Ancient House Churches and the Elder(s) Question

One of the treasures in my study is a ragged, dog-eared book entitled “Understanding the Church” which Emmaus Bible College kindly placed in the mail boxes of all it’s students one year.  “Understanding the Church” is comprised of articles originally written for a colloquium sponsored by Grace Bible Chapel in St. Louis, latter printed in the Emmaus Journel and subsequently compiled in this present volume.  Contributing to the compilation:  Dr. David MacLeod, Dr. Charles T. Grant, James A. Stahr, Dr. John H. Fish III, John A Spender, and Alexander Strauch.

Perhaps you’ve had the joy of hearing two people debate the N.T. teaching of plural eldership in the local assembly whereupon one of the combatants goes in for the death blow by appealing to the “example of the early Church”.  Nice blow, well placed indeed.  There is little doubt in my mind that the healthy local Church is the Church that strives to follow the N.T. example in every way as closely as possible.

The problem, however, lies in that people often use the “early Church” to justify any and every position they happen to hold to today.  Such is the case with the debate on early House Churches and the Elder(s).  The debate goes something like this: 1. Plural Elders in each local assembly advocate,  “The bible uses elder in the plural, therefore there should be multiple elders in each local assembly”  2. Single Elder (the Pastor) advocate, “There were many little house Churches with one Pastor all over any given City resulting in there being multiple Elders in the City.”  Dr. Fish sheds some light on the issue on pp. 120-121 of “Understanding the Church” in an article titled, “The Life of the Local Church”.

” The concept of the house-church is also used by some scholars to reject the teaching of multiple elders in the local church.  It is clear that the church did often meet in the houses of believers (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:9; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2).  It is suggested that while there may have been a plurality of elders in each city, there may have also been a plurality of house-churches in each place with one pastor presiding in each.  These pastors collectively were the elders of the citywide church.

“This hypothesis is ingenious, but it is in fact pure speculation.”

This hypothesis is ingenious, but it is in fact pure speculation.  There is no evidence at all that there was a single elder presiding over an individual house-church.  There is no reason why there could not be a plurality of elders in these individual assemblies.  The hypothesis is built on the fact that there must have been a large number of believers in a city like Ephesus and that they must have met in numerous buildings.  The fact is that we do not know how the singular church at Ephesus met with its group of elders exercising pastoral oversight.  But this hypothesis overlooks the fact that there were small churches which also had a plurality of elders.  Paul appointed a plurality of elders in the young, recently evangelized churches of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:23).  The church of Thessalonica was less than a year old when Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians and yet there was a plurality of leadership (1 Thes. 5:12)”

Dr. Fish is Professor of Biblical Languages at Emmaus Bible College.



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