A Necessary Gift

A. Paige Britton
Tuesday, September 1st 2009
Sep/Oct 2009

Three years ago, my family and I found it necessary to leave the little local evangelical church where we had been members for about thirteen years (I intend no slight to that congregation; we were concerned about the effect of a style of preaching on our young son). Like refugees, we arrived at the Presbyterian church a few hundred yards farther up the street, finding a friendly congregation that was lively with families, sound in doctrine, and godly in leadership. As it happened, I had just spent the last decade in serious personal study of Reformed theology, which had abruptly captured my heart and mind some time earlier, and now I delighted to hear preaching that reflected this understanding.

One would think all these things would make for an excellent fit, but there was one major catch: in this PCA church, women may not teach the Bible and doctrine to mixed company, the very calling that seems to best define me. As the "Let's Get Acquainted" class wound along into new members instruction, I began to drag my feet. Entering into membership in this church would, I knew, be something like voluntarily submitting to having my wings clipped. To my mind, the gravity of the membership vow made it important that I make my peace with this area of personal loss before joining, or else not join at all, if I knew I could not submit wholeheartedly to the authority of the elders in this place.

Now, this article is not going to treat the question of women teaching Sunday school in the PCA, nor will I be exploring my personal angst as a Presbyterian with clipped wings. That's another story for another time. It is legitimate to wonder why I would voluntarily join a church where I could expect to encounter uncomfortable limits, but the larger question raised by my membership dilemma is this: Why should any Protestant Christian, woman or man, submit to church authority at all? In fact, what self-respecting citizen of democracy would choose submission when she is free to pursue autonomy?

These are more than just academic questions, of course, because contemporary sentiment has pretty much ruled against voluntary, wholehearted acceptance of authority in general, and Christians are hardly immune to contemporary sentiment. The extreme alternative to structured authority in the church is an attractively organic non-structure, in which the common priesthood of believers is celebrated without the "Big Brother" feel of a church hierarchy-a vision that has recently been re-popularized in the writings of guides such as Frank Viola and George Barna. What follows is an answer to this perennially trendy approach to "doing church" organically, an answer that holds up the necessity and the gift of ordained leadership, and which hopefully offers another dimension to the picture of growing up in wisdom and discipleship in the Body of Christ.

Going Organic Is Expensive

As I made my acquaintance with the Presbyterians, I realized that while I was pretty far ahead on the learning curve, I hadn't quite arrived yet. Covenant theology and extravagant grace were familiar themes, but now I had to figure out the difference between "teaching elders" and "ruling elders," and try to remember which was bigger, a presbytery or a session. All this polity! Was it worth bothering about?

As is my wont, I dove into the documents to catch up on the details, namely the Westminster Standards and the PCA's Book of Church Order. Reading the latter, I was struck by the PCA's treasuring of its pastors, from "under care" to honorable retirement. I have observed from Paul's accounts and from the lives of friends that pastoring is often a difficult and thankless calling, as is the role of ruling elder; and while the theory may shine more brilliantly than the practice, the wide net of support and mutual accountability described in the BCO was encouraging to see. I know that the Presbyterian system is not the only permutation of ordained leadership among reformational churches, but it is certainly carefully considered.

Contrast this with the "organic" vision of Viola and Barna, in which the absence of designated leadership is lauded (chapter 5 of their book Pagan Christianity is titled "The Pastor: Obstacle to Every-Member Functioning"). According to these authors, if an organic church is planted properly, "those believers will know how to sense and follow the living, breathing headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings….[T]hey will minister out of what Christ has shown them-with no human leader present!" This is a self-consciously antiestablishment vision, charged with enthusiasm and anthropological optimism, and its promoters take pride in tracing its roots to the Anabaptists and the "Radical Reformation." Anything short of a spontaneous, free, and authentic group experience of the Savior is, in their view, unbiblical and pagan.

What do we lose if we jettison a structure of authoritative leadership in the church? No slur on farmers intended, but what is true at the grocery checkout is true in the church as well: going organic is expensive. Here the pinch is felt not in the wallet but in the health of the body of Christ.

Ordination, as a commission and a covenant, sets apart from the congregation selected men who promise to love and guard that local expression of Christ's body. Whether ordained laity or clergy (and Presbyterians are careful to speak of the parity or equivalence between these groups), the elders' charge is to "pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock….[C]are for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). In church discipline, Sacraments, doctrinal matters, and instruction, the oversight of elders is intended to preserve, protect, and defend the faith and the people. Without leaders who are set apart for and dedicated to this task, the church and its proclamation of the gospel are fair game for the ravening wolves without and the wayward saints within.

Granted, ordination brings one into a position of visibility and influence that can be gravely abused. But although every pastor or elder is just a jar of clay, God has seen fit to entrust designated human officers, answerable to God, with his gospel and his church. Submitting to the authority of these ordained elders means that I agree to listen to them, even if this entails receiving their admonition-or accepting uncomfortable limits. Implicit in this respectful listening is the commitment to disagree appropriately and graciously, if I feel I must disagree, and to be an agent for unity, not discord, in our church, an understanding that prompted my serious reflection before joining.

Choosing formal submission to a Presbyterian session over autonomy in another sort of congregation seems an odd move for a daughter of the 1960s who was raised on Free to Be You and Me, but it is a decision that reflects my trust that those who govern our congregation are themselves governed by the Lord, the Word, and one another, and my understanding that their calling is a necessary gift to the rest of us. Three aspects of this gift especially pertain to the transmission of wisdom and are sketched out below.

Guardians of a Good Deposit

"Guard the good deposit" (2 Tim. 1:14) is both a royal imperative and a practical necessity. Someone needs to guard the treasure, "the faith once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 1:3), because the gospel is communicated truth, and our enemy the devil is the father of lies. "Has God really said…?" is the opener for many an ear-tickling teaching. Jesus himself warned his followers to expect false prophets in sheep's clothing (Matt. 7:15ff.), and he urged his disciples to inspect the fruit and distinguish the good from the bad. Warnings of heresy imply orthodoxy: there is a canon of content for which the church must contend.

Significantly, the guardians of the good deposit do not create the treasure, they preserve it. The gospel-and ultimately the whole good news of Scripture-is something objective, outside us. This means that its guardians must know it well, in its parts and its whole, and listen to it before trying to speak about it (cf. Prov. 18:13). The treasure actually governs its guardians.

In the fourth century, once the Roman persecutions had calmed down after Constantine's conversion, Christian leaders had a spacious place in which to sit and listen to the Word, to determine its boundaries, and to sort the fruit that had grown in the meantime in and around the church. Out of these seasons of careful consideration and debate, and again in the wake of the Reformation, came creeds and standards that delineated a "Rule of Faith," an outline of orthodoxy, normed by the Scriptures.

The outlines are important, because it is inevitable that Christians will find that parts of Scripture are "not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all" (WCF I.vii). Within an orthodox confession of Christ, we may yet disagree over whether women should teach Sunday school to mixed groups, or whether infants should be baptized, or (within limits!) just what is happening at the Lord's Supper. But if we claim to remain within the bounds of orthodoxy, we may not disagree that we have been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and brought into God's household by nothing less (or more!) than the death of his only Son.

Who gets to be the guardians? Can't any believer do the job as well as any other? So say the proponents of the organic approach to doing church, who cast the Word out on the sea of the congregation and optimistically expect it to return intact. Kevin Vanhoozer observes that, biblically speaking, communities of the saints are not necessarily known for their great track records when it comes to telling right from wrong (e.g., Israel demanded a king; the Galatians gave ear to the Judaizers; the Corinthians were just a mess). Group-speak might not be the best answer to the question of guardianship.

The practice of ordaining elders to "guard the good deposit" springs from the examples and teaching in Acts and the Epistles and acknowledges the high calling, the sober responsibility, and the practical necessity of designating individuals who will devote themselves to the task "by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us" (2 Tim. 1:14). Timothy is charged to entrust Paul's teaching "to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2), which is a subgroup of the saints. The fact is, the Bible is a very thick book and we are finite individuals. God's household needs cooks and carpenters as well as guardians and teachers; we cannot all devote our full attention to matters of orthodoxy and heresy. Designated guardians, governed by the Word and the checks and balances of the church, ensure that there is a treasure to pass along-which brings us to another aspect of ordained leadership, the transmission of this treasure through instruction.

Speaking the Truth in Love

One of the stumbling blocks in the way of accepting church authority in the form of a body of pastors and elders is the contemporary misperception that the presence of authority equals the presence of a top-down hierarchy in the church. Protestants are understandably allergic to notions of ecclesiastical hierarchy- Luther and Calvin both being quick to point out that the plowman, the housewife, and the preacher have equal worth in the sight of God. At the installation service for a friend of mine, another pastor counseled my friend to remember that as a teaching elder he is still "just one of the sheep" and that he will need nourishment and grace just as much as anyone, or even more.

On the other hand, the reality is that we are not all created equal in our ability to learn, understand, know, remember, or articulate what we have learned. Calvin was a pastor and professor, not a plowman. There is a hierarchy of sorts-based on gifts and callings, opportunities and experience-that furnishes the church with teachers and students. But this is no Gnostic hierarchy of knowledge, in which a privileged few secretively and impressively train a privileged few. This is the topsy-turvy hierarchy of service, in which those who have been given the most are to cheerfully come alongside those who have less. Ours is the hierarchy in which the Master washes the feet of his apprentices.

In Ephesians 4, Paul uses the language of gifting to explain the presence of pastors and teachers: the ascended Christ "gave gifts to men….He gave…pastors and teachers to equip the saints" (4:8, 11-12). We joke about those who have the hubris to consider themselves "God's gift to mankind," but the biblical reality is that God does give gifts in the forms of people, including these servants of his whom he has called and set apart to lead and to teach. Note, too, that those who have this role are ultimately answerable to the Gift-Giver: "we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1); and church leaders are "those who will have to give an account" (Heb. 13:17). The honor of the office is inextricably tied to "response-ability" to the Head Officer and was never intended to be a means of self-aggrandizement.

Now, not to look a gift preacher in the mouth or anything, but really we cannot help it: there he is, speaking to us Sunday after Sunday, and we people in the pews (or folding chairs) are going to know his love for us by the way he teaches. Does he comfort, exhort, and encourage? Does he reprove and rebuke with all patience? Does he correct misconceptions with gentleness? Does he proclaim the whole counsel of God, setting out the gospel plainly and boldly, rightly handling the Word of truth, so that we are startled out of our subjectivity and confronted with our Lord? The apostle's words treat relational attitudes and content rather than style and flourish, which deliberately call attention to the speaker. Paul himself eschewed the "lofty speech" and eloquence of the professional rhetoricians of his day, "lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" (1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1).

I find this picture of loving instruction compelling, because it binds together the preacher's responsibility to guard and to communicate the good deposit and his calling to carefully shepherd the real people before him. It's a picture that leaves no room for self, which means it is a challenge and a half to fulfill (if the preacher is anything like me!). William Willimon quotes Chrysostom on this subject: "In toiling long and hard on his sermons, the priest must at the same time be utterly indifferent to the praise of his hearers." The Larger Catechism echoes Paul's idea that instruction must be both true to God's Word and considerate of the flock, explaining that preachers should speak "wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers" (Q159). Even the brilliant Calvin, writes Andrew McGowan, "was concerned to expound the great doctrines of the faith in a way that would be comprehensible to the men and women in the pews….He preached in a simple, conversational style, used familiar vocabulary and spoke in short sentences."

Patterns of Christ

Speaking the truth in love from the pulpit or in a classroom is only one of the ways that God's wisdom is passed on from pastor or elder to flock. Since this wisdom is both a canon of content and a way of life, it must be embodied as well as spoken, a calling that non-preaching elders can fulfill as well. Here the charge to the apprentice is at once "heed my instruction" and "walk with the wise to grow wise" (Prov. 4:1; 13:20). Listening to a fine sermon online may be edifying, but observing and participating in a godly person's life turns theory into lived reality for us. We may think we know what it means, say, to bless when cursed; but until we see this lived out three-dimensionally, we may not clearly understand the cost or the trust involved. Connecting the dots between the gospel and our everyday responses and responsibilities is the point of any mentor-apprentice relationship in the Body of Christ.

Paul expresses this idea simply when he urges the Corinthians to "be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). Elsewhere he uses the image of a "type" or pattern to follow: "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example [Greek typon] you have in us" (Phil. 3:17; cf. 1 Tim. 1:16; 4:12; 2 Tim. 1:13; Titus 2:7). Peter, too, cautions the elders that as they lead they should not "lord it over" the congregation but be "examples [typoi] to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3). The use of the word "type" in these verses suggests the intriguing idea that even as Old Testament "types" pointed forward in history to Christ, those who "type" or pattern Christ for the church point in a backward-looking chain through the New Testament eyewitnesses to the humility of Jesus himself.

Can't this pattern of example and imitation occur organically in the church, rather than relying entirely on ordained leadership? Certainly it can and does’and in fact it must, given that women are sometimes called to mentor other women (e.g., Titus 2:3-5) and elders are finite beings. But in the verses listed above, the assumption is that certain designated leaders have been given the responsibility to speak and to walk, carefully and visibly, before the congregation, so that the Word of God may be made more tangible and accessible to all. It is the elders' special task to pass along the objective content of the faith through the subjective media of their speech and their lives.

In the great medieval cathedrals, the stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Scripture were called "the Bible of the poor." Perhaps in the word-deed ministry of ordained leaders we have something similar. Ordination, like the bright colors of the windows when the sun shines through, sets these leaders apart and calls our attention to them; their life and doctrine, like the details on the panes, ought to communicate the wisdom of godliness. Given this good gift from the Father of lights, the least the rest of us can do is "obey, so that their work may be a joy and not a burden" (cf. James 1:17; Heb. 13:17)-and pray that they may have God's grace to fulfill their calling with integrity.

1 [ Back ] >"Teaching elders" are pastors and "ruling elders" are ordained laity. A "session" is a church's shepherding body of teaching and ruling elders, and a "presbytery" is a network of mutually accountable churches in a geographic region.
2 [ Back ] Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 105-43.
3 [ Back ] Viola and Barna, 234. See also Frank Viola's Reimagining Church (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2008).
4 [ Back ] Space does not permit me to make a defense here of an all-male ordained leadership, but I believe this arrangement can be defended theologically, without denigrating women or flattering men.
5 [ Back ] Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 219.
6 [ Back ] Cf. 1 Thess. 2:11-12; 2 Tim. 2:15, 25; 4:2; Acts 20:27; 2 Cor. 4:2; Eph. 6:19.
7 [ Back ] William Willimon, Calling and Character (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 20.
8 [ Back ] Andrew McGowan, The Divine Spiration of Scripture (Nottingham, UK: Apollos, 2007), 202.
Tuesday, September 1st 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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