About Jesus   Steve Sweetman

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An Appeal To Elders  


Some of you will disagree with what I'm about to say and that's fine.  Just know that my position on this issue isn't a result of any negative experiences, but from my understanding of the New Testament.  


The Greek word "presbyteros" is translated as "elder" in most of our English Bibles.  "Presbyteros" means an "older man".  The Greek word "poimain" is translated as "shepherd" or "pastor" in our English Bibles. "Poimain" means "to care for as a shepherd cares for his sheep grazing in the field".  The Greek word "episkopos" is translated as "overseer" or "bishop" in our English Bibles.  "Episkopos" means "to watch over or to guard". 


In 1 Peter 5:1 the apostle Peter makes an appeal to the elders (presbyteros).  In verse 2 he tells these elders to be shepherds (poimain) of God's flock and to serve as overseers (episkopos).  Note that all three of these Greek words refer to the same ministry.  If you take into consideration Acts 20:17 - 18 and Titus 1:5 - 7, you'll also note that all five of the above English words translated from these three Greek words refer to the same ministry.  They're not separate and distinct ministries.


In Peter's day a body of men called elders (presbyteros) served Jesus by caring for (poimain) and watching over (episkopos) His people.  As we've just seen, these men could have been called, shepherds, pastors, bishops, or overseers, because all five words are in reference to the same ministry.    


What I see here in 1Peter 5 and elsewhere in the New Testament looks very little like what I see in that which we call church today.  For example, a bishop in most denominations is someone in charge of a number of churches in a geographical area.  A bishop in New Testament terms was just one equal member in a local body of elders.  Generally speaking, pastoring today is a one man ministry in a local congregation.  In Peter's day pastoring was carried out by a body of equal elders.  The term "senior pastor" was unknown back then.  In today's ecclesiastical world a pastor and an elder are traditionally two different and distinct ministries; not so in Peter's day.


So I ask.  "Should we pattern church after New Testament thinking or are we free to pattern church in a way we think best fits our time and culture"?  I think this is an important, but little asked question.  I believe we should pattern church, and every other aspect of our lives, after what we read in the Bible.  That's one reason why we have the Bible.        


What we see in 1 Peter 5 is commonly called "plurality of elders".  This means that a body of elders, leads, cares for, guards, and serves, the local community of God's people.  One man, a pastor as we call him, along with a hierarchical ecclesiasticalism, isn't the New Testament pattern.   


I know the argument against what I'm saying.  Times have changed since Peter's day and church needs to change with the times.  I also know the argument against plurality of elders.  I understand that many believe the book of Acts "seems to imply" that James "might have been" a one man leader in the Jerusalem church.  I also understand that the apostle John, some thirty years after Peter wrote his first letter, "might have been" a lead elder in Ephesus.  These somewhat speculative arguments haven't caused me to rethink my position.   


I know our ecclesiastical structures do lots of good.  I understand that pragmatic argument, but it's important to understand that Christian practice shouldn't be based on pragmatism.  That is to say, just because something works doesn't make it right.  Christians aren't pragmatic.  We're Biblical.    


I see a day coming when our church structures will experience unprecedented pressure from an anti-Christ culture.  Congregations will be forced to pay property taxes.  They will lose their charitable tax status and will be unable to issue tax receipts for donations.  Reading Romans 1:24 - 28 from a pulpit will be considered a hate crime.  Failing to perform same sex weddings will incur expensive legal costs.  Some of us have already incurred financial loss for our stand on same sex marriage.        


This brings me to the reason why Peter appealed to the local elders.  Christians were suffering under oppressive persecution.  They needed all the help, care, oversight, support, and direction, from an older and wiser body of men.  The western church hasn't experienced anything like this, but eventually we will.  When that day comes, we'll have to choose between an anti-Christ state sponsored church, or, as we've seen elsewhere, "go underground".  When we go underground, Peter's understanding of church will have to be ours. 


Many won't fully grasp what I'm saying.  We're so entrenched in what we've been used to that we fail to understand what the Bible says.  Our western church is heading towards the same cultural conflict that has been normal Christianity in places like China.  It's better to think of these things now before we get entangled in the conflict.  I suggest we take Peter seriously when he tells us to "prepare our minds for action". (1 Peter 1:13)  We've got some heavy duty action coming our way, but be encouraged, for as painful as it might be, the revival and purification of the saints we see in places like China will be seen in and among us. History has proven that to be true.     


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