“God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28). “Helps” refers to the services of the deacons; “governments,” to the functions of the elders. Why did Paul list the services of the deacons ahead of the functions of the elders? (Note that “diversities of tongues” is last; that is where tongues-speaking always is!) It may be that at Corinth the elders thought too much in terms of rank. Paul wanted them to know that they were not the head. It is best not to say that the elders represent the headship of Christ; the Scriptures do not say so, and they must not think of themselves as subheads.
Peter underscored this in his first Epistle: “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock” (5:3). The elders are not leaders but examples. When I was in Scotland, I saw how the shepherds took care of their flocks. Whenever a sheep went astray, the shepherds would order one of the sheep dogs after it to bring it back into line. This is not the kind of shepherding Peter referred to! If there is some cleaning to be done, for example, the elders should take the lead to do it, not ask others to take care of it.
The Lord said, “Neither be called leaders, because One is your Leader, the Christ” (Matt. 23:10). “You are all brothers” (v. 8). These verses indicate that in the New Testament economy God does not want any permanent, official leadership.
In the New Testament the eldership is always plural. Which elder will be number one depends on two matters. As the example of Peter illustrates, it is decided according to the spiritual measure and condition. The elders’ positions may vary from week to week. The one who was up last week may be fighting with his wife this week, and the leadership may pass to another elder. Leadership also depends upon spiritual ability. An elder may have ability in a certain area; he will take the lead in that, while in another area another elder will be responsible.
By such a flexible leadership the church is kept from hierarchy. It is also safeguarded from error. If Peter had been an official leader, he might have introduced a wrong concept about Judaism during his time of weakness.
Elsewhere in human society there is no such leadership as this. How wise is our God! This leadership is plural, not single; temporary, not fixed; conditional, not organizational; spiritual, not official. It has position but no rank. “The greater among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 23:11). If you want to be great among the saints, you must be a slave. For the service of the church you may take the lead to vacuum the carpet, but this “leadership” has no rank.
Hebrews 13:17 admonishes us to “Obey the ones leading you and submit to them.” We are to obey the leading ones in serving, but this does not make the leading ones lords, having rank over the saints. That would make them the head and insult the headship of Christ.
(Life Messages, Vol. 1 (#1-41), Chapter 15, by Witness Lee)