Elders, the ‘older brothers’ of the church

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Series: The Church in Highlights
‘James D. G. Dunn said that the clergy-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies’. Frank Viola includes this quote in his book Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity. In my previous two posts I have been presenting some highlights that capture parts of two major themes of this book. Here are some highlights that partially present a third major theme.
Here is one of Viola’s opening salvos; ‘the modern clergy system is far removed from the thought of God. It puts the living, breathing organism of the church into an Old Testament straightjacket’. Now I am a pastor of a local church, so this statement surely got my attention. However, I see myself as the lead-elder of a group of men, a plurality of elders, who lead the church. In other words, I don’t regard our local church as ‘pastor led.’ But Frank is as much against elder-led as he is opposed to pastor-led church. He writes that ‘the idea that elders direct the affairs of the church, make decisions in all corporate matters, handle all of its problems, and supply all of its teaching is alien to New Testament thinking. Such an idea is pure fantasy and bereft of biblical support.

It’s no wonder that in elder-led churches spiritual maturity atrophies and members grow passive and indolent’. Ouch! 

He continues; ‘Stated simply, the New Testament knows nothing of an elder-ruled, elder-governed, or elder-directed church. And it knows even less about a pastor-led church. The first-century church was in the hands of the brotherhood and the sisterhood. Plain and simple’.

The author has a lot to say about how elders and pastors should function in the church and he builds his argument from an evaluation of the New Testament model of church leadership. He writes; ‘The overseers of the early church oversaw by example—not by coercion or manipulation. The respect they received from the other members was in direct proportion to their sacrificial service (1 Cor. 16:10–11,15–18; Phil. 2:29–30; 1 Thess. 5:12–13; 1 Tim. 5:17). Their authority was rooted in their spiritual maturity rather than in a sacerdotal position’.  He also states that ‘elders were not organizational figureheads. They weren’t hired pulpiteers, professional clergy, or ecclesiastical chairmen. They were simply older brothers (elders-in-fact) carrying out real functions (elder-ing, shepherd-ing, oversee-ing, etc.). 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 15:6ff)’.
In the preface Viola describes the purpose of the book as; ‘to articulate a biblical, spiritual, theological, and practical answer to the question, Is there a viable way of doing church outside the institutional church experience, and if so, what does it look like?’ In his book he covers much, much more than I have indicated in my selected highlights, so if what you have read here interests you then you should purchase the book for yourself – it is definitely worth reading, especially if you are a church leader.
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