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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Elders Are Older

... though not necessarily THIS old.
I recently participated in an online discussion on the subject of elders that generated a significant number of responses. Some of these were more on point than others, but there was enough muddling of the issues, inadvertent straw-manning and anecdotal meandering to make me feel that it’s worthwhile addressing at least one aspect of the qualifications for elders that we find in scripture.

That aspect is age: Elders are older.

Sorry, that’s my understanding of New Testament teaching. It is, evidently, not the understanding of many of my fellow believers.

Defining Terms

One problem with online debates is the tendency to talk past each other because we have not agreed on what we mean, so I’d like to be as clear as is possible.

That three word statement I just made gives raises two questions, which I’m going to try to answer from scripture:

1. WHAT IS AN ELDER?

It seems to be generally agreed that in the New Testament, an elder is a man who serves a local church, and therefore Christ, by providing leadership. He reports directly to the Head of the Church, not to the congregation or to a denominational head office. The leadership he provides is modeled on that of the Lord Jesus, who “came not to be served, but to serve”.

The New Testament describes different aspects of the job with different words, none of which constitutes a religious title. The elder is an overseer, a shepherd and a leader. He must also be able to teach, though it seems unnecessary that he be able to wow an audience.

The reverse is not true, of course. All older Christian men are not elders. All teachers are not elders, nor are all natural leaders in the Church, nor even are all those naturally disposed to care for the flock.

Restrictions and Recognition

It may seem a little restrictive, but not every Christian man can be elder. The qualifications for the job are found here and here.

Elders are not ordained, they are merely recognized. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes overseers.

All that is fine and dandy, and most serious evangelical Bible students would agree that this is what the New Testament teaches, whether or not they actually practice it in their own church or denomination. A seminary professor I enjoyed greatly last summer bluntly conceded that although his church doesn’t do it, this is what scripture teaches.

Sets and Subsets

The problem comes the moment actual people get involved, as in every area of life. In theory, if the Holy Spirit equips a man to be an overseer, this will be recognized by others in his local church and he will be obeyed, honoured, valued, respected, and immune to unsubstantiated accusations.

In theory, those who have been made overseers by the Holy Spirit and those recognized by a local church will be an identical subset of Christian men.

Rubber, Meet Road

But what happens when the Holy Spirit equips a man for service and the local church fails to recognize him because of politics or lack of spiritual perception? Worse, what happens when a church recognizes as an elder a man who is not qualified according to the restrictions provided in Timothy and Titus?

Is he an “elder” or not?

Hold that thought. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to use the word “elder” to describe any man recognized by a local church, rightly or wrongly. Paul refers to “elders who rule well”, implying that there may be those who do not. Yet because they have been recognized as such, it seems we are to acknowledge their authority even if they are not doing their job as they could or should.

2. WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “OLDER”?

Etymology

The word translated “elder” in our Bibles is the Greek presbuteros, which derives from presbus, meaning “old man”. It is used throughout the New Testament: (1) as a generic for an older man, (2) to describe a class of men who merited official recognition within Judaism; and finally (3) in its “church sense” as described above.

On the basis of etymology alone, then, an elder must be older. This is how the word was understood in the first century. We have no record of young men functioning as elders in the early Church.

Blurry Lines

But how much older is a question, isn’t it. “Older” is a relative term, representing a continuum rather than a rigid start and finish point.

On the one hand, it cannot reasonably mean ancient, since service and shepherd care for the people of God require adequate health, strength and mental acuity to do the job. There is an age, surely different from man to man, when these responsibilities are too much. Historically, not all elders have recognized this and many have hung on too long, for good reasons and bad ones. This has naturally given rise in some quarters to a reflexive but not always prudent fetishization of energy, exuberance and youth.

That’s one end of the age range. On the other, three scriptural restrictions apply:

·        “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” If an elder’s children, assuming he has them, are old enough to choose whether to submit to him or not, I would suggest they are at least well into their teens;

·        “He must not be a recent convert”, implying spiritual growth but also a certain amount of elapsed time; and

·        “… his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination”. This again suggests older children. Six year-olds are rarely in danger of charges of debauchery.

So spiritual maturity, as spelled out in Timothy and Titus, is of primary importance, but it is clear that experience and a certain amount of actual age are also necessary to put a man in a position to meet these three qualifications.

First Century and Twenty-First

North American society, for the most part, starts life late. Many young marrieds don’t begin having families until they are in their thirties. Under such circumstances, it would seem difficult to meet two of these three qualifications before one’s late forties. On the other hand, if a man marries young, becoming an elder in his late thirties would not appear unreasonable, all else being equal.

The verses about an elder’s children appear on the list of qualifications in both Timothy and Titus, and rate a substantial number of words. I would not go so far as to insist that every potential elder must have children to qualify for the work, but it certainly gives us an age range to work with. To dismiss this aspect of Paul’s teaching in the interest of utility, personal preference or on the basis of anecdotal evidence seems presumptuous to me. If you are going to scrap it, you may as well recognize as an elder anyone you feel like.

Frankly, if we are going to scrap the “children” part of the qualifications, on what basis do we insist that an elder be male? Where does doing away with bits of scripture that are inconvenient to our current circumstances end?

I have seen arguments this week in favour of recognizing “elders” in their twenties and even teens on the basis of their “energy” and the fact they are “doing the work”. This is nonsense. When you add a spiritual sense to a word, you enhance its meaning. What you have added remains consonant with the word’s original, literal sense. You do not invert the meaning, calling a young man “old”.

Okay, I guess some do: there are men without children who are called “father” and men who do not shepherd who are called “pastors”. Why not kids that we refer to as “elders”?

Perhaps because such linguistic gymnastics are Orwellian, not Pauline.

What About Reality?

We’ve defined our terms, and perhaps we have a better idea what sort of man we are looking for. That’s all well and good. But we’re about to crash headlong into 21st century reality, and the results are not pretty. I quote Bernie on this subject, since he puts it better than I can:
“Instead of the biblical model, what we do see in North America are a bunch of meetings where there are either no or painfully few mature men in that ideal age range. So emergency measures are taken — and younger men are pressed into service out of necessity, not conviction or design. Or a full time worker is given a super-elder role. Or, in the worst cases, a pastor is recruited. This isn’t indicative of a wrong model or plan on God’s part, it’s indicative of our spiritual poverty.”
Indeed. I have heard messages on the subject of elders in which I was assured that all believing men should be able to meet the qualifications of an elder. And I have heard messages in which the speaker conceded that no men he knew met the qualifications. I think both positions are extreme.

Real, qualified elders are, as Bernie says, in short supply. Some local churches have none at all, and it is necessary to make do for leadership with those who are willing but fall short of the scriptural standard in one area or more. In such a situation, it seems to me the noblest course is to simply do the work humbly and without official recognition, maintaining the primacy of the word of God. Giving such a man a title — pretending he meets a standard he demonstrably doesnt — is no compliment. It is a great big millstone around his neck.

In some very happy situations, there may be lots of gifted men who meet every qualification but age. The noblest course in this instance is not to call a young man something he is not. Bernie again:
“If young people are not already actively doing most of the work, the title of ‘elder’ isn’t going to help them to begin to do it. And if they’re not already doing the work, they shouldn’t even be in consideration for the formal title anyway. Bottom line, the formal title means (virtually) nothing; a local church may be encouraged, can appreciate the gift at hand and can be edified by young people who are not and perhaps never will be formally recognized as elders. Not being recognized as an elder will hardly prevent a gifted young man from edifying by exercising his gift(s).”
I hope to put together a follow-up post to deal with some of the common objections raised against older elders. Many of the comments I’ve seen so far don’t even address the scriptures on the subject.

Sadly, they are the only thing that actually matters.

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