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Institutionalization Of Elders


The more I study the Bible the more I’m convinced that concerning many New Testament concepts we are so far out of the loop that we don’t know there’s a loop to be out of.  The following is one such example  


Imagine yourself a young Jewish man in the good old days when Israel was free from foreign domination.  You don’t have to worry about Egypt , Babylon or Rome , but you do worry. Your wife is about to give birth to your second child and the wickedness you see around you makes you wonder about your children’s future.  To whom might you turn to find genuine care and support for your concerns?


One place you’d find support would be at the gate to your city where a number of older retired men hung out for the sole purpose to make themselves available to people like yourself.  Upon your request they’d offer you timely and valuable counsel to help you through the struggles of life.  You’d be thankful to have these wise men as your friends, men who cared dearly for you.


These older men were called elders.  They graciously offered themselves to help care for people in their village.  Yet as so often is the case, things get more complicated and structured as time goes by.  By the time Jesus appeared on earth these elders had been incorporated into the ruling council of Israel in Jerusalem called the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin consisted of Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers, teachers of the Law, and of course elders.  Elders in other towns became synagogue rulers who tended to the business of the synagogue.


The Sanhedrin and synagogue rulers were just as much of a political and social organization as they were a religious order.  These men were well paid professionals who viewed themselves as holy and caring men, but in fact they were far from that.  In general they were nothing like the caring elders found sitting at the gate in centuries past. 


Elders who were once a group of caring men who gave themselves to serve God’s people became institutionalized into a rigid organization that eventually opposed the very God they claimed to serve.  


Now imagine yourself as Timothy, one of Paul’s hardest working helpers.  Paul asks you to affirm elders in the cities where both of you had led people to Jesus.  These men would care for the Christians in those cities.  In order to recognize such men you’d need a clear understanding of what elders should be like, don’t you think?  So what character qualities would you be looking for in these men? 


I’m sure you’d remember Paul’s list of character qualities he sent you. (1 Tim. 3)  From Paul’s letter you’d understand that elders were to be the caring fatherly type, much like the elders of old who sat by the gate.  These men would provide love, support and counsel to individual disciples.   


You’d also understand that the elders you are to affirm would not look at all like the elders you see in the Sanhedrin. They were domineering, arrogant, prideful, and enjoyed the power and authority they had over you.  You’d also remember Jesus telling His disciples that Christian leaders shouldn’t lord it over His people as the Gentile rulers do, something the Sanhedrin did as well. (Luke 22:25-27)     


The elders that Timothy was to locate and affirm also looked nothing like our modern day church board who manage the affairs of the church.  Timothy was looking for men who were already sincerely caring for real live human disciples.  He really wasn’t looking for administrators.


In my thinking there’s a strange and sad similarity to how both Judaism and Christianity have evolved.  In the case of Jewish elders, they eventually left their seats at the gate for a seat of privilege in the Sanhedrin or synagogue. First century Christian elders evolved by means of numerous summersaults into the church’s hierarchy we see today.  In both cases men who began as a group of older men caring for people evolved into a highly structured group caring for organizational assets and programs.  This is the  “institutionalization of elders”. 


I’d suggest that we put Paul’s teaching into practice.  You might say that we live in a very different world and following Paul’s thinking isn’t reasonable or workable. I say that basic human nature and human needs never change.  We still need and always will need,  love, support, and good care, which is the role of elders.     


Implementing New Testament thinking is extremely difficult if not impossible in today’s westernized church.  It’s hard to make drastic changes without dismantling everything and starting over.  And starting over isn’t usually an option after spending so much time, energy and money on what we’ve built.  Nevertheless, I believe the Scripture still stands as God’s divine blueprint for all of life, and that includes church life with elders who care for real human disciples of Jesus.  



Note – I’ve greatly simplified the above to keep it short.  I’d like to recommend my article on “Plurality Of Elders”. The “one man pastor” isn’t New Testament thinking in my opinion. Click the following link. It’s about 3 times longer than this article.  http://stevesweetman.com/articles/plural.htm


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