A Church of Christ brother asks about the role and powers of congregational elders. “Do elders have any authority, or does it belong to the church as a whole? Can they force submission in matters of opinion?”
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The New Testament portrays an “elder” (the Greek word is presbyteros, from which come our English words “presbyter,” “presbyterian” and “priest”) as a mature Christian who, because of personal experience with the Lord, is respected and acknowledged as an encourager, teacher, leader, admonisher, and model for other brothers and sisters in a local congregation (1 Pet. 5:1-5; Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:7, 17). The New Testament also refers to elders as “pastors” (from a Greek word for “shepherd”) and, many Christians believe, as “bishops” (from the Greek word episkopos, which gives the English word “episcopal”).
Because all authority on heaven and on earth belongs to Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18), any human authority is derived. Elders have two kinds of derived authority. They have moral authority from God, which the congregation recognizes and acknowledges. This authority is persuasive in nature and flows from Christian character, Bible knowledge and acquaintance with Christ. It specifically is not dictatorial power but authority to act as an teacher and example (1 Pet. 5:3). Elders do not properly lead by force (Mark 10:42-45). They have discretionary powers to act in matters of opinion only if their congregation decides to delegate such to them. Delegated power can be retracted, however, and those who receive it are accountable for its proper exercise to those who bestow it on them.
The New Testament does not generally charge elders with financial and business responsibility (but see Acts 11:27-30), and such details were far less important in house churches of the first century. It is appropriate for the congregation to entrust such specific responsibilities to gifted individuals within the body, who then handle those matters as stewards for the local church (Acts 6:1-6). The New Testament says nothing about a “men’s business meeting” which by definition excludes half the people whose business is at stake.