A congregation is richly blessed when it has godly men who love and uphold the truth. This is especially true when the eldership of that congregation is made up of such brethren. In recent years, some local churches of Christ have had those within their membership who do not respect the Lord’s arrangement for scripturally ordained elders as their overseers. There are two extreme positions held within the church concerning the authority of elders. One extreme holds that elders merely serve as examples for the brethren to pattern themselves after. The other extreme is for an elder or eldership to domineer in an autocratic manner. Both of these extremes fail to depict the true nature of the responsibility enjoined upon those men who serve as elders.

Of course, elders of a congregation should be godly examples. The essential qualifications for one to serve in that capacity reveal this truth (I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Also, it is expressly stated that elders, as shepherds of the flock, are to be ensamples (I Pet. 5:1-4). The term “ensamples” is translated from the Greek word tupos which includes the meaning, “an example to be imitated.” However, every child of God is to be an example to others (Matt. 5:16; Phil. 2:15). Being an example to others is to be in relation to our following the Son of God. This is emphasized by the Apostle Paul in the following words, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1).

The overseers of a congregation have specific authority designated unto them by the Lord through the inspired scriptures. There are Greek designations in the New Testament that depict their areas of responsibility and authority. Those Greek terms are presbuteros, episkopos, and poimein. Presbuteros is translated as “presbyter” or “elder” and has reference to one advanced in life, a senior. It places emphasis upon having wisdom and experience. Simply being older is not adequate. Those selected as elders must be older in the faith because they will need to draw upon their wisdom and experience in living the Christian life. Since a new convert is a novice in living the Christian life, he cannot qualify as an elder (I Tim. 3:6). The term episkopos is translated as “overseer” or “bishop.” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines that word as “a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly, any curator, guardian, or superintendent.” And the Greek word poimein is translated as “pastor” and “shepherd.” Thayer defines it as a herdsman, especially a shepherd. As a metaphor it has reference to a presiding officer, manager, director, of any assembly: so of Christ the Head of the church. Elders are under shepherds to protect and to feed the spiritual flock of God (local congregation, Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:1-4). Those three Greek references depict the responsibility and authority of elders.

The limitations of the authority of elders include the following: (1) in matters of faith, they have no authority to either make laws or to set aside a “thus saith the Lord” (II John 9). Whether or not Diotrephes was an elder in a congregation, he did exercise power over one. He would not even allow the brethren of that church to receive an apostle (III John 9-11). There are some unqualified elders that refuse to adhere to the inspired Word of God. (2) The oversight of elders is limited to the congregation that appointed them (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1). (3) If they would gain and retain the respect of their congregation, then elders must not lord it over the flock (I Pet. 5:3). That is, they are not to rule over the church highhandedly and autocratically. Just as the Apostle John instructed a church not to follow the evil example of Diotrephes, brethren are not to follow ungodly elders into error (III John 9-11).

A local church is to submit unto faithful elders as rulers over them (Heb. 13:7, 17). Many unfaithful members of some congregations refuse to submit unto their bishops. This causes dissension, unauthorized innovations into the church, and often division. The inspired Word exhorts, Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). There will be those on the Day of Judgment that will be held eternally accountable for failing to submit unto godly elders. That is, elders who will not be swayed one way or the other from the truth that was once and for all delivered unto the saints (Jude 3).

However, we are not to allow ungodly shepherds to lead us into error. There are many unqualified men who have been appointed as elders. Often, congregations ignore the essential qualifications for elders in selecting men to serve in that capacity. Their criteria fall short of the inspired standard given by the Holy Spirit. Only men who qualify by that given by inspiration are Holy Spirit ordained elders. In stating the qualifications for an elder, the Apostle Paul writes, “A bishop then must be…” as he list those things mandatory in becoming an elder (I Tim. 3:2). Congregations open themselves up to severe problems by selecting men as their leaders who do not meet the inspired qualifications.

What is a congregation to do when one or more of its elders are not qualified to serve as overseers? Often those who serve in any type of leadership capacity are criticized. This is especially true of elders. When there are accusations brought against one of the elders of a congregation in which we have membership, what should we do? The Apostle Paul gives instruction concerning this matter as follows: “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (I Tim. 5:19-20). To have grave accusations against anyone this is a serious matter. This is especially true concerning elders in that they often receive unjust criticism. Therefore, the Apostle Paul commands, “against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.” If an accuser will not bring serious accusations against an elder before two or three witnesses then their criticism of an elder is to be rejected. However, if they are willing to present serious charges against an elder before more than one person then what they have to say may have credence. If the accusations prove to be true then further action must be taken. Paul declares, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” A congregation is responsible to take action against a rebellious elder who will not repent and resign from the eldership. The brethren who selected him when they believed that he met the qualifications have the responsibility to reject him as an elder when he ceases to retain those qualifications. Some rebellious elders would split the church rather than to resign when just accusations have been brought against them. Among the seven things that God hates is “…he that soweth discord among brethren” (Prov. 6:19).

Prayer and a love for the Lord’s church will motivate us in striving to uphold God’s Word in dealing with such a serious matter. We are taught by inspiration, “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3).
--Dub Mowery