Currently there seems to be some increase in the interest of elders. The discussion is often limited to "how are we going to make sure we don't get stuck with a reactionary," or "how best to protect the congregation by forcing elders to be reviewed every so often," the discussion reveals a considerable loss of understanding it seems, of the church and her elders.
This discussion simply reinforces my conviction that we really do not know what elders are all about. While shepherding is a nice, soft, and somewhat marginal term that is currently in vogue, it remains only one aspect of an elder’s “job.”
The discussion also reinforces my conviction that we have lost sight of what the church is actually called to be. While operating as an organization with rules for common assemblies may be the most visible aspect of church, it also remains but one aspect – and a very small one – of what church is.
The church is not primarily a Sunday morning operation. Rather, it is actually supposed to be a people, much like the Jewish people, or the Lakota Indians are a people. A people are much more than their ritual dances or healing sweats. Rather, a people have their own identity as a people that stretches across millennia, and see themselves as on a journey of some sort. Any given incarnation of the people are not the totality of the people, but they carry the values, the culture, and hopes, the identity of the people with them.
The church is expected to be a people in exactly this sense. We are the people of God who are charged with continuing and preserving the values, culture, hopes, and the identity of God’s people in our time. As a people we have a mission, and we have our own part of the history of God’s people to live and craft.
It is in this concept of people that the ideas surrounding elders are to be understood. The term elder (or its original language conceptual equivalents) has a long history in human society. It carries with it that history even into the church. Rather than arguing over how to select, qualify, and remove organizational functionaries, we are to be looking to acknowledge some of our members as elders of the people of God. These elders serve the same functions as the elders of other peoples. In essence they carry and preserve the identity and other aspects of the people in their beings. Elders are selected not because they are shepherds only, but because they embody the values, culture, hopes, and identity of the people of God.
In being elders, those so acknowledged are given a life-long obligation of carrying, protecting, and enlarging the people of God. This responsibility is not something that can be delegated, removed, or even given up. It is precisely because elders have been so acknowledged that they can sit at the city gates and judge between people, they can challenge people who argue for dangerous ideas and concepts, they can encourage and shape other members to take their places, and correct still others who do not live in the culture of the people.
Outside the church, we seem to have no problem understanding this concept of elders. It seems natural when discussing life with or among indigenous peoples, but we lose sight of the concept when we import the label to our church world. It is my opinion that we lose a great deal of the texture, the value, and the history of the people of God when we do so. We begin to look at elders as archaic novelties and modify our view of them and their “jobs” to fit our misunderstanding of church. As a result, we search for methods of selecting elders, making sure that we consider the qualifications we find in Scripture as though they are legal requirements, and we look for ways to protect ourselves from elders through mandatory rotations and reaffirmations. In many cases we act as though professional staff are more central to the life of the people than the people’s elders, relegating elders to essentially being pastoral counselors.
We have placed ourselves in a rather ludicrous position as is clearly seen if we reflect on how elders have been and are selected among other peoples. Have we ever heard of an Apache chief having to rotate out of being a chief, have we ever heard of a medicine man standing for reaffirmation, have we ever wondered why religious teachers of various stripes never step down from being recognized as a teacher – short of a moral failure?
And yet we have no problem with figuring out how to do just those things with the elders of the people of God. It seems that our teaching and our community lives have become so out of touch with what they are to be that we see our communities as organizations and our leaders as threats to the community.
Rather than trying to apply short-sighted fixes to a broken system, why not teach and practice a deeper understanding of what a people is, of who our acknowledged leaders are to be, and what our collective mission is in the stream of history. If we were to do that, we might just have elders who take the responsibility more seriously, and a people that don’t spend their time protecting themselves from their elders.
Recapturing the concept of elders could help us move considerably closer to the ideal of both the community of faith, and her elders.