Voices: sure, elders can meet, but … (991)

Editor, Christian Chronicle
Oklahoma City, OK 73136-1100

To the Editor:

I appreciate the intent of the article in the July issue entitled “Principles for Conducting Elders’ Meetings.”  Many good thoughts were expressed — the need for proper, kind-spirited conduct among brothers (particularly elders) and encouragement to focus on spiritual shepherding rather than wasting time on trivialities, to name two. It was well said, too, that an elder is not a tyrant, nor an arbitrary dictator.

I do question, however, the basic assumption of the article:  though communication about certain matters is often needed and appropriate, the human invention called the “elders’ meeting” has often been misused — it is a servant-become-master.

Are there not shepherds who can and will lead and guide by powerful, kind, consistent, godly example rather than through a means (the meeting) by which they actually function more as behind-closed-doors directors?  Must the local Elders make decisions in order to carry out their God-intended roles?  Should they?

There was no “exclusion of the eldership” clause in Jesus’ directive not to lord it over each other. In other words, elders have no privilege (or curse!) of being masters over other brothers and sisters simply because of their function. (Note the absence of the term “position.”) I find pitifully little implication that in the first century there was any collective functioning of elders. Yet we have created the word “eldership” and have assumed that operation should be corporate rather than individual. Just some food for thought…

Sincerely and for Him,

Brian Casey

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The above letter was written nearly 25 years ago. I would say the same thing today.  

If there are any elders reading this:  on the way to your elders’ meeting tomorrow or Tuesday night or whenever, please consider how you might encourage all the elders at your church to put more eggs in their individual shepherding “baskets,” perhaps meeting as a corporate executive board less often and freeing up more time to become more personally involved in lives.

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P.S.  I’m not much of a holiday guy.  Although Easter is particularly well attested and important (much more so than Christmas) to most Christians, and although I generally have some extra feelings and passions at this time of year, I don’t necessarily think Easter Sunday deserves much more attention than any other Sunday.  Still, for those who have read this post with disappointment, wanting something more directly about Jesus, I offer this link to a worthwhile post I’ve read:  The Right Charge.

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Ekklesia values 6 (leadership and hierarchy)

Continuing in the “Church Values” stream today, and extrapolating a bit from the nondenominational, nonsectarian ideals  now.  My ideal church will employ

==> Non-hierarchical leadership

and is

  • mutually pastoral in terms of ministering to one another

and uses no

  • no extrabiblical (or reappropriated biblical) religious titles.

In the NC scriptures, I see contraindications of positional authority in the church.  Put negatively, I see no hint that there were, or were to be, hierarchical leaders.  Positional leadership is ubiquitous in churches these days–seen most starkly in such figures as the pope, but lived out in virtually every church I’ve ever been with, known of, or read about.

If we must have the “pastor” as a role, understood as most Christians understand that job today, let us at least not have “senior pastor.”  “Lead pastor” is more functional than positional, and I would rather see that modifier than “senior.”  In the eyes of some, as I’ve come to understand it, Timothy and Titus may have filled precursors of the modern-day pastor role.  But this is an assumption, an inference; it’s not particularly explicit.

In the CofC grouping, we tend to believe and write one way, and live out our polity another way.  If we really believe elders are pastors are shepherds are bishops, well, let’s do church that way.  Let us not have our preachers/ministers/evangelists in charge of everything.  Let us not conceive intellectually of an upside-down pyramid with elders at the top.  And by all means let us not live as though it’s a regular pyramid with the minister at the top, the elders in the middle, the deacons at the bottom, and everyone else referred to as “you” instead of “we.”  And, by the way, let us avoid the perception that eldering/pastoring happens primarily in the humanly invented institution called the “elders’ meeting.”

Although I’ve been taught it all my life, I’m not sure the NC scriptures really equate the bishop (episkopos) with the elder (presbuteros) with the pastor (poimein).  These may be describing similar, overlapping, but not identical functional roles.  Perhaps the ideal is more fluid than many of us have come to understand:  could it be that Timothy was primarily a functioning evangelist, and there were no deacons or elders or head “pastor” in Ephesus, while Titus was more of a “lead pastor” in Crete?  And further, could it be that

  • the churches in Galatia had neither a head pastor nor elders
  • the groups in Corinth and Colosse and Laodicea had several poimenoi each, like most CofC groups, and
  • the church in Rome had none of the above, because they had an apostle?

It deserves mention that the early church in Jerusalem appears to have been led by few apostles/elders, and James the brother of Jesus seems to have had executive influence (see Acts 15).  The Acts 6 precedent leads us to select servants to fulfill needed tasks–giving rise to modern-day “deacons” (same word as “minister,” by the way).  Let it not go unnoticed that deacons have jobs to do.  There is no deacon, biblically speaking, who simply has the title but no designated function in the local church’s work.

Nashville’s Belmont Church (which has Restoration Movement roots but left any real association behind years ago), at least at one point, separated its elders by function.  Some were executive, and some were pastoral (caring for sheep).  Some were paid, and some were not.  This devised arrangement made some sense to me, given that no particular hierarchy is specified in the scriptures, and given the size of that particular church.  But when all’s said and done, it’s more important that people not attempt to assert or exert authority based on position or salary.  Given that we are not in the apostolic age, spiritual authority should arise naturally, along the lines of relational, respected influence.  It should be invited by people, not inflicted on them.  “Having authority,” by the way, is different from “acting authoritatively” or “being authoritarian.”

In sum:  my church won’t obviously deal in positional leadership.  Not that there won’t be leaders.  There must be leadership, and leaders will emerge naturally!  But it will not be because of some mail-order license, or a degree-granting institution’s blessing, or a denomination’s “call” (whatever that is).

Leaders serve, their leadership is respected as an outgrowth of their service, and ideally, they begin to have spiritual influence because of recognized insight and genuine relationship.  Leaders are marked by service to humankind, beginning with the household of faith, in the name of God.