Monday, November 21, 2011

"Thick Description": Elders

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.


Robert Brenchley said...

Back then, not many people could read or write. There must have been a few in the churches, in order to read, say, Paul's letters. But we don't know how many more churches there may have been where this was not possible. Old people were the memory of the community; that's why people who were with Jesus, or were witnesses to the resurrection, were so important. Things couldn't be more different now!

FrGregACCA said...

Some interesting assumptions at work here.

First, does a church board function in the same way as a group of presbyters did in the First Century Church? These presbyters, after all, are "priests" and function as such more and more as time goes on and the "high priest", the bishop, becomes more and more a supra-parochial figure.

Does "presbyter" necessarily imply a certain level of chronological age? St. Paul writes that no one should despise Timothy because of his youth. Doesn't "presbyter" convey something along the lines of the way we use the word "senior" as in "Senior Management"?

Regardless of the level of autocracy found in the ancient world, the early Church seems to be taking a step beyond that. See Acts 15, for example. Consensus is reached.

IOW, I agree with your conclusion, but not necessarily with every step you took to get there.

Ken Schenck said...

I take overseer in 1 Timothy to be synonymous with elder (in the light of Titus 1) and to refer to a collection of older leaders at least in a city as a whole, which often was basically a single house church. I think bishop would be a very misleading translation.

I don't think Timothy actually qualifies in 1 Timothy. He interestingly seems to play some role that is above the elders and overseers of Ephesus and yet is likely significantly younger than them.

As for Acts 15, I think it's important to remember that it is a perspective on the event rather than a videotape. I feel quite confident that Paul would tell the story differently... in fact I think he does in Galatians 2 ;-)

FrGregACCA said...

My point, Ken, about Acts 15 is that one sees the beginning of popular participation in the affairs of the Church. It is not just the hierarchy, as became the case much later in the West.

I am reminded of Gregory of Nazianzen's comments about all the popular theologizing going on in Constantinople in the late Fourth Century and of the role the "Christian street" played in the fortunes of the Church of Alexandria, from dock workers striking in support of Athanasius to the popular insistence that Chalcedon, indeed, was to rejected as were hierarchs who subscribed to it and being perfectly willing and able to take the kind of action necessary to enforce that position.