Just as Christianity influenced the Roman Empire, the Greco-Roman world also affected the course of Christianity. Citing pagan influences on early Christianity, Kenneth Scott Latourette—renowned church historian and professor of Christian missions—states that the Roman concepts of power and rule corrupted the organization and life of early churches. He observes that “the Church was being interpenetrated by ideals which were quite contrary to the Gospel, especially the conception and use of power which were in stark contrast to the kind exhibited in the life and teaching of Jesus and in the cross and the resurrection.”10 This, Latourette goes on to say, proved to be “the menace which was most nearly disastrous” to Christianity.11
I believe it is more accurate to say that the conceptual and structural changes that occurred within the church during the early centuries of Christianity proved to be disastrous. Christianity, the humblest of all faiths, degenerated into the most power-hungry and hierarchical religion on earth. After Emperor Constantine elevated Christianity to legal religious status in A.D. 312, the once-persecuted Christians fiercely persecuted all their opposition. An unscriptural clerical and priestly caste arose that was consumed by the quest for power, position, and authority. Even Roman emperors had a guiding hand in the development of Christian churches. The pristine character of the New Testament church community was lost.
When we read the Gospels, however, we see that the principles of brotherly community, love, humility, and servanthood are at the very heart of Christ’s teaching. Unfortunately, like many of the early Christians, we have been slow to understand these great virtues and especially slow to apply them to church structure and leadership style.
New Testament, Christlike elders are to be servant leaders, not rulers or dictators. God doesn’t want His people to be used by petty, self-serving tyrants. Elders are to choose a life of service on behalf of others. Like the servant Christ, they are to sacrifice their time and energy for the good of others. Only elders who are loving, humble servants can genuinely manifest the incomparable life of Jesus Christ to their congregations and a watching world.
A group of elders, however, can become a self-serving, autocratic leadership body. Thus Peter, using the same terminology as Jesus, warns the Asian elders against abusive, lordly leadership: “. . . nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Peter also charges the elders, as well as everyone else in the congregation, to clothe themselves in humility just as Jesus clothed Himself in humility: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). With similar concern, Paul reminds the Ephesian elders of his example of humility. In Acts 20:19, he describes his manner of “serving the Lord with all humility” and implies that they, too, must serve the Lord in the same manner. Because of pride’s lurking temptation, a new Christian should not be an elder: “And not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6).
In addition to shepherding others with a servant spirit, the elders must humbly and lovingly relate to one another. They must be able to patiently build consensus, compromise, persuade, listen, handle disagreement, forgive, receive rebuke and correction, confess sin, and appreciate the wisdom and perspective of others—even those with whom they disagree. They must be able to submit to one another, speak kindly and gently to one another, be patient with their fellow colleagues, defer to one another, and speak their minds openly in truth and love. Stronger and more gifted elders must not use their giftedness, as talented people sometimes do, to force their own way by threatening to leave the church and take their followers with them. Such selfishness creates ugly, carnal power struggles that endanger the unity and peace of the entire congregation.
The humble-servant character of the eldership doesn’t imply, however, an absence of authority. The New Testament terms that describe the elders’ position and work—”God’s stewards,” “overseers,” “shepherd,” “leading”—imply authority as well as responsibility. Peter could not have warned the Asian elders against “lording it over those allotted to your charge” (1 Peter 5:3) if they had no authority. As shepherds of the church, elders have been given the authority to lead and protect the local church (Acts 20:28-31). The key issue is the attitude in which elders exercise that authority.
Following the biblical model, elders must not wield the authority given to them in a heavy-handed way. They must not use manipulative tactics, play power games, or be arrogant and aloof. They must never think that they are unanswerable to their fellow brethren or to God. Elders must not be authoritarian, which is incompatible with humble servanthood. When we consider Paul’s example and that of our Lord’s, we must agree that biblical elders do not dictate; they direct. True elders do not command the consciences of their brethren but appeal to their brethren to faithfully follow God’s Word. Out of love, true elders suffer and bear the brunt of difficult people and problems so that the lambs are not bruised. The elders bear the misunderstandings and sins of other people so that the assembly may live in peace. They lose sleep so that others may rest. They make great personal sacrifices of time and energy for the welfare of others. They see themselves as men under authority. They depend on God for wisdom and help, not on their own power and cleverness. They face the false teachers’ fierce attacks. They guard the community’s liberty and freedom in Christ so that the saints are encouraged to develop their gifts, to mature, and to serve one another.
In summary, using Paul’s great love chapter, we can say that a servant elder “is patient . . . kind . . . not jealous; . . . [a servant elder] does not brag . . . [a servant elder] is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly . . . does not seek [his] . . . own . . . [a servant elder]is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; [a servant elder] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
10 Kenneth Scott Latouette, History of Christanity, 2 Vols., 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975) 1:269.
11 Ibid., 261.