Elders and Ordination

The New Testament shows us several passages that relate to Elders.

We can see in the Bible that God gifts different people in various ways – apostles, prophets, evangelist, shepherds and so on. My reading is that these aren’t necessarily roles or jobs to be fulfilled but rather people that Jesus empowers to collectively build up the body into maturity (See Ephesians 4)

Peter, while an apostle, considers himself to be a ‘fellow elder’ along with those serving in the local church. (See 1 Peter 5)

Today and throughout much of church history, we’ve made a pretty BIG distinction between pastors and other elders. Presbyterial polity calls the pastor the teaching elder and the others ruling elders. I’ve previously argued that this substantial distinction feels quite forced onto what the New Testament actually teaches.

The concept of ordination (and often licensing) is another aspect of ministry that we can probably find some loose connections to in the New Testament, but it’s not strong there. In the group I’m familiar with (and I believe many other denominations) local church elders are not licensed or ordained but pastors or ‘teaching elders’ are.

Again, a practice of distinction that doesn’t really flow very well from the first century church story.

So, in light of this, how might we think about what ordination means today?

When it comes to deepening commitment to the way of Jesus, I believe we’d do well to think of the church as being stewards of the ‘gospel DNA.’

What is DNA? The fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of someone or something.

In the church, it’s the core message and mission of the church. This is what must be held unto firmly and must be passed on in order for the Jesus mission to be replanted in various contexts.

In a particular Jesus movement (sometimes called a denomination) this will certainly relate to our understanding of the gospel and perhaps the essentials of our particular Jesus tribe.

For instance, I’m a part of the group called the Churches of God.

The more involved one gets in our movement, the more faithful of a steward of the DNA of the gospel and that movement they should be.

We can – and probably should – also tie this into the idea of membership. Membership is another concept (like formal ordination) that strictly goes beyond the New Testament, but may have some practical value in a healthy understanding.

When someone becomes a member, they should be understood to have a commitment to that gospel DNA. It’s what enables them to share the gospel message with others and allows them to understand the core commitments of that particular tribe (movement or denomination).

Eldership goes a substantial step further in being entrusted with holding fast to the gospel in light of potential distortions to it as well as having shown a deeper level of character development.

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing…” 1 Peter 5:2

“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Titus 1:9

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you…” Acts 20:28-29 – Paul to the elders from Ephesus

In the church, elders have a deep responsibility to be stewards of the gospel movement DNA, because there WILL be challenges to it. They must know the good news, love it and hold fast to it.

I wonder why we don’t more officially ‘ordain’ these people in some way.

Nobody who reads the New Testament can tell me that these folks are elected to a two year term on an administrative team and then no longer elders. I say that so boldly because it is so obvious to me.

In a view that starts where we are and asks how to be most biblically faithful, perhaps this would look something more like our current licensing. We license people who know enough that we extend some level of trust to them and yet recognize that they are still on a particular growth path and something like mentoring and further equipping is needed.

There does seem to me to be people in the New Testament who have a potentially deeper stewardship and passion for their understanding of the way of Jesus and the mission. These people aren’t content with gospel faithfullness in their local congreagions but have a passion and level of commitment to bring in into any context, either initially in the case of an apostle or evangelist or in a strengthening / teaching capacity. Certainly the initial apostles were in this category. But also people like Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Timothy, Titus, Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos etc. I see them as potentially trans-local elders.

These were people who were on the pursuit of deep learning and often trans-local mission such that they could be entrusted to bring the gospel movement DNA into various cultures and contexts and know it well enough to raise up others in similar ways.

They weren’t only entrusted with the overall shepherding capacity in the local congregations and communities, but to help initially (and on an ongoing basis) plant the gospel DNA in new soil and cultivate it. They were people who were entrusted to raise up local church elders when none had been there previously.

So my contention and proposal is this: Our primary lens for the idea of local church elders as well as potentially trans-local elders ought to be stewardship of the core beliefs of our movement.

Eldership can be seen as stewarding the gospel DNA in the local context.

Ordination can be seen as stewarding the gospel DNA in a deep way that might potentially move amongst various cultures and equip others (including elders) in a more substantial way.

What do you think?

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An Equipping Approach to the Ordinances / Sacraments

I’ve recently written about both baptism and the Lord’s Supper and contended that neither are indicated in the New Testament to be the exclusive responsibility of a select few (pastors) in the church.

My basic understanding of New Testament ministry is that there is not anything ongoing that only a select few are permitted to do.

And yet…

It’s very important that we teach well and live and worship in a way that honors and exalts Jesus in all things.

The first century church did not always do this well. We see this quite clearly in churches like Corinth. They really messed up the Lord’s Supper.

I believe that we’ve responded to real and potential abuses by putting certain people in control. We think that if we have pastors who are trained well enough and only they baptize and serve the Lord’s Supper and preach, then we’ll be a lot safer. It’s less risky that way.

To a certain extent we are right. We are less likely to do and say problematic things when we’ve had more training and more tightly control what we do.

BUT, this is not the approach of Jesus and the apostles and I think our (overly?) careful approach has ultimately worked against their intentions.

The New Testament approach to ministry is always teaching and equipping, not controlling.

Ephesians 4 tells us that all of those who are given to the church in what we sometimes call ‘leadership’ roles are given for the deepest purpose of equipping, not just doing.

“…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Ephesians 4:12-13

What would an equipping approach to baptism, the Lord’s Supper and other areas of ministry look like?

The approach seems pretty straightforward to me. It’s the approach of discipleship. It’s bringing others along so that they see us doing things, we do things together, and then we watch them do things and guide as needed.

Those of us who currently lead in these vital practices could simply invite others to learn from us and gain confidence and ability over time.

As a local church elder/pastor myself, I might start by inviting various other elders at different times to assist in various aspects of these ordinances. Guidance and correction and teaching will be offered along the way.

Eventually, I (as a pastor) might sit with the congregation and receive communion from another (non-ordained person who has been equipped in this area of ministry.

Then others could be engaged in that same process – perhaps by us or perhaps by those we have equipped.

That’s how multiplication happens.

When a fellow mature believer shows him or herself to be competent and have a solid understanding, there is no reason why they couldn’t serve the Lord’s supper at a gathering I’m not even at.

Why not?

Personally, I believe this kind of approach is exactly the kind of thing that would please Jesus very much and someone like Paul would consider a success.

What’s important is that Jesus is exalted, people are equipped and

“…we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

So what happens when there is a problem? Imagine the regional denominational office gets a call that this or that is going on and something unusual is happening…

The local church licensed or ordained minister can’t say, “I don’t know, I didn’t do it.” That person (or people) are entrusted to be equipping that congregation in these areas of ministry. If there is a problem, that minister is responsible just as he or she would be if they led the ordinance themselves.

Let’s equip and unleash the church from the restraints we’ve placed on our own growth.

What do you think of this proposed model? What difference might it make if your church adopted it?

Who’s Responsibility is the Lord’s Supper?

Another related question might be, ‘who’s qualified to serve the Lord’s Supper?

I’d like to address this question from a New Testament framework. I understand that church history has much more to say about it and those who place substantial weight on later tradition may take a different approach than I do.

Who gets to serve the Lords Supper?

Our assumption is typically pastors or ministers.

The truth is that the Bible doesn’t say this.

Yup, both prescriptively and descriptively, it’s pretty much silent on who’s qualified. It’s actually not a question anyone seems to have been asking.

There aren’t actually that many mentions of the practice.

The foundation is, of course, the meal that Jesus introduced that’s recorded in several gospels.

‘And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”’ Luke 22:19

Jesus doesn’t really give us a lot of specific instruction, does he?

Do this…remember me when you do.

When we ‘do this,’ who’s responsible for it?

Jesus doesn’t say. These disciples couldn’t be the only ones to do it forever.

Let’s take a look at the only substantial teaching about the Lord’s Supper outside of the Gospels

By the way, IF Acts 2:46 is a reference to meals that included communion, it’s extremely doubtful to me that one of the 11 apostles would be present in each home that bread was broken in.

Also, the so called Pastoral Epistles do not mention the Lord’s Supper at all, so far as I can see. If this was a primary responsibly for a select few, it’s difficult for me to see Paul not mentioning it in his letters to Timothy or Titus.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is addressing a substantial problem with the church’s practice of the Lord’s supper. Interestingly, if this problem hadn’t arisen it would be hard for us to biblically confirm that the early church partook of the meal regularly.

I’d like to make a couple comments about Paul’s rebuke and correction to this situation.

The first is that he makes no mention whatsoever of leaders or who is in charge. One of the reasons I believe we seek to control this practice today is because we are afraid that if someone who isn’t trained and usually ordained doesn’t do it, it might not get done properly.

And if Paul or one of the other Apostles had been there, this issue might not have happened.

But Paul doesn’t go there. He doesn’t name names. He doesn’t name roles like elder or deacon.

Who is responsible for this problem?

The people. The church.

It’s their collective responsibility to learn, understand and practice the Lord’s Supper honorably.

And when they don’t, Paul’s solution isn’t to put someone in charge or to hold any one person primarily accountable.

The problem is the hearts and attitudes of people – at least some of them.

The problem isn’t that they don’t have a qualified person, it’s that they don’t understand what they are doing and what it means.

Paul’s solution to their problem is to teach them.

In my next post, I’d like to propose a model for the administering of the ordinances that I believe honors the New Testament precedent and is practical to the concerns we have today.

But today I want to make this point: The New Testament simply does not say that any group of people or specific role is qualified to baptize new believers or serve the Lord’s Supper.

For us to insist on something else is to go beyond what the scriptures say on the matter.

P.S. There was a group of people in the New Testament that made extra rules, and they weren’t Jesus disciples.

You Can Make Disciples But You Can’t Baptize!?

The great commission is something that many Christians (rightly) focus on. Matthew’s Gospel leaves us with this collective commissioning from Jesus.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20

It’s important for us to ask and understand who this commission applies to.

Does it only apply to these 11 that first heard it? It must, of course, extend beyond them. But who carries the disciple making responsibility today?

For groups who might believe that making disciples is the responsibility of of a select few – apostolic succession or clergy’ what I’m about to say will be moot.

But most of the Christians I know believe that the invitation of others to discipleship to Jesus is the ministry to which all disciples of Jesus are called.

We believe that the great commission is for everyone.

But we simultaneously believe that only a select few can baptize.

Because that’s something else.

Except it’s not.

It’s a core part of the great commission itself.

So why are only licensed or ordained ministers the only ones considered able or qualified to baptize new disciples of Jesus?

We can’t be sure exactly what went down at Pentecost. We don’t know if each of Jesus’ 11 disciples baptized 272 (ish) new disciples on that day (about 3000 were baptized. Maybe some of the new converts baptized their friends and family and maybe even strangers who were now brothers and sisters?

The text doesn’t indicate one way or the other.

We don’t know who baptized Paul, but it likely was not one of the 11. It might have been Ananias, whom Luke calls ‘a disciple’

For those who place the importance on only particular people being able to baptize, it’s interesting that Paul did not feel that baptism was something that God called him to in any unique way.

“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” 1 Corinthians 1:17

Who did he expect to baptize new believers?

It seems to me that your guess is as good as mine.

From what I can see, it’s simply not important to anyone in the New Testament WHO does the baptizing.

It’s what baptism means that’s important!

Not who does it.

As a disciple who wants to give my life to help making other disciples, I’m privileged to baptize people who are giving their lives to Jesus.

As a local church elder and ordained minister, I’m also expected to.

But I don’t believe that I’m the only one in a local church that the New Testament permits to.

Truth in Pagan Places?

We often get to a place where we seem to only be able to see truth coming from within the safety of ‘our group.’

To admit that something from ‘the other side’ has any resonance of truth feels like to many people like compromise and giving up ground.

Can an atheist speak truth?

Can we acknowledge that ANYTHING the Koran says resonates of truth? Or something attributed to the Buddha?

What about a secular pop song?

We resist affirming statements have any truth to them when they come from ‘the other side’ of whatever.

But Paul did not.

Paul read – probably studied – Greek philosophy and poetry and noticed touchstones of truth.

We see this clearly in his interaction with the philosophers in Athens…

‘Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.’ Acts 17:28-29

These are two quotes that Paul uses positively from outside of the Jewish / Christian tradition. If you were to read the longer works, you’d see it’s all polytheistic(pagan) writing that a monotheist would not be very appreciative of.

When we as Christians read and listen to those who come from a worldview other than our own, we are going to find plenty to disagree with.

But why don’t we also look for and listen for things we DO find to contain at least some truth?

And when we talk with people, why don’t we lead with the things we might have in common instead of first highlighting the things that are in conflict?

That’s what Paul did.

And it worked.

I’m not saying that it will always work, but it will make you a more interesting, understanding and enjoyable person to be around.

Being Kind When You’re Appalled?

I believe that it’s really important that we’re kind when we engage in discussion with people we really disagree with on things that are very important.

I see an example of this with Paul when he was in Athens. Check this out…

“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Acts 17:16

You can look up the Greek word translated ‘distressed’ here any find some alternatives like infuriate or provoke.

Paul was upset. As a lifelong worshipper of the one true God, the Athenians’ scale of idolatry really concerned him. This was not okay!

Paul is later invited to come and speak of the philosophers of the city and this is what he opens with:

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.” 17:22-23

Wait. What just happened?

Luke, the author of Acts, recalls how upset Paul was at the idols. Now, referring to those same idols, he pays them what had to be received as a compliment! “I can see that in every way you are very religious!

Did Paul change his mind? Of course not. He knew that to stand up and berate them from the outset would be a sure way to not be able to communicate what he so desperately wanted to with them.

In many cases, even when we are deeply upset about other people’s views on things that really matter, it’s much more beneficial (and often effective) to extend an olive branch rather then a values driven rebuke.

Sometimes that means leading with grace and following with truth.

That’s usually a good approach and one that I think we can see Jesus took more often than not.

It seems to me that we should be thinking about this very thing as we talk about situations that matter, but that tend to not lead to very fruitful discussions. Things like sexuality and gender. Things like abortion.

When we heavily front load what we believe to be truth, we might feel good about taking a stand, but we also might be unintentionally communicating that we are not safe people to have a discussion with.

You can decide for yourself what’s most important to you. I’ve decided that I want to be a person that people feel like they can talk about anything with. Someone who’s willing to try their best to really listen, even when I don’t agree or even understand at all.

When changes of view do come, they seem to come more readily with loving conversation partners rather than in debates.

You may be greatly distressed about _____________.

How you approach that thing might make a big difference in whether someone can hear what you have to say, or whether the instinctively walk away.

Paul’s encounter ended this way:

‘When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.’ Acts 17:32-34

When to Leave off the Chapter and Verse

Many Christians today don’t understand the move from Jerusalem to Athens that we see in the Book of Acts

Paul was smart enough to adapt that way he spoke to the people he was with. Most of the time we are not as wise.

In the Synagogues, he argued from the Scriptures (our Old Testament).

“As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” Acts 17:2-3

In the Synagogues, Paul quoted the Bible. The Law. The Prophets the Writings.

Why?

Because people there believed in the Bible. The understood it to be normative in their understanding of God. It was a shared authority.

When Paul was speaking to a group of pagan philosophers in Athens, he DID NOT quote chapter and verse.

Why?

Because they did not believe in the authority of the Bible.

Instead, he told some of the biggest parts of the greatest story ever told.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. Acts 17:24-27

Friends, for us to share good news effectively, we must know where we are standing.

It’s probably accurate enough to relate church today to the synagogue of that day in that those who are deeply committed to following Jesus privilege the written Scriptures.

The rest of the world does not.

We can whine about that if we want.

We can put out heads in the sand and pretend it’s otherwise.

We can try to answer every question that comes our way from a skeptical world.

OR we can do what Paul did.

We can connect with what is good and true, even in the midst of the brokenness and sinfulness around us.

And then we can tell the story. Not a string of quotations.

We can tell the powerful, compelling, beautiful story of God shown forth in Jesus.

The word is powerful. It is compelling.

But it doesn’t always need to have the Book, chapter and verse included with it.

Actually, on Mars Hill, those are probably better left off.