A Refutation by

Gary Ray Branscome

"He asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all." (Mark 9:33-35)

    Through the sin of Adam, the desire to promote oneself, seek preeminence, and have the last word has become part of our carnal nature. This carnality can not only be seen in the way that children develop a "pecking order," but also in the way that adults sometimes contend with each other for status, while trying to impress, manipulate, and get their own way. Furthermore, because Christians are not immune to such self-willed behavior, it is a continual source of strife and division. However, since the Bible excludes those who are self-willed from the ministry, men who insist on running the congregation while trying to intimidate or run off anyone who disagrees with them are not qualified to hold a congregational office (Titus 1:7).

    When a congregation is organized according to Scripture, Christ is the supreme authority, and He rules through His Word not through congregational officers (Matthew 23:8, Isaiah 8:20). Therefore, whenever His Word clearly addresses an issue, those who agree with that Word hold the highest authority in the congregation, while those who disagree with it have no authority at all, no matter what office they hold (1John 4:6). Of course, things are not always that simple. However, in matters that are not clearly addressed by Scripture, believers should be able to discuss different points of view in a spirit of Christian love, without contending with each other over who is going to get their own way.

    When it comes to the authority of offices within in the congregation, the words, "one is your Master, even Christ; and ye are all brethren" tell us that holding an office does not give the office holder authority over anyone else in the congregation (Matthew 23:8). On the contrary, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that those in positions of leadership are to serve the congregation, and those who serve the congregation will be accountable to the congregation (Luke 22:26, Philippians 2:5-7, 1Peter 5:3).

    Because Christ’s "Great Commission" empowers every believer to carry out the work of the ministry, the authority conveyed by that "Commission" rests upon the entire congregation, not just its officers. The congregation then delegates to its chosen officers, the authority to carry out the work of the Great Commission on behalf of the congregation. Moreover, since the officers of the congregation receive their authority from the congregation, they are answerable to the congregation. God never intended for anyone, minister or otherwise, to rule the congregation as if it were his own personal fiefdom (1 Peter 5:3, Ephesians 5:21, Philippians 2:7).


    After being taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews experienced a rather severe culture shock. As a result, they not only struggled to maintain their own identity, but felt a desperate need for moral support and for some way to preserve and pass on their own religion and culture. That desperation led to the practice of gathering in synagogues for worship and study.

    At first, small groups simply got together after a day’s work, to discuss the law. However, it was not long before they began to worship together, and as the groups got bigger they looked to the older men (elders) for leadership and instruction in the law. Then, as the generation that remembered life in Israel began to die off, congregations started hiring men who had studied the law (rabbis) to both lead the Sabbath worship and instruct their children. For that reason, the rabbi [i.e. teacher] not only does not rule the congregation, but (as an employee) is the lowest ranking officer of the congregation. That ranking is revealed in the words of Ephesians 4:11, where we read:

"And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers."

    Modern readers usually assume that the word "teachers" (in Ephesians 4:11) is a reference to Sunday school teachers. However, there were no Sunday school teachers at the time Paul wrote those words. The "teachers" Paul spoke of had a role similar to that of rabbis, and the proof of what I say can be seen in the fact that the same Greek word is used in both John 3:2 and John 20:16 to translate the Hebrew word "rabbi." In short, the ministers (preachers) were the "teachers" of the congregation, and they are mentioned last (in Ephesians 4:11) because they were the lowest ranking officers of the congregation. Of that ranking Alfred Edersheim had this to say:

 "We are now in the Nazareth Synagogue. [Luke 4:20] The officials are all assembled. The lowest of these is the Chazzan, or minister, who often acts also as the schoolmaster. For this reason, and because the conduct of services may frequently devolve upon him, great care is taken in his selection." (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, page 438) [Note: That ranking is in full accord with Luke 22:25-26.]

    The word "pastors" (in Ephesians 4:11) is a reference to the lay-elders of the congregation, who, in the church as well as the synagogue, had the role of overseeing the affairs of the congregation. In the absence of a preacher, they were often called upon to teach, and even when the congregation did employ a paid preacher they were often called upon to council and instruct. However, unlike rabbis they were not in the employ of the congregation.

"Then there are the elders (Zegenim), or rulers, whose chief is the Archsynagogos, or Rosh ha-Keneseth… the Archsynagogos, or chief ruler of the Synagogue, was only the first among equals." (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by Alfred Edersheim, page 438-439)

“These were the pastors of the New testament congregations, and each congregation had several who were chosen and called by the congregation; they were nearly always older, experienced men who, however, received no salary or pay.” (Commentary on 1Peter 5:1, by R.C.H. Lenski)

[Note: You will notice that the rabbi (minister) was not the head of the congregation (Archsynagogos). Therefore, there was a division of authority that made it possible for the congregation to deal with problems in the ministry, and to remove false teachers from office (Titus 3:10). Moreover, in contrast to modern churches, Synagogues usually ordained the lay-elders but not the hired minister/teacher. Edersheim, Page 445]

    Paul’s reference to "evangelists" (in Ephesians 4:11) points to those who spread the gospel. In our modern vernacular we might refer to them a missionaries, and like missionaries they were usually active in starting congregations. In fact, Paul may have listed them before pastors because they had the authority to step in and correct any problems that might arise in congregations they had started.

    Since the Word of God is the highest authority in the congregation, the apostles and prophets are listed first (in Ephesians 4:11). However, the fact that the apostles are listed before the prophets indicates that the writings of the prophets are to be interpreted in the light of what the apostles have said. In other words, the Old Testament is to be interpreted in the light of the New, and non-apostolic writings (such as James) are to be interpreted in the light of the apostolic writings.


    Preachers who want to run the congregation use a number of passages to intimidate and quell opposition. However, in their zeal to exalt themselves they wind up reading unbiblical ideas into the text, while contradicting what the Bible says elsewhere. Therefore, let me attempt to set the record straight.

    Paul's words, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers" were addressed to the lay-elders of the congregation, not paid preachers (Acts 20:17&28). Moreover, even though that statement tells us that the lay-elders were the "overseers" of the congregation, overseers were simply men who saw that things got done, not bosses. In fact, just as Abraham's overseer was his servant, not his master, those who oversee the congregation are to serve (do the will of) the congregation, not impose their will on it (Genesis 15:2 and 24:2, Luke 22:26, 1Peter 5:3). Furthermore, the words, "of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things" make it clear that we cannot assume that every elder is placed in office by the Holy Ghost, just because those men were (Acts 20:29). The Holy Ghost did many things in the first century that he does not do today. And, even when He did make men overseers, He wanted them to serve the congregation, not impose their will on it (1Peter 5:3, Titus 1:7).

    Those who interpret the words, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls" to contradict 1Peter 5:3, which says, "Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock," have a false interpretation, for the truth will never contradict the Word of God (Hebrews 13:17, Isaiah 8:20). Moreover, the fact that preachers are not to be "lords over God's heritage," tells us that the obedience spoken of in Hebrews 13:17 is not a worldly "obedience" in which some impose their will on others, but a willingness to receive the guidance of God’s Word. In other words, our obedience is not due to men, but to the divine message that they proclaim. Furthermore, we are not to receive that guidance blindly but are to check it against Scripture (Luke 22:25-26, Acts 5:29, 1Corinthians 10:15, Acts 17:11). [Note: The words of Hebrews 13:17 were directed at Jewish believers who were tempted to return to Judaism in order to escape persecution (Hebrews 10:23, 35, 38, 39). Moreover, Hebrew congregations were very democratic in their makeup. In the Greek language, the word translated "obey" has to do with persuasion, and the word translated "rule" conveys the idea of leadership, not dominance. In other words, Paul is saying, "listen to those who guide you from God's Word, for they watch for your souls."]

    The words, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine" tell us that those who serve the congregation deserve our appreciation (1 Timothy 5:17). In the Greek language the word translated "honor" conveys the idea of appreciation, not deference (as if we were to bow before them). Moreover, when we compare this passage to 1Peter 5:3, the words, "Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock" tell us that those who preside are not to impose their own will on the congregation, but are to be examples to the flock. [See 1Thessalonians 5:12]
As to the identity of the elders, R. C. H. Lenski said, "‘The elders’ refers to the older men in the congregations… those among them who had an office in the congregation and were ‘elders’ in the official sense deserved double honor."

    To sum it up, the words, “Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” tell us that the role of pastor or overseer is not a role of authority, and those entrusted with it are to serve (not boss) the rest of the congregation (Matthew 23:8). The words, “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” tell us that pastors or overseers do not have the authority to impose their will on the congregation (1Peter 5:3). And, the words, “he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve” confirm what I have said about Matthew 23:8 and 1Peter 5:3 (Luke 22:25-26).

[Note: While cliques tend to be a source of division in the congregation, and division is always a hindrance to the work of the gospel, the worst cliques are those in which a minister surrounds himself with yes-men and is quick to show anyone who challenges his authority the door.]


    While the first Christian congregations were organized along the same lines as the synagogue, the Apostles made one significant change to that organizational structure when they added the office of deacon. At the time, Peter explained the need for this change when he said, "It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2-4).

    Peter's words (in Acts 6:2-4) tell us that there is no need for a minister to concern himself with administrative duties. Issues such as, repair and maintenance of the building, or even congregational meetings called to discuss such matters, and the financial decisions that go with them, have nothing to do with the ministry of the Word. Yet, those who seek preeminence usually want to make all of the administrative decisions. [See 1Corinthians 6:4]


    Although the Bible does not dictate how a congregation is to be governed, the first Christian congregations were organized along the same lines as the synagogue. Therefore, while we have a certain amount of freedom in deciding how a congregation should be organized, no one has the right to use Scripture to exalt himself over the congregation (1 Peter 5:3, Matthew 23:8).