Elders, Deacons, and Authority

Elders, Deacons, and Authority

» Looking ahead to Andrew’s sermon this Sunday, below is an encapsulation of what would have been in last Sunday’s sermon on the nature of authority, deacons, and elders (I was sick). So this note is longer than usual. For Sunday evening worship we’ll look at John Barclay’s book, Paul and the Power of Grace. Barclay’s idea is that God’s gift of grace draws believers into a reciprocal life of giving and self-giving, as demonstrated in Christ. He believes one-way giving (think international aid to poor countries and short-term missions), tend to backfire and become “demoralizing, demeaning, and disempowering.”

» Presbyterianism is named after the Greek New Testament word for elder, and our form of government is an attempt to copy how elders function in Scripture. Whether at the level of the local church, or the regional presbytery, or the national General Assembly (an annual gathering of elders), responsibility and authority begin and end with ordained elders serving as under-shepherds before the Lord. The idea is not that this is the absolute best way to run an institution, but that it is the way taught in Scripture (comments on Acts 15 below).

» All of this implies authority, which is now an almost sinister notion. So a couple thoughts that might help resuscitate the value we place on authority. Our world was created by a monarch (which means “single ruler”) whose kingdom is from everlasting to everlasting, and whose dominion endures throughout all generations (Ps 145:13). This world is his and, inevitably, authority is in its DNA. It’s by his authority and power that God makes all that is good (Gen. 1:31). And when the day comes that this world, broken by sin, must be made new, he will accomplish that also by his authority and power (Rev 21:5). It’s hopelessly ironic that even anarchy movements (the word means “against…” or “without a ruler”), have leaders. The internet and social media are relentlessly anti-authoritarian, but by virtue of their immense influence they bully their way into being the new authority. Whether used for good or evil, authority is a natural part of our world, which validates one of the better-known rock ’n roll lyrics: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” But it would be a mistake to say that authority is merely inevitable and must be endured. Authority, certainly in the person of God himself, is wonderful. This is G.K. Chesterton on the authority of natural laws woven into the way God has made the world:

“It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation. The essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold, creative way, you think yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you have not drawn a giraffe at all. You can free things of alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars, but you may not free him of his stripes. The artist loves his limitations. They constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colorless.”

And this on how structure and authority create freedom:

“It is the fashion to talk of institutions as cold and cramping things. The truth is that when people are in exceptionally high spirits, really wild with freedom and invention, they always must, and they always do, create institutions. When men are weary they fall into anarchy; but while they are gay and vigorous they invariably make rules. This, which is true of all the churches and republics of history, is also true of the most trivial parlour game or the most unsophisticated meadow romp. We are never free until some institution frees us; and liberty cannot exist till it is declared by authority.”

» So authority is inevitable, but it’s also life-giving.

» Acts 6:1-6 and Acts 15:1-21 describe, respectively, the roles of deacons and elders to some extent, so we’ll look briefly at both of those passages. Deacons came into existence in a crisis that was probably more ethnic than logistical: Greek widows (or culturally Greek Jews) were being overlooked by Jewish leaders in the distribution of common funds. It was a practical issue, but like all practical issues in churches, it had its hands on deeper matters. The Apostles were called in (their authority is assumed), they sorted out the issue in a way that was uniquely attentive to ethnic sensibilities (all the men appointed have Greek names), then went back to the more important work of “prayer and ministry of the word” (v.4). In terms of Church government, here are a few takeaways:
• The Apostles have authority in the community, over matters both personal and practical; deacons are given authority over care of the needy, the funds to serve the needy, the distribution of those funds, and probably similar tasks that free up the Apostles for prayer and ministry of the word;
• The care of the “neglected” is perennial (“daily distribution” v.1);
• Deacons are wise, spirit-filled men of good reputation (v.3);
• The men are chosen by the disciples as a whole, but “appointed” by the Apostles (v.3);
• The process was agreeable to the entire gathering (v.5);
• Word and prayer saturate the entire event/process (vv.1-6);
• The men are placed in service before God through a process we now describe as “ordination,” which means simply “to appoint or admit” (v.6).

» The first significant decision handed down by the elders gathered in Jerusalem comes, as with Acts 6, in a conflict-filled moment. Conflict often drives change, and Acts 15 is about a changing understanding of the role of the Mosaic Law under the New Covenant. This is a theologically rich text, but we’ll stick to how the Jerusalem leadership functions during this crisis.
• Again it’s assumed that the Apostles and elders have authority to decide the role of the Law in the Gentile churches (vv.6 & 23). This would have been the natural assumption of a Jewish community based on the ancient leadership practices of Israel (Ex 3:16; 12:21; 24:1 & etc.);
• The Apostles and elders are not in agreement as they begin. They debate the matter privately; James, the brother of the Lord, eventually proposes a course of action; and the leaders “come to one accord” (v.25);
• The “whole church” agrees with the action proposed (v.22), though it’s unlikely this is literally true (see v.5);
• The decision of the leadership is considered binding, both by the leaders themselves and by the people whose lives will be ruled by their decision (v.22, 28 & 31);
• The clarified theological direction becomes a cause for rejoicing and encouragement (v.31).

» Thanks for sticking with this. As Chesterton said, “it is the fashion to talk of institutions as cold and cramping things,” but without the formation of these offices within the Church, and the Church itself, the Gospel would never have made it out of Palestine and into a lost and longing world.