I was having a discussion recently about the virtues of calling the local board of leaders in a local church a board of elders. My denomination currently calls them a local board of administration. The discussion plays into some remarks I've made earlier about the assumption that we should pattern ourselves in every way on the early church (primitivism) and the fact that my church faces potential identity confusion because of an influx of pastors from other traditions. For example, "elder" historically is a term for a minister in the Wesleyan tradition.
But that's really just background. In the discussion about elders, I was reminded of the great insight that has really only come into biblical studies in the last 30-40 years or so. The sociologist Clifford Geertz rightly suggested in 1973 that we should give a "thick description" to events that take place if we really want to understand them. I wish I could communicate the difference this would make in reading the Bible.
A lot of Bible readers can quote the Bible thoroughly and even tell you historical dates and events. But their understanding of such events and texts is two-dimensional or the words are brought into the three dimensional contours of their modern cultural context. By contrast, a "thick" understanding of biblical contexts understands the significance of words and events in the first century cultural matrix.
1. I don't think I can do the discussion justice, but I wanted to think a little about what a thick description of the role of elder might look like. First, we would situate the term in a culture where older was assumed to be wiser. The elders were in fact literally older and they were assumed to be wiser than the younger. So if we were really to be like the early church, we would not have anyone on a church's governing board who was not at least in their 50's, I would say.
2. But you can't make a culture think older people are wiser. In fact, in our day there may be ways in which younger people know more about many important things than the older people do. Again, a thick description of a NT "elder" would need to recognize that the ancient world didn't change much over time. There were no technological innovations.
3. Collections of elders were also situated an autocratically oriented culture. Is that style of leadership the ideal for today? I don't think so. It was an appropriate accommodation to ancient culture rather than a timeless model. Developments in the study of leadership are good, and we are not required to throw them out the window simply because the early church operated in a model appropriate to the ancient world.
4. Although you cannot prove to me that someone like Priscilla was not among the elders at Ephesus at some point, ancient collections of elders were probably overwhelmingly male. Again, this was to be expected given the culture of the time. It is, however, not appropriate for a kingdom-oriented church today, where we recognize that women have equal access to the Spirit just like men.
So maybe it's good that we have a different name for the governing board of a church, just so we don't get confused. We don't live in the ancient Mediterranean. Good leadership today will not play out the same as good leadership then.