Thursday, August 4, 2011

What to call the "elders"

It is obviously problematic to call laymen who are assigned various duties to assist the ordained presbyter "elders." That's the Bible term for clergy. Likewise with calling them "deacons" as some other parishes do. For whatever deacons were in NT times (arguments persist), it is clear that they were set apart from the laity and even clearer that in Reformation times the term was synonymous with the lower ranks of clergy. A good first step in relieving the modern day confusion over the Ministry would be to use words the way the Bible uses them. Hells bells, even the Mormons use the term elder correctly! (For further reading on how we got in this mess with "elder" see Dr. Al Collver's "Lay Elders: A Brief Overview of Their Origin in the Missouri Synod."

And yet, the proper functions of a board of "elders" is vital to parish ministry - at least in the kind of parishes in which I have served. I need a sounding board of intelligent, faithful men of the parish to teach me about the parish and personalities, to warn me of pitfalls, to be my sounding board, to be the first to learn the Word of God and serve as examples to their families and fellow parishioners.

I propose calling them the Board of Counselors, or Pastor's Council. That actually describes what they do.

So, if your constitution is coming up for revision, consider that. Ours here probably won't come up for many years - oh, the pain of putting in a new constitution! - so for now, it's "elders" and all the confusion that brings when we turn to I Tim 3 in Bible Class...



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. We should call them trustees. That is what they are, right?

    Who are the "elders that direct the affairs of the church" but do not preach or teach implied in 1 Tim 5:17 ?

  3. "What we need are male deaconesses!" I'm not sure who said that, originally, but I hear it a lot these days, and I couldn't agree more.

  4. In trying to understand the essence of this dispute, I find Dr. Collver's paper very helpful. Thank you for the reference.

    I believe the core of the issue is a proper understanding of Paul's intentions in 1 Timothy, in the categories that existed in Paul's mind under the inspiration of The Holy Spirit.

    At most, four categories are possible:
    1) Elders who rule well and labor
    2) Elders who rule well and [not] labor
    3) Elders who rule [not well] and labor
    4) Elders who rule [not well] and [not labor]

    Also, one (or more) categories is worthy of honor, and another one (or more) categories are worthy of double honor.

    Krauth argues that the terms "rule well" and "labor" are equivalent. In this sense, labor would mean to be diligent, to work hard, to labor well. Likewise, "rule well" implies labor, diligence, effort exerted on the part of the holder of the office of elder.

    Walther would argue that "labor" refers to the means by which the holder of the office earns his living, and "rule well" is a qualitative judgment about a man's conduct in the office.

    In context, "honor" and "double honor" clearly refer to wages and material reverence and respect.

    Question: who (in Paul's mind) has the authority to judge whether or not the elder is ruling well? We are assuming that this authority exists beyond the apostolic office.

    To summarize, according to the above possibilites:

    1) Paul plainly teaches that this category deserves double honor, meaning respect and financial support.

    2) Krauth argues that this category does not exist in Paul's mind, which is to say that it does not exist in Holy Scripture. Walther essentially uses it as the basis for the lay elder.

    3) Somewhat unclear. Paul does not outline what to do with the elder who does not rule well. Is he deserving of "single honor" or no honor at all.

    4) Paul does not directly address this category, but the context would imply that he is worthy of no honor at all and possibly should be removed from his position

    Before getting to conclusions, is this a fair summary of the debate? If category 2 is unscriptural, then Krauth's argument carries the day in my opinion. Unfortunately, my Greek skills are not equal to this task so I look forward to reading the observations of those who are.

  5. It's simpler than all that: the word presbyteros - elder - refers to clergymen in the pastoral epistles, plain and simple. Some clergy, then even as today, were not assigned to altar and pulpit ministry (those who labor in the Word), but they were nonetheless clergymen.


  6. I think Schmemann is actually of help on this. He points out that as the office developed in the early Church, the presbyters formed a council to the Episcopus, who was, of course, the president of the Eucharist in the local assembly. When the Episcopus got "kicked up" if you will to be over a region and no longer was the normal celebrant in the local assembly, the presbyter took this over. But invariably there will arise a council around the Presbyter - due to the conciliar nature of the Church herself.

  7. Fr. Weedon,

    So in this model, there would indeed be episkopai (sp?) who were not qualified to preach or administer the sacraments, but would likely be permanently called and placed into the OHM at such times that these services were needed. Right? So were these guys in the Office of the Holy Ministry (in the strict sense that Fr. Curtis would require) or weren't they?

    I'm finding Fr. Curtis' position on this (if I understand it correctly) scarcely more coherent than the official gobbledygook that I just read in a 1981 paper from the CTCR.

    What allows us to define the OHM in stricter terms than Scripture would? It cannot be tradition, right? We're all still aboard with that Sola Scriptura business, right? I'm starting to wonder.

  8. A couple of sentences... Graebner stated that every Lutheran voter should be able to give an
    intelligent answer about the origin and duties of the lay elder; and For all intents and purposes, Walther did indeed introduce lay elders. He took a practice that appeared in isolation and was regarded with the
    suspicion of being non-Lutheran and brought it into widespread use in the
    Lutheran church.

    If for this reason and no other we should pause before continuing the uncertain history and murky legacy of the term and office of lay elder. However, in this age when Pastors act as if they are merely the coach of the royal priesthood (the real ministers as their bulletins and signboards often say), we need to do more than assign a different name. Maybe we need to end the whole practice and establish something new without the freighten meaning of elder and its confusion with the Pastoral Office.

  9. When our beloved Synod spoke German, a lay elder was called "Vorsteher", one who stands before the pastor. They were the pastor's first line of defense whenever his Office was attacked.

    What would work in English? I don't know of any word. Perhaps "Vorsteher" works?

  10. 'Bouncer' might translate 'Vorsteher' but I don't know how well that would be received.

  11. Pr Curtis wrote: "For whatever deacons were in NT times (arguments persist), it is clear that they were set apart from the laity and even clearer that in Reformation times the term was synonymous with the lower ranks of clergy."

    And Mike Green wrote: ""What we need are male deaconesses!" I'm not sure who said that, originally, but I hear it a lot these days, and I couldn't agree more."

    If a deacon is part of the clergy, wouldn't a deaconess be equivalent to a pastorette?

  12. By the way, I'm a lay "elder" and I don't like the term either. If we are to change terminology for one, perhaps we should look at another.

  13. Michael G.,

    The term deaconess also brings confusion, as you note. What Loehe resurrected were, of course, Lutheran nuns, or nuns-lite, or nuns-until-married. See Fr. Petersen's fine summary of this in the previous post.


  14. So what do we call them...
    Brd of Bouncers (thanks Keith, where's the bar?)
    Brd of Directors (ugh, very CG)
    Brd of Parish Advisors (sounds financial)
    Brd of Counselors (thanks Heath, sounds therapeutic)
    Brd of Parish Care (sounds medical)
    Brd of Pastoral Care? Brd of Pastoral Counselors?

    Perhaps the Gottesdeinst braintrust can come up with a singular term to gain usage, momentum.

    There is much to language, we are reworking the Constitution. Brd of Fellowship (bad Biblical usage) to Brd of Social Events (what they do); Brd of Evangelism (Heath told us to fire them) to Brd of Mission (job description focusing on acts of mercy, good works.)

    So we need something shorter than the "Board of Males Only Who Care About Doctrine and Practice While They Have the Pastor's Back."

  15. Please, please, please, keep this discussion going. I have been an "Elder" for years and have wresteled with all these issues. Thus far, this discussion has been right on target with the questions and word meanings.

    How do the "Elders" protect the congregation from the Pastor, or the Pastor from the congregation. How do they affirm the error, wrong teaching, etc. Where is their training and guidance. By the time you get these men up to standard, they have moved, their term is up, they serve on another board/committe, and all the like.

    A lot of the error that has crept in the many Lutheran churches could have been averted or at least stiffled a bit if there had been well trained and supported "Elders". But as with OHM when this group of men is week and/or poorly trained, you get week and watered down doctrine.

    Again, I implore all to keep this discussion going. We need it.


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