THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AN ELDER
AND OTHER ELDERS OF OTHER LOCALITIES
God’s gifts transcend local boundaries, but position is strictly related to the locality. God’s gifts, such as the evangelists, shepherds, and teachers, can function anywhere because these gifts are given by God to the whole church (Eph. 4), and they are for all the local assemblies. No worker can rule over any one particular congregation, as pastors do today in the denominations. In the Bible one cannot find such a thing. If you can edify the believers in Shanghai, you can also edify the believers in northern Kiangsu. If you are a teacher, you can teach the Bible in Shanghai and also teach the Bible in northern Kiangsu, Nanking, or Tsinan. You will never lose your ability as a teacher by moving to another place. If you are an evangelist, you can preach the gospel in Shanghai, and you can preach the gospel in northern Kiangsu, Nanking, or Tientsin. If you cannot preach the gospel in Shanghai, you cannot preach the gospel anywhere else. It is impossible to find a person who cannot work in one place but can work in another place. This is not a question of knowledge. It is absolutely a question of whether or not one is a God-appointed gift. If you have the gift, others will be saved and helped through you, no matter how much knowledge you have. The amount of knowledge you have will not make any difference. What is a gift? A gift is an ability that God gives to the Body of Christ through Christ the Head. This ability does not change. I can illustrate this with an example. Suppose that there is a concrete worker in Shanghai. If he is in Nanking, he is still a concrete worker. Suppose that there is a tailor who is very skillful at sewing. Whether he is in Shanghai or Peking, he can still make a good dress. In the same way, circumstances will not change a gift.
But the same is not true with the eldership. The eldership is absolutely a question of locality. A person who is an elder in Shanghai is not an elder in Nanking. Because of differences in spiritual conditions, backgrounds, circumstances, educational standards, and the habits of different local assemblies, a man can be an elder in Shanghai but may no longer be able to serve as one in northern Kiangsu. A man may be an elder in the village, but not an elder in the city. This is absolutely a matter of locality. The gifts in the Bible are for the whole church, while the elders in the Bible are for the local churches. Therefore, those who have the gifts should not remain in one place all the time; they should instead go to other places and distribute their gifts to others. An elder should take responsibility in his own locality all the time. Consider the illustration of the concrete worker again. Suppose that you are a foreman among numerous concrete workers in Shanghai. If you move to Nanking, you will still be a concrete worker by profession, but you may not be able to be a foreman anymore. Doing concrete work is your ability, and your ability remains with you even after you have moved to Nanking. But the foremanship is a position; when you move to Nanking, your position as a foreman is gone. In the same way, there is a difference between office and gift in the Bible. An office and a position is for a local church, while a gift is not just for a local church. However, the mistake most easily committed is that when an elder in one locality moves to another locality, he asserts his own opinion there as well. This is wrong. Do not think that just because things are done one way in northern Kiangsu, it has to be done the same way in Shanghai. The educational standard and means of communication, etc., in northern Kiangsu may be different from those in Shanghai. You cannot use the same method in different places. However, gifts are different; if you are a gift in northern Kiangsu, you are one in Shanghai also.
Question: If we announce some unofficial elders among us, those in the denominations will say that we have become a denomination because we have brought in such a matter. How should we answer them?
Answer: First, let me ask what you have left behind when you leave the denominations. If you do not know what you have left behind, you will become another denomination. According to my personal understanding, when we leave the denominations, we leave two things behind: (1) We leave the divisive sects, such as the different denominations under the different names, and (2) the main thing we leave behind is the pastoral system. What is the pastoral system? It brings the intermediary priestly class of Judaism to Christianity. Both Catholicism and Protestantism have done this.
In the so-called Christian countries, Catholics have brought in the Judaistic teachings. In Judaism, there was the priestly class. The priests acted as an intermediary class. If a Jew wanted to see God, he had to pass through the hand of the priests; there was no way for him to go directly to God. The book of Judges records a certain man of Mount Ephraim by the name of Micah who made an ephod and invited a Levite to be the priest in his house (17:1-13). This is a clear example. What is Judaism? It is being kept away from worshipping God in a direct way. Between God and man, there was the need of priests to serve as an intermediary class. The Israelites had to go through the priests before they could see God. The same is true with Catholicism. God is on one side, and man is on the other side. There is no direct fellowship between them, and the priests serve as a medium in the middle. In the Catholic Church, every time there is a mass, the priests are there. Every time there is any preaching, the priests are responsible for it, and every time there is prayer offered, the priests are the ones to do the work. In this way, men are brought back to the situation of the Old Testament.
Protestantism is divided into state churches and private churches. The Anglican Church in England serves as an example of the state churches. In the Anglican Church, there are the clergy and the laity. The bishops, archbishops, and deacons are all called priests, just as they are in Catholicism. This has likewise brought in Judaism. God is on the top, and the people, who are called the laity, are on the bottom. In the middle are the clergy, who call themselves priests. The laity can come to God only through this class of people, who monopolize all spiritual matters.
Among private churches in Protestantism (such as the Episcopal and Methodist), there is also the intermediary class. God is on the top, and the members are on the bottom. In between the two there are pastors. The pastors are the intermediary class, who replace the believers and monopolize all the spiritual matters that belong to the members. For example, administering the Holy Communion, baptism, and preaching are all done by pastors. They do everything for the members and become intermediaries between God and man. From Judaism until today, including all the denominations in Protestantism, God has always been on the top and man has been down on the bottom, with an intermediary class in between. Although the names may have changed, nothing has changed in substance.
Is this what we see in the New Testament? Peter said that we are a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). In Revelation, John also said that every Christian is a priest (1:6). Therefore, there is no need for any man to be a medium between us and God. In other words, we are all "pastors" and "priests." Hebrews 10 says that by the blood of Jesus, we have a new and living way to come boldly to the Holy of Holies (vv. 19-20). There is no need of an intermediary like the ones in Judaism, Catholicism, or Protestantism to help us draw near to God. Today we are not like the high priests in the Old Testament, who could go into the Holy of Holies only once a year. Daily, through the blood of the Lord, we can come to God. Every one of us is a priest, and every one can communicate with God boldly all the time. What then is Christianity? What is the new covenant? It is to annul the intermediary class. Every believer can now be directly responsible to God. Never consider the workers among us to be a kind of intermediary class like the ones in the private churches. There is no such thing. Every one of us can go to God. The workers do not occupy any position in the church; God is directly related to the church. Therefore, leaving the denominations is leaving two things behind: (1) the divisions, and (2) the pastoral system.
One Westerner once asked me why I am against pastors. I told him that I am not against pastors but rather the "pastoral system." If a man has the gift of a pastor, we cherish it. But whether or not a person has the gift of a pastor, we should not make him a priest and bring in a disguised priestly system. Even if one among us has the pastoral gift, we should not consider him as our priest or mediator.
I am afraid that in leaving the denominations some brothers consider that they are free from every control of man. They may think that since they have left the denominations, they can be lawless and free, doing anything they want. If this is the way you are, I have to call you by another name: you have not left the denominations; you have left the church. You are not freeing yourself from the denominations but from authority. We have left the denominations in order to leave the divisions and pastoral system. The purpose is not that we would become individual, isolated believers. Rather, we have the God-ordained authority with us. Therefore, submitting to man is submitting to God’s authority, and submitting to the brothers is submitting to God’s authority.
The Gospel of Luke records the Lord Jesus as saying, "Did you not know that I must be in the things of My Father?" (2:49). He had to be in the things of the Father but, at the same time, He went back home with His parents. This is the submission of the Lord Jesus. If it were us, we would not have done this. If we had said that we had to be in the things of our Father, we would not have returned with our parents. However, this would only have been a proof of our disobedience. Being in the things of the Father includes being under the authority of the Father, which also includes submitting to God’s authority in the parents. Therefore, when we submit to men, we are submitting to authority. Do not think that by leaving the denominations, we can become free and lawless and that no one can rule over us. If we think this way, we are more evil than the most evil persons in the world, and we become worse than those who have not left the denominations, because those who have not left the denominations are still under man’s authority even though they do not have the God-ordained authority. But we do not even submit to God’s authority. The Bible does not have denominations, but it has elders. We are giving up the denominations, which are not found in the Bible; we are not giving up the elders, which are found in the Bible. Just because the denominations have elders, we should not say that we can give up the scripturally-based eldership because we have left the denominations. There are brothers in the denominations; we cannot say that we are giving up the brothers just because we have given up the denominations.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 2) Vol. 22: The Assembly Life & The Prayer Ministry of the Church, Chapter 4, by Watchman Nee)