Elders: A Natural View

One of the first things a person has to do when rethinking the idea of “church” is to seriously reconsider what the Bible means when it speaks about “elders”. The two concepts are intertwined and inseparable, and so there are as many views on eldership as there are on church.

This is a huge topic and I can only touch on it here, but I believe that a few basic principles can make the world of difference in how we approach this subject. The same applies to a myriad of other fuzzy church issues, and so my aim is not only to make a remark or two about the issue of recognising an elder but to suggest where one should start when thinking about such issues.

Two Vital Distinctions

Where does one start? I often say to people that early Christians had two things that we do not have in our day and age, and I believe it is vital that we see this before attempting to shift from an institutionalised form of Christianity to a natural one (which happens to be what this blog is all about):

1. Early Christians did not have any books or how-to-manuals manuals on doing “organic church”. This makes sense if you consider what the term “organic” or “natural” means. Fish do not need to earn degrees in ocean population at the Oceanographic Institute, as some of us are finally figuring out, but neither do they need lectures on organic fish life. What they need is the nature of a fish.

2. Early Christians did not have two thousand years of church tradition to contend with. Their church experience began at point zero, and so it could not be anything but natural. Their collective dedication to prayer, teaching, fellowship and the breaking of bread was a spontaneous manifestation of the Christ life within. They were not following a liturgical pattern and they were not trying to regain something they had lost. They were just BEING. We, on the other hand, have some serious unlearning to do before we can start our race. We are like a group of marathon runners on a lost bus steered by a drunken driver in the back streets of a city we do not know. The race has begun, but we are not there. To do what we are called and equipped to do is simply not possible. Of course, we can rationalize our predicament: We can put on our running shoes, convince ourselves that we are moving in the right direction and even rejoice at the speed we are traveling with (no runner can equal this!). On the other hand, we can rise up, curse the driver, force the bus to a standstill, get out, vow to never set foot on another bus and start walking or jogging (bound together by the camaraderie forged by our harrowing experience). Either way, we are not where we are supposed to be and we have not even begun to do what we are supposed to do.

There is much to be said about this, but that is not what I want to do here. The point that I want to make is that we, 2000 years down the line, need to first find our way back to the starting point of our race before we can start with it (no rocket science here!). This is our challenge, and from such a vantage point we may very well argue that we require a type of training that was unnecessary in the early church. I suspect that this is the very reason why someone like Frank Viola wrote Pagan Christianity before he wrote Reimagining Church and Finding Organic Church. The fish have been taught that they are scuba divers, and so, unlike their great ancestors, they need training (un-training?) to come to terms with their own identity.

Letting Go…

Once we grasp this, it becomes much easier to approach thorny issues such as eldership. If the first challenge is to rid ourselves of traditional ideas, than that is what we must do. If I close my eyes and think of the word “elder”, the first image that appears in my mind is one from my early childhood. I see a group of somber men, dressed in black suits and white ties, sitting in reserved pews in a front section of the traditional Reformed church my family and I attended. It is now decades later, but that picture still imposes itself on me and seeks to define what eldership is all about. And so I start my quest with a severe handicap.

Clearly I need to let go of this image before I can start my journey of discovering Biblical eldership. To try and erase such a powerful memory is futile, and so the best I can do is to stop believing in it as a legitimate portrayal of eldership. (This is no small task. If you struggle to question your own dearly held convictions, I highly recommend that you read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It is the best work I have read on the subject of challenging one’s own assumptions and opinions.) Once I have managed to do this I need to find my way to the starting point – to the place where the first Christians were when the race began. Only then can I begin my journey.

Back to Point Zero…

If you could travel back to first century Palestine and ask someone to do the exercise above (close your eyes, think of the word “elder”…), what image would come to his/her mind? The closest we can come to actually doing this is to find a contemporary culture that resembles the one in which the church was birthed. Like flies in amber, such cultures do exist in and around Palestine, frozen in time and unaffected by the events that have marked 2000 years of history in the “West”. It was in such a culture that the author J. van der Ploeg once asked an interesting question. In his own words:

In 1947, I asked an Arab priest from Beisan in Palestine, who was well-acquainted with the Arab nomads or semi-nomads, how one became an ‘elder’ of the tribe. He replied that he was not able to say, for there are no rules or laws to determine it. It seems that when a man reached the point where people often ask his counsel and he has the moral authority such as elders have, he is admitted by common, often tacit, consent into their ‘college’. So there is tacit admission into the group of elders, no nomination, nor application of a rule according to which one becomes an ‘elder’. The qualification is a man’s moral authority. It is my clear impression that a person became an elder in Israel in the same way, and this explains why our texts say little of it. (J. van der Ploeg, ‘Les Anciens dans l’Ancien testament, p190-191)

I suspect that this piece of information provides more insight into the question of electing church leadership than the majority of current books on the topic. It is not difficult to imagine how someone with the above understanding of eldership would have thought about a gathering of believers overseen by a group of elders. It is not difficult to conclude that that is exactly how the early church thought about eldership.

I have mentioned that there is much more to be said about the topic than this. My main aim is to provide a basic framework for reconsidering our presuppositions and getting back to Biblical ones; to think “naturally” again. We have to be guided by Scripture, but our premise must first be correct. The issue of eldership is but one example. There are many more.

Do you Speak Christianese?

…they shall call his name Immanuel which means, God with us. Matthew 1:23

It is ironic that some of Christendom’s greatest efforts to proclaim and exhibit God’s presence on earth have frequently caused exactly the opposite. God is usually obscured, rather than revealed, to the very degree that our religious attire, architecture, titles, music and language become strange and otherworldly. We then portray him not as “with us” but as distant, elusive and incomprehensible.

Our habit of speaking “Christianese” is a prime example. Like medieval ecclesiastical Latin, many of the terms that Christians use in everyday language is completely incomprehensible to people outside the church. Sadly, due to the fact that a number of Biblical Greek words were not translated into English but transliterated (the transcription of a word in one language into corresponding letters of another language without regard to the original meaning), Christians possess a distinct vocabulary that is gobbledygook to outsiders.

Consider the sentence: “A bishop and an apostle went to the church to speak to a pastor and a few deacons.” This sentence is not only unintelligible to a person untrained in religious language, but is also interpreted completely differently by people from different denominations. It is noteworthy that these terms had no religious connotation in the original Greek, but were everyday terms used to convey obvious meanings. And so a Greek simpleton in the first century would have understood the above sentence as “The supervisor and the delegate (or “sent one”) went to the gathering to speak to a herdsman and a few servants.”

The difference in meaning between the two sentences is astounding. The former is ambiguous whilst the latter portrays Christianity as a practical, functional, down-to-earth faith that calls for personal involvement.

God does not speak Christianese. He speaks in a way that we can all understand.

(Bloemnews 18 February 2011)

Judging Books by their Covers

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 2 Corinthians 4:5

According to an old saying one should never judge a book by its cover. Whilst this is true, one should also not ignore the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages that a book cover may convey. Sleazy magazines, for instance, can usually be judged by their covers.

With this in mind I cannot help but wonder about the fairly recent trend of putting full blown pictures of Christian authors on the covers of their books. If the aim of a book is to exalt Jesus Christ and him alone, why do I have to stare at the face of the author every time I pick up the book? Can you imagine Paul having his face painted on the scroll that contained the epistle to the Romans? Neither can I!

Reading James Chen’s transcribed talks in the remarkable little book The Passing of the Torch recently, I came across an interesting first-hand account that strengthened my misgivings. Chen, who was a friend of the well-known Chinese Christian Watchman Nee, said the following during one of his talks: “If Watchman Nee were here and if he heard me mentioning his name, he would be very unhappy. I feel I am saying too much about him. He never wanted anyone to exalt Watchman Nee more than Christ. He felt very deeply that his name should never take up even a little bit of the attention due the name of Jesus Christ. The Christians and the churches all over China, although they respected Watchman Nee, seldom mentioned his name – but they exalted Christ. Brother Watchman Nee was not our head, but Jesus Christ was our Head.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

(Bloemnuus 10 December 2010)

What’s in a Name? II

The What’s in a Name post (January 2011) has attracted quite a bit of traffic and some thought-provoking discussion, and so I was inspired to dedicate my weekly newspaper column to the topic:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus … to the church of God that is in Corinth. 1 Corinthians 1:1-2

In the city of Toronto there is a church with the name The St. Francis National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith Archdiocese of Canada. And no, it is not the longest church name in the world. Ever heard of The House of God which is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth without Controversy, Inc? It’s in Ansonia, Connecticut, in case you want to pop in for a morning service.

If you don’t feel comfortable going to a church where the sign outside takes more space than the parking lot, you can always go to one of the trendy “emergent churches”. They have short hip names like Apex, Liquid, Quest and so on. Or, if you want something really unpretentious, you can pay a visit to the Scum of the Earth church in Denver, Colorado. These guys are not only humble; they want everyone to know it.

Can you imagine if Paul had to write Colossians 4:15-16 in our day and age? “Give my greetings to The True Holiness Divine Revelation Church of the Apostolic Succession and to Nympha and The Church of Our Lady Of Perpetual Succour. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in Touch Not My Anointed; and see that you also read the letter from Touch Not My Anointed” (No disrespect intended; these are all actual church names!)

Perhaps we can learn something from the churches of the New Testament. They had no names but were named according to locality, loudly proclaiming that their only identity was to be found in Christ and Christ alone.

(Bloemnuus 4 February 2011)