My next two posts may be kind of in-house posts as they reflect on the way the Presbyterian Church (USA), my denomination, is governed, but I share them because there can be no more practical idea in the church than who is in charge in any given church. And our ideas in this matter are very much shaped by our church’s and the Church’s history.
I learned the importance of church government when I worked as Youth Director in a Congregational church back in my first year of seminary. I learned to appreciate the more connectional nature of my own denomination when I got involved with the congregational church’s way of doing things beyond the local congregation. Needless to say, I was not impressed.
So, if you are not Presbyterian, think about how your church is governed and what that says about your church’s values and about its beliefs about people and the business of church.
A few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion at our Prebytery meeting that focused on the heart of what makes Presbyterians Presbyterian—the role of elders in the leadership of the church. This was brought about by a recent change in the names of the ordained offices in our denomination. We have three such offices. They used to be called Minister of Word and Sacrament, Elder, and Deacon. We have renamed the first two Teaching Elder and Ruling Elder respectively. The change provided an opportunity to talk about why the names matter and what they say about how we do church today.
The big thing is that the leadership of the church belongs to more than the clergy, and especially to more than any one pastor or priest. And this makes a world of difference when you talk about discerning God’s will and giving stability to the church.
An elder-led church goes back to the Reformation, when the stranglehold of the clergy on the neck of the church was challenged and broken. While this led to a divided church, it also led to a more faithful church, even within Roman Catholicism.
It was the so-called Reformed branch of the Reformation, embodied most fully in John Calvin and the church of Geneva, that a new idea of leadership took greatest hold. The church was to be led by a group of Christian men (and it was just men at that time, and for centuries, of course). Calvin named four offices of leadership: pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. Pastors preached and gave pastoral care. Teachers taught the Bible in the Genevan schools. Elders, with the Pastors, oversaw the spiritual growth of the members of the church and encouraged them to live faithful lives, and Deacons were charged with caring for the poor and the sick.
The idea of a shared leadership, involving both clergy and non-clergy was a very controversial idea. Calvin got this radical idea from the Bible, turning to such passages as 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 which emphasize that the Spirit has spread out gifts for leadership in the church. These passages, and several others in the New Testament, reveal that in the early church, local churches were led by a group of leaders called elders, not by a sole priest as was practiced by the time of the Reformation. This practice no doubt arose out of the Jewish synagogue which was led by men of the community (elders) and not by priests or even rabbis. Since the first Christians were Jewish, they continued the practice they knew. Like most of the other Reformers, Calvin did not regard himself as a teacher of innovations but rather as one calling the church to return to earlier, more faithful practice.
To shorten a long story, the path from Calvin into Presbyterianism as we know it today went through Scotland via John Knox who visited Geneva for a time and famously called it “the most perfect school of Christ.” I suppose the more spread-out power of an elder- and pastor-led church appealed to the Scottish mindset.
That’s a bit on the origin of the Presbyterian-style elder-led church. Next time, the “so what” in all this…