Tag Archives: eldership

How Christians Change Words

I am doing a study on how Christians use words, taking a look at reading some of the Inklings, namely Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis. But I ran into this nugget from a blog post by Logos software bible scholar, Mark Ward, author of the extraordinary Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, that I reviewed last summer.

So, what is a “pastor?” Furthermore, what is an “elder?”

I have already written about that elusive term “elder.” So, let us focus on the former here.

Oddly enough, for the word “pastor,” the venerable King James Bible (KJV) only uses that exact word once in the whole Bible, Ephesians 4:11. Otherwise, the term “pastor,” from the Greek word poimen, is translated as “shepherd,” as in being a shepherd of sheep.

Notice that in Ephesians 4:11, the word pastor does not describe an office, but rather a particular spiritual gift. Elsewhere, the concept of pastor/shepherd describes a certain function in the church. Notably, that same concept of shepherding is used to describe the function of the elders (from the Greek, presbyters) of the church in Ephesus, who are charged by Paul (Acts 20), to care for the flock, and protect them from spiritual wolves, that threaten to come in and devour the sheep (Acts 20:28-30).

The word elder, and its related term, overseer, do correspond to a type of office in the church, as in 1 Timothy 3, as one who is “able to teach,” “not a recent convert,” and so on. This meshes well with the function of pastoring the flock.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, or beating it to death, ponder a moment again about that word elder. Oddly though, Christians today typically do not always regard the word elder has having the same sense of pastor. Often, we split the concept of elder from pastor. Many churches will have a group of elders, but those elders are different than the pastor or pastors, which can be really confusing.

Then there is the term overseer. The old King James Version translation of that Greek word, episcopos, “bishop,” does get used by different denominational groups. Furthermore, for those traditions that tend to predate the Reformation, there is the terminology of priest, that is sort of, but not quite, synonymous with the Protestant pastor, but that is another whole intricate discussion.

But for some odd reason, the term pastor appears to win out, above them all, to describe the leader of a church, in many evangelical circles. I typically hear someone called “Pastor Bob,” but never “Shepherd Bob,” and only sometimes “Elder Bob.” Never have I heard someone called “Overseer Bob,” or “Church Leader Bob,” despite the fact that most modern translations of 1 Timothy 3:1 speak of the word overseer or the phrase church leader, to describe an elder. Rarely do you hear “Elder Bob” mentioned as the “Pastor.”

As Mark Ward points out, this is an example of when a metaphor, becomes so stable over time, that it effectively becomes a whole new word. If I could pay money to get every student of the Bible to grasp this, I would surely go broke.

To be a pastor was once used to describe a practice in animal husbandry. Now a pastor has become almost exclusively an ecclesiastical term. You rarely see a shepherd caring for their flock of sheep, in industrial, modern societies. But when observed, I never hear the term pastor used, only shepherd.

A pastor is nowadays almost always a “religious” term.

What was once a metaphor to describe the function of an office, has now become the office itself. Rightly or wrongly, that is what Christians do to words. Language changes.

…..Which just goes to prove that a lot of the discussions we have in our churches today about church governance can be exceedingly difficult, when we do not share a common vocabulary, by not recognizing how metaphors change character over time, to create new meanings.


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?


Deborah’s Dance: Women in Church Leadership?

Radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). A modern day Deborah? Or a sensational character leading evangelicalism into the tragic morass of contemporary feminism? (Photo credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). A modern day Deborah used by God to help restore the church to its proper ministry? Or a sensational character whose example, if followed too rigidly, will lead the church into the tragic morass of contemporary feminism?
(Photo credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

My wife loves to dance. I am not the best dancer in the world, but I must admit that I enjoy it, too. However, there is a certain mystery to dancing. There is just something about dancing the defies rational description…

Our church is doing a summer Bible study on the Book of Judges, and this past week the sermon was on the story of Deborah. Deborah brings one of the brighter moments in Judges. Deborah is celebrated as one of the great leaders in Old Testament Israel amid an ever spiraling downward movement of God’s chosen people. Her contemporary Barak lacked the confidence by himself to take on Sisera, the enemy of Israel, desiring Deborah’s presence as God’s anointed judge to assist him.

Deborah has always posed the question regarding whether or not women should be permitted to serve in certain positions of leadership in churches that hold to the authority of the Bible as God’s Word. The issue came up in our small group a few nights ago: How does one reconcile the positive example of Deborah’s leadership with the writings of Paul in the New Testament where the Apostle urges churches not to permit women to teach or have authority over men (I Timothy 2:11-15 and I Corinthians 14:33-40? Is the example of Deborah a partial fulfillment of God’s intended purposes that celebrate the leadership roles of both men and women equally in the church? Or is Deborah an exception to the rule, which specifically urges churches governed by the New Testament to only have men as elders and/or pastors, and thus honoring the complementarity between the sexes?

(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: The issues here are indeed complex. If you have not done so already, I would suggest that you stop where you are and go back and read my earlier post on Rachel Held Evans that addresses the sensitive question of “Biblical Womanhood.” There I have listed a set of the best resources available to do an in-depth study of what the Bible says on that topic in general, giving a fair hearing to both sides of the debate.)

What I will say here about the specific issue of women in church leadership is that I have had to learn how to deal with this issue the hard way. Not only is it important that we understand what the Bible says, it is also important as to how we approach this issue in our discussions with other Christians.

It has something do with dancing.

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