The Christians in Ephesus were functioning as an organic body throughout the city before Paul arrived at the neighboring city, Miletus, on his last mission journey. Where the Christians of Ephesus assembled on Sunday did not determine their ministry to the whole body throughout the region of Ephesus, neither did their assemblies in the homes of the members separate any disciples from one another. At the time Paul visited the shepherds of Ephesus, they were carrying out their function in the body as described in the mandate of 1 Corinthians 1:10. Though members of the body met in many different locations for their common assemblies on Sunday, they were functioning as one united body.
But something was coming in their future. There was division coming, division similar to what we witness today in some areas where the body of Christ is located. What is interesting to note is that the divisive behavior today that some seem to think is the ordinary function of the body in a city or region is actually the denominating of the body about which Paul warned the Ephesian shepherds.
Paul warned the Ephesian shepherds of two problems that would soon denominate the sheep of God:
For I know this, that after my departure grievous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from your own selves will men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves (At 20:29,30).
A. Wolves that scatter sheep.
Paul was warning that the shepherds must be on the lookout for wolves. When wolves enter in among a flock of sheep, the sheep scatter. The sheep lose contact with one another as they flee in different directions for their own safety. The unity of the flock is lost as sheep scatter.
- Entrance of the wolves: Since Paul made the statement, “after my departure,” then the entrance of the scattering wolves would soon come after his departure from their presence, and carry on in the centuries to come. The beginning of the scattering was not something that would happen in the centuries to come. The apostasy about which Paul spoke was in its primal beginnings by the middle of the first century. By the second and third centuries, many erroneous beliefs would eventually develop into a mass apostasy.
The second century was not good for the flock of God. Wolves brought in an assortment of heresies that devastated the unity of the church, which heresies led many of the church into beliefs that were contrary to the fundamental teachings of New Testament. For example, Tertullian (160-220) introduced the teaching that every newborn babe was tainted with sin that was supposedly passed down from Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. He was the first to mention the concept of original sin.
Other teachings also came into the body of believers. Teachers as Ammonius Saccas of Alexandria, Egypt, taught a compromise between Christianity and paganism, which teaching was adopted by Emperor Constantine of Rome to amalgamate church, paganism and state. This teaching would eventually result in the Edict of Milan in 315 when Constantine made a distorted view of Christianity the state religion. Saccas sought to harmonize pagan philosophies with Christianity, and thus, develop a religious philosophy by which Christians and non-Christians could live in peace under the control of the state.
Other religious and philosophical teachings had a great impact on Christianity. Mani of Mesopotamia (216-276) syncretized the Zoroastrian mystery religions of the East with the teachings of the New Testament. The Ebonites denied the deity of Jesus by teaching that Moses had the same authority as Christ, and thus was equal with Christ. Monarchism was another denial of the eternality of Jesus. The Monarchians taught that Jesus lived so perfectly under the law that God adopted Him to be His Son. By affirming the total human origin of Jesus, they denied that Jesus was one with God before the incarnation.
Through the adoption of many mystic beliefs of non-Christian religions, gnosticism became the greatest attack against the Christian faith in the second century. The core teaching of gnosticism was that Jesus was only the final emanation of a series of digressions from God who dwells in total light. The last emanation, Jesus, was so digressed from the light, that He created the material world. Some gnostics believed that Jesus was simply a phantom who only appeared to the disciples. He was not the incarnation of the eternal God.
The primary theme of all teaching that identified the thinking of the wolves about whom Paul warned the Ephesian elders centered around an attack against the central faith of the Christian. And the center to the Christian faith is Jesus as the Son of God. The wolves would focus on devouring the foundation of the faith of Christians. The lord leaders would focus on denying the authority of Jesus to which Christians have submitted.
2. Entrance of the lordship leaders: The entrance of the lordship leaders among the flock of God meant that the lords had little consideration for the unity of the flock. They cared for their own selves rather than sparing the unity of the flock. They would sacrifice the unity of the flock for the sake of their selfish ambitions to have a group of sheep who would seek their leadership. In forming their own groups, their groups would inherently exclude other groups of sheep who were also huddling around their chosen lords.
In reference to those who would rise up as authorities, Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders, and to us, is that we must understand the rise of hierarchal apostasy. We must understand the early beginnings of such apostasies in order to check those who would lord over the flock of God.
Once hierarchal apostasy is full grown in a particular religious group, then it is difficult to correct. It is difficult to correct because the churches who are drawn away into a network of authorities are supportive of those authorities who lead each particular group. After a departure to church lords, the church group grows up knowing nothing different than to approach Jesus through the network of authorities of their particular church organization. If finances are involved in the support of the authorities of hierarchal apostasies, then it is difficult to restore such movements to the lordship of Jesus.
What Paul envisioned as lords coming in among the flock, Peter wrote a few years later that it was already happening at the time he wrote in the early 60s. In his first letter, Peter called on the shepherds to whom he wrote to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you … not under compulsion … not as being lords over those entrusted to you …” (1 Pt 5:2,3).
Paul warned that some of the Ephesian shepherds would rise to be lords over their independent churches. They would make the sheep to be subservient to their authoritarian or influential leadership. This was the dividing of the flock into different independent churches that had little to do with one another once the lords drew away their sheep. The different groups would be subservient to the lords who led them, for the lords would assume authority over each of their groups.
B. Lords that steal sheep.
While wolves devour the sheep by devouring the foundation of faith upon which the flock exists, lords take control of the sheep, and in so doing, denominate the sheep into their own flocks. Wolves scatter by devouring, but lords gather up their own sheep and separate them from other shepherds who have likewise gathered together their own groups of sheep.
When Paul introduced verse 30 of Acts 20, he turned specifically to the shepherds who would seek to recruit sheep for their own autonomous groups. The phrase, “also from your own selves …” indicates that Paul turned from the elders in general to those potential lords among them who were going to recruit members in Ephesus in order to establish their own congregations of sheep. In order to remain drawn away, these sheep would be independent from the other independent churches in town who had also been denominated as autonomous groups. This was the behavior of Diotrephes as John explained in 3 John. (More on this in chapter 15.)
Those who had been entrusted by the flock to shepherd their spiritual needs would turn from being servants of the flock to being lords over the flock. The apostasy would be in those who would assume authority over the flock. Jesus said that all authority belonged to Him (Mt 28:18). Lordship leaders seek to assume some of Jesus’ authority over His sheep. By doing such, lord leaders seek to claim that which does not belong to them. They partially assume some of the lordship of Jesus over His sheep in order to lord over their own flocks. They do as Peter said, “lord over the flock” so that they may draw away disciples after themselves. Any shepherd or group of shepherds, therefore, who draws away sheep in order to lord over them, falls under the warning of both Paul and Peter.
“Lording over” means that one has claimed authority. If one assumes no authority, then he cannot be a lord. Lordship exists only in the fact that one has either been assigned authority, or out of his own autocratic behavior, assumed authority over others. Whatever the situation, the lord exists for the purpose of calling away a group of sheep into an independent fellowship that in some way functions to the exclusion of those who do not submit to the lordship of the leader.
Lordship is contrary to the nature of the leadership that Jesus determined would be among His body. He explained this in the following statement:
You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them. And their great ones exercise authority over them. But it will not be so among you. But whoever desires to be great among you will be your servant (Mk 10:42-44).
Jesus made the preceding statement to the disciples during His ministry. But even on the night of His betrayal when He washed their feet, He perceived that there was a dispute among them “as to which one of them should be considered the greatest” (Lk 22:24). So Jesus again admonished them on that occasion with the following words:
The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them. And those who exercise authority over them are called benefactors. But you will not be this way. But he who is greatest among you, let him be as the youngest. And he who leads, as he who serves (Lk 22:25,26).
What was about to transpire in Ephesus was an apostasy to lordship leadership by those shepherds who would violate Jesus’ mandate that He made in reference to leadership among His disciples. In order to draw away disciples after one’s self, one must use his influence as an occasion for denominating a group of disciples under his control. Once the sheep have submitted to the influence of their lord, then the denomination is established.
This apostasy is initially slow and unnoticed. This is why the Holy Spirit delivered the exhortation of Acts 20 specifically to the elders of the flock. Elders, or shepherds (pastors), are first designated by the flock to continue their function as servants of the flock. Because shepherds have dedicated themselves to the ministry of the saints, it is easy for some to move into the realm of lording over the flock. Those people who have their own ambitions and agenda can easily move from being servants to being lords. For this reason, no new Christ is to be designated a shepherd (1 Tm 3:2,6). The flock must first learn his ambition, whether it is for the Lord to serve, or for himself to be served.
Once the flock designates leaders, some leaders often use their designated ministry of leadership to start giving orders. They subsequently turn from leading by example (1 Pt 5:2) to lording by command. Once they have progressed to lording through assumed authority, then the flock is locked into being an autonomous denomination that is separated from those who refuse to be lorded over by any lord other than Jesus. Once the lorded group builds a temple for itself, it is often locked into a behavior of separation from all other groups who have likewise built the same. The four walls they have built around themselves signal to other walled in sheep more than is realized.
[Next lecture: November 11]