We need to talk about just what it is that elders should do. Not what they do, but what they should do. You see, if the early church was led by city-wide elders, what did they do?
It’s not that easy to answer, since we’ve always read the passages about elders in light of a small, autonomous congregation. So let’s take a fresh look.
(Act 20:28 NRS) “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”
In Acts 20, Paul charges the Ephesian elders to “watch over” (or “watch out for”) the church and to “oversee” the church there by defending the church against “fierce wolves.”
An “overseer” is a person in management. “Supervisor” or “superintendent” would be a good translation in most contexts.
It’s easy to read an authoritarian interpretation into this passage, and there certainly is a measure of authority in view. But the passage has to be read in light of —
(Mat 20:25-28 ESV) 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Elders, therefore, must first be servants. They can’t lead people to be like Jesus by being unlike Jesus. It just won’t work. Therefore, I think elders should exercise as little of the authority God has given them as is consistent with performing their assigned duties.
Now, knowing Paul, the “savage wolves” were likely false teachers — either Judaizers or proto-Gnostics. That is, these were teachers who either wanted to insist that the saved be marked by circumcision, celebration of Jewish feasts and the Sabbath, and the like, or else Greeks who wanted to declare the Creation (including our bodies) evil and so separate God and Jesus from the Creation.
Wolves and false teaching
We see that Paul was worried about false teaching, but not just about any false teaching. He was worried about teaching that diminished the sufficiency of the gospel to save or that divided Christians along racial or ethnic lines.
However, we also see from such passages as Romans 14 that Paul tolerated doctrinal disagreements that did not threaten unity and the core of faith in Jesus. Indeed, the main difference between the controversy over eating meat discussed in Romans 14, where disagree was to be tolerated, and eating meat controversy discussed in Galatians, where those disagreeing were declared apostate, is the hearts and attitudes of those disagreeing. If you disagree and yet accept those you disagree with as in full fellowship and unity, then Romans 14 commands acceptance and full fellowship. If you disagree and damn those you disagree with, then you just might be teaching “another gospel” and be damned, as Galatians teaches.
I’ve covered this distinction is some detail in Do We Teach Another Gospel? and in the GraceConversation dialogue, and don’t want to have to recover that ground here. But it’s a critical point when it comes to discussions of unity. If someone has to agree with me on everything to be united with me, I will be a very lonely person in a very small church. But if I’m in fellowship with everyone no matter what they believe, then the Kingdom is fully come and we’re already in heaven, and I don’t think that’s true just yet. I’m pretty sure the world is still lost and broken.
The essential doctrinal agreements are taught plainly in the text —
(Gal 5:6 ESV) 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
(1Jo 3:23 ESV) 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
It’s faith in Jesus and love — an active, sacrificial love. In other words, it’s submission to Jesus as King and following him in his life of service, submission, and sacrifice. That’s the irreducible core. (Regarding baptism, see the links in the previous post.)
And therein are the lines of fellowship. We can also approach the question also in terms of —
* Faith: The belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God = Jesus is the Christ
* Hope: The belief that Jesus will keep his promises to reward those with faith = Jesus is Savior
* Love: Following Jesus by becoming like him in our attitudes and actions towards others = Jesus is Lord
Back to elders
So it’s not that hard to imagine an eldership over many churches that holds the churches to these standards. And such a system would permit the community of believers to remain united despite disagreements over the sorts of issues mentioned by Alexander Campbell in the Christian System (see prior post). Take, for example, the Synod of Dort that he said was no barrier to fellowship.
The Synod of Dort established TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) as the five key elements of Calvinism. Now, I’m not a Calvinist. But here’s the cool thing. You can be wrong on such speculations and still go to heaven — where, I imagine, both sides will be surprised to learn the real answer!
Hence, it’s entirely possible for an eldership over multiple congregations to limit their “guarding of the flock” to the core issues and not have to sort out Reformation-era debates.
A little history of damning each other
In early church history — the history that’s behind the New Testament — we see Paul and other apostles upset about doctrinal issues, but very rarely damning over issues. There are issues that could cause someone to fall away and be lost, but these are contradictions of the core doctrines discussed in the last post. The vast majority of issues that divide churches are very far removed from such concerns.
And yet soon after the apostles died, the church began damning and dividing over some very odd things. The Nestorians — making up a large portion of the Asian church that may have been as large as the European church as the time — were damned for refusing to call Mary “Mother of God.” The Nestorians established churches at least as far east as China! But the Europeans deemed them damned and their history has been ignored in European thought.
The Eastern Orthodox were damned over whether communion bread should be leavened and whether the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son rather than just the Father.
The Lutherans and Reformed Churches refused fellowship over consubstantiation. And on it went, with Christians dividing and fighting and damning over all disagreements.
Stone, the Campbells, and others tried to restore unity by teaching that only faith in Jesus and submission to baptism were essential to fellowship, but the next generations returned to old habits, damning over fellowship halls and the cup count during communion.
Stone, the Campbells, and Paul the apostle got it right. Most others did not.
So, yes, indeed, elders are responsibile for sound doctrine, but sound doctrine includes tolerance of those who disagree on non-core issues. Which should mean that a city-wide fellowship is possible.
But, of course, doctrine is not the only issue when it comes to a citywide fellowship. But for most of us, it’s the biggest.
We’ll take up some other issues in the next post.
I’m not advocating any form of denominationalism. The cure for denominationalism isn’t the creation of a new, better denomination! It’s learning to think in entirely new ways.
Neither is the cure the formation of autonomous congregations that treat other churches are rivals and competitors. Merely listing yourself in the Yellow Pages under “Nondenominational” hardly makes it so, especially if you act like a one-congregation denomination. And that’s the nature of many (not all) “community” churches.
No, the cure for denominationalism is unity within the Kingdom of God, submission to a single King, and the removal of all pretenders to his throne. And unless we work for unity, we participate in the sin of division.