[Continued from 8/31 post, found here]
Church leadership structure may not be a particularly crucial area of Christian doctrine, but it is worthy of consideration as a practical matter. In my personal history, all churches but one have had elders (and a few other roles designated for serving, leading, or accomplishing tasks). This installment will deal a bit with the role designated by the word “elder.”
An elder might also be called “shepherd.” An even less common appellation in modern and postmodern times is “bishop.” Each of these three words has been derived from a corresponding Greek word, and each suggests a different aspect of what one of these men might do and/or be.
Carrying the above a little further . . . I sometimes wonder whether there might be a practical separation of roles and responsibilities, according to the ranges of meaning of the terms elder, shepherd, and bishop. In other words, maybe there could be distinct groups or individuals, delineated something like this:
- the oldest, most respected in the church, perhaps dispensing general life wisdom and helping with life situations (elders?)
- those who primarily cared spiritually and physically for sheep (shepherds, not necessarily the oldest wise ones in a church?)
- tasked with decision-making and executing plans (bishops, perhaps businesspeople, but not necessarily as wise in terms of individual life or things of the Lord?)
The above, which would probably add hierarchy instead of enhancing function, is probably of little value. One can sometimes observe that the “slate” of elders/shepherds includes one or more from each of the above types, though. Elder and bishop are not as distinct from one another in NT usage as both of those are from shepherd.
Personally, as a teenager, I aspired to be a church elder/shepherd. I’ve decidedly lost that desire through the years, having observed what elders are actually called on to do in most churches. (It’s not enough for me that there are good groups of elder-shepherds who regularly use meeting time to pray together for people. Through no particular fault of any individuals, the working model is off kilter in pretty much every church I’ve been a part of.)
Speaking pragmatically, most congregations’ institutional needs require a bunch of folks to make decisions—usually by group vote or consensus. That bunch of folks is usually the group of elders/shepherds, although there is little to no biblical precedent for elders’ functioning as a group. Yes, fiscal decisions must be made, and program decisions may arguably fall within the realm of spiritual shepherding, but it’s not necessary that either of those fall to elders. It’s a shame when deacons and other “ministry leaders”—not to mention Jane and Joseph Pewpacker—aren’t empowered more often to do these things. If there were less organizational hierarchy and less of a business model, the elders/shepherds could care more for individual sheep and for the flock as a whole.
Next: Deacon/deaconess/minister, member, and a couple of bold summary statements