Category Archives: Apologetics
By Dr. Russell Moore
The Bible tells us that the king of Israel once wanted to hear from the prophets, as to whether he would be victorious over his enemies. All the court prophets told him exactly what he wanted to hear. Yet the king of Judah, wisely, asked whether there might be another voice to hear from, and Israel’s king said that, yes, there was, but that he hated this prophet “because he never prophesies good concerning me” (1 Kings 22:8).
Once found, this prophet refused to speak the consensus word the king wanted to hear. “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak” (1 Kings 22:14). And, as it turned out, it was a hard word.
When it comes to what people want to hear, it seems to me that the church faces a similar situation as we look to the future of marriage in this country. Many want the sort of prophetic witness that will spin the situation to look favorable, regardless of whether that favor is from the Lord or in touch with reality.
Some people want a court of prophets who will take a surgeon’s scalpel to the Word of God. They want those who will say in light of what the Bible clearly calls immorality, “Has God really said?” Following the trajectory of every old liberalism of the past, they want to do with a Christian sexual ethic what the old liberals did with the virgin birth—claim that contemporary people just won’t have this, and if we want to rescue Christianity, this will have to go overboard. All the while they’ll tell us they’re doing it for the children (or for the Millennials).
This is infidelity to the gospel we’ve received. First of all, no one refusing to repent of sin—be it homosexuality or fornication or anything else—will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). This strategy leaves people in condemnation before the Judgment Seat of Christ, without reconciliation and without hope.
Second, it doesn’t even work. Look at the empty cathedrals of the Episcopal Church, the vacated pews of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and right down the line. Let me be clear. Even if embracing same-sex marriage—or any other endorsement of what the Bible calls sexual immorality—“worked” in church-building, we still wouldn’t do it. If we have to choose between Jesus and Millennials, we choose Jesus. But history shows us that those who want a different Jesus—the one who says, “Do whatever you want with your body, it’s okay by me”—don’t want Christianity at all.
But there will be those who want prophets who will say that the gospel doesn’t call for repentance, or at least not repentance from this sin. These prophets will apply a selective universalism that denies that judgment is coming, or that the blood of Christ is needed. But these prophets don’t speak for God. And, quite frankly, we have no one to blame but ourselves since, for too long, too many of us have tolerated among us those who have substituted a cheap and easy false gospel for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Too many have been called gospel preachers who preach decision without faith, regeneration without repentance, justification without lordship, deliverance by walking an aisle but without carrying a cross. That gospel is different from the one Jesus and his apostles delivered to us. That gospel doesn’t save.
So when these prophets emerge to tell people they can stay in their sins and still be saved, we must thunder back with the old gospel that calls all of us to repentance and to cross-bearing, the gospel that calls sin what it is in order to call grace what it is. J. Gresham Machen warned us that our Lord Jesus himself never attempted to preach the gospel to the righteous but only to sinners. Those who follow him must start by acknowledging themselves to be in need of mercy, to be in need of grace that can pardon and cleanse within.
There’s also another form of court prophet of these times. This one has no problem identifying homosexuality as sin. He may do so with all sorts of bluster and outrage, but he still does what court prophets always do—he speaks a word that people want to hear. What some people want to hear is that sexual immorality is moral after all, and what other people want to hear is that same-sex marriage is simply a matter of some elites on the coasts of the country. This prophet implies that if we just sign checks to the right radio talk-show hosts, and have a good election cycle or two, we’ll be right back where we were, back when carpets were shag and marriages were strong.
I don’t know anyone in any advocacy organization in Washington DC—and there are many fighting the good fight on this one—that is saying that. As a matter of fact, the organizations closest to the ground know just how dark the hour is. The courts are hell-bent on redefining marriage, which is why state definitions of marriage, put in place by the citizens of those states, are being struck down. This isn’t happening simply in blue states but in the reddest of red states—Utah, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, and so on.
The Supreme Court said last year, in a shocking ruling, that essentially the only reason anyone could have for defining marriage the way every human civilization has for millennia is hostility toward gay and lesbian persons. The answer is not a simple constitutional amendment—though that would be optimal—because any constitutional amendment would require a super-majority in both houses, that, apart from a miracle, no one sees happening in the next several years, now that the Democratic Party is firmly behind same-sex marriage.
What several of us have been saying for quite a while is that, in some form or another, your church will have to address the marriage revolution. My friend Jeff Iorg, president of Golden Gate Seminary in California, has courageously called the church to see that everyone will soon have to be standing where he is standing now. He’s exactly right. The cultural trends are such that the red–blue divide will not ultimately isolate any congregation from this Sexual Revolution, and all it entails.
Moreover, the situation isn’t as easy as just an election or two, given the vast cultural changes that have happened. I—and my co-laborers in other organizations—are fighting every single week in court cases, in hearings, in state disputes for the most basic of conscience protections for those who dissent from the High Church of the Sexual Revolution. Look at the way Louie Giglio was deemed too toxic to pray at the President’s inauguration in 2013. Look at the way the CEO of Mozilla was hounded out of office simply for supporting a ballot measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Look at the way photographers and florists are being forced, under penalty of law, to participate in same-sex weddings. And look at the way that even the most base-level religious liberty provisions are deemed discriminatory.
If the church doesn’t read the signs of the times, we will be right where we evangelicals were after Roe v. Wade—caught flat-footed and unprepared. Thankfully, the Catholics were there to supply an ethical framework and a sense of justice until some evangelicals—such as Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell—emerged to rally for the lives of the unborn and their mothers.
So what should we do? Well, precisely what we should have done before and after Roe. We should recognize where the courts and the culture are, and we should work for justice. That means not simply assuming that most people agree with us on marriage. We must articulate, both in and out of the church, why marriage matters, and why its definition isn’t infinitely elastic.
We must—like the pro-life movement has done—seek not only to engage our base, those who already agree with us, but to persuade others who don’t. That doesn’t mean less talk about marriage and sexuality but more—and not just in sound bytes and slogans but in a robust theology of why sexual complementarity and the one-flesh union are rooted in the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 5:22-33).
We must—also like the pro-life movement—understand the importance of a Supreme Court that won’t will into existence constitutional planks by force of its own will. That requires a persuasive public witness, and a long-term as well as a short-term strategy. That means fighting—as we are doing—for the Court not to invalidate state definitions of marriage and for the culture to recognize that a state that can force people to participate in what they believe to be sin is a state that is too big for the common good.
Above all, we must prepare people for what the future holds, when Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality aren’t part of the cultural consensus but are seen to be strange and freakish and even subversive. If our people assume that everything goes back to normal with the right President and a quick constitutional amendment, they are not being equipped for a world that views evangelical Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews and others as bigots or freaks.
Jesus told us we would have hard times. He never promised us a prosperity gospel. He said we would face opposition, but he said he would be with us. If we are going to be faithful to his gospel, we must preach repentance—even when that repentance is culturally unwelcome. And we must preach that any sinner can be forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ. That means courage and that means kindness. Sexual revolutionaries will hate the repentance. Buffoonish heretics, who want only to vent paranoia and rally their troops, will hate the kindness. So be it.
Our churches must be ready to call out the revisionists who wish to do away with a Christian sexual ethic. And we must be ready to call out those who tell us that acknowledging the signs of the times is forbidden, and we should just keep doing what we’ve been doing. An issue this culturally powerful cannot be addressed by a halfway-gospel or by talk-radio sloganeering.
The marriage revolution around us means we must do a better job articulating a theology of marriage to our people, as well as a theology of suffering and marginalization. It means we must do a better job articulating to those on the outside why children need both a Mom and a Dad, not just “parents,” and why marriage isn’t simply a matter of court decree. It means we must start teaching our children about marriage “from the beginning” as male and female when they’re in Sunday school. It means we may have to decide if and when the day will come in which we will refuse to sign the state’s marriage licenses.
Long term the prospects for marriage are good. Sexual revolutions always disappoint, and God has designed marriage, biblically defined, to be resilient. But, short term, the culture of marriage is dark indeed. That’s why we have a gospel that is the power of God.
Source: Adapted from: http://www.russellmoore.com (Moore to the Point – April 15, 2014)
About Dr. Moore:
Russell D. Moore serves as the eighth president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Prior to his election to this role in 2013, Moore served as provost and dean of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also taught as professor of theology and ethics.
A widely-sought cultural commentator, Dr. Moore has been recognized by a number of influential organizations. The Wall Street Journal has called him “vigorous, cheerful, and fiercely articulate” while The Gospel Coalition has referred to him “one of the most astute ethicists in contemporary evangelicalism.
Dr. Moore blogs frequently at his Moore to the Point website, and hosts a program calledQuestions & Ethics—a wide-ranging podcast in which Dr. Moore answers listener-generated questions on the difficult moral and ethical issues of the day. In addition, he is the author of several books, including Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ.
A native Mississippian, he and his wife Maria are the parents of five sons.
I just went to see the Movie “God’s Not Dead” today with my wife and 18 year-old son. I think the movie was done very well; with excellent acting, a good plot, and an encouraging message – especially to Christians to stand up for what and why they believe in God. In looking over the internet I couldn’t find a review to express exactly how I would explain the movie, but the review below from Focus on the Families “Pluggedin.com” does a pretty good job of objectively evaluating the film. Overall, I think that it’s an especially good movie for Christians to see (especially older high schoolers and college-aged students), and will result in some good discussion about faith, convictions, and how to share the gospel with others. There are some questionable theological elements (discussed below – the devil is made to seem sovereign over God’s work in one part of the movie – which is never the case – God always holds Satan on a tight leash and can never do anything that God does not allow for His own glorious ends). The movie is very well done – the producers, actors, and directors have produced a film definitely worth seeing and supporting. Here is the article from Pluggedin.com (DPC):
“What is your humanities elective?” asks a helpful registration assistant at Hadleigh University.
The object of his inquiry? Freshman Josh Wheaton, who replies, “Uh, Philosophy 150. Radisson, 11:00 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”
Noticing the cross and the Newsboys T-shirt the first-year student is wearing, the registrar suggests, “You might want to think about a different instructor.”
“Yes?” Josh responds, confused.
“Let’s just say you’re wandering into the snake pit. … Think Roman Colosseum. Lions. People cheering for your death.”
No one ends up actually cheering for Josh’s death in this movie. Still, the guy gets it mostly right, because Prof. Jeffrey Radisson isn’t just interested in teaching freshman why famous atheist philosophers such as Michael Foucault, Richard Dawkins and Albert Camus don’t believe in God. No, he’s an evangelistfor unbelief and the complete repudiation of faith. And on the first day of class he makes his students write “God is dead” on a piece of paper, sign it and hand it in.
“I can’t,” Josh says, the lone dissenter. “I can’t do what you want. I’m a Christian.”
“All right, Mr. Wheaton,” Radisson retorts. “Allow me to explain the alternative: If you cannot bring yourself to admit that God is dead for the purposes of this class, then you will need to defend the antithesis: that God is not dead. And you’ll need to do it in front of this class, from the podium. And if you fail—as you shall—you will fail this section and lose 30% of your final grade right off the bat. Are you ready to accept that?”
He is. And Josh even ups the ante, suggesting that his classmates be the judges of how well he argues God’s case.
Josh’s dramatic, high-stakes stand against his professor is not only the right thing for him to do, it bears almost immediate fruit. Chinese foreign exchange student Martin Yip, for example, is moved by Josh’s courage to consider Christianity. And despite Martin’s father’s objections, the young man soon professes faith in Christ. A Muslim girl named Ayisha also seems to borrow some of Josh’s strength as she struggles with whether or not to admit her own conversion to Christianity.
More generally, we’re shown that Josh’s stalwart commitment to not letting God down inspires hundreds if not thousands of others who learn about what he’s doing by way of a Newsboys concert.
And in a parallel stand, a young woman named Mina, a former student of Radisson’s who became his girlfriend, decides to leave him because of his continuous belittling of her faith.
Helping Josh, Ayisha and Mina navigate their winding, at times agonizing, spiritual journeys is Pastor Dave. He’s a reverend who harbors his own deep doubts about whether he’s making much of a difference in people’s lives. But he ultimately sees that he is indeed having a significant impact.
When Josh has second thoughts about what he’s gotten himself into, Pastor Dave gives him two passages of Scripture to look up: Matthew 10:32-33 and Luke 12:48. The former—which Josh quotes out loud—deals with acknowledging God before men, something Josh does with his whole heart for the balance of the movie.
We see quite a lot of the in-class debate between Josh and Radisson, and some of the point-counterpoint gets pretty detailed. Josh, for instance, takes apart the famous quote from Richard Dawkins, who said, “If you tell me that God created the universe, then I have the right to ask you, Who created God?” Josh responds, “Even leaving God out of the equation, I then have a right to turn Mr. Dawkins’ question back ’round on him and ask, ‘If the universe created you, then who created the universe?’ You see, both the theist and the atheist are burdened with the same question of how did things start. What I’m hoping you’ll pick up from all this is that you don’t have to commit intellectual suicide to believe in a Creator behind the creation.”
Several other long scenes include similar theological and philosophical expositions explaining the reasonableness of faith.
It’s renewed faith that at least partially prompts Mina to leave Radisson. An ambush-style reporter, Amy, tries to stick it to the Newsboys backstage … and ends up on the receiving end of prayers by the group instead when they learn that she’s been stricken by cancer. As mentioned, Martin tells Josh that he’s become a Christian. And Ayisha risks everything to follow Jesus.
Speaking of Ayisha, we’re shown how bad it can get for some people when they profess faith in Christ. Namely that her conversion spurs her traditional Islamist father to disown her and kick her out of the house. And Josh’s girlfriend, Kara, works overtime trying to convince him to give up on trying to convince the class that God is alive, finally leaving him over the matter. Mina’s dementia-afflicted mother serves to stimulate thought about how serving God doesn’t always iron out all of life’s wrinkles.
“You prayed and believed your whole life,” Mina’s brother says to their mother, almost as an accusation. “Never done anything wrong. And here you are. You’re the nicest person I know. I am the meanest. You have dementia. My life is perfect. Explain that to me!” Then, in a moment of unexpected spiritual clarity, she does. “Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn’t want them turning to God,” she tells her shocked son. “Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.”
Indeed, in the face of difficulty, we hear a lot about God always being good, and having a plan for our lives.
When Amy waylays Duck Dynasty stars Willie and Korie Robertson on their way to church, she suggests that some viewers might be offended by the family’s Christian faith. Willie responds, “Hey, we’re not trying to offend anybody. If they don’t want to watch the show, they can turn the channel. As far as my praying to Jesus, my life and my whole eternity belongs to God. All this stuff is temporary. The money, the fame, the success, temporary. Even life is temporary. Jesus—that’s eternal.”
[Spoiler Warning] Even Prof. Radisson eventually admits that he hates God so much because of the pain he experienced when his mother died of cancer when he was 12. And he comes to Christ in the end … as he himself is on the brink of death.
Kara’s tops reveal cleavage. It can be inferred that Radisson and Mina are living together.
Ayisha’s father hits her twice in the face, then, in a rage, throttles her, marches her down the stairs of the family’s house and throws her out. She collapses, crying, outside the slammed door.
Somebody gets hit by a car. We see his body flip into the air before landing with a sickening thud on the pavement. Help arrives, but it’s clear that the victim’s ribs are crushed and that he’s bleeding to death.
Crude or Profane Language
“Dork” is used as an insult.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mina buys wine, then serves it to guests—who complain that it’s ruined from being overheated in her trunk. A conversation references merlot and chardonnay.
Other Negative Elements
Pretty much everyone who’s not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they’re being punished for their attitudes.
What would you do if someone in a position of authority and influence in your life demanded that you renounce your faith? That’s the central question God’s Not Dead forces viewers to grapple with. And Josh Wheaton’s answer is to refuse. And then to explain exactly why he’s refusing.
When Martin asks Josh why he’s willing to risk Radisson’s destroying his law school dreams, the freshman says simply, “I just think of Jesus as my friend. I don’t want to disappoint Him, even if everyone else thinks I should. See, to me, He’s not dead. He’s alive. I don’t want anyone to get talked out of believing in Him because some professor thinks they should.”
The story is sometimes melodramatic. And there are moments of implausibility that emerge as the list of non-Christians behaving badly lengthens. But God’s Not Dead can always be seen focusing on the simple power of testifying to the Truth, no matter the cost. Josh makes a decision to let the chips fall where they may, delivering the gospel message bravely and boldly in a hostile environment. He carefully prepares to give his answers. And he always puts God first.
SOME THOUGHTS ON NOAH
By Gavin Ortlund
I know I’m a bit late, and Christians have already reviewed the recent film Noah to death, but I can’t help but share a few thoughts of my own after watching it last night. In no particular order:
1) I was surprised at how much the flood story was set in the larger context of creation-fall-new creation. I expected the movie to disconnect the Noah story from the larger biblical narrative, but there were frequent references back to events narrated in Genesis 1-5, especially the fall of Adam and Eve. In fact, the film opened against this backdrop, and throughout there were frequent flashbacks to a serpent, fruit being plucked, and Cain killing Abel. At one Adam and Eve themselves are visualized plucking fruit. All of these elements were taken seriously.
At the same time, however, it felt like the film downplayed the covenantal thrust of the story. In the Bible, the significance of the flood story is specifically tied to the goodness and character of God, and his continuing purposes in redemption. For instance, God’s speech to Noah is covenantal and clear, not cryptic and eerie (for example, God, not Noah, interprets the significance of the rainbow). Thus while the film captures something of the broader biblical themes of creation and sin, its portrayal of God’s decisive redemptive activity is less clear.
2) Many Christians have voiced concerns about how much the movie allegedly deviates from the Bible. In a few places I share these concerns, but more often I find them too alarmist. In the first place, Noah was not made by Christians. Why do we expect biblical fidelity from Hollywood? It seems to me that texts like I Corinthians 5:9-13 have relevance for the way we should evaluate movies made by believers vis-à-vis movies made by unbelievers. I find the deluge of Christian support for God’s Not Dead and the torrent of Christian disapproval for Noah to be a bit perplexing. Shouldn’t we be stricter in judging ourselves? While we should be discerning in our cultural posture, we shouldn’t be defensive.
More basically, we should judge art according to its genre and purpose. The movie was intended (by film writers Darren Aronovsky and Ari Handel) to be a midrash, a form of Jewish commentary which takes imaginative liberties in order to flesh out the meaning of a story. It also drew from other Jewish midrashim on the Noah story. Thus criticizing Noah for adding in details not in the Bible is like criticizing abstract art for using blurry lines: that’s the point. (In fact, given the brevity of the biblical account, any movie about Noah, midrashic or other, has to add a lot of imaginative detail—unless we want a 20 minute movie.)
That said, in my opinion some of the film’s imaginative additions warped, rather than targeted, the original meaning of the biblical account. The biggest example was the rock people. They changed the whole feel of the movie. During the fight scene (another strange addition) I felt like I was watching something in the genre of Transformers. There was no need to do this, and it felt awkward: like a painter whose materials don’t line up with the kind of painting he wants to make. So while I don’t have as much theological concern with the film’s imaginative additions, I didn’t always feel they were artistically compelling.
3) I thought the movie started slowly, and its special effects were not as good as I expected from the hype. Purely in terms of entertainment value, I probably would not have found the film particularly interesting if I was not already interested in its topic. Good acting, though.
4) The best part of the film was how seriously it took human evil and divine judgment. So often secular treatments of the flood of Noah are contemptuous and sneering about the idea that God would wipe the planet clean and start fresh (e.g., Bill Maher). But this film took with absolute earnestness the idea that human beings are evil, and that it is potentially just for God to wipe almost all of them out. At one point Noah says something like, “we broke the world. We did this. Everything that was good we shattered.” Surprisingly, it felt like the film’s creators were sympathetic to the idea that God might justly kill off almost all of humanity. They took the story seriously and sought to grapple with its message, not poke fun at it or rage against it. I was grateful for that.
5) I think the film would have been able to make a more realistic portrait of the flood if it had portrayed it as local, not global. In my opinion, a global flood is an unnecessary and extremely burdensome prospect even to envision. It’s not required by the words kol erets (whole earth/land), which far more frequently refer to a local area in the Old Testament—for example, we are required from I Kings 10:24 to believe that Eskimos journeyed from Siberia or the Mayans sailed across the Atlantic to meet Solomon? Moreover, a global flood raises insuperable difficulties, like how you can fit 7-9 million different animal species on one ark. It’s not necessary to affirm this, and its impossible (for me, anyway) to even envision what it would be like. Did Kangaroos get miraculously transported from Australia to the Middle East? Did all the species specific to Madagascar all migrate together? If you are going to portray the flood as global, then you need to board up about 16 million animals on the ark (two of each kind). The film did not have nearly enough animals to accord with a global flood. Where were the arctic wolves? Where were the spider crabs? Where were the flying squirrels? And so forth.
6) I was okay with the fact that the film did not portray Noah or his family as completely innocent, since the Bible does not portray Noah this way, either. When Noah asks his wife, for instance, what really makes them any better than those perishing, one can appreciate the realistic grappling with the complexities of good and evil amidst universal sin. Nevertheless, I felt the film greatly overplayed Noah’s moral and psychological dissolution on the ark and after, as well as his conflict with Ham. His choice to let Ham’s girlfriend in was also troubling. After all, despite his flaws, the Bible still says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9).
However, let’s be clear: the film does not portray God as wanting Noah to kill his grandchildren, as some have claimed. This was Noah’s faulty interpretation of God’s will. God Himself never says this, and the film ultimately undermines this idea by suggesting that the very reason God chose Noah was because he wouldn’t kill them. The ending of the film portrays Noah more positively, reconciling with his family and blessing his granddaughters. Overall, the film’s portrayal of Noah was disturbing at points, but partially redeemed by the conclusion.
Also, another point of clarification: Some Christians have claimed that “the film never talks about God.” But that is misleading. The film talks about God all the time, it just refers to Him as “the Creator.” And I don’t really see what’s so big a deal about calling Him “the Creator” rather than “God” or “the Lord,” especially since the story takes place in primeval history. If someone objects to that terminology, they should at least make clear that it’s an issue of terminology, not the presence of God in the story.
7) I thought the film’s creation account, narrated by Noah soon after they are enclosed in the ark, was interesting and compelling. This was another example of where the film took imaginative liberties, but I didn’t feel they were intended to subvert the integrity of the biblical account.
8) Some Christians have voiced concern over the film’s “environmental agenda.” I didn’t really get that message from the film. It seemed to me that the dominant theme in the film’s depiction of the flood was divine judgment on human wickedness. To the extent that others saw an “environmental agenda” in the film, I wonder if they might be a bit over-sensitive in their reaction to excessive contemporary environmental activism. The idea that God cares about his creation, and the animal kingdom in particular, isn’t first a “liberal” idea, but a biblical one. Isn’t that one of the most basic points of the flood story, where God enters into covenant with all the animals (Genesis 9:10)?
9) Overall, I think the film has value as a tool for starting important conversations. Many people may leave the film with heightened interest in the Bible, and specifically its teaching on creation and sin. Where it falls short, it does so roughly in the ways you would expect from a movie made by people without any faith commitment. The fact that it portrays the notion of divine judgment sympathetically is a significant merit. If nothing else, it may direct people read Genesis 6-9 with greater attention and curiosity—which is a good thing.
SOURCE: Gavin Ortlund post in Soliloquium April 16, 2014
The Office of Elder
As numerous passages in the New Testament indicate, the words “elder” (presbuteros), “overseer” (episkopos), and “pastor” (poim¯en) all refer to the same office. In other words, overseers and pastors are not distinct from elders; the terms are simply different ways of identifying the same people. The qualifications for an overseer (episkopos) in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and those for an elder (presbuteros) in Titus 1:6-9 are unmistakably parallel. In fact, in Titus 1, Paul uses both terms to refer to the same man (presbuteros in v. 5 and episkopos in v. 7). All three terms are used interchangeably in Acts 20. In verse 17, Paul assembles all the elders (presbuteros) of the church of Ephesus to give them his farewell message. In verse 28 he says, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to shepherd [poimaino¯] the church of God.” First Peter 5:1-2 brings all three terms together as well. Peter writes, “Therefore, I exhort the elders [presbuteros] among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd [poimaino¯] the flock of God among you, exercising oversight [episkope¯o] not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God.” The different terms, then, indicate various features of ministry, not varying levels of authority or separate offices, as some churches espouse.
A Plurality of Elders
The consistent pattern throughout the New Testament is that each local body of believers is shepherded by a plurality of God-ordained elders. Simply stated, this is the only pattern for church leadership given in the New Testament. Nowhere in Scripture does one find a local assembly ruled by majority opinion or by a single pastor.
The Apostle Paul left Titus in Crete and instructed him to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). James instructed his readers to “call for the elders of the church” to pray for those who are sick (James 5:14). When Paul and Barnabas were in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, the apostle referred to “the elders who rule well” at the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 5:17; see also Acts 20:17, where Paul addresses “the elders of the church” at Ephesus). The book of Acts indicates that there were “elders” at the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4; 21:18).
Again and again, reference is made to a plurality of elders in each of the various churches. In fact, every place in the New Testament where the term presbuteros (“elder”) is used it is plural, except where the apostle John uses it of himself in 2 and 3 John and where Peter uses it of himself in 1 Peter 5:1. Nowhere in the New Testament is there a reference to a one-pastor congregation. It may be that each elder in the city had an individual group in which he had specific oversight. But the church was seen as one church, and decisions were made by a collective process and in reference to the whole, not the individual parts.
…the biblical norm for church leadership is a plurality of God-ordained elders, and only by following this biblical pattern will the church maximize its fruitfulness to the glory of God.
In other passages, reference is made to a plurality of elders even though the word presbuteros itself is not used. In the opening greeting of his epistle to the Philippians, Paul refers to the “overseers [plural of episkopos] and deacons” at the church of Philippi (Phil. 1:2). In Acts 20:28, Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which God has made you overseers [plural of episkopos]” (Acts 20:28). The writer of Hebrews called his readers to obey and submit to the “leaders” who kept watch over their souls (Heb. 13:17). Paul exhorted his Thessalonian readers to “appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and
The Distinctives series articulates key bibilical and theological convictions of Grace Community Church. have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction” (1 Thess. 5:12)—a clear reference to the overseers in the Thessalonian assembly.
Much can be said for the benefits of leadership made up of a plurality of godly men. Their combined counsel and wisdom helps assure that decisions are not self-willed or self-serving to a single individual (cf. Prov. 11:14). If there is division among the elders in making decisions, all the elders should study, pray, and seek the will of God together until consensus is achieved. In this way, the unity and harmony that the Lord desires for the church will begin with those individuals he has appointed to shepherd His flock.
The Qualifications of Elders
The character and effectiveness of any church is directly related to the quality of its leadership. That’s why Scripture stresses the importance of qualified church leadership and delineates specific standards for evaluating those who would serve in that sacred position.
The qualifications for elders are found in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-8. According to these passages, an elder must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money, not fond of sordid gain, a good manager of his household, one who has his children under control with dignity, not a new convert, one who has a good reputation outside the church, self-controlled, sensible, able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict, above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, loving what is good, just, and devout. (For an explanation of these qualifications, see pages 215-33 of The Master’s Plan for the Church by John MacArthur.)
The single, overarching qualification of which the rest are supportive is that he is to be “above reproach.” That is, he must be a leader who cannot be accused of anything sinful because he has a sustained reputation for blamelessness. An elder is to be above reproach in his marital life, his social life, his business life, and his spiritual life. In this way, he is to be a model of godliness so he can legitimately call the congregation to follow his example (Phil. 3:17). All the other qualifications, except perhaps teaching and management skills, only amplify that idea.
In addition, the office of elder is limited to men. First Timothy 2:11-12 says, “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” In the church, women are to be under the authority of the elders, excluded from teaching men or holding positions of authority over them.
The Functions of Elders
As the apostolic era came to a close, the office of elder emerged as the highest level of local church leadership. Thus, it carried a great amount of responsibility. There was no higher court of appeal and no greater resource to know the mind and heart of God with regard to issues in the church.
The primary responsibility of an elder is to serve as a manager and caretaker of the church (1 Tim. 3:5). That involves a number of specific duties. As spiritual overseers of the flock, elders are to determine church policy (Acts 15:22); oversee the church (Acts 20:28); ordain others (1 Tim. 4:14); rule, teach, and preach (1 Tim. 5:17; cf. 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:2); exhort and refute (Titus 1:9); and act as shepherds, setting an example for all (1 Pet. 5:1-3). Those responsibilities put elders at the core of the New Testament church’s work.
Because of its heritage of democratic values and its long history of congregational church government, modern American evangelicalism often views the concept of elder rule with suspicion. The clear teaching of Scripture, however, demonstrates that the biblical norm for church leadership is a plurality of God-ordained elders, and only by following this biblical pattern will the church maximize its fruitfulness to the glory of God.
SOURCE: Adapted from John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991). For a fuller treatment of biblical eldership, consult this resource.