“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”- 1 Peter 2:12
Some of the most significant disagreements between those who profess faith in Christ have been over church polity. Different theological traditions have come to different conclusions as to how the church should be administered and organized. One prominent form is the episcopalian model of church government, which says that churches are under the authority of bishops, who are then subject to bishops in higher authority. Sometimes, as in Roman Catholicism, there is one bishop who sits finally above all the others.
Presbyterianism is another major form of church government. In this model, individual congregations submit themselves to a plurality of elders. These elders, in some cases, submit themselves to another body of elders. Unlike the episcopal model, however, no single bishop presides over the whole church or the churches in a particular locale. A plurality of elders remains the highest earthly authority.
There are historical and theological reasons why each of these forms of church polity developed. It is important to note, however, that the Bible does not distinguish between the titles of bishop and elder. The New Testament uses the Greek word for elder (presbuteros) and the word for bishop (episkopos) interchangeably to refer to church overseers. These overseers are the men in the congregation who are called to collectively rule, shepherd, and teach the people of God.
Although today’s passage does not refer directly to the office of elder/bishop, it is connected to the duties of that office. In the Greek, “day of visitation” comes from the same root word for episkopos, or bishop. This day of visitation is also known as judgment day in Scripture, and it is the day on which Christ will visit the earth and judge between His sheep and the goats. We see the connection with the duties of the elder in that the elder is called to prepare the church for that final day. An elder proclaims the Word of God and calls people to repent so that they will be accepted on the day of visitation. An elder also participates in the discipline of professing believers so that the purity of the church is maintained and errant souls in danger of apostasy are warned. By “visiting” such things upon the church, elders prepare God’s people for Christ’s great day of visitation.
We are to take the words and example of our elders seriously because they prepare us for the judgment seat of Christ. They preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and discipline us so that we might be converted, brought back from sin, and built up in faith. Let us never forget the important, God-ordained role they play in the Christian life, and may we never be so arrogant as to think that we do not need to be in submission to a gospel-centered church.
Passages for Further Study
1 Timothy 3:1–7
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