Tag Archives: elders

3 Reasons Shared Leadership Rules

Last post I gave a super brief history of where the Presbyterian idea of an elder-led church came from. In this post, I ask the question, “What difference does it make?”

A difference in terms

01v/11/arve/G2582/020One new thing I discovered in my research in preparation for the panel was that there has been some division within the Presbyterian tradition over how to line up the offices of leadership with the words for leaders in the New Testament. I have always understood that the “elders” of the New Testament were the same as in the Presbyterian church, and that pastors were considered to be elders whose special function was teaching and preaching, as 1Timothy 5:17 says. I was surprised to learn that Calvin did not see it that way. As said above, he named four offices: pastor, teacher, elder and deacon. Calvin connects the New Testament “elder” with his idea of pastor. He recognizes that there is a great interchangeability in the words for leaders, and especially notes that “bishop” and “elder” are identical. But he equates that office with pastors. His office of Elder he connects with the Biblical word “governor” in Romans 12. The word, “elder”, of course, at its simplest means older person, presumably experienced and wise. It’s not specifically a title. And Calvin seems to take it that way.

So some strands of Presbyterian tradition link the Biblical “elder” with our current elder. And some do not. This seems to me to question the whole distinction we, in the PC(USA) are now making in our own denomination, seeing pastors and elders both as teaching elders and ruling elders respectively. Calvin did not agree with that distinction, seeing pastors and elders as two separate offices, as two types of one office.

A difference in substance

That’s just the words though. In function the Presbyterian tradition is clear and consistent. Elders and Pastors lead the church together. To shift the focus of this post, I will give three reasons why I think this practice is a good thing.

First, as best as I can tell, it is Biblical. As I already mentioned, it is not easy to read the New Testament and determine how the early church was structured. This is probably because it was not clearly structured yet. That would come later. It is  also because we are really only able to over-see or over-hear how the ran the church in the pages of the New Testament. It is not something that is directly addressed beyond Paul’s qualification lists for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy and Titus. But what does seem clear is that the church in any given city or town was governed by a group of elders, sometimes called bishops, and they were the decisive leaders in that church.

The best view we have of church government in action is in Acts 15, the so-called Jerusalem Council, when the church decided what to do about God bringing in Gentiles into what was up to that point a Jewish sect. I often teach this passage in classes about church government. I ask the question after reading the passage, “Who makes the decision?” I realize that one’s own church background may strongly influence one’s answer to that question, but I see the decision decisively being made after the apostles and the elders agree. It’s not Peter, or James, or the people as a whole, but this representative group that decides the matter. Since the office of apostle, according to the Biblical definition of an apostle as one who has learned the Gospel directly from Jesus (see Acts 1:21-22 and Galatians 1:11-12), ended with the Apostles themselves, that leaves elders, which, unlike Calvin, I understand to refer to leaders who were not, but may include pastors.

powerSecondly, you can’t trust power further than you can throw it. A hallmark belief in the Reformed tradition is the total depravity of man. I remember my seminary professors pointing out that total depravity does not mean people are totally awful, but rather that it means that every area of our lives are touched and twisted by sin. This is true of our use of power. Left to his own devices, it is only a matter of time before a person with power, like a pastor or priest, will use his power for his own purposes. Spreading out that power, in the church among a group of leaders, or in a nation a separation of powers, minimizes the chances of such an abuse of power.

Finally, shared leadership is a demonstration and living-out of the communal aspect of our faith. As Paul makes a point of emphasizing, Jesus is the head of the Church. The rest of us are, together, the body. And we all need to be in it and connected to one another. Jesus is the head. There is no room for another.

Respect Your Elders

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…