Tag Archives: egalitarian

What is an “Elder” of a Church?

How can we think of the question of eldership more like a dance…. instead of a brawl???

Calling someone an elder doesn’t make them an elder… so writes British pastor, Andrew Wilson, in his excellent blog essay, “A Theology of Eldership.”

Wilson begins his essay with a famous, Abraham Lincoln anecdote:

Abraham Lincoln was fond of asking people: if we call a tail a leg, then how many legs does a dog have? “Five,” his audience would invariably answer. “No,” came his standard reply, “the correct answer is four. Calling something a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

When I look around at how different churches implement spiritual authority, I observe that rarely is there a clear, biblically-driven understanding of what it means to be an “elder” of a church. At the risk of being overly too-brief and simplistic, an “elder” is an office in the church, and as Wilson argues in his essay, the primary function of an “elder” is to act as a type of shepherd, or pastor of a flock, to borrow from the Bible’s teaching related to tending after sheep. To shepherd or pastor is to protect the sheep from physical harm. Likewise, an “elder” is someone who serves the community of faith by protecting them from spiritual harm. An “elder” is a type of guardian, making sure that the people are grounded upon solid, Bible doctrine.

But no matter how wonderful or effective they might be, how many “elders” in churches really function like that?  For example, there are churches where a pastor or pastors of the church, who preach on Sunday morning, do not serve as “elders.” Furthermore, there are “elders” who think of themselves, not as spiritual guardians or shepherds, but rather as “members of the board” of the church, like in a business corporation. That may work for a Fortune 500 company, but is it appropriate for a local church?

In other words, such “elders” are primarily tasked with administration of the church, handling financial matters, etc., but it is not altogether clear as to what type of spiritual authority they exercise, if any, in terms of shepherding or pastoring the flock. Perhaps, much of these administrative tasks might more properly be viewed in terms of “waiting on tables,” as in Acts 6:2, and not something that should distract the “elders” from their more pressing duty, of faithfully expounding the Scriptures to the community of believers. So, here you have a case of pastors, who act like “elders,” but they are not “elders,” and “elders,” who do not necessarily act like “elders,” because the pastors are already acting as “elders.”

How much sense does this really make?

My concern is that such a fluid understanding of what defines an “elder” is terribly confusing.

Calling someone an elder doesn’t make them an elder.

Unless you have been living under a rock for most of your Christian life, the subject of “women and elders” has been a hot-button issue in evangelical churches for a long, long time. Some believe that the Bible does not permit women to serve as elders. Others believe that the Bible does allow women to serve as elders. Some see this, not as a question of superiority or inferiority of a particular gender, but rather as an issue of proper spiritual authority. Others see this, not as “caving into the culture,” but rather as an issue of encouraging the full use of gifts for ministry, for both men and women, as well as an issue of justice, in a world where women are marginalized and abused, who need to know about and experience the liberating power of the Gospel. Some see male-only eldership as part of the historically ordained, orthodox principle of church structure, in keeping with the New Testament, and not to be tampered with, whereas others see a male-female joint eldership as an inevitable reality that all churches must eventually accept…. it is just a matter of time.

Unlike other controversial issues in the church, like the use of alcohol, age of the earth, different views of the End Times, etc., the “women and elders” issue is simultaneously public, profound, and pervasive. It is public, because while others may never know about your use or non-use of alcohol, a woman in the pulpit is hard to ignore. It is profound, because unlike the dispute over the millennium or the timing of the “Rapture,” Christians can exist for years in our churches, without a decided view on the End Times, but how we think about gender, and its relationship to spiritual authority, is something that touches on the core of every person’s being. It is pervasive, because while not all Christians are highly scientifically minded and motivated, to understand the age of the earth, gender-based issues impact just about every area of life.

Both sides in the “women and elders” controversy can make some powerful arguments. (… and yes, you can find extremes on both sides, too, those who view gender categories as completely interchangeable, making no mention of spiritual authority, and those on the other side who devalue the competence or performance of women, decapitating one-half of the Body of Christ, from the service of Christ’s Kingdom. I am ignoring these extremes here…)

The difficulty is that when churches wrestle with these issues, we do our congregations a disservice when we fail to adequately define what constitutes an “elder,” so that at least everyone is on the same page. For example, if a church allows women to serve as deacons, but the so-called “elders” in the church are largely performing the office of being deacons, to prohibit women to serve as such “elders” is completely nonsensical, thus offending the conscience of those who seek, in obedience to God, to celebrate the full gifting of men and women. But if you allow women to serve as such “elders,” railing against the conscience of those who believe that the Bible does not allow women to serve as elders, for the sake of upholding biblical, spiritual authority, what is the point? This is particularly confusing, when it is, to a large part, non-“elder” pastors of the church, who are mainly fulfilling the task of being “elders.” What then, is the positive, edifying purpose you are really serving?

This all seems like a recipe for madness, to me, an excuse for those passionate on both sides to vote with their feet…. and unnecessarily so, as it neglects laying the proper groundwork to achieve a common vocabulary, which is necessary to gain a proper understanding of the issues.

Here is my practical suggestion. I might be wrong, so I would appreciate correction, if needed. If a church is considering the “women as elders” issue, it might be useful to consider limiting the office of elder, for men only, to actually that of pastoring and shepherding, as much as possible, and greatly expanding, as much as possible, the role of deacon, including men and women, to serve the community, and thus empowering all, male and female, to fully use their God-given gifts. It will not make everyone happy, but it might be a good step forward to promote peace.

Might I humbly suggest that churches should consider crafting a clear understanding of what constitutes an “elder,” before engaging in discussions, about whether or not women should or could serve in such a capacity?

Egypt’s Coptic Christians, and the Unity of the Body of Christ

Palm Sunday terror in a blood-stained Coptic Christian church in Egypt, 2017 (credit: Agency France-Presse)

Tragedy gripped the world when Islamic State militants killed 44 Coptic Christians in Egypt, while worshippers gathered to celebrate Palm Sunday (New York Times). But a few of my Christian friends were probably wondering, what is a “Coptic Christian,” and are they really Christian?

Joe Carter, a blogger at The Gospel Coalition, has a great FAQ summary, explaining what happened, and who the Coptic Christians are. But I want to focus on answering some of the specific concerns of my friends. More importantly, I want to have you think about what it might teach us, for evangelical Christians. Continue reading

A Modest Defense of the “Billy Graham Rule”

There is quite a bit of chatter in social media recently about Vice President Mike Pence’s adherence to the so-called “Billy Graham Rule.” Many have mocked Pence’s statement that “he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife.” Briefly, the “Billy Graham Rule” was an unwritten pact between the early members of Billy Graham’s evangelistic team, that they would avoid even the appearance of infidelity. These men pledged not to eat, travel, or meet with any woman alone, except their wives. This rule, which covered more than just the issue of sexual infidelity, served to protect this ministry from the allegations of impropriety, for a long string of decades, that many Christians have admired as basic, common sense.

Surprisingly, the criticism of this rule has come, not simply from secular sources, but from Christians as well. Much of the furor concerns the endless egalitarian versus complementarian debates that consume the energies of many of today’s Christians (I tell some of my story here). Progressive Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans, tweeted that “Jesus scandalized the disciples by meeting with a woman for a drink,” a reference to Jesus’ meeting of the Samaritan woman at the well, in John 4.

The critics have a point. The “Billy Graham rule” arose during a time when it was relatively uncommon to find women in the work force, in the late 1940s. When I began my career in engineering in 1980s, things had drastically changed in society. For about five years, I shared a large office with three other women engineers. There were times when I was alone with one of these women in the office, and neither of us thought anything about it. It was just part of our jobs to work together. So I get it.

But such critics have obscured something essential, in their defense of seeing women fully integrated in the workplace. The “Billy Graham rule” should not be lost as some legalistic concept, to be discarded as being sexist. Rather, we must be mindful of the principle that undergirds the rule, namely, that all people, men and women, who wish to honor their Lord, should not put themselves in compromising situations.

George Beverly Shea, Billy Graham, and Cliff Barrows, the young evangelists, who sought to live lives above reproach.

Fundamentally, people like Pence and Graham have been simply protecting their marriages, protecting themselves, and protecting those who have come under their familiar influence. As followers of Jesus, we should all do the same. The human tendency towards sin is much stronger than we are willing to admit to ourselves and realize. What often starts off as legitimate and harmless in our interpersonal relationships, business or otherwise, can easily slip into something completely inappropriate, over a period of time. The principle behind the Graham rule is that we should have those checks and balances in place that will keep us honest. All of us need healthy boundaries, to keep us from crossing lines of behavior, that we would soon regret. Just ask those former pastors and ministry leaders who failed to keep an appropriate version of the “Billy Graham rule,” starting counseling relationships privately, with those of the opposing gender, who after a small indiscretion here and there, eventually lost their jobs, scandalized their ministries, and destroyed their families.

The drawings of those specific boundaries will change as cultural conditions change, and such “rules” may still look strange to outsiders. Jesus met with the woman at a public well, not a dimly lit, secluded room. Yet the concept of a public well, in first century Palestine, seems strange, when contrasted with the contemporary American workplace or ministry setting. We will need to tweak certain applications of the principle behind the “Billy Graham rule,” in a culturally contextual manner. But the principle of avoiding compromising situations is a good thing to keep. Let us not mock that.

The Final Update to the English Standard Version (ESV)

Plumb LineCrossway Publishers recently announced that they have arrived at a permanent revision of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. This last revision, conducted in the summer of 2016, involves just 52 words out of 29 Bible verses, as detailed on Crossway’s website.

I bought my first ESV translation of the Bible in 2008. Even though the first edition came out 2001, there had been rumors of a Study Bible being produced. I am glad that I waited. This is now my favorite Bible to use, as it contains a wealth of resources and maps to aid the student of Scripture (though I also really like the Zondervan NIV Study Bible, too). Unlike some other study Bibles produced by a single Bible teacher, the ESV Study Bible was produced by a team of evangelical scholars across a wide set of backgrounds, thus making sure the reader is not limited to one person’s view of the Bible.

The original vision of the ESV translation committee was to produce a modern, and yet permanent, alternative to the venerable King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, for English readers. The idea of having a fixed text that would stand the test of time was the primary reason why the church that I am a part of selected the ESV as our new pew Bible.

But not every initial printing of a new Bible is perfect, and so the ESV made allowances for some changes since 2001. The largest set of changes were announced in 2011, and while I could not find those changes listed anymore at Crossway.org, another blogger at Bible-Researcher.com has still hung onto them (PDF format), 500 words out of 275 verses. Before the ESV Study Bible appeared, another set of changes were made in 2007 (If you know of any other previous changes, let me know, as I would like to link to them here).

But it looks like the ESV translators are now finished with their work. Note that the “final” version of the King James Version of the Bible was not fixed until 1769, 158 years after the KJV was originally produced.

ChristianityToday has an article about the summer 2016 changes to the ESV here.   I blogged about how believers can navigate through their decision on what Bible translation they should use, the ESV vs. NIV 2011, in a earlier Veracity post. Blogger Jon Burnett details some of the recent 2016 changes. For you total Bible geeks, Old Testament professor Claude Mariottini has reviewed these changes (spoiler alert: Mariottini does not like some of the changes. One of his biggest gripes deals with an issue related to the complementarian/egalitarian debate, which is pretty current in evangelical circles and explored at Veracity here). And finally, blogger Scot McKnight addresses the most controversial change.

UPDATE: September 15, 2016. Dave Rudy, a faithful Veracity follower, sent me this link to a post by blogger/theologian Denny Burk interacting with Scot McKnight, defending the ESV’s permanent revision.

UPDATE: September 30, 2016. Crossway has reversed their decision. Details here.

Your Desire Shall Be For Your Husband

Katharine Bushnell (1855-1946). Missionary to China and activist for women's equality, spent a lot time studying the original Hebrew meaning of Genesis 3:16 (photo credit: Boston University)

Katharine Bushnell (1855-1946). Missionary to China and activist for women’s equality. Bushnell spent a lot time studying the original Hebrew meaning of Genesis 3:16 (photo credit: Boston University)

To the woman he [God] said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16 ESV)

The beauty and simplicity of the early chapters of Genesis ironically leads to a pitfall when reading these chapters. The story of Adam and Eve is very terse and yet captivating. The details are sparse, but the narrative is engaging, as well as being foundational to Christian theology and practice. The story invites the reader to explore the imagination, going deeper in trying to figure out what it all means. But sometimes, the imagination can take you far away from the text itself, and thereby importing an alien sense of meaning that does not belong there.

For years, I have wrestled with the meaning of the curse given to Eve in Genesis 3:16, subsequent to the Fall. In contemporary Western culture, where concerns about women’s rights flourish, many readers bristle over the idea that Eve might somehow be the one to blame for the Fall of Humanity. After all, she interacted with the serpent and then offered the forbidden fruit to Adam. Does Genesis teach that Eve was truly at fault?

More specifically, by asserting herself so forwardly in her dialogue with the serpent, was she subverting her role as a supportive helpmate to Adam? If one reads the Apostle Paul in one of his letters to Timothy,  you might get the idea that Paul really believes that it was all Eve’s fault (1 Timothy 2:13-15).

But even when reading Paul, such a neat conclusion is not so simple. In his most profound work of theology in his letter to the Romans, Paul squarely places the responsibility for the Fall on Adam’s shoulders (Romans 5:12-17). Eve is not even mentioned.

So, perhaps the wisest conclusion to make is that both Adam and Eve share in the downfall of humanity, though in different ways. You can not pin it all on Eve.

But then there is the whole matter of the curse placed on Eve, specifically, that “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” What is that all about?

This past summer, our church held a Summer Bible Study on Genesis 1-11, and this very question came up. Here is a TableTalk session where Tommy Vereb, our worship leader, poses the question to our lead pastor, Travis Simone:

Continue reading

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