In Reply to Patrick Mead’s “The Problem with Elders,” Part 4 (Lipscomb’s Views on Elder Authority)

In the early Restoration Movement, Thomas Campbell and Alexander Campbell were both elders of their congregations. In their minds, the roles of elder and preacher were much the same, as the Bible plainly anticipates that some elders may preach —

(1Ti 5:17 ESV) 17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

However, by 1840 or so, according to the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, “Elders,” some congregations began to hire men to preach. This was a controversial innovation — a controversy that lasted for 100 years.

In the churches that later became Christian Churches, the preacher was often considered one of the elders. However, the a cappella Churches of Christ came to largely follow the views of J. W. McGarvey, who considered the preacher a mere employee of the elders.

Daniel Sommer founded a branch of Churches of Christ that rejected the idea of a “hireling minister” altogether, insisting that each congregation should raise up its own preacher, who should be unpaid.

The view of Sommer died out sometime in 1950s or so. My view is that churches that failed to hire a well-trained preacher died or became so small as to be irrelevant to the larger Movement. That is, the theory so utterly failed that those churches rejecting the hiring of a minister simply ceased to exist. The churches of the Sommerite movement that survive have preachers on their payroll.

Meanwhile, beginning after the Civil War (well after the deaths of the founders of the Restoration Movement) David Lipscomb and others opposed the office of an elder altogether. Lipscomb, as long-time editor of the Gospel Advocate, wrote —

Whenever a man or set of men . . . assume to exercise authority in a church by virtue of some official appointment, or to assert, they have rights and authority as officers above others and assume to exert their rights without the full consent and approval of the members, they should be resisted even to the disruption of the body. They are lording it over God’s heritage, and are exalting their authority at the expense of the authority of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. One man, in the assertion and maintenance of the Divine will, has as much authority as another, more than a thousand ordained ones in disregard of that will. The only reason we have seen from Scripture for appointing certain individuals to special work was to see that neglected work was performed. The seven at Jerusalem were appointed to see that the Grecian widows, neglected in the daily ministration were fed. Titus was sent to set in order the things “wanting,” and to place Elders in their proper work.

Whenever a man in the church of Christ claims authority or exercises power merely on official ground, he is essentially a pope and claims the prerogatives of papacy as fully as does he of Rome. He may be a smaller one, his sphere of action may be more limited, but the principle is the same. All the evils of the papacy arise out of the claim of the Pope and his council to decide questions by virtue of official position.

Gospel Advocate, 1877, page 232 (emphasis in original).

However, this attitude largely failed to catch on. Lipscomb was hugely influential among the Churches of Christ in the southeastern U.S., but today virtually no congregation follows this teaching.

Why not? Well, in my view, largely because churches without leaders having positional authority die. I can’t imagine any Church that adopted this viewpoint doing well at all — especially in a denomination that considers ministers as employees of the church.

Also, it’s because Lipscomb’s views are simply not defensible from scripture — for the reasons seen in the earlier posts. The scriptures are filled with references to the positional authority of elders. As a result, while many individual Christians — and even a few ministers — consider elders to have no authority, it’s rare — nearly unheard of — for a Church of Christ of any size not to have elders who’ve been invested with the oversight of the church. We are a people of the text.

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  1. I once a really good and faithful Baptist friend of mine, why they didn’t have Elders but only Deacons… He said it had something to do with the history of the Baptist organization and the abuse of power, or perception of abuse, that had occurred. I asked him if have Deacons and Senior Deacons had alleviated that problem.. He opined that regardless of title, leadership of any kind can be abused. He also felt like, in his situation, that it was actually certain “influential” congregants that were actually leading the direction of the church and they just made sure certain deacons were elected to make that happen. My guess is that in any group setting, there will always be battle for control of the group. Then, there are the wives…..:)

  2. “He also felt like, in his situation, that it was actually certain “influential” congregants that were actually leading the direction of the church —”

    1Ti 6:10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
    1Ti 6:11 But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.

    It is really not the money that corrupts people, it is the power associated with the money.
    In my opinion, power bought with money, has been the downfall of both secular and religious governments, and I fear that both our national government, and our church governments are well beyond repair, without the cleansing of spilled blood. We are pretty much on the brink of civil war in both cases. Neither is going to be righted without fearsome conflict, and maybe not at all until Jesus return. There is just to wide of a gap, and the gap is getting wider, so you cannot engineer a bridge to span a gap that is constantly on the move.

  3. Brother Guin, I like your thoughts, but I offer one observation since we claim to be people of the text. The Scriptures do not seem to reveal the minister ever to be an employee of the church, nor supervised by the elders. According to Titus, how does the text not reveal that it is the minister who installs the elders, thus giving the minister positional authority largely unpracticed?

  4. Related to Raymond’s question– Titus got his commission to install elders in Crete directly from Paul. This was an apostolic work. So, as the CoC does not recognize apostles in this day and age, exactly who claims the authority to “send” a minister to appoint elders today? Does Sunset or Brown Trail or FHU now carry this apostolic mantle? Brothers, if we are to try to hold fast to the forms we observe in the NT, we must be more thorough in our reasoning, else we find ourselves holding fast in a half-fast manner…

  5. I know some Christian university presidents (current and former) who thought they carried the apostolic mantle.

  6. If it requires apostolic authority to install elders, and the cofc does not recognize modern day apostles, then some could appropriately argue that modern-day ministers and elders are unneeded since apostolic authority is antiquity. However, practical application shows different logic, thus something is amiss, and it is not my question/observation. it goes to the heart of the issue, from where does authority derive and who represents what authority? – in essence this whole dispute. this is a matter that even the ancient sages and rabbis had, thus it is obvious that the argument is not going away. as a result, depending upon how one interprets the bible for leadership organization is how the church and christians will be managed, overseen.

  7. Raymond, current observation does not change logic. It may reveal where we are not being rational, or where we are operating under improper premises. For instance, Paul tell us in Ephesians 4 that Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to the church “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Honest observation tells us that we have not yet “arrived” at this point of development. Jesus appointed the Twelve prior to his ascension, but did not stop then. Further apostles appear in the early history of the church. So, the assumption that apostlic authority has somehow passed away finds no basis in scripture nor any necessity in reason. Perhaps this is why the argument will not go away- we decline to consider that the assumptions we are using may not be valid.

    I am reminded of the lady who happened upon a familiar-looking man in the supermarket, but could not place him. She was sure he was someone famous. She racked her brain for a moment, then approached the man excitedly. “I know you!” she said, “You’re… you’re, uh,…”

    The man smiled helpfully and said, “Denzel Washington.”

    The lady shook her head vigorously and said, “No, that’s not it. Give me a minute and I’ll remember…” 😉

  8. Charles you simply help substantiate my point, especially by referring to Ephesians 4. Much that we do as Christians is based upon unexamined assumptions. Thus if apostles truly do exist, then what else have Christians misunderstood? and if that list in Ephesians represents a type of hierarchy, then evangelists still have more positional authority than pastors (shepherds sometimes called elders), if so what does that indicate? if we infer than since presbuteros is not to be found within that Ephesians list, then does the absence of presbuteros indicate that the evangelist and pastor have more positional authority than elder, if so what does that indicate? Thus i agree with you, and make your statement a question: have we declined to consider that the assumptions we are using may not be valid? Like so many others, my studies reveal we have assumed some things incorrectly, the questions are then: what do we do about it? and how do we correct our assumptions?

  9. Well put. Assumptions can include hierarchy. 😉 I think the next step is to have these discussions in the light not just of the scripture, but in the context of the church in which we live. And it is crucial to include in such discussions people from a variety of backgrounds. THAT is what helps us uncover our assumptions… people who don’t have the same ones! (We can take turns helping with each other’s “eye-beams”.) These are worthwhile discussions, but they do come at the risk of eroding some of our traditional underpinnings, which can seem very threatening. I recall how delighted I was to hear Jay talk about elders in the city and not just in the congregation. I have seen this for many years, as have others, but for a CoC congregational elder to not only see it, but to contemplate its ramifications, that’s encouraging. That is HIS role we are talking about, after all. I recall another brother who started teaching about getting away from the preacher/meeting manager/paycheck model of local ministry, knowing full well that if people heard him, the first job at risk was his own. Those who discover assumptions such as we are speaking of put themselves at risk, because such discoveries open us to change. Faced with a message that says, “We may have been wrong about this all along,” it is often easier to shoot the messenger… or at least send him down the road to bother somebody else.

  10. Charles, good challenges, and yes you are correct about the messenger. That is one reason why I am no longer a pulpit minister, there is far greater freedom to research and present truth outside the pulpit than while serving in it. Maturing into a dedicated follower of Messiah Jesus is far more difficult than the conversion sermons that bring sinners to repentance, and far greater than dedicated weekly attendance to class and worship. Maturation, many times, takes the disciple into territory once thought impossible or even heretical. Discipleship requires dedication to God and Jesus, certainly, but it also requires dedication to truth and a willingness to conform to that truth irrespective of upbringing or previous assumptions. One thing is certain in following God’s Truth: religious, cultural and social presumptions will be broken; he alone defines righteousness.

  11. I genuinely feel for those ministers who are deliverers of the elders’ decision on matters. I have heard sermons which the minister either did not agree with or did not want to give but which conveyed instructions to the members from the elders.

  12. Raymond,

    I have a post coming on that topic. In short, I see Titus and Timothy as more analogous to a modern missionary than a located preacher.

    Titus, for example, was charged to ordain elders in multiple churches.

  13. As Paul considered Timothy to be an apostle (see I Thessalonians), it may well be that Titus had that calling as well. It makes sense to me that Paul would disciple other, younger apostles to continue the apostolic work he had begun.

  14. Raymond asked,

    from where does authority derive and who represents what authority?

    A very astute question!

    Let me suggest the following:

    1. Jesus has all authority. Matt 28:19.

    2. Jesus gifts various church members to take on various tasks on his behalf via the Holy Spirit (Rom 12; Acts 20; 1 Cor 12, Eph 4, etc.) His gifting implies authority to use those gifts.

    3. Among these gifts are the gifts of leadership, piloting, shepherding, eldership, overseeing — pick your synonym.

    4. The church should recognize those who have been so gifted, encourage them to use their gifts to serve the Kingdom, and should submit to those called to lead. Hence, we see in Acts 6 the apostles asking the church to select 7 men full of wisdom and the Spirit. These men weren’t elected. This wasn’t a democratic process. Rather, it was a process of spiritual discernment — to recognize giftedness from God. It was assumed, of course, that once these men were selected, they’d have authority to do their new job. They were to oversee the food distribution ministry — a job having authority.

    In short, we should not overly focus on process, as though who appoints whom solves much of anything by itself. Rather, we should submit to the working of God among us through the gifting of certain of our members to lead. This is VERY different from traditional Church of Christ thought, which largely ignores the role of Jesus and his authority.

  15. Charles wrote,

    we must be more thorough in our reasoning, else we find ourselves holding fast in a half-fast manner…


    And that’s exactly right. As noted earlier, Timothy and Titus as not analogous to the modern preacher in that they were sent and accountable to an apostle. Titus was told to ordain elders in multiple congregations in Crete.

    Authorizing Timothy and Titus to ordain did not put them at risk of being unaccountable, because they answered to Paul. Giving a located preacher power to appoint his own elders makes him quite unaccountable — and I’ve seen this very problem result in some very serious problems. (Read the papers to see what happens when preachers answer only to themselves.)

    Elders may not be accountable enough for our taste, but they at least answer to each other. I’ve seen far more financial and sexual sin committed by ministers than elders (although elders are not free from these sins). It’s not a remotely close comparison.

  16. “2. Jesus gifts various church members to take on various tasks on his behalf via the Holy Spirit (Rom 12; Acts 20; 1 Cor 12, Eph 4, etc.) His gifting implies authority to use those gifts.”

    Jay, are you saying that this gifting remains the same today as it was in the days before (Rom 12; Acts 20; 1 Cor 12, Eph 4, etc.) was written ? If so, of what use is the bible to these “gifted men” of today, we know that the early church did not use the new testament in their decision making, because it did not exist.
    Is Jesus gifting via the bible now, instead of the “holy spirit” ?

  17. How does one exercise positional authority, which by definition is a top-down/power-over exercise, from the position of the lowest, least-empowered slave in the household – the foot-washer?

  18. Jay, you touched on it, and it would definitely be a rabbit trail, but it’s difficult to discuss the leadership of the church without discussing the empowerment and gifting of the Holy Spirit. For those congregations who have pushed the indwelling, empowerment and spiritual gifting into a previous dispensation, then they must use the secular gifting and administrative acumen that remains. Businesses can operate very efficiently there is no doubt, but it seems that the operation of the Holy Spirit in the church is far more efficient and effective. I believe that the removal of God (HS) from our midst has done great damage to the church. We will not be able to have THE most effective leadership without bringing back the Head of the church to guide it… IMHO.

  19. Price,

    It’s not a rabbit trail at all. Recognizing the Spirit’s work is of the essence. Any approach to church leadership that omits the Spirit’s gifting is humanistic and bound to fail. Christ cannot be the head of the church if he does not pick the leaders.

  20. Nick,

    I’ve cited passages where apostles very plainly insisted on obedience predicated on their authority as apostles. And Jesus was speaking most directly to the apostles in the passages you allude to. I trust Paul’s and Johns interpretation of Jesus more than my own,

    Just so when Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, I think Jesus expected to be obeyed without question.

    Jesus gave himself as an example of his own teachings re authority and yet we don’t struggle to acknowledge Jesus’ authority.

    Obviously enough, we have a King who has positional authority — very well earned by sacrificial living but positional nonetheless.

    And yet Jesus gives himself as an example of how to lead. And the apostles surely honored the command even when they insisted on obedience based on their position as apostle.

    Therefore, we have to read Jesus’ words as a bit hyperbolic, which is very typical of him, esp in Matt.

    For example, Jesus objects to someone being called “benefactor” but Paul calls Phoebe a “patron” as a compliment. It’s hard to see much difference.

    Hence, Jesus’ point is not that the apostles will lack authority. It’s that the authority they would have is not for their own benefit. They must use their authority as servants of the Kingdom. They must lead selflessly and even sacrificially.

    Remember that Jesus was rebuking the claim of some to sit at his right hand– an effort at self-glorification. His main point has to be in response to the claim, not of authority, but honor — in an honor culture.

    Therefore he says you may not seek glory in this life. The goal isn’t the title of Benefactor but to be a benefactor without glory — purely as a servant.

    We are called to a corporate mission. And mission requires concerted, coordinated action, and this requires leadership with the authority to lead.

  21. Philippians 2 would assert, I think, that Jesus intentionally surrendered positional authority in favor of something far more effective – maybe we could call it kenotic authority. But when Jesus told Peter to put his sword away, of course he expected to be obeyed! What makes us think, though, that the basis of that expectation was positional? The command was given mere hours after Jesus calls Peter friend:

    “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” Jn 15:15

    Friendship in the ancient world, of course, was not about being pals and going golfing together but more about an affirmation of partnership. So again, here Jesus’ authority seems more kenotic than positional.

  22. Nick Gill wrote,

    Philippians 2 would assert, I think, that Jesus intentionally surrendered positional authority in favor of something far more effective – maybe we could call it kenotic authority.

    “Kenotic authority.” I like it. A lot. Let’s investigate it a bit.

    (Phi 2:8-11 ESV) 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

    Jesus’ kenosis (self-emptying, making himself nothing) was followed by his exaltation. Jesus began with huge, unspeakable relational authority — earned through his death. Totally agree.

    But then God exalted Jesus and “bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” This is authority granted by a superior. It’s positional authority.

    Jesus began with personal authority — ultimate personal authority — and received ultimate positional authority. Indeed, he was enthroned as king — a classic example of positional authority.

    Compare —

    (1Co 15:24-28 ESV) 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

    Jesus is empowered to “reign.” Jesus’ power is granted by God — “has put all things in subjection.” Paul does not say that all things submit to Jesus voluntarily. In fact, Jesus is shown to defeat his enemies — that are subjected to him against their will, it appears. Death does not go away easily or quietly.

    Hence, Jesus has not only positional authority, he has power-authority. He has the ability — given by God — to destroy his enemies. What is that power?

    Well, ultimately, it’s his resurrection, I think — but this comes from God. Jesus was not resurrected by force of his personality. It was the miraculous power of God to defeat Rome and all other powers.

    And so I see Jesus as having immense personal (relational) authority, but this is the same Jesus who will cast many into gehenna. It’s not just the power of his goodness and submission. That is what caused God to add to his personal authority by giving him the power to defeat his enemies — to destroy them.

    The power to destroy is something far beyond relational authority, and Jesus certainly has that power — given by God.

    And so I agree that Jesus is the ultimate example of personal/relational authority. But I can’t find in the Messiah a limitation that he only has personal/relational authority. Rather, I see the passages as saying that he earned positional authority and even power over others — even the power to destroy — by means of his immense personal/relational authority.

    (Mat 28:18-20 ESV) 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

    (1Pe 3:21b-22 ESV) Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

    (Eph 1:19-23 ESV) 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

    Authority granted to someone by a superior — authority granted to Jesus by God — by definition is positional, although earned by personal relationship. A superior cannot give a subordinate personal authority.

    Just so, while elders cannot claim messianic authority(!), they can be granted positional authority by God qualified for through kenosis — through relational authority. A superior cannot grant relational authority, only positional authority, and so the very fact that elders are ultimately selected by the Spirit means they have positional authority.

    This in no way contradicts the necessity for their relational authority. I think they are shown to be Spirit-selected in part through their relational authority.

  23. So then, part of our problem comes from the difference between those who are elders in truth, selected by the Spirit and granted positional authority to augment their kenotic and integrity-driven authority and, OTOH, those so-called “elders” whose selection was through some means other than Spirit-selection?

    That makes sense, as the key gifts – those that enable self-emptying living – come from the Spirit as fruit even before the positions do. No one should be considered for eldership who is not recognized by the community as a tree laden with the fruit of the Spirit.

    Again, I think we find ourselves being reminded of the essential factors of humility, integrity, and community for living the Christian life well.

  24. Laymond makes the common error of presenting the use of scripture and the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit as mutually-exclusive. I have heard this proffered too many times to count: “If the Spirit leads us directly, we would not need the Bible, and if the Spirit leads us within the words of the Bible, then that’s all we need.” Sophomoric sophistry. There is simply no basis for such thinking, neither in reason nor in scripture, and it has paralyzed us far too long.

    Yes, the Holy Spirit is giving the same gifts to the church as He always has. And such a conclusion comes from reading scripture, not from rejecting it.

  25. Nick wrote,

    So then, part of our problem comes from the difference between those who are elders in truth, selected by the Spirit and granted positional authority to augment their kenotic and integrity-driven authority and, OTOH, those so-called “elders” whose selection was through some means other than Spirit-selection?


  26. Charles said “Yes, the Holy Spirit is giving the same gifts to the church as He always has. And such a conclusion comes from reading scripture, not from rejecting it.”

    Well Charles either you are wrong, or Paul is wrong. Who do you think I believe?