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No. 40: Eldership and Maturity, Part 2

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 40
Copyright (c) 1995 Biblical Horizons
July, 1995

(continued from previous issue)

Between 30 and 50

What did the Levites do between age 30 and 50? Numbers 4 shows us that they carried the house of God on their shoulders. Lifting up the Lord is an image of worship in the Bible, and David’s restructuring of the Levites brings this out: They became guards of the doorways (which they had been before), singers, and orchestral musicians. In a word, they guarded worship and led in worship (1 Chron. 23, 25, 26).

This is a picture of the duty of the teacher, the minister. He leads in worship, teaches, and performs the sacraments. He is to do all this, however, under the oversight of elders (men 50 and above). Common sense led the early church to set aside some older pastors as bishops, who pastored the local pastors. This is such an obvious and such a Biblical system that it is amazing that anyone should question it.

Indeed, nobody did at the time of the Reformation. In the Scottish Presbyterian Church, for instance, such older pastors were called Superintendents, and they had the same duties as a true bishop in the early church. Sadly, Presbyterianism degenerated into a system of having a “corporate bishop” in the presbytery as a whole, a system that is ineffectual because it is bureaucratic. Traditional Episcopalianism is overly monarchical, in my opinion. A sound ecclesiastical structure lies in between these two traditions. (The Reformed Episcopal Church has a fairly good mix of the two approaches.)

I am not convinced, however, that each presbytery should have only one teaching elder/overseer (bishop). It seems to me that all the older teaching elders should be assigned specific younger men to oversee. One such teaching elder might be first among equals, and be the bishop (or “superintendent,” to use the older presbyterian term), but he would not be the only overseer of the younger teaching deacons pastoring in the churches.

Now, should a man who is not an elder be involved in passing judgments, exercising “strong” church discipline? As a rule, no. Between the ages of 30 and 50 the pastor should teach, lead in worship, and administer the sacraments. He should counsel as best he can, and rebuke sin where necessary. But because he does not have white hair, people will not listen to him in the same way they will hear an older man. This is a fact of life, a fact God built into the creation.

I was a pastor between the ages of 33 and 38. The other “elders” of the church I served were the same ages. We were forced several times to do church discipline and declare excommunicate people guilty of really high-handed sins and crimes. This never worked very well. I now know why.

We should have been serving under some older men, men over 50 years of age, men who were elders in the Biblical sense. When it came to excommunications, they should have been involved in to making such decisions. Also, when we got involved in tough counseling and rebuke situations, we should have been able to turn to real elders for help, and pass the ball to them if necessary. We didn’t have this option, and though the church survived and was faithful, she always limped along.

Thus, I submit that the judging, disciplining aspect of church life should be in the hands of elders, older men, men over 50 who have been elected and ordained to this duty.

The present-day Presbyterian system errs, therefore, in calling men elders simply because they hold offce in a church. It errs in calling men “teaching elders” just because they are local church pastors. Presbyterianism is failing to make a distinction that the Bible itself makes between pastors who serve in word and sacrament, and elders who serve in oversight and rule. Of course, sometimes these will be the same person, if he is over 50.

Given the present situation, of course, it happens that younger men are serving as overseers. They must do the work of an elder, even though they are not really old enough. And that means they must from time to time perform excommunications and other disciplinary acts. Faithfulness to Christ means they have to go ahead and perform these acts, even though they are not in the best position to do so. Wherever possible, of course, it will be wise to consult an older man in such a circumstance.

Biblical Maturation

The book of Hebrews is, as a whole, an exhortation to maturity. The author writes that by now they should be teachers, but sadly they still need to learn the basic truths. They are like babies. Maturity comes after years of experience, so that your senses are trained to “discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:11-14). This last phrase refers back to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the fruit of which Adam was not yet old enough to eat.

I believe human life passes through three phases, which we can call Learner, Warrior, and Elder. The Learner phase corresponds to what Medieval teachers called the Grammar phase. It is the phase of learning. It lasts at least until the age of 20, and really on to the age of 30.

The Warrior phase is the age of action, analogous to the Logic phase of education. The man begins to go to war with some aspect of reality, bending it to his human will. Maybe he wrestles with the soil as a farmer, or with the stock market, or with children as a mother, or with a congregation as a teaching deacon. Warriors should, however, be under Elders.

The Elder phase is the mature stage, the age of Rhetoric according to education theorists. By this time a man has learned to modulate his voice so as to communicate what he means properly: He knows how to intone, or “sing” his speech. He is in a position to oversee others in his field and give them direction and counsel. This ability only comes after years of wrestling as a Warrior.

These three phases correspond to the three spirals of history as we have set them out in Biblical Horizons 57 & 58. The Learning phase is the Sinaitic age of the ox, of humility. It is the age of the ear, or learning. The most important thing to learn during this phase is God’s Word, so the God-man relationship is foundational during this period. Sadly, modern Christians who are aged often know next to nothing about the Bible. How many can tell you what is in Zephaniah, or what the five major sacrifices were?

The Warrior phase is the Kingdom age of the lion, of wrestling. It is the age of the hand, or action. The most important thing we learn during this phase is how to deal with other people, so the man-man relationship is foundational during this period.

The Elder phase is the Cosmopolitan/Prophetic age of the eagle, of oversight. It is the age of the foot, of putting into motion all that has been learned. The elder is in a position to witness most effectively to those outside, so the man-world relationship becomes most important here. The eagle-phase is not only imperial, focusing on oversight, but also prophetic. The elder is in a position prophetically to guide the next generation into a fuller understanding of the truth.

As an interesting aspect of this model, we find that God has given the woman a physical sign that she is passing from the age of wrestling with children to the age of eldership and wider dominion: the change of life. It is at this age that women who have had families need to “get out of the house,” find a job, go back to school, etc., and we often find that this is the case. Local community colleges are full of middle-aged women who make straight As and wreck the curve for the kids in the class!

There is a ministry of older women in the church, assisting the younger women. Such women should be made Deaconnesses, for they will assist the elder-overseers. Sadly, our male-chauvinistic North European culture has eliminated the Deaconness, and often teaches that “the woman’s place is in the home�permanently”!

Once we see the pervasiveness of this model in the Bible, and how it marvelously fits with human life as designed by God, we can see how foolish it is to ordain young men to the “eldership.”

Modern Church Life

Well, then, what shall we do? In the old days of Presbyterianism, a young pastor would have a group of old, hoary, ruling elders in his church and teaching elders in his presbytery. They would be wise and Biblically knowledgeable. They would guide him in his early years, until he, too, became old and wise.

That’s not how it is these days. Older men in the church are not wise because they have not spent their years learning the Bible and getting their senses trained to discern good and evil. They are usually compromised, soft pansies, and ignorant. They aren’t much help, BUT, they are the men God has put in charge for the present. David submitted to Saul, so we can submit to ignorant elders.

The alternative is to start a new church, with “elders” who are young men in their 30s and 40s. Sometimes this is what happens, and it is “nobody’s fault.” It happens because that is all we have to work with. It happens because a denomination starts a church and does not recognize the principles set out in this essay.

In that case, such “elders” should recognize privately that they are not fully elders, but only apprentice elders. They are “older brothers.” I suggest that they be very careful about church discipline. I suggest that they work on worship and teaching. I suggest that they counsel people, but not press them too hard. I suggest that when they must do excommunications, they call for older pastors in the presbytery to help them do it.

My attitude when I was a pastor was that God required me to do church discipline, and would judge me if I did not do it. Thus, out of faithfulness to Him and His law, I and my colleagues performed occasional excommunications. From a legal, judicial standpoint, our excommunications cannot be faulted. But from a pastoral standpoint, they were not necessarily wise. I am no longer certain God requires men who are not elders (old men) to do these things. Perhaps it would have been better if we have simply reproved these sinners and let them go, telling the congregation that we were not yet of a Biblical age to do more.

Suppose they want to make you an “elder” and you are not 50 years old (which is the minimum anyway)? What do you do? Well, give them this essay to read. Explain that you are willing to serve the Church, but that you don’t believe you are old enough to enter into the fullness of elder-service. Then, if you have peace about it, let them ordain you. (Of course, if you are not yet 30, don’t do it at all.)

The present system needs to be changed, but we cannot change it magically. We have to grow into a more mature system. In the meantime, we cannot simply opt out of the system as it is. We have to act as wisely and as humbly as possible within the present unwieldy system.


Training the Eldership

James 5 tells us to call for the elders when we are sick and need anointing. This refers back to the Old Testament, when the elders would come together to form a lawcourt. The elders hear our confession and pronounce us clean in Christ.

This passage shows that we need ruling elders in our churches. Both Episcopalianism and most Baptist forms of government err in this respect.

Further, we need to have a clearer understanding of the difference between those elders (overseers) who simply watch over the life of the church, and those who labor in word and in doctrine. Modern Presbyterianism blurs this distinction, and even in some cases allows “ruling elders” to determine the liturgy and worship of the Church. This is a mistake.

We need a series of books that train men to be ruling elders. Such books would be studies in the law of God as revealed in Exodus, Leviticus 19, and Deuteronomy, as well as in Proverbs and other passages. By studying such passages, and meditating on them, men would acquire wisdom and insight, have their senses trained to discern good and evil, and be equipped to give sound counsel and judge rightly in the community of the faithful.

Elders and Rule

Now we want to expand somewhat on the model presented, because it is not yet complete. We discussed the Warrior and Elder stages of life above. In the latter half of the Warrior phase, men become Kings. They are asked to oversee the other, younger warriors, but they are not yet “retired elders.”

We notice in the Bible that David became a King at the age of 30. He was to hearken to the elders, but the decisions were his to make. This is important, and it seems to contradict both my position and common sense. Why not put the older men in charge?

I believe that this is because the Father, the Ancient of Days (Supreme Elder) has put the Son in charge of all things. The Father stays in the background, and only advises the Son. The Son actually administers the Kingdom.

What this means practically is that the elders step back and let the warriors make the decisions. The warriors may make mistakes, but we have to live with these mistakes, and the warriors will learn from them. History consists of new things that God does, and thus the elders do not have all the wisdom needed. New situations require new judgments. The elders advise, but the warriors decide. If they err, they will learn from their mistakes and when they become elders, they will have more wisdom to offer the new warriors.

So, to put it practically, who should vote in the presbytery? If I am right, only the men between 30 and 50 or 60 should vote. The older men should have the right to speak, to argue their cases, to present their wisdom, but the actual battlefield decisions should be make by men in the warrior-ruler phase of life.

Such would be the rule for the teachers in the church. The Teaching Deacons are the warrior-rulers, who actually pastor churches. They are fools if they don’t pay attention to what the Teaching Elders say, but they are the ones who must make the actual decisions. They are alert to the new factors, which the Teaching Elders may be blind to, but they must stay in touch with the old wisdom.

Is this also the principle for the rulers in the church? Perhaps not. The Bible shows the elders making the actual decisions and judgments in the courts of the Old Testament. Thus, it seems to me that Ruling Elders make decisions, while Ruling Deacons only assist and learn from Ruling Elders.

How can we justify this asymmetry? We have argued that Teaching Deacons make decisions, and should hearken to Teaching Elders, while not Ruling Deacons but Ruling Elders make decisions in that area.

I think that the reason is that teaching leads to ruling. The decisions made by Teaching Deacons in their warrior-king stage of life have to do with what is to be taught and how the congregation is to worship. Teaching and worship are the activities that form the mind, over many years, of the Ruling Elder. The Ruling Elder makes decisions in the area of lifestyle, applying God’s law to the people in the congregation.

Concluding Recommendations

1. Since “Teaching Deacon” and “Teaching Elder” are unwieldy terms, I suggest that the terms “Pastor” and “Overseer” (or “Bishop”) be used for those two positions.

2. No man should become a Pastor until he is at least 30 years of age. Such a man should make decisions regarding teaching and worship in his congregation, but he should listen to the counsel of the Overseer to which he has been assigned, and to the counsel of his Ruling Elders.

3. No man should become an Overseer before the age of at least 50, preferably 60. Such a man might still be a Pastor, or might be retired. He should have some younger Pastors assigned to him.

4. Meetings of the Presbytery should be divided between teaching/liturgical concerns and interpersonal adjucatory concerns. When matters of worship and doctrine are discussed, only Pastors between the ages of 30 and 50-60 should be allowed to vote, but both Overseers and Ruling Elders should be allowed to argue and discuss such matters.

5. Pastors should not pronounce excommunications against heretics apart from the counsel of Overseers.

6. Since “Ruling Deacon” and “Ruling Elder” are unwieldy terms, I suggest that the terms “Deacon” and “Elder” be used for those two positions.

7. Deacons assist Elders, but do not rule.

8. No man should be made an Elder before the age of 50, and should really only begin to make judgments, such as pronouncing excommunications for contumacy, around the age of 60.

9. Elders should sit in Presbytery, and when matters of adjudication not related to doctrine and worship come before the Presbytery, they should be the only ones to vote, but both Pastors and Overseers should be allowed to argue and discuss such matters.

10. A man aspiring to the Pastorate might become a “Teaching Deacon” (now assigning a new meaning to this term) at the age of 25. At whatever age he becomes a Teaching Deacon, he should have five years of training as an apprentice and assistant before becoming as Pastor of a local congregation.

11. Finally, though we have not discussed this, it seems to me that it is a legitimate aspiration for any man to become a (Ruling) Elder, and thus ideally the Eldership in the congregation should consist of all the older men in the church. Or, the Eldership should be rotational, so that all older men who want to serve have the opportunity to do so.

Terms: Summary

Teaching Deacon: Pastoral trainee, over 25.

Pastor: Teacher/liturgist of congregation, over 30.

Overseer: Pastor over 50-60, active or retired.

Deacon: Assistant/apprentice elder, over 30.

Elder: Judge/ruler of congregation, over 50-60.