The exhortation of 1 Corinthians 1:10 is illustrated by its application to the Christians who lived in the area of Ephesus. As we journey through the recorded meeting that Paul called in Miletus with the Ephesian elders (bishops, shepherds), we are encouraged by the fact that by the time of the meeting, the disciples, with their shepherds throughout the region of Ephesus, were behaving according to the Spirit’s mandate of 1 Corinthians 1:10. There was unity among the members of the body, which members, unfortunately, would within a few years after the meeting be moving into an era of great persecution by the Roman state. In fact, we would conclude that the reason Paul called this unique meeting with the church leaders was to specifically address the “wolf and lordship problems” that were soon to come among the Ephesian disciples before the state persecution of Rome. Before the persecution would reach its zenith, there would be a denominating effect taking place among the disciples in the area in the immediate future.
At the time Paul visited the elders of Ephesus on his last mission journey, there were elders (shepherds) throughout the region who were moving among the many house groups. “So from Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the presbyters of the church” (At 20:17).
There was more than one single-assembly of the disciples in Ephesus at the time this meeting was called. The growth of the church in Ephesus had gone far beyond the privilege of all the members of the region to meet in one location, and thus, they were meeting in the homes of the members throughout the area. However, in the context of Acts 20 all the disciples are referred to as “the church.” It was not the churches of Ephesus, but the church. And it was not a single presbyter ruling over the flock, or any specific group. It was a plurality of presbyters who worked among all the disciples of the area.
We thus caution ourselves about reading into the background of the meeting our present independent church behavior. All the disciples in all of Ephesus were one church, though they were all meeting at different places. And among all the disciples of Ephesus there was a plurality of shepherds (presbyters) looking after the spiritual needs of all the sheep.
(Though it is not in the context of this discussion to clarify the use of nouns that refer to the “presbyters,” we must keep in mind that there are several Greek words used in the New Testament that identify those who were the elders. English words as “presbyter,” “shepherds,” “pastors,” and “bishops” are all used in reference to the leaders for which Paul gave spiritual qualities and physical qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. For further study of this subject, download Book 24, chapter 24, BRL, africainternational.org.)
When the meeting of elders transpired in Miletus, Paul reminded those present of his past ministry in the region. In those years of ministry, he taught them “publicly and from house to house” (At 20:20). Verse 21 defines the word “publicly.” He used the word referred to the evangelistic work of his ministry in Ephesus to the unbelievers. The phrase “house to house” referred to his edification of the disciples in their homes. Because the disciples remained connected as the one church, regardless of their diverse assemblies in homes throughout the region, it was easy for Paul to move from house to house. It was in the homes of the members where Paul said that he did not shun to declare to them “all the counsel of God” (At 20:27).
When house groups become independent and begin to draw themselves away from the family of disciples, it is then that sectarian division starts to hinder the organic function of the body in reference to teachers moving among the people. This was the problem that was introduced by Diotrephes. (More on this in chapter 15.)
During the meeting in Miletus, Paul moved into another singular use of words in reference to the multiple-assembly function of the body in Ephesus. He said,
Therefore, take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that He has purchased with His own blood (At 20:28).
It is very important to read this statement and let it speak for itself. In view of the saints being scattered throughout the metropolitan area of Ephesus, which was at this time at least 250,000 in population, Paul exhorted these shepherds to take heed to “all the flock.” This was not all the flock of their respective single-assembly groups. It was a statement that reflected on their ministry to see over the spiritual needs of each individual sheep of the flock in all the city of Ephesus.
No one group of shepherds was encouraged to restrict their care of the flock to just one group of disciples. Since the members were scattered throughout the city, and meeting in several homes, then the shepherds had the responsibility of shepherding the sheep throughout the city. Nothing is said in the context of Acts 20 that the shepherding of the flock should be confined to one specific assembly of the sheep who were meeting at a specific location in someone’s house. On the contrary, since the sheep were everywhere throughout the city, then the function of the elders was everywhere throughout the city. And since the flock is encouraged to know the shepherds, then each group must be sure to invite the shepherds to visit their group (1 Th 5:12,13). Again, we must be careful about reading our present autonomous behavior into the reality of the function of the body of Christ within a particular city, as well as throughout a region where there were disciples. The shepherds were moving among the sheep in order that the sheep know their shepherds, and for the purpose of the shepherds knowing the needs of the sheep. It was the perfect arrangement for the sheep to remain united.
The fact that there is only one universal flock of God is brought out in the statement of Acts 20:28: “Therefore, take heed to yourselves and to all the flock … to shepherd the church of God that He purchased with His own blood.” There is still one church (one fold) of God throughout the world, whether there are members living in Ephesus or any other city throughout the world. Jesus purchased with His blood only one church of God, not just a single group meeting in someone’s house in the city of Ephesus.
Paul’s statement that the blood sacrifice of Jesus was for the universal body means that all the members of the body in Ephesus were included. The blood sacrifice was for “the body,” not bodies. And since it was for the global body of Christ, then every member of the body is continually cleansed by the blood regardless of where he or she is located in this world (See 1 Jn 1:7). The blood is not divided, and thus, those on whom it is poured must not be divided. No assembly of the saints has a right to judge whether the blood is poured out on another assembly of saints just down the street. Blood pouring is God’s job.
The shepherds were among the sheep in Ephesus. They ministered to the spiritual needs of the sheep wherever the sheep were in the city. Now when these shepherds traveled to the city of Miletus just south of Ephesus in order to meet with Paul, did they cease being shepherds of the flock of God? Were they shepherds in Ephesus, as well as shepherds when they arrived in the city of Miletus? If a spiritual need arose among some Christians in Miletus, would the Ephesian elders be barred from ministering to those needs? If one would think that shepherds had been invested with some sort of authority, then he will not be able to answer these questions correctly. If one believes that there is a geographical restriction on elders ministering to the spiritual needs of the sheep, then he too will have some difficulty answering these questions. We would conclude as Peter, who judged some elders for being lording authorities, that they were fellow shepherds in the universal body of Christ. But they had no authority as lords, and thus, were to cease functioning as lords (See 1 Pt 5:1-4)
From wherever he was in the world, Peter wrote to other elders, wherever they were. He wrote the following statement: “I exhort the elders who are among you, as a fellow elder …” (1 Pt 5:1). Would Peter need to travel to where the elders were to whom he wrote before he could be a “fellow elder” with them? If he wrote a letter, then certainly he was in some other location than those to whom he wrote. If one of the elders of those to whom he wrote traveled to meet Peter wherever he was, then would that elder cease being an elder and just be a member? It is sometimes difficult to interpret the practicality of Peter’s statements when we are behaving contrary to the very thing that Peter judged the lording authoritarians to whom he wrote. They were in the process of establishing themselves as lording elders with authority, which thing Jesus said would not be so among His disciples (Mk 10:35-45).
Simply because those who are designated shepherds (bishops, pastors, elders, presbyters), by those members who know them, does not mean that they cannot function as such to those who do not know them personally. Elders are such because of who they are, not by some officially invested authority that was given to them, and certainly not because they are in some office-bearing potentate position.
When shepherds start assuming some authority, then there is a problem. If they assume some of the authority of Christ, then they start assuming some of the lordship of Jesus, for with authority must also come lordship. Authority and lordship cannot be separated. And because authority and lordship cannot be separated, neither can one separate lordship from the denominating of the body. Lords must have bodies of people over whom they can exercise their lordship. Now we know why Paul reminded the Ephesian elders where there would be a problem with lordship elders. A few years later, he wrote a letter to these same elders. In the letter, he reminded them that we have only one Lord (Ep 4:4-6). But because there would arise lords from among them after the Miletus meeting, there would also arise denominated groups who would declare their autonomy under the lordship of their lording elders.
We do not see lordship leadership in the teaching of the New Testament concerning leadership. Jesus barred such leadership from among His sheep (See Mk 10:35-45). Nevertheless, lordship leaders were soon to come. Shepherds can easily take their spiritual ministry to others. However, we must not assume that when a traveling elder comes into our city that he has come with some authority over the disciples of that city. Historically, the apostasy to hierarchal authority developed when elders assumed authority they did not have, and then brought their assumed authority together and eventually manifested it through what we now call the pope.
We never see in the New Testament some type of networked authority among the shepherds that was exercised over the church. When Paul called the elders to Miletus, he was not calling authorities together. He was calling only the greatest slaves of Ephesus who had dedicated themselves to the spiritual needs of the sheep in Ephesus. At the time, these slaves had not started to lord with authority over those they would draw away after themselves.
When problems did develop among the disciples in the first century, meetings were held to deal with the doctrinal problems, or arrogant lords (At 15: Gl 2). The church never resorted to some chain of authority among men on earth to solve either doctrinal or organizational problems. This point was certainly brought out during the Acts 15 meeting when the church gathered to sort out some problems with some legalistic brethren who were binding where God had not bound (See At 15:1,2). When dealing with doctrinal problems, the disciples always resorted to the authority of the Scriptures, not the supposed authority of some hierarchy of men who claimed to have authority to pronounce judgments.
In the context of the Acts 20 meeting at Miletus, Paul did not call the shepherds together in order to designate a “chairman” of the elders. He was not establishing some network of authorities that would eventually lead to a network of authorities among the disciples. On the contrary, in his meeting with the shepherds he specifically warned them against any efforts to draw away any group of disciples by lording over them.
[Next lecture: November 8]