Since elders (or bishops) are the divinely ordered rulers in the local, visible church, the general doctrine of the local church as regards its government may rightfully be introduced under this heading. The term elder is common to both Testaments and in general contemplates those of maturity and authority. No mere novice was to be made an elder (cf. 1 Tim. 3:6). The first reference to elders in the Old Testament seems to take recognition of their advanced years. Old men by reason of their experience are naturally valued for counsel (cf. 1 Kings 12:8; Ezek. 7:26). Later in Biblical history the designation elder gained the added idea of authority.
The word elder has three meanings in the New Testament. (1) A reference to age or maturity (cf. Luke 15:25; 1 Tim. 5:2). (2) A continuation of the Old Testament office of elders over Israel (cf. Matt. 16:21 ; 26:47, 57; Acts 4:5, 23). (3) A name for one officer of the local church to whom is assigned authority especially in the direction of spiritual matters pertaining to the church which he serves. It is now generally recognized that the title elder (npeo^urepoç) relates to the same person as does the title bishop (émoKonoç). It seems probable that the word elder is recognition of the person chosen to bear the name, while the word bishop is descriptive of the office or position which that person occupies. The term elder contemplates what the man is in himself, then, while the term bishop contemplates what he has been appointed to do.
Among modern churches there are three general forms of government. (1) There are those who employ the word episcopal for their manner of government, which indicates leadership more or less absolute in the hands of men known as bishops. (2) There is a congregational form of organization which theoretically brings every matter to the whole membership for decision. (3) There lies, between these two extremes, a representative form of government in which the membership or congregation by its vote commits governmental responsibility to selected men—elders and deacons. To the elder is given in general the care over spiritual things and to the deacon the care over temporal things. This form of church management, after which the United States government with its Senate and House of Representatives was patterned, remains fundamentally a congregational government since these officers serve at the appointment of that local body. Elders or deacons are not supposed to be rulers who impose their will upon the congregation, as is too often the case. They are elected by the congregation rather as a committee might be and upon them is imposed the responsibilities which are assigned to governing men. The churches which have been organized under this representative form of administration should never lose sight of the fact that they are, first and last, congregational in their type of government. This truth is not lessened because of the commitment of responsibility to representative elders and deacons. Such men should discharge all of that, but no more than that, which is committed unto them. These chosen officers should seek to know what is the wish of the whole membership and to enact that alone. Never should they impose any personal convictions upon the congregation contrary to the mind of the membership. For mere convenience some elders are classed as teaching elders, who are the clergy, and others as ruling elders, who are the church officers. Here the terminology ruling elder implies no more than that he rules as the membership's representative. Elders may be elected to rule for their lifetime or for a restricted period. The latter has more in its favor.
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