For the proclamation of the Gospel and the edification of the Body of Christ
The Foundation of the Apostles
Until now we have spoken about the ministry established by God, to lay the foundation for His church. We sought to understand its importance and meaning, as well as the nature of the apostolic mission. Now we are ready, more specifically, to find the content of their commission. To do so, we shall get into the fascinating life experience and the style of the churches of the first century, laid by the apostles of Christ. As we examine their nature and character in detail, we shall find those elements that enabled them to know and express Christ fully in an intimate and real way. Then, if our research enables us to discover these elements, we would have found the foundation we are seeking for.
To fulfill our intent, we will now attempt to find the way in which the Holy Spirit, through the apostles, gave form to the first church established on earth. As we advance in our research, we shall pick the essential threads of God's weaving here and there: by which God lives and reigns among His own people. To begin with, let us go to Ancient Jerusalem, around the year 33 of our era, where it all began.
The gospel of the kingdom
On the day of Pentecost, after the coming of the Holy Spirit with a great noise from heaven, Peter preached his first message announcing the gospel to a multitude of people gathered to see what was happening. The Spirit had taken command and a great conviction gripped all that were listening. Peter was telling them, "God has made this, Jesus whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). That multitude, convinced by the Holy Spirit, was converted to the Lord and in that day about 3,000 people were baptized.
Here we already find the first essential thread: The gospel of the kingdom. A gospel centered absolutely on Christ, His person and His work. Not a message merely highlighting men and their needs. And between these two messages there is an immeasurable difference.
In carefully reading the New Testament, we find that the central theme of the apostolic preaching was Jesus Christ (Acts 2:42, 8:5, 9:20, 1 Corinthians 1:23). Announcing His person and His work constituted the essence of the primitive proclamation of the gospel. In fact, without any exception, all the messages preached that are recorded in the book of Acts, have Jesus Christ as their theme (Acts 2:14-40, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 10:34-43, 13:16-41, 17:22-31). This is due to a fundamental reason.
The gospel is the first word of God to sinners. Words directed to turn their minds and hearts to Him, in order to bring them back to His original purpose, where Christ is the center and head of all things. It is, in this sense, the gate to the church of Christ, where such purpose is realized. Through the gospel of the kingdom, men come to form part of the temple that God wants to build to express His life and will.
The kingdom and will of God are intimately bound up with each other. For this reason the Lord Jesus prayed: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done". The apostle Paul has told us that the mystery of the will of God stands in the summing up of all things in Christ. Because of this, the kingdom of God is absolutely Christ-centric. In it God is exercising His sovereign authority until everything has Christ as its center and head. And that is why this is the most important purpose of the gospel, because God's goal is not merely to save people so that some day they will go to Heaven, while in the meantime they continue to live the same solitary and individualistic way of life they have always lived, but now with Christ as their personal Savior.
God's purpose, we repeat, is to rescue humanity to form that glorious reality expressing the most profound purpose of His heart: the church. And the church exists by Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ.
In this sense, the gospel is only the entrance, the goal is still much further ahead.
The gospel has a unique and specific theme: Jesus Christ. By believing in His name we are giving our consent to the totality of His person and His work. So, to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ is all sufficient for the sinner to be saved. Because when the gospel of the kingdom is announced, men are brought by the Spirit to have an encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.
But, what shall we say about justification, the expiation of sin and all those essential truths included in salvation? Don't we have to convince sinners of their sins and then show them the way of salvation through the precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross? Certainly the blood of Christ is and will always be the only base for our redemption. In no way do not pretend to doubt this essential fact. However, what we desire to highlight is that men do not need, in principle, to understand the truth of the blood to be saved. All that will come later. Further on, they will come to know how the death of the Lord made their redemption possible.
But God desired that men be saved only by calling on the name of Jesus Christ the Lord. A name that is above all other names. Invoking His name can bring eternal life and salvation.
The gospel, Paul tells us, is the power or God unto salvation for anyone who believes in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord. Through it men are called firstly to have an encounter with the person of Christ, and to obtain, in this way, the forgiveness of their sins. Not to resolve their personal problems. The fact is that if man is to be saved, he has to be transferred, by an operation of the Divine Grace, from the position in which sin is owner and lord of his life, to the place in which Christ reigns as exclusive Lord. That is the only possible option.
Let us remember that Adam chose to live a life independent of God and, consequently, fell under the dominion of sin and Satan. But Christ, through His death and resurrection, put an end to sin and broke the power of Satan once and for all, restoring thus the kingdom of God on earth. What's more, He Himself has come to be, through the work of His Father, King and Lord of that kingdom. And, having defeated sin death and Satan, He has been exalted as absolute Lord over every principality, power, authority and lordship. Now Jesus has power, the most super eminent power, to break every yoke and authority that enslaves men. Now He regenerates them and brings them to return to the place where He, Jesus, is the center of all human life.
Therefore, to be saved, we have to acknowledge Jesus Christ, the living Lord, and surrender our lives to Him. This is the only way for us to return to God, because sin is primarily a rebellion against God, God's kingdom and God's will.
Therefore, here is the first thread of the foundation we are looking for: a gospel that, by the regeneration power of the Holy Spirit, brings men to live their lives completely centered in Jesus Christ.
From the beginning, before knowing anything more, the new disciples understood that their entire life, including work, family, material possessions and all their personal projects had been placed at the feet of Christ, the Lord. From that moment, their past, present, and future life did not belong to them any more. That is salvation! It cost one everything to have an encounter with the Lord during those days. It had to be that way, because God intended to raise them up, He demanded that kind of surrender from each one of the disciples. Very soon the form of life of those 3,000 new believers would have been altered in a radical way and, moreover, probably for ever.
The shared life and ministry
After their conversion to the Lord, the new disciples were led by the apostles to live a completely new and unprecedented experience. A transforming experience. In other words, they were called to be the church of Jesus Christ.
In reality, that was the spontaneous consequence of Pentecost, because the life they had received the day of their new birth, when they believed in the Lord and were baptized, was destined to be spontaneously expressed in a corporate way.
Spontaneous, but not evident, but, thanks to the Lord, the apostles were there to understand the meaning of what happened and to begin the work of edification (let us remember that they had been prepared for that moment).
What did the apostles do then? Before answering this question, let us talk first about what these men did not do, although some of these things constitute practices that are considered elemental at present.
What things are we talking about? Well, they did not gather the new believers in a "temple" where once or twice weekly they would sit down on benches or perfectly lined up chairs and listen to the sermon of a pastor preaching from a pulpit way in front, hear a special singer, sing a few choruses, put their offering in a plate and then return to the daily routine of their life. Neither did they begin a Bible course for new believers, where an expositor taught them the "basic doctrines of the faith". The truth is that the majority of them did not even know how to read. Didn't those disciples study the Bible? Well, all facts seem to indicate that they did not do so. In reality, there were no Bibles in those days. Nobody talked to them about becoming part of the membership of a church, their duties and rights, their rich denominational heritage, not even about the 20 requirements to being a good Christian.
These are the facts, although probably not the kind of facts that we expected to find. What the apostles did with those people turned out to be completely different to all our modern concepts about the church. In the book of Acts we find the following description of that original experience.
"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42).
"So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart" (Acts 2:46).
"Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common"(Acts 4:32).
"And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ" (Acts 5:42).
These are some of the most characteristic elements of the recently born church:
* The doctrine of the apostles
* The fellowship with one another
* They broke bread together
* The prayers
* They were together and were of one accord
* They had all things in common
* Every day, in the temple and in their homes the teaching and preaching of Christ was heard.
According to the above description, the apostles had given to the church a simple, informal and flexible way to go on. No complex structured organization. Why? Because their intention was to reproduce the same way of life they had learned with Jesus.
The first element of that new life was to be together the most amount of time possible. A basic, but transforming fact. The reason? They were now the church of Jesus Christ, and that had immense practical consequences. Christ can only be known, experienced and expressed through a life in fellowship with all the members of His body, and the apostles were teaching this essential fact to every new convert. A life in common is the only adequate place to know and express Christ. Therefore, they exhorted the new believers to live in this way. For this reason we find that the disciples were together practically most of the time.
This being together was carried out in practice in two different places: the temple and the homes of those believers.
In the temple, presumably, the meetings were of a general character (all the brethren were there) and lead by the apostles. In those gatherings they listened and learned everything regarding the Lord Jesus Christ from the mouth of those men and experienced the ministry of the word of God. Through them, the Holy Spirit was revealing Christ to them as their center and life, the work of the cross and the power of His resurrection, and they were learning to love Him and to follow Him in the practical way of life that Christ lived and taught, when the apostles touched some specific aspect of their experience with Him (kerugma and didake were forming an unbreakable bond in those early days). In that way they were learning how they should love one another, how to forgive one another, not expose one another, and care for each other as true brethren, members of one another. There were perhaps moments of profound adoration and praise, and powerful joint prayers. Nothing remained in mere speculative theoretical ground, because everything was immediately bought into practice.
However, such moments were not rigorous church gatherings. They lacked the element of mutuality, the "one another" which is the essential quality of a true church gathering. To that end a second meeting place existed: the homes.
In the homes it was a different matter altogether, because the central element was the brethren united around Jesus Christ, without the presence of any outstanding ministry or leader (this can be inferred by the following: the 12 apostles were not able to take care of the needs of hundreds of homes where the brethren probably met, and at that time they were the only acknowledged leadership among the believers). Here in the homes is where we find the real church meetings.
In the homes (we continue speculating), what was received through the apostles took life and substance. These were informal encounters, inspired and glorious under the direction of the Holy Spirit. They all sang choruses, gave personal testimonies, had specific prayers, took care of the different needs of each one, had encouraging words and much more (1 Corinthians 14). The ministry of all the believers was in action during those home gatherings and all were mutually edified by the contribution of the different gifts God had granted to each one. Afterwards, they gathered around the table to share their food and eat together.
You mean just the brethren alone, without any leader of pastor among them? Isn't that strange and even dangerous? Probably so, but only to our modern mentality, conditioned to conceive the church as a group of passive believers gathered around the ministry of a pastor or professional minister.
We cannot avoid it. It is part of our historical inheritance, where the type that best represents this concept is a flock of sheep with their shepherd. It is natural and even biblical! Yes, except for a small but very important detail: that symbol is only applied in Scripture in regards to Christ and His church. Only He is the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep.
"There will be one flock and one Shepherd" were His words (John 10:16). Not many little flocks, each with its own shepherd.
That is the way this was clearly understood and lived by the primitive church (in this regard we find a clarifying historical example: among the symbols most frequently found in the ancient Christian catacombs, the figure of a shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders). The sheep belong to Christ, the Good Shepherd, and not to any man in particular. Nobody has the right, in this sense to speak of "my church" or "My flock". There is no such a thing as the church of pastor So-and so in the New Testament. Only the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is found in the New Testament, which gathers around Him in each city, acknowledging Him as its only Head and Shepherd. Mutual edification was accomplished here, through the ministry of all the saints.
The saints? And what about the Lord's ministers, mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-12? Oh, well, they are there as well, as gifted brothers among their siblings, in order to equip them for the work of the ministry; but never to substitute or replace them in their labors. However, all this would have come into fruition after some years of life in fellowship around the Lord.
The mutual edification, exhortation, consolation and care were in principle the corporate responsibility of all the members of the body of Christ. Not around a pastor or professional minister as generally happens today. The difference is incalculable, because the ministers gifted with the Word, in the New Testament, did not constitute a special class of Christians, distinct from their brethren. The differences among them were functional and organic.
The same thing is true of the churches among the gentiles, planted by Paul and his coworkers. A typical church almost always began with a group of believers gathered in a home, to which an apostle (or a team of apostles, as the case might be) transmitted the foundation of Christ, teaching them to mutually edify themselves under direction and lordship of Christ. So, it was Christ who imparted to them from the beginning all the life and direction they required. Gradually (normally some years would go by to accomplish this), after experiencing the corporate life of Christ among them according to the foundation received from the apostles, and being edified by the Holy Spirit, some brothers would begin to stand out in their spiritual growth, faithfulness, knowledge, patience, faith and strength.
Naturally the rest of the brethren began to trust them as more mature brethren, to whom they would come in times of pressure to find wisdom and direction. These believers were able to express Christ in a real and practical way to the rest of their brethren. They had been tested, molded, broken and transformed in the shared life of the whole body. In addition, some of them (but not all) showed a deeper knowledge of the Word of God and had a specific gift to communicate it to their brethren. Who were they? Well, something new had silently developed among the sons of God: the Holy Spirit had formed elders, prophets and teachers.
However, nothing is further away from our present day concept of pastor than the elders and leaders of the first church. They did not constitute any special elite cast among the brethren. They did not dress differently, they did not speak a "more spiritual language" than the rest. They did not preach the Sunday sermon, and they did not receive an honorary treatment nor did the brethren use special titles to address them. Neither were they expert marriage counselors, amateur psychologists, prayer champions, eloquent preachers, consummate teachers, masters of ceremonies for weddings and funerals, presidents of the deacon board, and all that stuff... In summary, they were not today's central figure of pastor of the church, without whose presence all the rest feel lost. The aforementioned figure of pastor, so essential in contemporary Christianity, had no mention whatsoever in New Testament churches.
But at the present time, our ways have distanced much from the original foundation and simplicity.
At present, when a young believer feels a calling to serve the Lord, he has to initiate a long process of specialization and separation from the rest of his brethren until he becomes that man "specialized" in spiritual matters which is the modern pastor, minister, bishop, reverend, or whatever he is being called.
In this way a tragic wedge is rammed among the brethren. On one side you have this special man, distinct and consecrated to do God's work, and, on the other side, you have the great passive mass of Christians that year after year will congregate around the "ministry" of that man to hear his sermons, listen to his advice, receive his encouragement and direction, while they dedicate themselves almost entirely to their own private matters.
Thus an anti-biblical separation between the clergy and the laity, between Christians of first class, and Christians of second class, is established reaching its maximum expression in the catholic version. It is therefore not strange that the so-called pastor, although he may sincerely do his best to develop the spiritual life of "his congregation", may find a permanent state of spiritual infancy among the believers. Why? Because such a way of proceeding totally blocks the edification of the church according to the Divine pattern of mutual service and ministry among all the believers.
And this is merely the lesser of the worst sides of the religious coin. There is the other side, darker and more destructive. Our young man, aspiring to the ministry, has initiated his path of separation from the real church and secretly begins to develop a perturbing syndrome, although unfortunately, far more common than what is desirable. It is the "my ministry" syndrome. Soon all his energies will be concentrated in developing that thing which he calls "my ministry". He will build a "church" to exercise his ministry; he might even launch a powerful non-denominational organization, of which, of course he is to be the predominant figure. All the rest of the brethren, he will be thinking, have been given to him by the Lord, to develop his ministry, because in his own eyes, he is the chosen man, to whom the Lord has revealed his ways and granted a vision. In his own eyes he is as visionary; the instrument through which God will fulfill the desire of his own heart.
Certainly, to bring this about will require the contribution of other believers. But, be careful! Those brethren will have to accept that he is the chosen vessel. They will simply be there to help him to do the ministry that God gave him. They must learn to never doubt nor question that fact. They will erect costly buildings, they will construct powerful organizations, and even write books that will carry his name (whereas the names of the true hard workers that did it all will always be in the shadows). Concepts such as authority, obedience, submission, and service will be the central axis of this man in relation to his helpers. These relations are almost always vertical and subservient. The imprint of his strong personality will be the predominant factor among all his followers. What is most tragic, all the time he will think that he is doing the very work of God on earth.
His ministry is successful, he has a beautiful and great congregation, an excellent automobile in the driveway of a modern and comfortable home, a wonderful family and he is permanently invited to be one of the main speakers of all the great conferences of Christian leaders. He is the star figure of contemporary Christianity! Others look into the mirror of their own life and secretly desire to be like this man. He seems to live so close to God! He is almost at the tip of the summit to which all long to reach.
But he has a serious problem: all his work depends exclusively on himself. If his ministry falls, all his work will fall with him. What he has built is not able to sustain itself before the Lord, since his presence has become so necessary and irreplaceable.
Nevertheless, his true difficulty is still found somewhere else: not knowing or ignoring that Christ, and only Christ, can be the center of the church. Nobody but Christ has this right. Anyone that tries to do a work promoting his own ministry is destined to failure in the eyes of God, because God does not evaluate our work by its dimensions, efficiency or renown in the eyes of men.
The day will come in which God will simply examine the quality of the materials we have used. And He, Who can see through all things, already knows what source our work proceeds from. He will see how our own interests, motives and personal affections have been mixed in everything we have done while we were serving Him. He will see as He always does, how in the multiple crossroads of our life, we avoid the cross that God has offered us to bring us to live closer to Christ. He will know that we did not want to lose, to be deprived and how we refused to die to our self-life when the moment came to do so. Therefore, we would have built something, but far from Christ. That will be our terrible loss on that day in which, under His burning eyes, our work will burn to ashes.
We urgently need to return to the ways of the apostolic church, if we desire to see God's plan restored among us. The first step in the path of return, is to recover the apostolic ministry; the second step, is to recover the central importance of the brethren in the practical living of the church. The work of the ministry, Paul tells in his letter to the Ephesians, consists in the edification of the body of Christ and that is the corporate talk of all the saints.
In this point, the vision of the apostle is completely different from the traditional concepts, in which the pastor or minister is the central man in the exercise of the ministry, the one occupied in carrying forward the work of the ministry. But in the Scripture, the matter is absolutely different.
The tasks in our days are almost the exclusive responsibility of a pastor, where at the beginning, they were the shared responsibility of all the saints. A careful and unprejudiced reading of the New Testament will lead us to discover the central importance of all the brethren in the mutual edification, teaching, exhortation, care and protection. In the apostolic letters, addressed to the churches, for example, the totality of the practical instructions regarding the life of the church are addressed, not to the pastor, elders or other specific ministries, but to all the brethren in general.
It is the believers that have the privilege to take care of one another and mutually exhort one another. In case of a fault, they are to reprimand one another. They are to encourage, restore, and pray for one another, etc. And this mutual service found its maximum expressing in the typical meetings of the church (see 1 Corinthians 14). During those gatherings, all the brethren were there without the presence of any hegemonic, dominating, or central ministry. They simply gathered with the characteristic seal of "one to another" and around the presence of the Lord. He, and He only was the living and real center of those meetings, in which the believers under the direction of the Holy Spirit were mutually edified by the sharing of the different gifts that each one had received.
Certainly, that sharing life and ministry had the experiential knowing of Christ in a profound and real way as its result, because for all those that participated in such gatherings, His government and lordship over their lives were made evident. No individual had the preeminence. Only the Lord Himself had the preeminence.
The absolute centrality of Christ
Here we have the great secret of the primitive church: Its absolute focusing on Christ as its center and Lord. And this is, precisely, another of the essential threads of the apostolic foundation.
The churches were not born and neither did they grow around a pastor. Very much on the contrary they grew as a group of believers led by an apostolic ministry, but always gathered around the Lord Jesus Christ. After a time, the apostles would go somewhere else, leaving them under the exclusive care of the Lord in Whom they had believed. Then the hour of truth would come to those believers. They were deliberately left alone, without any of them named as their leader and no one "in charge". Simply a group of brethren with the responsibility of mutually being on watch for the edification of the church in the city where they lived by meeting to minister to one another, exhort, care, and be mutually subject to one another. They were to make the testimony of Jesus Christ real in that city.
Only in this context can the full meaning of some the practical truths of the New Testament gain significance. For example, here are some of them:
"How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has as interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (1 Corinthians 14:26).
"Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you" (2 Corinthians 13:11).
"Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:1).
"From whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:16).
"And not holding fast to the Head, from which all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God" (Colossians 2:19).
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another..." (Colossians 3:16a).
"Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all... Test all things; hold fast what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:14, 21).
"And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another..." (Hebrews 10:24-25).
"As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God" (1 Peter 4:10).
The above quoted passages reflect the spirit of the whole New Testament. In accordance with this, all the brethren have to shoulder the responsibility of the edification of the church in each locality, because through their mutual ministry, the fullness of Christ flows toward the whole body (Ephesians 3:17-19). This is a matter of vital importance. No member in particular, no matter how much growth he might have experienced in the Lord, can express such fullness. Only corporate participation of all and each one of its members is called to express Christ in His totality, according to the eternal purpose of God.
This explains in great part the tragic condition of the church in the present time. Because of this, one requires a profound and transforming revelation of the body of Christ as the chosen vessel of God for the final attainment of His purpose.
No matter how gifted one minister of God might be, he is but a small measure of Christ, and he may never express the totality of Who Christ is. This is one of the essential themes of the New Testament. Therefore, the floodlights are not highlighting the elders, pastors of gifts of eloquence, but rather the complete ministry of the whole body, because only through this means the fullness of Christ can be known and experienced.
It is not possible to emphasize this fact enough. The ministers of the Word of God in Ephesians 4 aim to equip the saints, enabling, and preparing them to fulfill the great task of the ministry, which is the edification of the body of Christ. Can we understand how important this is? They, in fact, do not produce the work of the ministry by themselves, but rather provide the saints with the adequate materials so that all the saints can corporately do this task. They serve and minister among the saints. They are simple brethren that serve their brethren in this specific function.
No type of hierarchy is introduced in their relationship with the believers (although they should be appreciated and acknowledged in their specific function by the rest of their brethren). Because, as the apostle Paul tells us, only in the togetherness with all the saints shall we be able to understand the width, the length, the depth, and the height of the Divine purpose. What's more, to be capacitated to know the love of Christ, to come to be filled with all the fullness of God. It is established by God and nothing could ever change this fact.
The elders of the flock
We have already seen that in the New Testament that the elders do not constitute a special cast, different to the rest of their brethren. They are a group of men, chosen among the believers by the Holy Spirit, due to their greater growth and experience in the matters of the Lord, to care and supervise the flock. They are, certainly, the fruit of the corporate life of the church under the Lord's directives.
In this sense, nobody can come to be an elder without having previously experienced the life of the church profoundly and consistently for a long time. If a man has not known that life, he is not prepared to be an elder according to the terms of the New Testament.
As it has been said before, it is not the talents, abilities and knowledge what constitutes a man to become an elder among his brethren. Only the life of Christ is essential in this case. Let us now examine, with closer attention, the nature of the service of the elders in the house of God. Why is this important? Because the foundation of the apostles was established with the appearance and function of elders among the believers in each locality. Here we find another of the threads we are looking for.
The first evident feature of the elders of the New Testament is that this service always has a plural character. In the New Testament we never find a sole, single elder in a church in a given place. On the contrary, they always function as a group of brethren in mutual subjection and dependence:
"So when they had appointed elders every church..." (Acts 14:23a).
"...To all the elders of the church" (Acts 20:17b).
"Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20 :28).
"...To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Philippians 1:1b).
:...appoint elders in every city as I commanded you" (Titus 1:5b
Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive" (Hebrews 13 17a.
"Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders to the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord" (James 5:14)
"The elders who are among you I exhort..." (1 Peter 5:1a).
The plural and cooperative ministry of the elders has as its foundation, once more, the principle of mutuality. In the body of Christ nobody can exercise a hegemonic, autocratic or single central ministry, because this would damage the unquestionable fact that Christ is the one and only Head of the church.
In this context, the function of the elders is to express in a corporate, representative and exemplary way the care and supervision of Christ for the church in regards to the matters of the life, order, service and spiritual growth of the members of the group. They are the ones that have the first responsibility to maintain, lead, preserve and keep the church within the apostolic teaching.
In this point, they function first of all, as examples to be followed among their brethren, because the responsibility of these things at the end of the day belongs to the whole body. For these reasons, their labor doesn't consist in substituting the ministry of the saints, but rather to see to it that each one of the believers fulfills his function to benefit his brethren and is growing in the shared life and service.
The elders are more mature brethren, who have grown more in the Lord, and the Holy Spirit has placed them as supervisors (bishops) among the rest of their fellow disciples, so that with their word and their own exemplary life and conduct they may lead the believers on the way to follow the Lord 1. If they want to adequately perform their task, they must never impose themselves as hierarchical authorities with special privileges over the church. Much to the contrary, they have to serve their brethren with the Word and their example, showing the saints how to remain faithful to the Lord through the different trials and circumstances of the life of the church. They have to help their brethren to reach the same high level that they have obtained before the Lord.
If they do their task well, and all the believers fulfill their ministries, the day will come when all the sons will be true elders in the house of God (in life and character, because the function of overseeing would have ceased since it will no longer be necessary). Perhaps because of this, in the heavenly vision the church is represented by 24 elders around the throne of God (Revelation 4).
A good way to correctly perceive their function within the body is in the example of a family and the relationship existing among their members.
In accordance with the apostle John, there exists in the family of God three kinds of persons: in the first place you have the parents, who are mature men and women, experienced and proven in an intimate knowledge of God, capable of shaping and leading their younger brethren. Then come the young people, who, having learned the essential truths of the Christian life, have become strong and are ready to take their place in the battle for the Kingdom of God. Finally, you have smaller children, by which we mean the new believers that are just starting to take their first steps in the Lord. The latter need a lot of care, attention, instruction and love from their older and more experienced brethren. Naturally, it is the parents who perform this task in the family. The same thing is true regarding the family of God.
The elders are, in this sense, the mature brethren, more experienced in the ways of the Lord, to whom the Holy Spirit commits the responsibility of watching and caring for their younger and smaller brethren. Their service is not based on an organization and hierarchical position, but on the life of the Christ they know and transmit to others through their word and example.
Subjection to the elders in the church is to be expressed as a voluntary disposition to be persuaded, instructed, set in order, and corrected by them. On the other hand, the elders have to demonstrate with the example of their life, the same disposition among their fellow elders and also toward the totality of the body. They must never try to impose any type of government of their own nor to force the church to do their will, because they are not the head of the church. They only are its more responsible, mature, and dedicated servants. The differences between the elders and the rest of their brethren are not class differences, but of function and life. Which means, if we can adopt a new term, "of spiritual age" and dedicated service. What qualified a New Testament elder was his life with the Lord, and nothing else. Not his capacity, oratory, charisma, intelligence, knowledge of the Bible, studies of ecclesiastical ordination. We are easily impressed with titles, but God puts His emphasis on the life.
On the other hand, it is necessary to highlight the scant emphasis that the Bible places on the subject of elders and leadership. Although the human mind gives a high importance to the matter of who exercises the power and the authority, the Lord established that among His own, it should not be so. On the contrary, the Scriptural emphasis is placed in that only Jesus Christ has authority in the church.
In fact, of the many words that are used in the New Testament to denote authority in relation with the Lord, none of them are used to describe the relationship among believers 2. Among the members of the body of Christ, there exists a mutuality, dependence, subjection, and love. The authority, however, belongs exclusively to the Head, which is Christ.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that such authority cannot be expressed and known by the body. The difference is in the how. Among men, the Lord said, those that are great, lord it over and exercise authority over those that are under them. Among you, however, it will not be so. In other words, among the children of God there must not be those that elbow themselves into a superior position over and above their brethren. On the contrary, those that exercise a leadership function must to do so as servants to all.
Here we have the kind of authority that Christ delegates in the midst of His church. Authority to serve, care, tend, and edify. Not to dominate, rule, impose or demand obedience. The difference is certainly incalculable. Given that authority belongs to Christ, we can only express and represent that authority through the Word of God and our example. Never impose what you assume to be your authority by the sole institution of a charge, title, or "superior" office. Furthermore, such an expression is organic and is always limited to the gift, ministry and service that each member of the body specifically has.
No one has the right to exceed that limit. When a member of the body manifests Christ in a specific way, he simultaneously expresses Christ's authority. And the rest of the brethren are to acknowledge and subject themselves to the directives of the Lord that come to them through that specific member. Certainly this does not mean that all express and represent the Lord equally. It is evident that different gifts, function, and spiritual maturity exist among the believers.
In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul explains that in this matter God has established an order in the church. Such an order, however, does not refer to being a link in a hierarchical structure of a chain of command. It refers to the function that each one fulfills within an organic body relationship. This definitely does not refer to a hierarchic structure.
In accordance with such order, in the process of edification of the church, the ministry of the apostles is in first place. In second place is the ministry of the prophets. In the third place is the ministry of the teachers and finally, the corporate ministry of all the believers (1 Corinthians 2:28-29). Apostle, prophet, and teacher are not charges, titles or official positions in the body, but merely specific functions performed by those that God gives to the church in order to help her and enable her to fulfill her mission.
The order of edification established by God shows us that to lay the foundation of the church, which is Christ, the work of the apostles is required. Then follows the ministry of the prophets to explain, amplify, and deepen that foundation. Now comes the ministry of the teachers for the practical task of applying it all to the corporate as well as the personal spiritual development of each one and all the believers. This is what Paul also calls in the book of Ephesians "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry". From then on, all the saints, equipped by means of the ministry of these gifts and together with one another, they all perform the great work of the ministry: the edification of the body until it reaches its full stature in Christ.
In this context, elders appear as mature, proven, and trustworthy men, whom the Holy Spirit designates among the saints to care for them, to supervise them and to encourage them while they all perform their task of mutual edification. The main responsibility falls upon the elders regarding the practical leadership of the church. However, such leadership is a service among the saints, not an autocratic government over them. The elders, meanwhile, also form part of the body in their function but share the mutual ministry with the saints. They are not, in this sense, over and above their brethren, but rather they serve among them for the edification of the body. In union with them all, they carry the leadership in the search to understand and obey the direction of the Lord, who is the real and present Head of the body through the Holy Spirit. The directives flow through the concerted, coordinated, and orderly action of the whole body in mutual subjection to the Head, which is Christ.
This explains why in the Bible the emphasis lays on the mutual ministry of all the saints more than on the leadership and the elders. The key is in submitting one to another in the fear of God, recognizing the ministry of specific service each one performs in the work of edifying one another under the authority of Christ the Lord.
1. In the church of the New Testament, the terms elder, pastor, and bishop were equivalent and interchangeable (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1,4). All these refer to one and the same class of people in the body of Christ. When did this way of seeing things begin to change? It is not possible to find out for certain. However, historical testimonies indicate that the process began at the beginning of the second century, with the considerable influence of a man called Ignatius, bishop of Antioch of Syria. Until then, and even afterwards, all the extra biblical documents coincide in pointing to a plurality of elders or bishops leading a church in each locality. For example, the Didache, a document dated between the years 80 and 90 AD textually tells us: "Designate, therefore, bishops... worthy of the Lord". Whereas in the letter of the church in Rome to the Corinthians, dated in the year 95 AD you read: "The apostles received the gospel... and so, preaching in rural and urban areas, everywhere, designated the first fruits of their labors, once they were approved by the Holy Spirit, so that they would be bishops and deacons" (paragraph 42). And then in paragraph 44 the terms bishop and presbyter (elder) are made synonymous. However, although he cannot be made the only one responsible for this, Ignatius, popularized the distinction between a unique bishop and elders, imagining the bishop to be the visible head of the church, under whom the group of elders were placed as a cooperative or collegiate entity: "They must respect the bishop as a type of Father God and the presbyters as a cooperative council of God and as the collegiate group of the apostles" (To Traillians, 3) "The bishop presiding in the likeness of God and the presbyters as the council of God and as the collegiate group of the apostles" (To the Magnesians, 6). Undoubtedly, his immense prestige as a disciple of the apostle John, together with his testimony as a martyr of Jesus Christ, gave a notable authority to the seven letters that he sent to the churches of those days, emphasizing his points of view regarding the preeminence of the position of bishop. Those letters cut deeply in the Christianity of that time and for a while they were even considered to be canonical. In the aforementioned letters, Ignatius exalts the absolute authority of bishop over the church. Why was this concept accepted with such ease? Perhaps because his point of view was in accord with the mentality of the empire, and in that sense, the most natural way of conceiving authority. And for this reason it prevailed. To an inhabitant of the empire of Caesar, what more natural way to conceive the government of the church than to think of it as a hierarchic structure whose maximum head is the bishop? Because Ignatius imagined a church organized and hierarchic in the image and likeness of the Roman empire, and, incidentally, it displaced Jesus Christ as the real and living Head of His church by putting in His place a position called "bishop", who he completely deprived of its original meaning as synonymous to presbyter or elder. In this way, the road was prepared to the exalted position of the Roman bishop, because, if a bishop can exist among the elders, then, why could there not also be a pope among the bishops?
2. The Greek word for authority is exousia. It means the right to exercise a determined action without any hindrance whatsoever.