Thursday, January 17, 2013

What Do You Want the Most out of an Elder? A Feel-Good Relationship or to Become like Christ?

A comment was made by an elder of the church we are currently attending that implied that those with a lot of Bible knowledge, but are less "relational" (whatever that means), are not as capable to perform the office of overseer as well as those who are more relational.

Although our culture would certainly agree with such a sentiment, as we care far more about how one makes us feel when they speak to us than we do about how truth and lies affect God's glory in our minds and lives, I would challenge that idea.

Maybe it's the fact that people don't realize that we're in an epic war. We struggle against spiritual forces seeking to destroy us. As such, I simply need to ask this question, "If you are in a war, who do you want defending you, Mr. Rogers or Captain America?"

Even on the day to day, let's say I have a major medical issue and I need a surgeon. It would be nice to have a relational surgeon who was top-notch in his field as well, but if I had to choose between them, I'd rather have House than some really relational surgeon who was not as familiar with what he was doing as his less relational counterpart.

I had a youth minister once who thought that ministry was all about relationship. Yet, I saw no growth in those to whom he supposedly ministered in such a way, and when I preached the Word of God to people, often without having much of a relationship with them at all, they began to grow in leaps and bounds. So what's with the adoration of the concept that a good elder is "relational"? I think this is likely more our postmodernism than our Christianity, as I noted above. You may not be able to speak truth into my life unless you relate to me, or speak truth at all into my life (hey, who knows what's true anyway?), but you can at least make me feel accepted.

In fact, it may also be a part of the "effeminization" of the church that so many teachers have discussed in recent years, an effeminization that has taken place because display of emotion/affection is more spiritually compassionate and mature than a display of truth, which is seen as arrogant and cold by our culture.

However, I would say that being "relational" is not even a qualification in Scripture that one needs to meet in order to become an elder. In fact, many elders in church history had little contact with their congregants in large of amounts of what we would consider intimate conversations and counseling. I'm not saying that's necessarily an ideal thing, but many very strong Christians came out of those environments nonetheless. And I think that is the case because what the elder is supposed to do is of greater service to the Christian than making him feel good about their relational relationship.

So let's look at what the elder is actually supposed to do, and this will help us understand what exactly makes him more qualified to be an elder.

Deuteronomy 22:17-18 shows the elders as the group to which judgment and discipline is given. Notice that it says that they are to "seize" the young man who has slandered the virgin, make him both pay her father a huge fine, and make him marry the virgin whose reputation he ruined for life.
But notice the violence with which the passage is flavored. Elders aren't squishy feely people here. They are disciplinarians with whom one within the community must reckon if he chooses to do an evil.

Acts 15:6 shows that the elders met with the apostles in order that they might together decide an important theological matter. The apostles many times called themselves "elders" as well (3 John 1:1; 1 Peter 5:1). Yet, we see the apostles continually engaged in prayer and the teaching of the Word. Their ministries are filled with polemic.

We are also told of Paul's instruction to the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20, that God made them as overseers to shepherd the flock, specifically, against "fierce wolves" who would come in to destroy both them and the flock. The picture is of a head shepherd warning undershepherds to go to battle against wolves. It is a violent clash between predator and protector of the flock.

Peter tell us in 1 Peter 5 that elders ought to shepherd the flock of God eagerly and not merely out of duty. This shepherding, as well as the need for younger men to submit to it, seems to be in the context of the devil prowling around like a lion, looking for someone to devour. This displays, yet again, the shepherd as warrior, watching over the flock as an overseer, watching over the household from those who would do it harm, ready for battle.

The elders do battle, of course, with the Word of God. They use it in their judgments, in their battles against those who would destroy the children of God, and they use it to "feed" the sheep.

In other words, the image of the elder as a shepherd is not one where the gentle shepherd sits quietly by one of his sheep while gently stroking it in the peaceful afternoon breeze, but instead of a father is who is a warrior judge, correcting and disciplining his children to maturity, and fighting off predators and intruders who seek to destroy those children.
Much of what he does is instruction. He instructs the children placed under his care by rebuking, correcting, reproving, encouraging them in the truth. If the Word is a staff, then the shepherd's staff helps the sheep stay with the flock and go in the right direction when the shepherd walks behind the sheep and taps them back in line with the other sheep. He uses it in correction and encouragement to direct their path to green pastures and still waters, and to keep them away from the jaws of those who would devour them in the need to quench their own appetites.

Now, of course, I'm not saying that the gentle shepherd imagery is never appropriate. I've said before, however, that our concept of "gentleness" is not quite what the Bible means by the word "gentle" (which has more to do with not being physically violent or intimidating). But even the imagery of our own concept of gentleness is appropriate at times.

My issue is concerning people who think that the normal conduct of an elder is one where he embodies Mr. Rogers more than Captain Rogers. He is to feed the sheep, and that may include a more gentle instruction many times, but he is also to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, to fight the good fight, and to keep watch, as a guardian, over the souls of God's flock.

I would contend, therefore, that the elder is more shepherd than pet-owner. He is more guardian than psychiatrist. His counsel is more active instructing than passive listening. You know, pretty much everything that we have come to believe is bad in an elder seems to be his actual job description.

And because of this, because he must wield the Word like a weapon to deal out justice in discipline, a staff to protect the flock, a sword to guard the household, the Scripture tells us that no one who does not know the Word of God like a rabbi, "able to teach and to refute those who contradict," is qualified for the position. He must, of course, demonstrate the Word in his life as well, as instruction of the Word needs to be modeled.

It would seem, then, that such a comment to the affect that people who have a lot of Bible knowledge, but are less "relational" are somehow more deficient in their ability to perform the office of overseer is horribly misguided.

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