The Elders: Seniority... book review by John Elliott

Here is a review of a recent book entitled: THE ELDERS: SENIORITY WITHIN EARLIEST CHRISTIANITY. STUDIES OF THE NEW TESTAMENT AND ITS WORLD by R. Alastair Campbell.

It a obviously a book about the identity of those called elders. As this word reads - so does it mean. These are merely the older Christians who are given the responsibility of oversight and shepherding in the church of God. When readers of the New Testament letters came across the word, it already had thousands of years of clear meaning.

By viewing this review one will be reminded that the traditional consensus view of church leadership is being challenged and that it is ongoing. It's too bad that we lost about two thousand years attempting to figure it out.

This is not a mere academic question. Satan has always attempted to keep believers from their responsibilities. Most older ones in the church today have no clue that they are to be caring for, shepherding, and pastoring the others. Thankfully, there are many who instinctively have an awareness to be occupied in such a way toward their junior members.

Yet overall, the simplest, most natural arrangement has been all but lost upon us. Worse still, millions of Christian men who should be serving others in this respect seem to have little or nothing to do or a reason to live. Worse still, the finances of the churches today are dominated by the "teaching elder" when in reality, every elder is required to be a teacher. 1 Timothy 3 2.

The church must again become the servant church. Otherwise more irrelevance and eventual death await it. How can the servant church occur when it continues to spend most of it's resources upon itself?

Worse still, the joyful task of shepherding is given to those already in place. "The elders AMONG you..." Only Heaven knows the amount of false teaching and damage which has been delivered from afar by those, often with a seminary degree in hand, but practically unknown in the locality of the church. Worse still, thousands of churches close each year for lack of ability to fund this "teaching elder." Yes, there have been exceptions but they do not upend the rule.

Biblical eldership is not a calling, not a career, not an office. Nor is it referred to as such. Nor is an elder referred to as 'the minister' or 'the preacher' in the modern sense. Unless disqualified by sin, every Christian senior is to be involved in the care of God's flock. Elders are "appointed" or "ordained" to be the only thing which they can be appointed to: oversight. (They are also known as bishops). And just as qualified senior women, (and masters) were to be honored according to the same source, so were senior men. But the context of this is support is clearly needs based for both the male and female seniors. 

Taken at face value, 1 Timothy 5 17 teaches that it is the alleged "ruling elders" who are also to receive double honor.

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.

Can we really believe these small churches, often meeting in homes, were paying full-time salaries to a list of widows as well as to "ruling" and "teaching elders"?

The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God 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.And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. Likewise, ye younger... 1 Peter 5 1-5.

Did you happen to notice the last phrase above in which the seniors are contrasted to the younger ones? In Paul's address we see the same pattern. Elders are called to oversight. And do not overlook the fact that his manual work was intended to be an example to the elders of the church: 

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath 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 every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so laboring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. Acts 20.

Above all, we readily acknowledge that church structure does not have to be perfect in order for a community to be used of God. And, of course, we readily acknowledge that myriads of seminary graduates have been equipped to be better servants of their Lord. Still, we must press toward the Biblical standards as they will be proven to be the most effective and efficient in the times ahead. Regarding leadership, the bar for entry must neither be set too high nor too low.

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