The Assembly and Its Government – Acts 20:28-328 min read
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.
— Acts 20:28-32
The Concept of Assembly Oversight
In a day when clerical office totally obscures the true concept of assembly government, it is important that we get back to Scripture’s definition of it. The government of an assembly is an administrative body to which God gives the oversight of the assembly, that is the watching over of it as shepherds. There are several titles in Scripture for one in this position: elder, shepherd (the meaning of “pastor”), and bishop (means “overseer”). Scripture doesn’t allow for a business model of church government; there are no boards or voters in an assembly. On the other hand, neither does Scripture envision rule by a single pastor or bishop (the fancy term for this is “monarchical episcopacy”). On the contrary, we see in our passage that Paul addresses a plurality of elders with no “lead pastor” even implied. (And this disproves that Timothy was the lead pastor at Ephesus, since Ephesus is the subject both here in Acts and in the epistles to Timothy). Christ is the only “lead pastor,” as 1 Peter 5 would point out. And when Scripture ever does speak of a “head elder” it does so in a very negative light: Diotrophes in 2 John “loved to have the preeminence” and was an unsaved man. The idea of distinguishing between clergy and laity is an ungodly one indeed, and this can be proven in that the so-called “laypeople” of the Rome assembly were “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another” – something falsely reserved for “theologians” today. Does this deny that very godly lead pastors do not exist? Not at all, but it is the concept itself that is unbiblical and that easily leads to corruption as the Roman Catholic church historically proves. So then, we find in Scripture, not rulers but shepherds, not clergymen but elders, not lords but overseers, not single-man ministries but a body of mature and godly men who answer to Christ and His Word.
As to how the assembly views its elders, we find a willing respect and trust toward them. Scripture says not to rebuke an elder except with two or three witnesses, because they are in a position of administrative authority that must not be held lightly. It also goes on to say “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” With this we conclude a great amount of respect is due to the assembly oversight, just as an obedient spirit is demanded of Christians toward political government (Romans 13). Another important way the assembly interacts with its elders is to acknowledge their place. In 1 Timothy 3, elders are seen as “taking care of the assembly.” This can’t be done if they aren’t aware of what is going on and if members are trying to organize assembly-related activities without consent of the elders. Oversight becomes shortsightedness when there is not full knowledge of what is happening amongst God’s people. Now, is this to say elders take this position to an extreme and micro-manage God’s people? Scripture objects to this: “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.” Nevertheless, it is our duty to give the oversight their due attention by understanding their need to guide the assembly intelligently.
The Self-Watch of an Elder
Romans 2 brings to us God’s condemnation on the seemingly religious people of the world – people who looked at wickedness with disdain yet practiced it themselves. This chapter also brings us to the condemnation of the Jew – one who was not only religious but had the mark of God’s covenant, circumcision. Their problem was the same: they practiced what they preached against. In response to this, Paul rhetorically asks “You therefore which teaches another, do you not teach yourself?” In other words, it is no virtue for one have a religious public life that has no correspondence to what is happening privately. This is why Paul said to the Ephesian elders “Take heed therefore unto yourselves” before he said, “and the flock.” An elder must understand Biblical living before he can exemplify it and teach others to strive for it. In reality, an elder is a Christian before he is anything else, which calls for the behaviour of a Christian as prescribed to all believers. There is no such thing as immunity from godliness. On the contrary, 1 Timothy 3 says an overseer must be known for godliness in a very profound way. Only this kind of qualification can allow for the dignified place which Hebrews 13 allots to them: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” So then, there can be no room for incomplete Christianity in the life of an elder: he must be a Christian to the core and fully committed to the things of God. This demands a watch of self before a watch for others can be established.
The Stewardship of an Elder
To be entrusted with the care of God’s people is an extremely solemn thing, not only because it demands a great deal of virtue in one’s personal life, but because it is a stewardship that demands the shepherd’s full attention. “Those that must give account” is how Hebrews describes elders. After all, one cannot lessen the value of that which Christ’s own blood purchased! This is what Paul wanted the Ephesian elders to remember: “feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” If Christ had that much care for the assembly, He will not be pleased with those who treat it with flippancy. This is especially true, considering the grave danger the assembly will find itself in at one point or another. Whether it be wolves wanting to devour the flock or perverse men wanting to divide it, the assembly will always be in danger of something. Evidently the elder’s job is not only solemn but difficult. Paul gives two preservatives in light of this: “watch and remember.” To watch is to be constantly discerning what is going into and coming out of the assembly – what kind of teaching is upheld, what kind of gospel is preached, what kind of controversies are arising, what kind of sin is being tolerated, etc. To remember brings us to our foundation: apostolic teaching, that which we compare everything against. It is not good enough to watch: one must know what he watches for. Neither is it good enough to merely have Scripture: it must be applied by using it in discernment.
This care for the flock is not only negative, though; it must be seen positively. In other words, there is not only the aspect of preserving the assembly, but building it up – by example, by encouragement, by doctrine, by administration, by counseling, by prayer, etc. It is thus an elder’s responsibility to know the people under his care – their personalities, their needs, their spiritual condition. The whole life will have to be committed to this responsibility for it to be carried out properly.
The Commendation of an Elder
The question might arise, if the responsibility of an elder is so multi-faceted and difficult, how can he fulfill his role and remain sound in the mind? Spurgeon once said “The ministry is a matter which wears the brain and strains the heart, and drains out the life of a man if he attends to it as he should.” Is this really worth the trouble? Paul answers by saying “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” First of all, the beloved elders are commended directly to God and their means for edification, that is, His Word. Secondly, they are reminded of their great reward when their task is completed. Peter reiterates this idea of a shepherd’s reward in his epistle: “And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” These supply both the strength and the incentive that is required in an overseer’s life. God will not leave his tireless servants to provide for themselves, nor will He leave them without reward.
In light of all these things, each assembly member should have an intense and loving care for his elders; this will result in prayer for them and in practical help for them. But there should also be a sense of admiration at the office of an overseer. Paul said to Timothy “If any man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work.” While everyone can’t be part of the assembly’s government, they can all strive to represent what God calls elders to represent: people of blamelessness and care. Let’s not follow today’s trend of either exalting the office of a “bishop” to the place it was never meant to be or demeaning the value of elders in disregarding them as vital influences and guides. Let us each learn to assess from Scripture what our view towards assembly government is to be. It is clear to those who will be honest with it.