Does an Eldership Have Authority in Matters of Opinion?
Does an eldership have authority in matters of opinion?
That might seem like a foolish question to some, but it is a question that gets to the heart of what it means to be an elder. For some it is a settled question, a principle or doctrine that has been taught definitively over the years, with arguments that are obviously persuasive enough so that it is a principle seldom questioned by those who believe it. For others, however, the idea that a group of elders can dictate in matters of opinion seems quite contrary to God’s plan, and it is deemed to produce internal results which are at odds with the will of God for our lives.
There is no question, from a biblical standpoint, that God has delegated authority to His elders.
We read, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17a; ESV) The requirement to obey implies an ability to command.
However, such authority is not unlimited. In the same way that an obedience to government authority does not force the saint to disobey God (cf. Romans 13:1; Acts 4:19-20), so too with the eldership, we understand we must always obey God rather than man. Likewise, God speaks to the authority of the elders when He specifically tells them, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3; ESV)
A man who has the Spirit of Diotrephes (cf. 3 John 9) shows himself to be unworthy of the responsibility and authority of being an elder. The proper exercise of authority, and the understanding of the same is a matter of central importance when discussing authority. The man who truly wishes to be pleasing to God is not going to be satisfied with simply knowing God has given him authority, but is going to properly want to know how God desires him to use that authority. Moreover, he is going to want to know the limits of his authority.
Which brings us back to the question: does an eldership have authority in matters of opinion?
Can, for instance, an eldership decree that all men in the congregation must wear ties in the worship service, or when serving in the worship service? Can the eldership decree that all men in a congregation must shave their beards, or, conversely, possess beards? Can they order the preacher to shave off an offending beard before they allow him to preach? Can they dictate that the congregation must celebrate Christmas in their homes? Or forbid the same? Can they order their members to vote for certain candidates, or vote against others? None of these are completely hypothetical. All are matters over which elders have, through the years, issued decrees to their congregations.
Those who argue that the elders have authority in matters of opinion will largely answer each of the preceding questions in the affirmative. At least if they are going to be consistent.
When pressed, the argument in favor of elders having this authority goes something along the lines of the following. “Elders must have authority in matters of opinion. They can, for instance, tell the congregation the hour at which to gather to worship. If the elders did not have this authority, then the members of the church could individually assemble together whenever they pleased, regardless. Therefore, if the elders can dictate in this matter, they can dictate in all matters of opinion.”
But let us suggest some problems with this reasoning, and with the principle in general, and then let us suggest a more viable alternative.
Firstly, when taken to a logical conclusion, the principle that, “elders have authority in matters of opinions,” leads to absurd and untenable conclusions.
Let us use, for example, the matter of wearing ties in worship. (Full disclosure: this writer normally wears ties when he preaches.) In any number of places, elders have decreed that all men who serve in their congregation in the worship are expected to wear ties. They forbid those who are not wearing ties from full participation. This is justified by the conclusion that they have absolute authority in matters of opinion, especially when it comes to the meeting of the congregation.
Obviously ties, and the wearing of them, or lack thereof, is a matter of culture. Jesus certainly never wore a tie. It is not something God demands of us. Likewise, it is very likely that early Christians did not wear their Sunday best, but went to worship in their normal clothing. Indeed, making value judgments about a person’s worth or spirituality based on what they wear is directly contrary to what God actually tells us to do. (cf. James 2:1-7) When we allow people certain privileges in the church because of their clothing, God tells us we are behaving in an evil manner.
But leaving that aside, let us assume for the sake of argument that the elders can indeed do this. Can they then also tell the preacher that he must wear a clerical collar when preaching, or particular vestments when praying, such as are worn in denominations. Someone may protest that no eldership would ever do such a thing, to which the retort is, “surely no eldership would demand instruments in worship, or women preachers.” Yet they have, and they might. Logically, there is no actual difference between demanding a man wear a tie because he is preaching and demanding he wear a clerical collar because he is preaching. Both are cultural adornments with no actual inherent spiritual meaning one way or another, excepting that endowed through tradition. But to say that the preacher must wear a tie in order to show respect to his office is actually to endow the tie with the exact same meaning and tradition as the clerical collar. We are merely replacing onereligious practice with another, similar practice. Those who support elders having the authority to demand ties, must ask themselves how they would feel about an eldership having the authority to demand their preacher dress in denominational garb. If the latter makes us uncomfortable, why not the former?Is it the case that we are in support of the idea only when it buttresses positions and concepts we already want to hold? But if an argument used in our favor can also be used against us, we must either accept we are wrong, or the argument is bad.
The practical application of believing that elders have authority in matters of opinion very often leads to abhorrent practices. Let us return to the matter of beards. (Full Disclosure: this writer is clean shaven.)Can an eldership demand all its members to be clean-shaven? There is no scriptural justification for such a position, outside the idea that elders can dictate in matters of opinion. In the Old Testament God demanded the men of His people to possess beards. Jesus, Peter, Paul – all these had beards. If anything, the apostolic example is in favor of beards. But let us say that the elders have made this decree, at least concerning some of the men of the congregation, such as the preacher or the deacons. What do we expect the consequences to be if certain men refuse to comply? If the man in question is the preacher, quite likely the elders will drive him from their midst. But do we feel as comfortable with an eldership telling the average member that they are not worthy of fellowship because they wear a beard? If not, why not?
The principle leads us to too many bad, and unnecessary, situations.
A second point against the principle is this: to say that elders have authority in matters of opinion is to say that the elders have the authority to command men to sin. Which is, of course, obviously wrong.
Paul, in Romans 14, concludes thusly: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (vs. 23b; ESV) The entirety of the chapter is about matters of opinion and how to deal with them. It would have been very easy for Paul to say, “in matters of opinion, the rule of the eldership is absolute.” But he does not. Rather, the thrust of the argument in that chapter is that opinion is a matter of personal choice, and each man should do as he feels best, while, at the same time, not allowing his opinions to hinder his brethren. But to go against one’s own conscience in such matters is wrong – sinfully so.
Let us say that there is a brother who feels God wants him to have a beard. It is after all commanded in the Old Testament. Jesus had a beard. Perhaps this brother feels quite strongly about it. Do the elders have the authority to tell him to violate his conscience? Do they have the authority to put that stumbling block in his way? Obviously not. But to say that an eldership has authority in such matters suggests just the opposite. The principle leads us to an unbiblical result and is therefore problematic.
And if the brother with the beard can disobey the elders because of conscience, and can do so without offending God, then any brother can disobey any command of the elders so long as the command bothers their conscience. Effectively, the authority of the elders is reduced to only being authoritative if people feel comfortable with listening to them. We have removed from them that command which tells us to “obey.” This does not seem to be right. Authority does not work this way, operating only when we feel like we agree with the authority. Either a man has authority or he does not.
A third problem with the principle is that it results, practically, in Christians walking along the paths of the Pharisees, and those other Jews who erected “Walls” around the law. For instance, in matters of working on the sabbath, the “elders” of the Jews had laid down principles ordaining what they considered to be work, and what was not. At one point the apostles of Jesus violated these ordinances by plucking some grain and eating it as they walked along. (cf. Matthew 12:1-8) When confronted with the behavior of His apostles, Jesus chastised the Jewish leaders, declared His apostles to be guiltless, and declared Himself to be the actual authority on such matters, the “Lord of the Sabbath.”
The men leading God’s people did not have the authority to add additional layers of well meaning commands to what God had said. The Bible warns us not to add to the Word of God lest we be held accountable to God and He rebuke us. (cf. Proverbs 30:5-6). By creating decrees which God had not ordained, the leaders of the Jews had violated this principle. But those who begin adding obligations which God has not spoken to, such as ties, no-beards, or the like, are doing exactly the same thing, are they not?. If God has not issued a decree mandating the particulars of our dress, why should we create such? God has spoken to us in general principles about clothing, teaching us to be modest and showing us what that means. However, in the New Testament, He was not specific concerning specific articles of clothing, nor the quality thereof. Any such command is an addition to what God has said. It is wrong and sinful and dangerous.
Jesus said of the Jewish traditions, “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9) We must guard carefully that we do not fall into the same spiritual trap. Many of the decrees of the Rabbis were well intended. But they were still more than what God had actually said, and therefore unhelpful and wrong. An eldership which begins issuing decrees about things God has not spoken of, and enforcing said decrees with various punishments and consequences within the church, are creating new doctrines. They may call these decrees something other than doctrine, but a doctrine by any other name remains a religious teaching.
But, someone says, doesn’t the eldership have the right to set a time of worship? Isn’t that a matter of opinion? Why is this different?
Rather than saying that elders have authority in matters of opinion, let us suggest an alternative: Elders have discretion in matters of expediency.
An expediency is an option which allows us to fulfill a command. For instance, a song book is an expediency. We are commanded to sing. A collection of songs allows us to fulfill the command. It is impossible to sing without a song, and it facilitates singing together if we all share the same song. Theeldership within a congregation has some discretion regarding which particular collection, if any, of such songs they wish to use. Such a decision is, in point of fact, largely a matter of tastes and opinion, but someone has to ultimately make such a decision. And if the funds used to purchase the books are those of a congregation, the eldership of that congregation are the ones we should expect to have ultimate say.
But though the choice of a song-book is an opinion, it is an opinion regarding an expediency. It does not introduce a new command or a new requirement. It does not add to what God has told us. It is instead a reasonable aid in fulfilling the command
Likewise, if two different men approach a congregation asking for support for two different good works, and there are only funds sufficient for one, we understand that they have discretion, based on their opinion of the matter as to which of the two to support. So long as both men are faithful, God has not specifically decreed which work should be chosen. He leaves the matter in our hands, so long as we realize that it is necessary for the church to be engaged in good works (cf. Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 6:6-10)
In the same way, the question of when to worship as a congregation is a matter of discretion which someone has to decide in order for the church to fulfill the Lord’s will. Choosing an hour is a necessary expediency. It has to be chosen or the command cannot be fulfilled properly and in a decent manner. Confusion will result.
But there is a difference between an expediency and an addition. Commands which do not actually facilitate the command of God are additions. We would understand that if an eldership demanded an instrument of music in worship, they would be adding to God’s word. It is no less true that an eldership which demands a particular garmentin worship has created a new doctrine. The garment is not necessary to fulfill the command. We have moved from the realm of expediency into the realm of adding to God’s word.
Such additions are of absolutely no spiritual value, and, in truth, are spiritually dangerous as we confuse tradition with command, and opinion with truth. Concerning this God teaches us, “Beware lest anyone cheat you, through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. And He adds, “You are complete in Him.” (Colossians 2:7, 10a; NKJV) “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why as though living in the world, do you subject yourself to regulations – ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’which all concern things which perish with the using – according to the commandment and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom, in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
Do we stop to consider, that it is entirely possible, if not probable, that some of the men who were trying to impose these things, matters concerning food and the like, were elders.There is no exception made, however, for the authority of elders in matters of opinion. The most likely reason for this is because such an exception does not exist. An eldership who decrees concerning self-imposed matters of religion are in just as much error as those who are not elders.
When elderships are deciding on particulars concerning their congregation and the work thereof, they should ask themselves if the matter in question is truly a matter to which God has spoken. If it is an expediency, they should make the best possible choice with the wisdom God has given them and fulfill their office in a gentle and loving manner; acting not as dictators, but as spiritual examples. But if it is only a matter of opinion, with no actual spiritual value, they should humbly leave it alone.
The authority of the eldership is an authority delegated to them by Christ for the purpose of shepherding the church and overseeing the work of the church in a manner equitable with God’s revealed will (cf. Acts 20:28). When an eldership issues a decree which is in full conformance with what God has commanded, we should do as God tells us and obey them. To rebel against such a command is not to rebel against the elder, but against God Himself. When an eldership issues a decree which goes against God’s will, we should tell them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you or to God, we will let you decide.” And when they issue a decree over a matter of opinion which God has not decreed, we should ask, as always, “Where is it written?”