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?