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.
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.