Saturday, September 30, 2006

Superintendency: An Elder's Role

The New Testament writers used two different Greek words interchangeably when referring to elders. The first word, “presbuteros”, is normally translated “elder” and was used to reflect the honor the people held for their leaders. This is the same word from which we get our English word “presbytery” and “presbyter.” The second word, “episkopos”, is normally translated “bishop” or “overseer.” This is the same word from which we get our English word “Episcopal” and “Episcopalian.” The definition of this word has to do more with function than with honor. An elder can be defined as,

“An overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly, any curator, guardian, or superintendent.” (Joseph Henry Thayer)

When defining “superintendent”, Noah Webster adds the notion that such a person has authority to direct the actions of others as to what should be done and how it should be done. A superintendent’s role is to ensure that what needs to be done is done and done properly. Elders function in this kind of supportive role. Their job is to insure that the will and plans of another are properly carried out. An elder's role in the church is very similar to the role of a vice-president of a corporation. It is the responsibility of the vice-president to insure that the directions of the president are carried out in a manner consistent with his (or her) policies.

While Moses’ main problem was the multitude of people he was called to shepherd, Paul faced a different problem. Paul’s major problem was not the number of churches for which he cared, but rather the distance between them. Often it was several months, or even years, between visits to the different churches under his care. Paul could not personally care for the day-to-day needs of the individual churches. Paul's solution was to establish leadership in the local churches through whom he could extend his care and love for the people of God. “After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:21, 23)

In appointing elders, Paul was not relinquishing his care and authority for the church to them, but rather he was extending his care, authority, and anointing through them. Their authority came from Paul and they themselves were subject to him. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, rebuking them for not disciplining one of their members, he said that his main purpose in writing was to test their obedience to him. “For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things.” (2 Corinthians 2:9) Paul goes on to say that they had passed the test with “flying colors.” “For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the offender nor for the sake of the one offended, but that your earnestness on our behalf might be made known to you in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:11-12)

The idea of being obedient to another and being earnest on another's behalf is odious to many in our generation. We like autonomy. We like having it our way. We don't want someone else telling us what to do or how to do it. Today, many pastors are held hostage by their “elders” and their board of directors. Instead of being extensions of the authority placed by God in the local church, many elders have rebelled and sought to impose their ways and agendas upon the church. As those who are called to superintend the work of God, we must once again recognize the apostolic authority which God has placed in the church and begin to subject ourselves to it, allowing God to use us as an extension of the pastor's ministry.

David Robison

1 comment:

  1. I've enjoyed this series very much, David. I see similar rebellious behavior in local congregations of the United Methodist Church to which I belong. Where is our gratefulness?