What Are the Elders and Pastors of the Church Supposed to Do?

I once attended a church in which a group of women decided to start a book club as a means of fostering Christian friendship among themselves. The women only saw one another at worship and were looking for further ways of connecting. This is not uncommon, of course. But the book club never got off the ground. The women had selected a book to read and were planning their first meeting when the pastor got wind of it. Without discussion or warning, he announced from the pulpit that the women would be reading a different book, one that he had selected. That sort of sucked the life out of the endeavor, turning what had been a bottom-up affair among women to one that came down from the man at the top. Yet I could not help but wondering, why did this pastor assume he had the authority to take control in this way? I eventually realized that this was not an isolated incident. The pastor was a man accustomed to being in control. He was willing to use his office as he felt necessary in order to accomplish his ‘pastoral’ objectives, without accountability.

Of course, there are few controversies in the church older than that of church government. In the New Testament the pastors of the church are interchangeably described as presbyters and bishops. Not long after the apostles passed from the scene, however, Christian churches began to rally around the authority of particular bishops (such as the bishop of Rome) as focal points of unity and standards of orthodoxy. Bishops took on a whole new array of governmental tasks, overseeing the deacons’ care for the poor and adjudicating conflicts among believers. The church’s emerging hierarchy was a clear imitation of the highly successful polity of the Roman Empire.

By the high middle ages the pope had won widespread recognition of his authority not only as the vicar of Peter, but the vicar of Christ. The pope’s authority in the church was embraced as having been instituted by Christ in his famous words to Peter,

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

The canon lawyers of the medieval church recognized that Christ spoke similar words to the apostles as a group, not simply to Peter, and so they came to distinguish between two types of authority grounded in Jesus’ statement. On the one hand, they argued, Christ gave all the apostles, and hence all priests directly, the sacerdotal authority to administer the sacraments, including penance. On the other hand, Christ gave to Peter alone, and hence to the popes, supreme ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘administration’, the power to govern, to legislate, and to adjudicate specific disputes. In such matters the pope had the ‘fullness of power’; he could not violate articles of faith, but he did have full discretionary authority over the church’s temporal affairs, and – very significantly – that authority was backed up by the powers of excommunication.

The sharpest medieval critic of this view was Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius denied the divine origin of the papacy and insisted that the church is a purely spiritual institution concerned with otherworldly salvation. He vigorously rejected any coercive power on the part of the church, including excommunication, insisting that ecclesiastical affairs of jurisdiction and administration belong to civil government. Marsilius thus became the clear forerunner of the later Protestant theory known as “Erastianism,” in which civil magistrates are placed at the head of the church and the authority of the church’s ministers is limited to the word and sacraments.

The Marsilian or Erastian view became the default view of the early magisterial reformers. To varying degrees, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Henrician reformers in England all not only relied on magisterial power as an emergency source of authority to launch the reformation, but embraced civil government as the rightful overseer of the church’s order and life. On the far extreme was the English Reformation, with Henry VIII’s claim to be the Head of the Church. Much more moderate was Martin Luther, who was always uncomfortable with civil authority in the church, but who struggled to find an alternative.

Most prominent in Reformed churches were the views of Zwingli and Bullinger, who equated the church and civil government as essentially one society with two kinds of power, that of pastors and that of civil magistrates. For Zwingli and Bullinger the tasks of excommunication and poor relief entrusted to the church in New Testament appropriately fell to civil magistrates in the era of Christendom. Now that such civil rulers had converted to the faith, there was no need for ecclesiastical ministers to maintain such functions independently of the city or commonwealth. Ecclesiastical control over discipline and poor relief was associated with the tyranny of the papists.

It was Calvin, finally, influenced by Martin Bucer, who began to navigate a way between the extreme claims of the papacy, on the one hand, and the Protestant Erastians (or Marsilians) on the other. Calvin insisted that as the spiritual kingdom of Christ, the church is called to administer specific spiritual functions without interference from political authorities. These functions do not only consist of the word and sacraments, but of discipline (including excommunication) and of care for the poor. Calvin thus insisted that the church has its own right of spiritual jurisdiction that must be sharply distinguished from the political jurisdiction of civil government.

How was this spiritual jurisdiction to be distinguished from the tyrannical claims of the papacy? Calvin maintained that the church’s jurisdiction is non-coercive. It simply consists in barring a person from the Eucharist and urging him to repent. Just as importantly, he stressed that the church’s right to excommunicate or discipline its members cannot be invoked with reference to any dispute or temporal matter whatsoever, as happened under the papacy, but only with reference to spiritual matters. To put it another way, the church could only discipline a person if she was in direct and clear violation of the moral law of God. Thus the church’s spiritual jurisdiction was not magisterial or discretionary, but ministerial. It was entirely bound up with the word such that church discipline could be said to be an extension or appendage of that word, an exercise of the spiritual sovereignty of Christ.

For Calvin even the church’s care for the poor, an expression of the communion described in Acts 4, is fundamentally spiritual rather than temporal. It is a direct manifestation of the restoration that the kingdom of Christ has begun in human beings.

But Calvin agreed with the other reformers that the outward and temporal matters of the church’s life are to be sharply distinguished from these spiritual matters, and are therefore subject to a different kind of government or polity. Such “indifferent” matters included the appropriate time and day of worship, the speech and attire of women, the forms and postures of liturgy, none of which, Calvin insisted, pertain to the conscience (which does not mean that scripture has nothing to say about them).

Calvin was not very clear about just who should regulate such indifferent things. Clearly he permitted civil government some control here. He submitted to the Geneva government’s decision concerning the frequency of the Eucharist, to its control of the procedures by which the ministers of the church were elected, and to its funding of the church’s ministries (and consequently its control over the church’s finances). Equally clearly, he insisted that civil government could not direct such matters according to its own whim and preference. All the affairs of church life are to be ordered consistent with scripture and for the edification and peace of the body.

Yet it is noteworthy that when Calvin described the offices of church government he did so with respect to the church’s spiritual functions rather than with respect to its temporal or indifferent affairs. For instance, Calvin was adamant in his preaching that the deacons of the Genevan church – which he said should include an order of women – were to be embraced as possessing a spiritual office like that of the pastors rather than that of the civil magistrates. Even more significantly, he always defined the office of elder with respect to the function of spiritual church discipline. He never characterized it as an office of general rule or jurisdiction in the church. In that sense Calvin was no Presbyterian. His office of elder, unlike that of later Reformed and Presbyterian churches, had one specific spiritual function – the function of church discipline. And it is only with respect to that specific function, he argued, that the elders can claim to administer the spiritual government of Christ’s church.

Why did the later Reformed tradition develop a much broader understanding of the office of elder? When Reformed churches were established in Catholic France, under the cross, it was obviously impossible to concede control of even indifferent ecclesiastical affairs to hostile civil magistrates. French churches therefore tended to turn such affairs over to the control of deacons and elders (in some cases the offices of elder and deacon even blended into one). But they were mindful that this was an outward or temporal authority, not a spiritual one. Evidence for this appears from the fact that they (ordinarily) dealt with matters of (spiritual) church discipline at separate meetings from those in which they handled the general affairs of church government.

A similar development, I believe, explains the evolution of church government in the Dutch Reformed Churches. To this day the elders in Dutch Reformed churches are supposed to distinguish their spiritual oversight of the congregation, with which they deal in meetings of the Consistory (pastors and elders), from the matters of general church government, with which they deal in meetings of the Council (pastors, elders, and deacons). Here the Dutch Reformed ‘Council’ (an office of the church) seems to have neatly taken the place of the Geneva ‘Council’ (the supreme authority of Geneva’s civil government) in governing the indifferent affairs of church life.

What worries me is that in some Reformed churches there seems to be little understanding of the difference between the spiritual government of the church, in which the pastors, elders, and deacons administer the kingship of Christ, and the church’s handling of indifferent affairs, in which they are merely representatives of the congregation. In short, I fear that too often elders and pastors think that when they are exercising their authority over indifferent matters they are exercising the authority of Christ! Perhaps that helps explain why many elders devote far more time to such mundane affairs than they do to the vital and spiritual function of church discipline.

Understanding the difference between spiritual and indifferent affairs also has implications for the involvement of the broader congregation in decisions concerning the latter. If Calvin and the other reformers were willing to cede significant authority over the indifferent affairs of church life to civil authorities (a willingness I think we should wholeheartedly reject) because such matters were simply to be conducted for the edification and peace of all believers, how much more should we yield authority over such matters to the very believers whose edification and peace is its objective? This doesn’t mean the church need always operate by majority vote. It does suggest that the general matters of church government might be appropriately handled at meetings and through procedures in which all faithful men and women, in addition to the officers of the church, can participate.

Such a conception of church government would have a twofold salutary advantage. First, it would make the church more sensitive to the gifts, wisdom, and consent of its full membership. Second, it would help people to distinguish the spiritual government of Christ administered by the church’s officers strictly according to the word from those indifferent matters of government appropriately subject to the primary concerns of love, edification, prudence, compromise, and peace. That in turn might help our fragmented churches achieve a greater measure of unity. I believe the Apostle Paul had something to say about that.

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About Matthew Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga received his Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics and Society at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Oglethorpe University, and has also taught at Emory and Sewanee - the University of the South.

Posted on July 3, 2014, in Calvin, Church Discipline, Church Government, Presbyterianism, women, Worship and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Glad you are posting again.

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