An email discussion with a brother in South Africa
S.V., South Africa
How do you fit the scriptures about elders and deacons into the relational church? I understand the Greek words, especially regarding deacons and the fact that elders should be seen more as the older Christians. In the Vineyard we believed in John Wimber’s words that “an elder is an elder to the degree that he elds”, so we have never had elders, but worked with a management team. I still feel though that what Paul said to Timothy and Titus about elders and deacons, needs explanation within the new context.
Wayne: I wonder if we have a new context if the meanings will be obvious. Most assume that what Paul meant in Titus and Timothy was to appoint elders that look like what we call elders today. We appoint people who then ‘manage’ the body of Christ and its programs. I wonder if in the decentralized church environment of Ephesus and Crete it simply meant for them to point out people they recognized as elders based on the soundness of their doctrine and the demonstration of God’s working in their lives. Perhaps many were claiming to be elders who were not and the sheep were being confused. Could Paul have been saying, “Point out those you consider to be elders…” In other words, help identify those whose life and instruction are square with God’s work. Notice he doesn’t assign them the task of managing the body of Christ, but simply to help others learn how to live the life.
“Deacons” may be a bit different because it seems these had specific tasks, but again they seem centered in people care not filling communion cups or vacuuming the ‘sanctuary.’ They seem to take some specific responsibility in looking after folks who were in need who were left out of the simple loving one another of body life.
The appointment of deacons in Acts, looks very “institutionalized” as well – should the need have arisen to appoint people to oversee the distribution and the tables if everyone was operating in their gifts? Is it possible that this may have been the first instance of institutionalism in the first church?
That’s what some think, though Scripture doesn’t say and I think it is a slippery slope indeed for us to consider what examples from Scripture are positive and which are negative if the text itself doesn’t say. A bit of organization doesn’t bother me. Even a home group has to agree on a time and place to get together and have some sense of how they will meet. I think the greater concern is whether or not our structure overruns our life… I honestly don’t know what to make of the Acts bit. Did they resort to a ‘managed’ response when the encouragement to “love and serve one another” might have been a better answer? It seems like that to me. But any of us who have ever encouraged “one anothering” know how few people really pick up on it. Most believers persist in living self-centered lives and not connecting in a vital way with other believers. Perhaps if someone is doing something “on behalf of the body” rather than just as an individual believer they need to qualify as a deacon.
Where does the buck stop and what is the role of the leader?
Wayne: There are really two questions here. Where does the buck stop spiritually? That clearly lies at Jesus’ feet. Where does the buck stop with our institutional needs for management? That can vary with how the group is set up. I like to see as minimum of maintenance functions as possible. The body doesn’t do its work through programs, but through people free to do what God has asked them to do. To do that we have to have to decentralize and let people operate out of growing relationships and love for each other. It would almost mean no salaries, no huge building expenses, no programming decisions that affect wide groups of people. It would mean we would have the absolute minimum of structure that we would need to accomplish what Jesus asks us to do. The bulk of our time and attention would be helping people come to know Jesus and helping them learn how to live with him and live with others as his body.
How do we make decisions in the corporate context?
Wayne: I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this one. All of our decision-making models are inherited from the political or business worldfrom autocratic, to leadership teams, to democracy. I don’t think ANY of those suffice. Ultimately we would want Jesus to make the decisions and realize that we best recognize that by hearing from people who are listening to him. In some sense, that invites the body as a whole to sort out the decisions together. This is only possible in smaller groupings. It would mean younger believers would respect older believers at such moments not so they can defer. What do we hear God saying? If the group makes a mistake they can fall back and reconsider. This way everyone learns and everyone grows.
How do we understand the fact that the gifts from the people were laid at the feet of the apostles and they did the distribution; wouldn’t the relational model require that people give to people as they perceive need or as the Holy Spirit directs?
Wayne: As far as we know that was simply how they handled it in the early days of Christianity in Jerusalem. It doesn’t seem to have become a model for the whole church. Later when Paul takes an offering for the saints starving in Palestine, he just asked people to lay aside something commensurate with their income and collect it on the first day of each week until he or his reps could get by to collect it. I don’t know that we can extrapolate a principle from either of these actions. Collecting money always means pooling power. Whenever we pool power it will in time divide brothers and sisters who want to fight over what should be done with it and where it should go. We use it to build institutions that eventually trade dependence on God for its own survival.
It seems the early church fell victim to that as well, which is why Paul had to right half the New Testament encouraging believers not to trade God’s life for another religion. Can people be trusted to give out of their passion to follow God’s voice in their life? That seems scary doesn’t it? But the real question might be, is Jesus able to provide through his body for whatever he wants to accomplish. Of course he is. The reason we are afraid of that is because we’re not sure he’ll pay for what we want to do in the amount we want to have to do it with.
There are two values in this. First we will no longer look at people for our resource, only God. Second, people will participate much more from the heart when God calls them to be involved in something. It means our focus has to be not on teaching people how to tithe, but how to live in God. One of our great struggles early in this process was to trust that to God. We couldn’t decentralize the way God was leading us because we didn’t know how the bills would get paid and whether the “pastors” would get equal pay. We would not trust the chaos of the body, or so we thought. Ultimately we weren’t trusting Jesus to do what he needed to do.
Paying a salary to anyone seems to distort that process and in time distort their calling as well. Instead of listening to God, they have to give in to the political pressure of those who control the purse strings. For the last seven years Sara and I have lived by what God has provided sometimes through the generous giving of people in his body and sometime through tent-making enterprises. It means we need to depend on him every day to see HOW he is providing for us. It is definitely not as easy as making the salary I used to make, but the freedom to follow God’s voice without people trying to shape you into THEIR image is so worth it. The advantage is no one is “supporting” us who doesn’t support us. What God gives to us through is people come from folks who are passionate about what he is doing in us, not because they are trying to pay some legalistic bill and want their money’s worth in return.
Do you see these things as problems in the first church that are now being corrected – I do not believe that the structure in the first church, was necessarily the correct one for all time – nor do I believe that we will ever evolve the perfect structure this side of eternity – we are working with the “already and the not yet” model of the Kingdom amongst us. I believe that the wine is perfect, but the wineskin will always be flawed.
Wayne: Agreed, Brother! I think our focus on a structure at all takes us away from the relational dynamic that is so powerful. I think Jesus’ body will always be a bit of a mess, because love is messy love is the only currency of this realm. Let us learn to follow him instead, freeing people to live as the body of Christ with their time and resources and let’s just see what he is willing to do. I honestly think our pursuit should not be how do we implement the right structure, but how do we eliminate those structure elements that distract from his life among us rather than nourish it. That’s not to say structure is evil. It isn’t. It is neutral&emdash;but can be used in ways that tear apart the central community and freedom of God’s people. We will always have structure because that is intrinsic to this age, but keeping that as minimally as possible seemed to be what our early brothers and sisters strove to do…
Can we fit the Sunday service into the model, and if we can, what is the goal and the format – we stopped to worship with a worship team leading, but most of us miss it, so we would like to do it again without re-creating the place of safety and deception that the performance often creates for consumer Christians.
I agree that our ‘worship’ dynamics today are mostly performance or entertainment dynamics. That doesn’t mean people are trying to perform, but that our “up front” sense of worship leading is all about how well people feel entertained. That’s sad. Can the larger-group gathering fit into relational church? Not really. Instead of letting people live as the body it treats them as spectators of a performance. But listen to me carefully here. Because I do see a place for gatherings where people are trained how to live as the church. But I think we have to be intentional about telling people, “This isn’t church!” This is a gathering of believers designed to train you how to live as the church. It might include praise and singing similar to how we do it today, but it would also engage teaching that would genuinely train, equip and free people to live as the body in more relational settings. Ideally I think someone would only participate in such a thing for a year or two while discovering more life-giving ways to gather with believers. As they found themselves being joined to others for more relational engagement, their need for the training time would decrease. Thus the large group would be more like a university, training people and sending them out, not trying to hold on to them every Sunday morning for 40 or 50 years.
WOW, it turned out to be quite a few questions – please don’t feel that you have to answer them yourself – you can maybe just direct me to a particular article or teaching so that I can glean
Wayne: Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of great resources out there on this kind of stuff. That may be good. We all need to learn to follow the Shepherd not simply adapt someone else’s model that we might think will work for us. I used to be frustrated that Jesus didn’t map out a clearer church structure for his disciples to implement. Now I see the great wisdom in that. He wanted people to follow him, not a model. But that is always a challenge… For all of us.