Oecolampadius and the Benefits of Elders

In an earlier article, we sketched the history leading up June 8, 1530, when the Basel city council considered Johannes Oecolampadius’ proposal to establish elders and reinstitute biblical church discipline. The proposal was rejected, and so the benefits Oecolampadius’ work were not immediate. On the other hand, neither were the benefits of Luther's proposals about indulgences. In both cases, the authors faced initial resistance. In both cases, key people in authority protected their power. In both cases, it took years for the church to digest the implications. In both cases, some people were never convinced. Such mixed results are often what we find when biblical ideas take root in the midst of remaining sin in the church.

Why, then, was the proposal concerning elders so important? I suggest that there are at least four reasons.

Principal Benefits

First, Oecolampadius's proposal was a step forward in obeying the Bible. The Bible indicates that church discipline belongs to the church and its spiritual ministry, and is to be administered by elders who carry out the rule of Christ in the church (Acts 20:28-31).

Second, Oecolampadius's proposal was the first one that began to draw a proper line between the church and the state,[1] and to consider on a biblical basis the proper bounds and limits of the authority given to each of the two institutions. It is an important issue. Over the centuries, improper views of church-state relations have generated a large amount of unjust actions and unjust sufferings. The record is a sad one, both before and after the Reformation. Moreover, the difficulty is not confined to the Christian West. Similar difficulties crop up in territories where the dominant religion is not Christian—Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Shinto, or atheist. The people of the dominant religion may use the state in order to persecute or oppress minority religions. Conversely, officers of the state may use religion manipulatively in order to pursue their own selfish goals.

Third, Oecolampadius's proposal is important precisely because it is not an obvious remedy to an obvious problem. Rather, it is a creative, biblical answer to a long-range difficulty. The issue of church discipline, of course, is always with us. In the time of the Reformation, both the Roman Catholic churches and the newly separated Protestant churches had to deal with it. And in practice, they were dealing with it, for better or for worse, using resources from both the church and the state. More needed to be done. But why rock the boat by proposing a whole new system?

Oecolampadius's move is particularly important precisely because it presses us to look at the foundations. Those foundations involve the unique status of the church, as the holy people of God. The church is a people distinct from the general population of a city or a governmental region. The church must have its own, distinct discipline. It appeals to sinners to repent. It threatens them with a spiritual penalty, namely the wrath of God. Accordingly, the church must have its own distinct officers to supervise and carry out this discipline in a spiritual manner.  The church cannot function properly as a unique institution, founded by Christ, unless it is free from state inference.

Oecolampadius's proposal is all the more remarkable because Oecolampadius had no nearby historical precedent. What he had was the Scripture, and Scripture alone. And it must have appeared to many people that what he had was only a very minor, unimportant little detail from Scripture: the office of elder. But Oecolampadius saw its spiritual importance.

Fourth, Oecolampadius's proposal is important because church discipline is important. Christian discipleship includes active engagement in making disciples (Matt. 28:19); and making disciples includes as one aspect its negative side: disciplining those who stray. Discipline is an exercise of spiritual power--not physical force, not coercion, both of which are within the power of civil government rather than the church. If people stray, we pray for them; we exhort them; we try to persuade them; we may shed tears over them. We do not threaten to fine them or to beat them.

Discipline is a necessary aspect of the church. We honor Christ in his Lordship; we honor the holiness of God by maintaining the holiness of the church; and we show our love for people who are caught in sin by endeavoring to help them recover by repentance, and by warning them of the spiritual consequences of not repenting.[2]

The Permanent Challenges

From these historical reflections, we may draw some permanent lessons. The principal lesson is this: appointing elders is far more important for the long-run health of the church than is usually appreciated.

The number one reason why we need elders is that the Bible prescribes it. But God prescribes it for a reason. We need elders because we need discipling, and we need its negative side, church discipline. The practice of the church in discipling people reinforces the teaching of the church about the meaning of justification by faith alone, and the meaning of salvation in Christ alone.

Church discipline is not easy. People who receive discipline may repent, and eventually be grateful to the elders, who helped to draw them back from sin. But typically they are resentful and ungrateful at first. And some of them never repent. They may end up full of ill will, in spite of sincere efforts from the elders to treat them in a loving and respectful manner.

A plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5) is important because, if discipline is left in the hands of a single pastor, there are extra temptations. The pastor may be tempted to become a dictatorial autocrat. Or, on the opposite side, he may be too lenient when firmness is needed. In an abundance of counselors there is safety (Prov. 11:14; see 24:6). In addition, if discipline is in the hands of a single individual pastor, there is a temptation on the part of those receiving discipline to define the issue in their own mind as a matter of personal enmity with the pastor, rather than a matter of sin and rebellion against the Lord of the church.

There are also larger social issues that affect church discipline. Wherever there is confusion between state and church, there may arise also a confusion between the church and the larger society. Within "Christendom," many common folk may get the idea that church and society are not merely overlapping in membership, but virtually identical. So the temptation is there to relax discipline--except perhaps in the most notorious and scandalous cases. In the common thinking of the people, to be a member of the society is to be a member of the church. In that case, everyone expects his children to be received for baptism. But then the church loses its distinctive calling to holiness. It gradually becomes identical with the world.

The same danger arises in churches in a post-Christian setting if they cease to exercise discipline. They may be tempted by many pressures: discipline is hard; it is out of step with the modern culture of individual affirmation; the church wants to be attractive to the greatest number of people; in addition, a deficient understanding of grace may lead the church not to care about grace being misunderstood as a license to sin (after the manner that Rom. 6:1-2 repudiates).

Ruling elders are needed not only to protect the church from unholiness in life, but from unholiness in doctrine, that is, false teaching. In Acts the Apostle Paul warns about the reality of this deviation:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, .... (Acts 20:29-31 ESV)

We have seen this scourge come upon the church in the form of theological liberalism. And at times, in confronting the danger of liberalism, it may seem that seminary-trained pastors are more prone to deviate than are the lay people, who just have their Bibles and not the intellectual "sophistication" of the seminary-trained leaders. Ruling elders serve as a protection for orthodoxy.

Practical Implications

What are the implications? The principal implication is obvious. Make sure that there is an office of ruling elder in your church. And make sure that those who are appointed to be elders meet the qualifications laid down in Scripture (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). Make sure that they understand their duty in ruling the church in the name of Christ, under the direction of Christ. Let them guard the integrity and the holiness of the church in both doctrine and life.

We may be grateful for the many ways in which the Lord brought spiritual health through the Reformation. That period of history included a clarification of doctrine and practice. And, eventually, after many failures and deviations, it led to a clarification of the distinct holiness of the church, as a unique institution with its own God-given authority and discipline. May we be not only grateful, but diligent in carrying out the biblical principles that were recovered. May we pray for our elders, who have a special responsibility to maintain the holiness of the church. "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood" (Acts 20:28 ESV). 

Vern S. Poythress is Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for 45 years.

Related Links

"The Joy of Justification" by Nick Batzig

"Are You Sick? Call Your Elders" by William Boekestein

"Lessons From a Controversial Colloquy" by James Rich

Vital Churches: Elder Responsibility for Their Pastors and Congregational Planning by Wendell Faris McBurney

Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Carl Trueman


[1]    The Anabaptists drew a sharp line between church and state. But it was not an accurate line, because they maintained that a Christian should not be a civil magistrate. Whatever spiritual beauty and purity of conscience Anabaptists might find in their position, it was not a position that helped in practice when people were trying to figure out how they should exist as a whole society.

The Roman Catholic church also recognized a line between the spiritual power belonging to the church and the temporal power belonging to the civil rulers. But the practices included much interference in both directions. Within the sphere of the church, the corruption in the understanding of the gospel also led to corruption in the practice of discipline.

It is not easy to work out on a biblical basis what belongs to the two spheres of authority, state and church. And it is even harder to persuade people to adopt what has been worked out.

[2]    The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (Lawrenceville, GA: Office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2019), §27-3, https://www.pcaac.org/bco/.

Vern Poythress