Sunday, November 04, 2018

Should Elders Give Orders?

Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity is a vitally important — even radical — reassessment of the church that attempts to encourage evangelicals out of clericalism and into something much more like what was taught by the apostles and practiced in the first century. Several summers ago, I examined it here, here and here.

There is much to be said for Viola’s vision of the church. He’s got so many things absolutely right that I struggle with critiquing him at all out of concern that in doing so, I’ll end up minimizing all the wonderful things he has to say. Viola condemns paid clergy, one-man domination of a congregation, professionalism, corporatism, passive pew-sitting, lack of congregational involvement and all kinds of bad practice that has crept into our churches from the corporate world and other faulty models — all things we have criticized repeatedly in this space.

There are, however, two areas in which I believe Viola has missed the boat, if only by a few seconds. One is the women’s role. The other is the authority of elders.

Specifically, one can come away from Viola’s books wondering if elders should ever give any orders at all; if the organic leadership model he champions precludes the giving of strong verbal direction of any kind. I will argue it does not.

What Frank Gets Right

Viola correctly grasps the biblical perspective on elders / shepherds / overseers / leaders, seeing these terms as different aspects of the same servant role, rather than discrete tasks assigned to a bevy of paid professionals:

“Elders, then, were overseers and shepherds. The term elder refers to their character. The term overseer refers to their function. And the term shepherd refers to their gifting.”

He then goes on to describe how this played out in the first century church:

“Their chief task was threefold: to model servanthood in the church; to motivate the believing community toward works of service; and to mold the spiritual development of the younger believers (1 Peter 5:1-3). The elders also dealt with sticky situations in the church (Acts 15:6 ff.). But they never made decisions for the church.” [Emphasis mine]

See, until we got to that last line, I was right there with him. As we proceed, I hope to show you why that last line makes me get off the bus. It simply doesn’t reflect the New Testament record.

Command-Style Relationships

A couple more quotes should suffice to set out Viola’s position on elders giving orders:

“While often bloodless, the hierarchical leadership style is undesirable for God’s people. Why? Because it reduces human interaction into command-style relationships. Such relationships are foreign to New Testament thinking and practice.”

“An elder had no biblical or spiritual right to bark out commands to a passive congregation.”

That should do it, I think. Viola stops short of asserting elders should never give orders to believers, but he repeatedly emphasizes that an elder’s authority is almost or entirely limited to his ability to model right Christian behavior and his skill at persuading his fellow believers of the correctness of his position.

The Greatest is a Servant

Viola’s view of New Testament church leadership is distilled from the words of Christ himself, specifically his teaching in Matthew 20 and in a parallel passage in Luke. For Viola, these passages are crucial, and he says many commendable things about them:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave …”

From this, Viola and others conclude that servant leadership precludes the exercise of authority, especially unequivocal verbal direction, or commands.

I should note two things about this passage before we move on:

  • First, the contrast the Lord Jesus sets up here is not between servants, on the one hand, and, on the other, godly, hard-working men who give occasional verbal direction according to the leading of the Spirit and/or their wisdom and experience. Rather, the contrast the Lord draws is between servants and despots who take titles and sit on thrones while assigning responsibilities to others. The whole question arose in the first place because Zebedee’s wife requested positions of honor for her two sons in the coming kingdom. That’s important.
  • Second, there was no church when Jesus said this. He is not talking about elders here. Rather, he is setting out a general principle that governs all authority relationships in the kingdom of heaven: “It shall not be so among you.” So this instruction is not limited to elders, but extends to fathers, husbands, apostles, prophets, apostolic delegates and in fact to every person who takes on the responsibility of leadership while seeking to follow Christ.

How to Interpret This

Viola goes on to discuss the meanings of two Greek words in the passage, katexousiazo and katakurieuo, both of which begin with kata, or “over”. From this he concludes:

“What Jesus is condemning in these texts is not oppressive leaders as such. He’s condemning the hierarchical form of leadership that dominates the Gentile world.”

Get that? It’s not just despotism or unilateralism Frank believes have no place in the church, it’s the whole concept of chain of command.

This does not follow.

Part of the problem here is that while analyzing Greek words from the helicopter’s-eye-view of 2,000 years’ distance is often helpful in determining meaning, what is far more significant is how the original hearers understood what Jesus was saying. We can easily determine this by observing their subsequent behavior and teaching. If the same apostles who heard the Lord enunciate this great general principle promptly went out and gave orders to their fellow believers, or if they instructed others to do so, we have to conclude that either (1) they were wrong every time they did so, or (2) they understood what the Lord was saying here better than Frank Viola does.

Command Performance

Here is a list of verses from the epistles in which Paul uses the word “command”:

  • “… though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required …” [the same word used for driving out unclean spirits, and the same word used to describe the Lord Jesus giving orders to the wind and water]
  • “To the married I give this charge” [paraggellō, literally, “command” or “order”]
  • “… to work with your hands, as we instructed you.” [same word]
  • “We have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command.”
  • “Now we command you, brothers …”
  • “Now such persons we command and encourage …”
  • “… remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.”
  • Command and teach these things.”
  • Command these things as well …”
  • “I charge you in the presence of God …”
  • “… charge them not to be haughty …”

The specifics of each command are unimportant for our purposes. What is important is that Paul, a subject of the kingdom, saw no conflict between Christ’s words later recorded in Matthew 20 and the giving of unequivocal, non-negotiable direction to the saints, both about practical matters (Philemon) and about doctrine. He also had no problem telling others to do so.

More Evidence

To this list we should add dozens upon dozens of further commands or instructions-to-command that do not use the word paraggellō and are therefore not so easily located with a concordance, though they are just as obviously firm directions that were intended to be obeyed, not mere suggestions: phrases as blunt and inarguable as “rebuke them sharply” and “they must be silenced”.

The giving of orders by New Testament leaders is not limited to the apostle Paul, and it is very, very common. If we are going to make the case that Paul and other apostles were wrong in giving orders, we are calling into question all the instruction in all the epistles, because we are calling into question those who gave it.

It might be better to concede some of us have misapplied the Lord’s words in Matthew 20.

Shepherds and Sheep

Further, if “It shall not be so among you” did not preclude apostles and apostolic designates from giving clear orders in the service of the kingdom, it definitely does not preclude modern elders from doing so. They are equally subjects of the kingdom tasked with shepherding the sheep. Often that means feeding them, watering them, retrieving them when they wander, and binding their wounds, but I am not prepared to rule out the possibility that for the truculent little wool-bearer determined to pull the flock in the wrong direction, it may mean the occasional verbal whack. Why? Because the New Testament record does not rule it out.

All godly elders prefer, as Paul did, to appeal and convince rather than command, not least because a person who agrees with you is more likely to be compliant than a person who does not. Persuasion is always the first choice, and an elder’s history of faithful service to God’s people is one good reason we find him sufficiently credible to pay attention to his instructions. But there are people who will not be persuaded. We find examples sprinkled throughout the New Testament. There are times when believers have to be given direct instructions that do not please them, and it is for this reason that the writer to the Hebrews says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Obedience is not necessary when brothers agree. It is only required when they do not.

In Conclusion

Look, I stand with Frank Viola against the concept of one-man leadership, against pride, bullying, lording it over others, worldly intimidation and all the other things the clergy-laity distinction does to cripple the church and make it ineffective in the world.

Further, I sympathize with those who have suffered in churches under men who were not true elders at all in the biblical sense; men who were (and are) tyrannical, arbitrary, legalistic, self-centered and arrogant. There are plenty of modern Pharisees, just as there were many in Jesus’ day. But I will also caution you that I have heard these very same nasty adjectives applied to men who were genuinely godly, and whose only fault was that they happened to offer instruction that didn’t please the person who asked for it. That’s not right either.

Servant leadership does not rule out leading authoritatively and in a manner that brooks no further discussion. Those who think it does need to re-read some familiar passages and note the forcefulness with which direction is frequently given.

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