Since I’m on hiatus, I’ve found myself reflecting on the last post quite a bit. And in reading through the comments, I noticed some patterns I thought might be worth mentioning.
First, no one said anything about the joke on the tee shirt: “Respect your elders -or- be eaten by bears,” citing to 2 Kings 2:24. Come on … don’t you elders have days when you want to hang a banner saying that over the pulpit?
Second, my post deals heavily with the Spirit’s work in selecting elders. I count only 3 out of 49 posts that explicitly reflect the view that it’s the Spirit who gifts and thereby selects elders.
I have a theory. A large portion of the Churches of Christ would deny that the Spirit gifts men for eldership — other than through the word. That segment would, of course, consider the passages dealing with the Spirit gifting men for the eldership to be irrelevant to the contemporary church as such gifting died shortly after the apostles.
Many of the rest of us are so used to being in Churches where at least some members take a word-only view that we’ve developed the habit of not speaking explicitly about the Spirit. We might speak in coded language — about “gifts” or “spiritual gifts” or even “God working,” but not “gifts of the Spirit.” It’s easier that way.
The problem this creates is to make us uncomfortable talking about the Spirit’s work in terms of the Spirit’s work being the Spirit’s work. We dance and edge around the issue. I mentioned the Spirit’s work in the post more than he was mentioned in 49 comments — 8 times to 3.
But the fact is that we can’t do serious hermeneutics if we pretend the Spirit wrote the Bible and then retired to the Old Deities Home. The interpretations that result from a word-only perspective are sometimes radically different from the interpretations that come from a Spirit-is-alive-and-active perspective. Indeed, the Spirit-is-retired perspective is one of the root causes of Church of Christ legalism — because you really need the Spirit in your thinking to fully understand why legalism is so wrong. (And the version of the indwelling doctrine that limits the Spirit’s work to our prayer life and forgiving our sins doesn’t really help us escape legalism much. We need to see that the Spirit works on our hearts and minds to transform us. It’s critically important to having sound doctrine.)
I posted this question because I think it’s a hard one — much harder than what if the elder’s wife dies or he has only one child or the child is adopted. You can get to one level of understanding by being merely legalistic — that is, no more legalistic than lawyers are. You see, lawyers — who are professional legalists — are trained to interpret documents by looking at the intention behind the document. The Alabama Supreme Court is fond of saying, “Intent is the pole star of construction!” — “construction” being the legal equivalent of exegesis.
Thus, even a lawyer — even a bad lawyer — wouldn’t argue that an adopted child doesn’t count. As we lawyers say (at least around here), that argument won’t “pass the red-faced test” — that is, even a hardened, tough lawyer couldn’t make that argument without blushing. Just so, the suggestion that an elder is disqualified because his wife died doesn’t pass the red-faced test, because the death of his wife doesn’t defeat the purpose of the requirement. “One-woman man” or “husband of one wife” deals with loyalty to his wife, not whether he outlived his wife.
I remember sitting in Batsell Barrett Baxter’s “Apostolic Church” class at Lipscomb, a required course taught by the head of the Bible department and the face of the Churches of Christ on the Herald of Truth television program. He asked the students, “How many of your parents have children?” Well, the question was kind of silly, you know, and everyone raised his hand. He then asked, “How many of your parents had only one child?” Most of the hands went down. He finally asked, “Why did you raise your hand for the first question if your parents only had one child? I said ‘children’ not ‘child’!” His point was made.
If the preacher announces, “The deacon over the children’s ministry would like to meet everyone who has children,” he’d expect to be understood as including those with just one child — and if someone took offense because he was excluded for having just one child, we’d look at him as emotionally unstable and a little bit kooky. Hence, it just doesn’t pass the red-faced test.
So those are, to me, fairly simple cases. They are matters of construction: what did Paul mean? And common sense gives the answer.
One does have to wonder what drives some good, church-going people to be more legalistic than the professional legalists, and the answer is, I think, fear. If you have a theology that damns you for any mistake at all, no matter how small or well-intentioned, you’re forced to take extreme positions in hopes of being “safe.” It’s the old saw, “Well, that’s well and good, but the safest approach is to deny the eldership to a man with just one child, just to be sure. You’re probably right, but do you want to bet your soul and the souls of all the other members here on your interpretation?” Thus, legalism can push us to some truly absurd positions — and deprive the church of desperately needed, God-given leadership.
And so, to me, the question of whether an elder must be a parent is much harder. A man can prove his parenting skills with just one child. He can demonstrate his faithfulness to his wife even though she died after 30 years of marriage. He really can’t prove his parenting skills without children (absent some very unusual circumstances).
On the other hand, I take the passages that tell us that the Spirit gifts men to be elders very, very seriously. I believe the Spirit really does that. And I’ve seen it, and I’ve heard the arguments the other way, and I find them very unpersuasive. And if the Spirit really is active in giving gifts of leadership, we have to contend with such passages as —
(1Co 12:18-21 NIV) 18 But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
That sure sounds like a very specific instruction not to reject the giftedness that comes from God. If we have a man who gives every evidence — after careful examination — of being gifted for the eldership, how do we say no — to the Spirit?
(Rom 12:6-8 NIV) 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
If God gifts someone with leadership, we are to “let him govern diligently.” Again, how do we say no?
Now, there are various ways that we might reconcile the teachings regarding the Spirit and the lists found in Titus and 1 Timothy — but they have to be reconciled. It’s useless to simply declare that “the Spirit inspired it and we must obey it!” True, but the Spirit inspired all the passages. And until you’ve fit them together into a united whole, you’re looking at an incomplete puzzle. And if you insist that this or the other passage is the final, ultimate answer while ignoring the other passages, well, you’re only revealing your prejudices.
We all know the passages. Demanding adherence to only the passages that suit your training or your preacher school notes or the convenience of the moment or your favorite choice for elder while ignoring contrary passages is to impose your will on the scriptures rather than submitting your will to the scriptures. It’s not persuasive, and it’s not healthy.
No, the serious student considers all the passages and seeks the truth that is reflected in them all. And that’s often seriously hard work. Sometimes you have to dig out the Greek and the concordances. Sometimes you need to study the thoughts of scholars to see what they have to add.
That leaves us struggling with putting the pieces together — and recognizing that we might just be in error when we get done, because it’s hard and we just might get it wrong. Indeed, who hasn’t reached one conclusion about the Scriptures only to change his mind later? And what’s to say it won’t happen again?
But exegesis done in fear is always bad exegesis. Good exegesis is done with the heart of God — a heart filled with love and grace. Thus, it’s when I put the fear of error behind me that I’m least likely to err — if I pursue God’s word with an intense passion for God’s truth. I have to be running toward God’s truth, not away from God’s wrath, to find the deepest truths.
(1Jo 4:18 NIV) 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
(Rom 8:15 ESV) 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
(2Ti 1:6-7 ESV) 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, 7 for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.