abounded there, not the least of which was the fact that the believers in Corinth had allowed the very basis for them being together to erode and slip away. Paul emphatically addresses this point in chapters 12-14, which, of course, includes the key passage of the famous love chapter-number 13.

In chapter 12, the apostle cuts immediately to the chase in this matter, once again reminding the brethren why they ought to be functioning the way a healthy body operates, with every member recognized, accepted, appreciated, encouraged, strengthened, and productive. Even though this teaching is not generally considered in a discussion concerning the correct administration of the Body of believers, it really does contribute quite a lot to the subject. Here's why.

For a human body to function properly, every member of that body must be operating correctly, as it was designed and intended. To facilitate the achievement and maintenance of this desired state, there is a division of responsibilities throughout the body. Not every part has the same duty. Eyes are for seeing, but obviously not for hearing; feet are for support, but not for throwing a ball. The point is, however, that EVERY PART is necessary for a healthy, productive human body.

In the Spirit and within the Body of Christ, the identical sort of situation is ideally supposed to exist. It is, however, all too clear that, in most instances of church government, this Biblical requirement is simply not met, and, under the present systems of controls, indeed cannot be met. For every member to be enabled and permitted to function according to God's design would necessitate a radical change in the typical approach to how an assembly is to be administered. And this is precisely what must transpire, if we are ever going to come into harmony with the mind and purpose of God.

The proper administration of the human body requires, therefore, that every part be, first of all, subject to the head, then working at full capacity in its specifically designated area, and finally, all working in harmony and support of one another. This is, in effect, how the body is governed or administered.

The same pattern holds true for the spiritual Body of Christ. All members must be submitted unto the Head, whom the Scriptures plainly state is Yahshua (Jesus) the Messiah. Each part then must be fully operational within the parameters of its particular divine gifting and area (s) of responsibility. And every member must be supportive of and working in harmony with every other part. When this sort of state is actually desired, pursued, and achieved within a local assembly, most of the questions about so-called church government will evaporate like a drop of water in the Sahara Desert at high noon!!

Do you see how far afield most church organizations are from this sort of Godly ideal? Instead of devoting the time and energy to develop the right kind of group situation, most congregations find it much easier and simpler to just turn everything with respect to administration and responsibility in general over to the experts, otherwise known as the ministry; and thus the perfect model is discarded, along with the perfect objective that God Himself has in mind for His people! If we do not learn that it is and absolutely must be from the Bible, not the ideas and agendas of men, that we ought to derive our basis for whatever we do with regard to the churches of God, we are going to continue to witness the breakdown and break-up of more and more church groups, corporate and independent alike. The results for not doing this are so overwhelmingly obvious and speak loud and clear for themselves!

When the Messiah stated that He would build His Church, I would hazard an educated guess that He never intended what He started to become what it has down through history unto this very day. I seriously doubt that it was ever His wish that corporate religion would soon overtake the fledgling assemblies established on sound Scriptural grounds during the first century, and within a relatively short period of time virtually enslave the believers, organizing and governing them until they were little more than mindless puppets dancing to the rhythm of the dangling strings!

The issue of church government is so much better understood and successfully practiced in a small local assembly setting. Huge church groups virtually demand a form of administration that is alien to the New Testament model, and which almost always tend to work against the purpose of the local Body, and even curtail or outright halt real individual spiritual growth and service. Within the parameters of a small group, however, just the opposite tends to be the case. Of course, there are always exceptions, but for the most part, the potential for a correct, workable, and profitable approach to church government is far greater within a small group setting.

Each local Body of believers must have a head. The Bible clearly establishes that Yahshua (Jesus) is the Head. No substitute will work, nor should be permitted and/or tolerated. Operating under the direction of Christ are all the members. Among the members, there is and should be an equality. That, of course, does not mean that all members function in the same way or capacity. In two different epistles, Paul establishes this truth:

"For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every one that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God has dealt to everyone the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office (Gk. praxis - a function): so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given unto us" (Rom. 12:3-6).

"Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to EVERYONE for the profit of all" (I Cor. 12:4-7).

The point is that all members are equal in the sight of God, and are necessary for the proper operation of the Body. No one member should be over another, in the sense of ruling or dominating. When the foot is doing its job, the hand doesn't jump in and try to exercise authority. In fact, in a human body, when all parts are working as they should, there is really no issue of who is in charge or who or what is more important. Each member works in harmony with all other parts. And what makes that human body function so well is the right division of responsibility and labor among the members, along with the proper respect each part has for the other. And precisely the same situation should exist in the Body of Christ. On this issue the Scriptures are abundantly clear.

Overlordship by ambitious and zealous people who perceive themselves or are perceived by others as church leaders is a violation of the Scriptural standards, and a detriment to the spiritual well-being of all the individual believers concerned. It is one of the most prevailing problems in organized religion, and is roundly condemned by the Word of God. Long before the New Testament was composed, the prophet Ezekiel was inspired to write:

"Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel...Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat, and you clothe you with the wool, you kill them that are fed; but you feed not the flock. The diseased have you not strengthened, neither have you healed that which was sick, neither have you bound up that which was broken, neither have you brought again that which was driven away, neither have you sought that which was lost; but with FORCE and with CRUELTY have you RULED them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field...My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, My flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and no one did search or seek after them" (Ezek. 34:1-6).

A number of those who have awakened to the greater spiritual realities have come to see this signal Old Testament passage as a direct prophetic reference to the horrible problems created by the imposition of this world's religious system upon the true people of Yahweh. What an indictment of the failed leadership among those who have chosen to depart from the Scriptures and follow the ways of men! The entire 34th chapter of Ezekiel should be mandated reading for all believers today. Combining that passage with Jeremiah 23 ought to give any open-minded person a clear insight into how God feels about the intolerable situation that has been created by those who have sought to rule over His people. Thankfully many today have been or are being delivered from the sin of overlordship in the churches. We who have been so liberated, however, must take definitive steps to prevent this evil practice from becoming rooted in the independent small assembly world that is being created today.

Let us also remember the words of Yahshua (Jesus) who, though being the Son of God in the flesh, still said:

"You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall NOT BE SO among YOU: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your servant; and whosoever will be chief in your midst, let him wait upon you: for even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28).

The apostle Paul wrote that we are fellow laborers together (I Cor. 3:9), and that no one should have dominion over the faith of anyone (II Cor. 1:24). And, of course, Peter warns us in his first epistle:

"The elders who are among you I exhort, who am also an elder...Feed the flock which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock" (I Pet. 5:1-3).

The elements of local assembly governance ought to flow from the manner in which each member of the congregation has been gifted by and through the Spirit. These gifts are divine graces and empowerments, not to lord it over anyone, but to serve. In fact, one could accurately say that so-called church government is really a matter of the Godly division of service among the various members. If we would just think of things in these terms, how could there possibly be such major problems as many have faced and indeed continue to face?

Of course, when we investigate something, we want to uncover as much information as we can, so it is good to delve further into this very important issue to really get the Almighty's higher perspective and purpose. Gene Edwards, writing in his book, Rethinking Elders, states:

"If today's eldership were based on the (complete) first-century (Biblical) story rather than on (selected favorite) verses, then we could expect to see emerging from the story an eldership that would not be in control of everybody else's spiritual life (and certainly not in control of everyone's entire life). On the other hand, if you overlay today's eldership and practice onto the first-century story, you would find elders ordering people's lives and totally in charge of the church (men with verses often teach that this is the right of elders. If you hear such teaching, run for cover!)" (p. 16).

Note carefully what the author is saying, because he is absolutely Scripturally correct. Indeed, to the extant that if we were able to lift the New Testament model of eldership and place it in today's generally accepted and practiced approach, it would be totally alien, and would be rejected by most churches. Why? Simply because it takes the POWER out of the hands of those who would seek to control people, events, and things, and no self-respecting church hierarchy is likely ever going to permit such change to occur. They can't afford to, because their reason for being would dissipate right in front of their eyes, and their religious empires would crumble and be blown away by the wind!

Unfortunately, the common conception is and has been for centuries that elders are the elite in the Church. Most members consider them to be far more spiritually-minded than themselves, and they willingly yield the responsibility of administration to them and do so, for the most part, without question or concern.

On the part of the individual so honored to be elevated to the status of elder, there are major problems as well. First of all, in most instances this process produces competition among those who would see themselves as leaders. Most never seem to remember the words of the Savior when He said:

"Let him who would be great among you be your servant."

Rather, the elders almost always tend to be the ones who are served, giving orders, making decisions, handling all the really serious and spiritual responsibilities, and placing demands upon the congregation. This is in direct violation of Christ's illustration in Luke 22, where He expressly states:

"For who is greater, he that sits at the table, or he that serves the meal? Is it not he that serves the meal? But I am among you as ONE WHO SERVES" (Luke 22:27).

I think this is one of the most telling, as well as most poignant, passages in the Bible. Can you imagine the Son of God speaking in such a fashion-He Whom God used to make the universe; He Whose name is above all names; He to Whom all power in heaven and earth has been given; He before Whom every knee must bow and every tongue must confess? In fact, Yahshua (Jesus) was by far the greatest in the sight of His Father, yet He humbled Himself and became servant of all. Oh, that those who would be great among believers should follow the gold standard that He set!

The issue is not whether there should be elders in the assemblies, for we know with certainty that the early church groups had them. As to how early the development of eldership in the Judean congregations transpired, the evidence we have is rather meager. Interestingly, the first mention of elders with respect to the New Testament Church after the day of Pentecost is found in Acts 11:30, nearly 14 years later. Is it possible, therefore, that the early Judean churches did not immediately develop a system of elders? It is indeed feasible, not only for the fledgling Jewish congregations, but even for beginning churches today.

We know that the concept of elders by no means originated with the founding of the New Testament Church. Israel, as well as Gentile nations, all had some sort of eldership that was recognized by the people. The elders of Israel are mentioned time and again throughout the Old Testament. By the first century A.D., elders were prominent in Judea, often being referred to in the same passages as the chief priests and scribes. An elder is even defined as a member of the Sanhedrin.

The purpose of elders within the Church is clearly established by the Scriptures. They were to be devout believers, experienced in the faith, willing to take on the responsibility of overseeing the local assembly of which they were a part. There is evidence to suggest that, in general, elders were appointed after consultation with the congregation involved. After all, they, not some person of elevated status outside the local assembly, would be able to better perceive the qualifications of a particular individual with whom they were all familiar. This only makes sense.

The likelihood is that the episode in Acts 6, where seven deacons were appointed, constitutes the Biblical approach to the selection of elders as well. Note carefully the following:

"And in those days, when the number of the disciples were multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were being neglected in the daily administration of food. Then the twelve called the MULTITUDE of disciples unto them, and said...BRETHREN, look you out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business...And the saying pleased the WHOLE MULTITUDE, and THEY chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch" (Acts 6:1-5).

This early episode is really quite telling, providing us an insight into the operation of the very first stages of the developing New Testament Church. Indeed, we do see the original apostles, the twelve, involved here, but that would only be expected, since the growth of the eklessia was still concentrated in and around Jerusalem.

It is interesting to note that apparently these seven men were the first deacons of the Church. There is no previous record of any such appointments. So just as it appears that elders may not have immediately been selected, even so for deacons as well. The point, of course, being that a fledgling church group needs a certain amount of time and development prior to the need for elders and deacons. In time, however, both of these functions should be necessary and fulfilled.

Of course, the signal aspect of the Acts 6 passage has to do with the fact that even though the Messiah's original chosen apostles were present, they took the matter to the entire congregation of disciples. Note it is said that, upon hearing the suggestion of the apostles, the multitude considered the proposition and agreed to it. And who made the actual decisions? Why the whole assembly, that's who! And why shouldn't they. It was these local members who were best able to make the appropriate determination as to who should be appointed to this service. The same would hold true for church elders at a somewhat later period when the churches began to grow and spread and have need of additional leadership.

We know that Paul and Barnabus, upon the return trip of their first missionary journey, made the decision to appoint elders in all the churches that had been established in Galatia and elsewhere during this initial evangelistic effort. We have only a single verse in Acts 14:23 as a basis for this action, however, using the model of Acts 6, it is certainly likely that the two apostles did not just arbitrarily pick out their favorite people and elevate them to some kind of exalted status. It is far more likely and logical that they, like the twelve in Acts 6, consulted the brethren in each of the various church locations, the people on the spot who would know the background and qualifications of members of their own congregations, and who could realistically make a sound decision. Once that was accomplished, Paul and Barnabus probably did the actual appointing.

There is no evidence whatsoever that these elders were actually in the employ of Paul or Barnabus. These men were not the personal representatives of some large corporate religious entity. They were not strangers brought in and assigned to run a particular local church. Rather, they were members of the local assembly in question, known by all, and approved by all. They were responsible, first to God and His Word, and then to the brethren in their respective local areas.

Furthermore, while the New Testament clearly states that to desire to serve as an elder is a good thing, it would be patently erroneous to view an appointment to eldership as some sort of advancement or promotion or elevation. Eldership is no guarantee that the person or persons so designated are the most knowledgeable or even the most spiritual members of the congregation. It does not mean that they have more gifts than others. Rather, it is a form of service whereby one agrees to take the oversight of a local church, to assist in guiding and directing the affairs of the group. Becoming an elder does not mean that one suddenly is transformed into the chief cook and bottle-washer! This is the formula followed by so many religious groups today. The elders usually form a council-in other words, a ruling body! I would remind church organizations who put such stock in their so-called Council of Elders, that they took a hard look at the trouble Yahshua (Jesus) and the early apostles experienced at the hands of the Council in their day!!

In most of the instances where the term elder is mentioned in the New Testament from the book of Acts onward, the plural form is generally followed. This tells us that most of the early local assemblies had more than one individual serving as an elder. This would also be true of deacons, who often are joined together with the elders in Paul's letters. Having a plurality of elders in a particular church is advantageous, because, among other things, it acts as a preventive against one person seeking to dominate the congregation. In fact, of course, even the idea that elders should dominate at all is unscriptural, since their function is to serve. Remember Peter's strong admonition to the elders NOT to lord it over the flock. He wrote this warning obviously because this kind of thing could conceivably occur. Of course, nearly 2000 years of church history now shows us conclusively that this is precisely what did happen! The diametric opposite of what the Bible clearly teaches is the very thing that has transpired. Isn't it about time that we all awakened to this horrible reality, and did something about it??? It would seem prudent that one of the first things any newly formed local congregation ought to seriously consider is to take careful steps NOT to make this same mistake that has plagued the churches for hundreds and hundreds of years!

If elders are not to dominate the assembly, what exactly is their responsibility. Peter states that they are to take the oversight of the local congregation. What does this mean? The Greek word in I Peter 5:2 rendered oversight is episkopeo, and is defined as to beware, to look diligently. This term is used also in Hebrews 12:15, where we read the following exhortation to holiness:

"Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed. Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: LOOKING DILIGENTLY lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled" (Heb. 12:12-15).

For elders to take the oversight of a local assembly, therefore, means not that they become the kings of the congregation, but rather that they willingly serve in a capacity that charges them with the responsibility of watching carefully for the spiritual well-being of the brethren. It is the job of an elder to look upon (another definition of episkopeo) the congregation, to be aware of what is happening. They are there for spiritual guidance, of course, and for counseling; but that can also be supplied by others who may not be elders. They are to feed the flock, but a gifted teacher, who might not serve as an elder, can do this also. They might participate in certain aspects of administration, but that would not automatically be the private domain of the elders. The gift of administration can be given to non-elders as well.

What the elder must have is a heart for the people, the desire to see them succeed in this life and calling. He must love the local church, not only its members, but its structure and purpose, its peace and unity, its fruitfulness and productivity. He must be dedicated to the right congregational objectives, set a good example, and be a stabilizing force for good within the assembly.

An elder does not have to be the most charismatic individual in the group, nor a silver-tongued orator, but he should be apt to teach. He may not be the most knowledgeable member, but he should be equipped through his own personal study, experience, and growth, to extend himself to others in a way that is spiritually beneficial. He may not be the most gifted person in the church, but what gifts he has he recognizes and utilizes to the full, and encourages the usage of all the gifts within the group.

Elders are to be a blessing to a congregation. Yes, they should be respected, but so should every member. Yes, they are to be submitted to, but the Bible teaches that we are submit ourselves one to another. Yes, their word may carry some weight in a congregational discussion or decision, but then so does every one else's.

The one thing that elders should never be permitted to do is comprise some elite force within the local church. The proper functioning of every single member must go forward in the local Body, with elders simply looking diligently at how things are progressing. They are not superior to anyone else, nor should they be viewed in such a light. They have no control whatsoever over anyone's salvation or life. They are not to operate as dictators ruling their own fiefdom. They are, however, servants of the whole group, and therefore answerable to the group as well. It is therefore the responsibility of all the members to know the elders in their midst and observe how they comport themselves. Those found to be in violation of the Scriptures can, upon definitive proof, be rebuked or, in drastic situations, removed by the congregation.

There are other things that the Bible tells us about elders and what they do. James states that those who are sick should call for the elders who then will anoint them and pray over them. Elders are to be peacemakers, acting as a buffer between those who are less patient with each other. Elders are to be able to teach the Scriptures, although, as stated earlier, they may not be the most gifted in this particular area. Above all, elders are strictly admonished to look to the true Elder, Yahshua (Jesus) the Messiah, and to always remember that as they watch over the assembly of believers, God is watching them!

The preceding brief discussion of eldership has not even begun to consider the functions of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, or teachers. These are also portrayed as gifts to the Body. Could a local church have a pastor, a teacher, as well as elders? Absolutely, and they probably should! Now it is true that the apostle Peter did refer to himself as an elder, but it is highly unlikely that he functioned as an elder in a local assembly would. In this instance, he may have been using the word in a more general sense, referring to himself as one who was older in the faith.

It seems apparent from the New Testament record that the very earliest churches in Judea may not have had elders immediately. Indeed, it seems that all the churches planted during the first century, at least as recorded in the Bible, had some waiting period before elders were appointed.

When we read the letters, particular of Paul, we notice that in most instances they are directed to the entire church group or groups in question. Decisions that had to be made were generally the province of the whole assembly. In some cases, Paul does specifically refer to the elders and deacons, usually saluting them or encouraging them, or perhaps conveying greetings from elders in one church to the members in another group. On one occasion, as you may recall, the elders from Ephesus came and saw him off on his journey. He told them what might easily happen if they let up their guard after he was gone, for he knew that he would not return that way again. His message to these brethren gives us another insight into the responsibilities of elders. In Acts 20:22, we read:

"And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Spirit witnesses in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions wait for me...Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He has purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore WATCH, and remember that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears" (Acts 20:22-23, 28-31).

Paul told the elders to WATCH. That is an elder's job, to watch over the assembly of believers, to detect the deceiver, the divider, the heretic, and protect the flock of God.

In the next issue, we shall go further into the subject of church government and how all should participate.


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