Conversations on the Road and at Home.
Over the past few weeks I have enjoyed conversations about any and everything. I love those times when life, faith and randomness collide on a ramble about any and everything. One of the rabbit trails that has come into conversation a couple of times is that of the subject of elders (don’t ask me how they have crept into conversations but they have). This has got me to thinking about what they are all about, especially outside the organised church context. Is there still a place for them? Did Paul just integrate an idea of the day into the formation of the early church, in a way transferring baggage from the old system into the new? Have we transferred our baggage onto something that is a benefit to every believer? These are all subjects, and a lot more, that I have wrestled with over the past few days (and nights on the shift). I have not drawn any conclusions but want to throw some thoughts out there. At the moment I feel we have such a blank canvas on so much that we took for granted. Everything seems to be up for grabs. All that can be shaken will be shaken. What falls out at this juncture may not be the final word so we cannot afford any ‘thus saith the Lords’, The ink must remain invisible and temporary and ever shifting. Does this make us unstable? Far from it, it totally forces us to have our stability on the only Rock in it all.
Smash Up the Thrones.
Not long after coming out of Tonyrefail when I was still unsure of the path I would be taking, we visited a few churches as a family. Still at the place where I thought it was the Sunday thing to do. In one place we entered into the building and as we took our seats I noticed by each entrance some special chairs and seated on them were some very intimidating grey haired looking gentlemen. They were there overseeing proceedings and making sure there was no trouble. These were the elders of the church. Men with special seats, authority and oversight of the assembled people. Appointed and recognised in positions. Men who have authority to hire and fire pastors, look after the finances, agree to the direction of the church and preach the word. In Tonyrefail we always had two important looking chairs by the side of the communion table. No one ever sat there but they were put there week after week religiously. These were the elders chairs. In the past men would sit there and watch over everything. Now these were what everyone saw as ‘Biblical’ elders. Men to fear and respect in equal measure. Men whose opinion was final and who you should respect enough to never question. With thrones fit for kings, the best seats in the house. It is time to smash up the thrones. Who do these men think they are? Claiming a special seat in the house is so against the grain of a gospel that brings freedom and the contribution of all. This is so far away from the idea of elders that Paul and those of the early church would have had. It is time to get these people off the pedestal, stop using elder as a position of authority and reclaim something of the more relational idea of what it is all about.
Simply Helpers and Advisers.
Elder was not a title or a position.It was not a spiritual gift or calling to be ordained into. I believe it was a simple concept that was and is seen in many cultures in the world and the whole thing has just been constructed as something beyond what anyone would ever have intended. To the cultures of the day to the writers of the new testament it was simply a reference to someone of age and experience. A person valued for their wisdom and counsel. People of experience and journey whose wisdom could be gleaned due to what they had been through. Turned to for wisdom, counsel and advise on an issue. Not an hierarchical position or leadership place but people who relationally we would turn to and talk things over with. The Moravians would simply call them helpers. That is all they were. Where we get all the rest of the heavy handed stuff from I do not know. They are always mentioned in plurality in the Bible, maybe it is because when we are seeking advise it is better to get more than one side to every story, a more rounded picture. Then once we have sought advise we can then make our own decision on where to go and what to do from there. The elder does not get the final word, the Wild Goose does. The elder is not there to tell us what to do or to lead us, just to shed some light from their own story and experience. As a friend said in this conversation on Facebook, more parenting than leading. We have enough teachers but not enough parents.
I think the whole concept of plurality is key here, but also the lack of this being a title. To seek wisdom in an area of morality we may turn one direction for counsel, to seek wisdom in the area of work we may turn to another, for family life and fun, another again. Almost floating around to people but knowing relationally who we can turn to for advise or help. An ‘elder’ to one person may not be seen as wise to another because their journey and outworking of life is completely different. They have their parents that they can turn to or unburden themselves with. I think this whole area is something of the outworking of turning the hearts of the fathers to the sons and hearts of the sons to the fathers. Family. Who or what is an elder? Someone we can sound off with. Someone we can be honest with. Someone we can listen to and who will not force that advise on us. Someone who gives us the option to ignore the advise given and yet will still love us. Someone who wants the best for us. I do not think it helps seeing them and interpretating them in a church context. We need to see them in life, in the spheres, wherever we journey. The Deborah sitting under the tree or the friends we have journeyed for years with. I think it is unfortunate and incorrect to have the phrase appointed in Scripture, because I do not believe they can be appointed, only recognised. Yet in Titus we see them outside the church context, seen within the town itself. They may not even be Christians, but they have wisdom from the journey that can be gleaned. And I believe the overall qualification, if there can be one, is that they must have scars and a limp! There must be brokenness and imperfections. Not sought after for being high and mighty, but sought after for crawling over the line.
As a radical young Christian I often had no time for the out of date elders, even of the sound advise category. I knew it all and saw those of experience as being out of date and out of touch with God. I did not need anyone’s input except my own visions and heart after God. Listening may not change the course and direction of where we are going but I feel we need to redeem the respect of the journey in others. We often feel we are the first pioneers to ever walk this way, but others have trailed in these places and have stories to tell, experience to share, adventures to excite us with. We may find little relevance in the date and time and even place, but wisdom becomes personified. The people who have lived have the best stories, many exaggerated accounts, but that is okay, we will know who to listen to and who to ignore. We will recognise our own people of wisdom and counsel when ever relevant. The problem is on the journey outside the walls is that where we are there may be a lack of such people, but there are those around that we can can begin to sound off with, bounce stuff off, connect with at a level where we see and hear the heart of God. Hearts are being joined and I am sure we will see those who carry the marks of journey to begin gleaning from. The chaff can be left behind but the wheat can begin to feed us. This whole subject, along with other areas we may be afraid to touch, like what are or is the apostles, prophets etc. How can we see all of these things outside a walls and leadership structure context? As I said all is up for grabs. For this moment I ponder elders. Not that I want to appoint anybody but can I see those around me that I can glean from? Who helps me on the journey with wisdom beyond my own foolishness? Not to be elevated to a seat and position and then advertised for all my friends, but a personal companion that throws light into my soul, and they may never know they are doing that. Another conversation for the road and the living rooms.
“Their wisdom (who the author calls elders) may be needed to solve a problem, understand a dilemma, resolve a conflict or map a pathway through complex and unfamiliar territory. Privileged with the gift of experience, they can see the broader perspective, from climbing the even higher tree and taking the longer-term view. They make way for, and they guide, generations to come.
We can all aspire to be elders. The discovery that one s life can be a journey that makes sense, not just for oneself in the short term, but also for others in the future can be life changing. It is not limited to gender or culture or education. It creates hope across the whole life span and brings about meaning to the everyday.” (From ‘To Plant a Walnut Tree’ by Trevor Waldock)