Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why There Is No Such Thing as a Lay Elder in Scripture

Have you ever been in a footrace where you stub your toe at the outset? You immediately stop or slow down. There is likely little chance that you will finish the race at that point, much less win it. Instead, if you move forward at all, your run will turn into a painful looking hobble to everyone witnessing the event. I feel like our churches have either stopped or are just hobbling along, and some of this, I truly believe, has to do with our false concepts of what church leadership should look like.

If you've read this blog for awhile, you know that I think that the idea of lay elders is both unbiblical and harmful. It's less unbiblical and harmful than the Ancient Roman model of an emperor who rules over lesser administrators, adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, Baptists, Non-denominational Mega and Charismatic churches; but better isn't best.

Sometimes, a church has to take upon itself this model because it can't afford to support multiple elders. So be it. But we're talking about what is best, not what one might have to do when there is no option for the better alternative. And we should all be working to the best, rather than just making note of it and ignoring it.

But, just in case you think that such a thing as a lay elder is biblical, let's take a look at the only passage from which this idea supposedly springs: 1 Timothy 5:17-18.


Οἱ καλῶς προεστῶτες πρεσβύτεροι διπλῆς τιμῆς ἀξιούσθωσαν, μάλιστα οἱ κοπιῶντες ἐν λόγῳ καὶ διδασκαλίᾳ. λέγει γὰρ ἡ γραφή· βοῦν ἀλοῶντα οὐ φιμώσεις, καί· ἂξιος ὁ ἐργάτης τοῦ μισθοῦ αὐτοῦ.

The elders who are rightly set in leadership are worthy of a double salary, specifically those who labor in word and teaching, because the Scripture says, "Do not muzzle an ox while he is treading out the grain," and "the worker is worthy of his wages."

Now, skipping over the debate about the word "honor," which clearly here refers to taking care of these elders financially, however that might look in a particular culture (in ours, it means a paycheck, contra the arguments made by some in our circles), I want to look at two things.

First, I've talked a little bit before about the word malista that is often translated as "especially." The word in the New Testament seems to be used as a clarifying word in speech that moves from a general or broad category to a specific one, much like saying, "The government, malista the IRS, taxes me too much." Hence, it is epexegetical in a way. It is often, however, taken to be used as a move from a general category to a more specific one within that category. In other words, the specification is within the group, not within the speech. What this means is that modern translations often take it to mean that there are a bunch of elders who are rightly elders, but then a smaller group of elders who labor in speaking and teaching, which likely refers to discipleship in the Word. Hence, this latter group takes the verse to be speaking of two different groups: elders who rule and elders who disciple. The elders who disciple are a subset of the elders who rule, so they both rule and disciple in the Word, but the other elders only rule.

I think the real use of malista in the NT bears out the former meaning, and that these elders are one and the same group, not two different groups. Hence, those who labor in discipling others in the Word are one and the same group with those who rule. In fact, that is how they rule. The one group, is described and defined more clearly by the two statements together. How one rules without laboring to disciple the church is beyond me, so I'm not sure how the other view is really consistent with the verse. Hence, I think taking the term as Marshall, Knight, and others is a better option, explains the texts in the NT in which it is used better, and also explains the development of the word into an affirmative that means "indeed" later on in the Greek language.

But beyond that objection to the popular approach, the second issue to talk about is more obvious, and that is that BOTH sets of elders here, regardless of whether one sees two or one group in the text, are deserving of double honor. Did you get that? Both groups are to be paid. Both groups are to be supported with the same double wage. What that means is:

1. There is no such thing as the lay elder, since "lay" refers to his not getting paid.
2. He is to be paid the same amount as the other elders.
3. This helps confirm that malista means "specifically speaking," rather than "especially," since how exactly does one "especially" pay double wages to the second group when the first group is getting the same double wages?

Now, I realize this throws a wrench in most of your ecclesiologies, to which I have to say, "So what?" Multiple paid elders who are there to support each other in their rule of the congregation by discipling it is the best possible thing a church can do for itself. You will get a variety of preaching and teaching from different perspectives and insights that you miss with one guy. You don't end up with exhausted elders. You are much more unlikely to end up with elders who have little to no accountability. They help each other in labor and in spirit. They disciple one another. And they make it their full time job to do so, otherwise, it just doesn't work out as well.

I also say, "So what?" to the fact that you have assigned yourselves to the Word of God as God's people, so you don't get to decide what Christ has decided for His church. He is Lord of the church. We are the church. We ought, therefore, to set it up as He desired it to be set up.

Not only is it hypocrisy for us to say we just want to glorify Him in all we do, and then not do it, but I don't need to even point out all of the calamity that has been created in ministry and churches because this isn't obeyed. Both elders and churches are a mess because of this. The Roman model doesn't work for the church. And just to point out to you something you may have missed, Rome fell. It's people devastated, its lands destroyed, and its emperors went crazy. Let's not continue to repeat that madness. If you can, put qualified elders into position that are full-time. They watch over your souls. Do you want them to do that as a side job? Do you want them to be exhausted from trying to disciple so many people at once? Maybe you don't realize how much jeopardy your soul is in? Maybe you don't believe God and know how much you really do need those elders who are appointed to watch over your soul? We pay our doctors ridiculously. How much more should we strive to pay those who, frankly, would care for us for nothing if they could?

Care for him. Give to him double wages and give the same to other elders who will care for his soul and yours. If you can, do it. If you can't, strive for it. It's the loving thing to do. It's the biblical thing to do. It's the God-glorifying thing to do. Until then, you're just going to be hobbling along until that toe is healed.


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