Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ruling Elders in Baptist Churches (Part 1)

The church, the body of believers, has been described as an organism, not an organization.[1] While that may be true, the church organism still needs some organization (1 Cor 14:40; Col 2:25). The early church organized itself with regular meetings (Heb 10:25), on the first day of the week (John 20:19, 26), for worship and prayer (Acts 2:42, 47), receiving and accounting offerings (1 Cor 16:2), and breaking of bread (Acts 2:42; 20:7).

They kept membership rolls (Acts 2:41; 4:4), practiced ordinances (Acts 2:41-2, 46), shared property (Acts 2:45; 4:32-37), and enlisted deacons to care for the poor and widows (Acts 6:1-7) under the leadership whose occupation was the word of God and prayer.

While the early church’s organization seems so decent and in order, the Bible alas leaves some ambiguity in church governance. New Testament terms like elder, bishop, overseer, shepherd, and deacon seem to be functional descriptions rather than patently titular (Acts 14:13; 20:28; 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-2).

That ambiguity has led to several models of church polity today: Episcopal, congregational, Presbyterian, single elder-led, and plurality of elders.
[2] The ambiguities are frustrating to those who want to replicate the pattern given on the mountain. Others find in the ambiguities a freedom to follow a pattern that is, for them, both faithful to Scripture and convenient to context.

In fact, these ambiguities have been exploited from the time of the Apostolic Fathers. Clement of Rome (AD 95) seems to make no distinction between elders and bishops
[3] whereas Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 107) separates them, giving three levels of church leadership: bishops first, then presbyters, then deacons. The Didache (c. 80-150 AD) significantly equates overseers and elders and seems to teach a two-tiered structure of elders/overseers and deacons.[4]

Later John Calvin (d. 1564) argued in his context against the excesses of episcopacy that only one ordained office exists, that of elder, and not two, both bishop and elder, but then he divided the office of elder into two categories, ruling elders and teaching elders, based on his reading of 1 Timothy 5:17: “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”[5] Because these ambiguities exist, we can establish our position and if needed, agree to disagree on issues of church government and still have rich fellowship and learn from one another.

Continued in Part 2 of 4

[1] Wayne Cordeiro, Doing Church as a Team, (Ventura: Regal, 2001), 179.
[2] Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman, Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views on Church Polity, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2004).
[3] James Tunstead Burthchaell, From Synagogue to Church: Public services and offices in the earliest Christian communities, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 297.
[4] Brand and Norman, 11-12.
[5]Ibid, 18. A misreading in my opinion. Alastair Campbell says that it is possible to find four groups in this text if you want: elders, elders who rule, elders who rule well, and elders who preach and teach, “but in the first place the situation is considerably simplified if we understand the phrase about preaching and teaching as referring to and further defining the persons under discussion in the first half of the verse.” R. Alastair Campbell, The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 200-1.