In the last two editions of Theology Matters we have examined the historical and biblical role of elders as shepherds of the people rather than primarily as leaders of a corporation. The former expression was standard among Reformed and Presbyterian congregations from the 16th century until the early 1900s. Of course, our society has changed dramatically since then. But might it still be possible to recover this former understanding of the office of elder, which is so central to our history, identity, and being as Presbyterians?
In this final installment of this series, we seek to reclaim the office of elder for the 21st century. What would an elder as shepherd of the people look like today? What sort of tasks would it entail? Thankfully, we need not look far for a time-tested definition.
A simple definition of elders appears in the first edition of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America adopted in 1788. It remained unchanged for 170 years: “Ruling elders are properly the representatives of the people, chosen by them, for the purpose of exercising government and discipline, in conjunction with pastors or ministers.”1
How are we to understand this definition? There are at least four parts to it: 1) “representatives of the people”; 2) “in conjunction with pastors or ministers”; 3) “exercising government”; 4) “and discipline.” Let us deal with each in turn.
1. Representatives of the People
A common misunderstanding in America of elders being “representatives of the people” is that elders are somehow delegates to a convention or are elected to give voice to a particular group or constituency in the congregation. This notion derives more from American democratic values than the Bible. Elders are elected by the people, but not to represent the people in the sense of a voting block to guard or promote their particular needs, interests, causes, views, etc. Indeed, there is a sense in which “representing the people” is the last thing elders should do. There are “sons of Korah” whose views we ought not seek to represent (2 Chron. 20:19ff). Rather elders are to represent the people in the sense of interceding on their behalf before God. Yet being a “representative of the people” in this sense is also problematic. Priests are supposed to represent people before God, but the Bible says there is only one true Priest, the “Great High Priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14). So elders are not representatives in the sense of being mediators between God and the people. “There is one God and one Mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Nevertheless, elders represent the people in the sense that they ‘stand in the breach’ for the people, not to atone or redeem them from sin, but in the sense of being responsible for the care of their souls. Their faithful care, witness, and prayer “availeth much,” Scripture teaches (James 5:1).
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ … shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:1-3).
Martin Bucer said there could be almost no lengths to which the diligent shepherd should be willing to go intercede for the flock:
These must be those shepherds who leave everything else and undertake and do everything in order to bring back the lamb which has gone astray, not just by leading it or driving it, but by placing it on their shoulders … They must be those mothers who give birth again with pain and distress … They must be the Lord’s servants who will endure and bear everything seeking and doing, with gentleness and keenness, in order to free from the devil’s trap those whom Satan has taken captive to do his will …2
Reading Bucer’s description I am reminded of George Hinsdale Winn, who served as an elder for 37 years (before the days of terms limits) at Kansas City’s Second Presbyterian Church. Looking at the records of most discipline cases there, one finds G.H. Winn, who also served as the Clerk of Session nearly three decades. Winn was born in Georgia, the son of a pastor. He applied for service with the Foreign Mission Service Board but was turned down because of poor health. In 1905 the Book of Order was amended placing term limits upon deacons and elders, but Mr. Winn was grandfathered. In December 1917, he resigned from his Clerk duties but was also elected elder for life. For decades, Elder Winn also served as the first option for pulpit supply in the absence of a pastor, only resigning from that duty in October 1925, well into his eighties. He continued to serve on session until his death a few months later on January 7, 1926. A eulogistic tribute to Winn was adopted unanimously by the Session and recorded in the minutes:
Ripe judgment, calm consideration of the problems, a deep spiritual experience, a kindly nature all united in making him a model elder. His talks to those who came into the church on confession of their faith usually began with “We would encourage you in this step.” There would always be mention of the seriousness of the step and of its solemn meaning; but the note of encouragement which opened the talk was the predominating spirit in it. … While his convictions as to what is truth were strong and unchanging, yet he held them always with that broad Christian charity which is able to say “Grace be to all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.”
Even in 1926, G.H. Winn was a throwback elder. However, he knew that to represent the people an elder must first know the people and must cultivate the bond of peace through relationships. Elders should be close to the people of the congregation, in relationship with them, having a sense of their spiritual needs, struggles and triumphs. As Samuel Miller enjoined the faithful: “It is their duty to have an eye of inspection and care over all the members of the congregation; and for this purpose to cultivate a universal and intimate acquaintance, as far as may be, with every family in the flock of which they are made ‘overseers.’” 3
Elders should know the church’s people better than its program. We see pale reflections of this today in assigning a dozen or so families to elders to call once or a twice year—often around stewardship season. The great danger in elders not knowing the people is the possibility of the session becoming an echo chamber, losing touch with reality, and fomenting animosity between shepherds and the flock. One elder told me of leading a church through a difficult but necessary personnel transition. The elders and pastor had mismanaged the situation. Communication fell short and confrontation ensued. The elders retreated into a bunker as explosions of misunderstanding and anger rattled the rebar and the concrete. This elder, who was the point-man for the decision, stood at the annual congregational meeting in great fear and trembling as he said he had to “face the angry mob.” Looking out upon the faces, however, he realized this was not a nameless or faceless rabble of strangers. They were his friends, people with whom he had worshipped and prayed and visited in their homes for more than a decade. “It was strangely comforting,” he said.
Reading between the lines of history we can say with confidence that elders in the past often fell short in the “cultivation of a universal and intimate acquaintance.” To be sure, it has always been challenging work. Bucer reminded elders and ministers of Christ’s words to “Go out into the streets and alleys … and the roads and country lanes and make them come in.” He further enjoins “the faithfulness, seriousness and diligence with which the Lord desires his lambs to be sought must be thoroughly taken to heart and faithfully considered.”4
How should 21st century shepherds be “representatives of the people”? It begins with Miller’s counsel to cultivate “universal and intimate” relationships with a specific purpose. Relationships are the last currency of authority left. Elders are to cultivate friendships and acquaintances that are ends-in-themselves, but are also the bonds of fellowship through which the Holy Spirit works. The days are long gone when a man or woman is likely to respond to an invitation to come before the elders to discuss a personal moral failing. Someone may respond to a friend, however, who has already walked along the way beside them, who knows their children’s names, and who has been a guest in their home. Better yet, they may be so transformed by such friendship that such an intervention might never be necessary. The instruction of 1 Peter 5 to shepherd and exercise oversight “eagerly and by example” is the most effective way for an elder to impact the life of another. 21st century shepherds must look for opportunities to build relationships and involve themselves in the lives of people. This is something good pastors learn to do. They seek opportunities to engage individuals personally, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. It is a basic practice that elders should aspire to as well.
2. In Conjunction with Pastors and Ministers
Elders should work together as equal partners in a team with the pastors. Again, Samuel Miller was adamant about being co-laborers. Pastors cannot properly do their job as teachers if elders do not fulfill their role as shepherds. Miller called the idea “absurd” that a pastor could lead a congregation without elders serving as shepherds. William Henry Roberts called elders “Divinely-appointed helpers” in the pastor’s “arduous labors.”5 As ruling elders live out their call for oversight and shepherding, it frees teaching elders to be pastors, to focus their attention on preaching and teaching, and to spend the needed time in prayer and study, not to mention raising up new leaders and casting vision—all the things pastors desperately need to do but get washed away in the tyranny of the urgent.
The phrase teamwork is probably overused today, but when elders and pastors do not know or fulfill their God-given roles the church suffers. A key development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the decline of discipline and demise of elders as shepherds was when the work of holding church members accountable was delegated solely to the pastor. Rather than a struggling or wayward member being approached by an elder for support or accountability, the pastor made a house call. Prior to that time, the pastor tended to play a supportive role as elders were dispatched to make home visitations. The Stated Clerk signed the summons to appear before the session.
Bucer was adamant in urging teaching and ruling elders to play his God-given and Holy Spirit-gifted role. The various and sundry people of God require various and sundry ministers:
Because so much is involved in the pastoral office, with teaching, exhortation, warning and discipline, comfort and pardon; and for this a reputation, a sense of awe, and an example of life are required; and since the whole of this so varied ministry has to be carried out in such a way as to help any and every one of the elect; every Christian can easily see how various kinds of exalted gifts and skills are needed, as well as the earnest zeal, for the proper execution of the pastoral office. This is because the people who are to be won for the Lord, preserved and built up in him, are not all of one sort and have many and various weaknesses, and also the number of people in the churches is large. Therefore the Lord gives to each one his own gifts and task, not all the gifts to one or two, but will rather that always one should need and make use of the help of another.6
How would a 21st century shepherd work “in conjunction with pastors and ministers”? It begins with elders accepting their role to oversee the flock and tend to the spiritual needs of the congregation rather than simply delegating them all to the pastor. Working in conjunction with pastors and ministers begins when pastors are given time to do things they have been called to do: spending time with God, preaching, teaching, studying, training leaders, providing pastoral care, counseling troubled souls, casting visions, etc. Certainly there are times when pastors should be in the hospital or the living room. But this should not be considered their primary responsibility or something they alone are called or qualified to do.
The task of elder-shepherds may look like purposeful Holy Spirit guided relationships with the whole of the membership. It may look like purposeful Holy Spirit guided relationships with a class of leaders, perhaps in small groups, making hospital calls, learning the names of the children in the congregation, serving as mentors to confirmation class members, perhaps showing up at soccer games, or being the first to respond to a crisis without asking the pastor’s permission. It looks like elders investing in the people whom they have been called to oversee and thereby earning the trust, the ability, and even the authority to “pay careful attention to the flock” (Acts 20:28).
We need not peer too far behind the phenomenon of pastor burnout to see their lonely execution of the shepherd role. There is no shortage of illustrative and even tragic tales here. But let us conjure an iconic figure: Reverend Elijah Lovejoy of The Simpsons. Lovejoy is not noted for his passion or zeal. One episode begins with Lovejoy, a member of the Western Branch of Reform Presbylutheranism, delivering a monotone sermon on “The Nine Tenets of Constancy.” The sermon literally puts the entire congregation to sleep until the Reverend chooses between three sound effect buttons conveniently installed near his right hand in the pulpit: ambulance, bird, or disco whistle. A squawking bird rouses the room and they clap instinctively thinking the sermon is over. Later in the episode a distraught member of the congregation calls the Reverend seeking to resolve a crisis with his mother. Lovejoy intones, “Maybe you should read your Bible.” The nonplussed man struggles to ask, “Any particular part?” Lovejoy replies, “It’s all good.”
We learn the source of Lovejoy’s burnout: having to care incessantly for one of the members, Ned Flanders. In a brief montage we see a very bored Lovejoy with a phone attached to his ear taking calls from Ned on minutiae while sitting behind his desk, at the dinner table, playing with his trains in the basement, and at a restaurant with his wife with a view overlooking the Eiffel Tower. As the flashback ends, Lovejoy has a moment of honesty, “Finally, I just stopped caring. Luckily, by then it was the 80s and no one noticed.”7
The solution, at least for this episode, is that Marge Simpson falls into the role of “The Listen Lady” and the attention-starved congregation beats a path to her door. The flock, their new shepherd, and even Lovejoy himself are given new life—until Lovejoy’s envy of Marge sends him back into a funk. Although the writers blame the needy Ned Flanders, the root of the dysfunction here is the one-man band Lovejoy’s inability to play his God-ordained, Holy Spirit enabled role. The full bloom is neglected and starved flock desperate for anyone to feed and care for them.
The way out is to recognize the Holy Spirit’s gifts and calling among many and to free the elders, for starters, to put those gifts to use shepherding the people. The role of shepherding people will vary greatly from congregation to congregation and context to context. Each elder is likely to be able to disciple or shepherd only six or seven individuals. It is important for sessions to ask how elders can best maintain these half-a-dozen or so relationships for the greatest effect in God’s Kingdom. In a small congregation, six elders may be able to cover half the membership in small groups. In a larger congregation, the elder may primarily shepherd the leadership core. Elders may also shepherd the faithful by being good listeners, teaching, preaching, and providing care.
3. Exercising Government and Discipline
Given the contemporary meaning of the word government, we may be tempted to see here a strong foothold for the institutional model. In the 21st century we tend to think of government as institutional: structures, laws, organizations, assemblies, even the Department of Motor Vehicles. Definitions of government in the 19th century and earlier tended more to the management of human behavior. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines government as: “Direction, regulation, control restraint, the exercise of authority; direction and restraint exercised over the actions of men in communities.” Not until the fifth definition to do we get to our common, contemporary usage: “The system of polity in a state.”
An unlikely ally, Michel Foucault, renowned for his deconstruction and post-modern interpretation of the shifting meaning of words, wrote about government:
“Government” did not refer only to political structures or to the management of states; rather it designated the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed: the government of children, of souls, of communities, of families, of the sick. It did not only cover the legitimately constituted forms of political or economic subjection, but also modes of action, more or less considered and calculated, which were destined to act upon the possibilities of action of other people. To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others.8
Samuel Miller clearly understood government to mean: “to structure the possible field of action of others.” For Miller, elders served “the spiritual government of the congregation” in distinction to the temporal or physical government of the congregation. Miller listed the ways in which the elders are empowered to govern: all of them falling under a definition in line with Webster’s and Foucault’s:
… the great Head of the Church has been pleased to invest in the governing powers of each particular congregation, for the instruction, edification and comfort of the whole body. To the Church Session it belongs to bind and loose; to admit to the communion of the Church, with all privileges; to take cognizance of all departure from the purity of faith or practice; to try, censure, acquit, or excommunicate those who are charged with offences; to consult and determine upon all matters relating to the time, place, and circumstances of worship, and other spiritual concerns; to take order about catechizing children, congregational fasts or thanksgiving days, and all other observances, stated or occasional; to correct, as far as possible, every thing that may tend to disorder, or is contrary to edification; and to digest and execute plans for promoting a spirit of inquiry, of reading, of prayer, of order, and of universal holiness among the members of the Church.9
Where is monitoring the finances? Where is upkeep and maintenance of the building? Where is the personnel committee? Where are mission, justice, and evangelism? Where is the program? Congregations may have been simpler in Miller’s day, but such matters still demanded attention. Management of budgets, mission, benevolences, and the building was still needed. But discussion of these occurs rarely in the session minutes of the 19th century. Their oversight, by and large, was the work of Deacons and Trustees.
A distinction lost in the institutional model is made between the “things of the Church” and the “persons of the Church.” The 1867 Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in the United States makes this most illuminating and clarifying remark, “The jurisdiction of the deacons is not over persons, but only over things; it does not appertain to the government of the church or the cure of souls, but to the care of ecclesiastical goods and tables …”10
The 1788 Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America lists two duties of the deacons. First, there is the care of the poor and the distribution of benefits “which may be raised for their use.” The second duty states that to the deacons, “may be properly committed the management of the temporal affairs of the Church.”11
Miller argues forcefully for the need of the office of deacon. He states that the office of elder and deacon “entirely different in nature, ought undoubtedly, to be separated in practice, to be discharged by different persons, and to be carefully guarded against that interference which is adapted to render both less useful.”12 But what is their work? Miller says, “the function to which the Deacon was appointed by the Apostles, was to manage the pecuniary affairs of the Church, and especially to preside over the collections of and disbursements for the poor.”13 ‘Pecuniary,’ a word seldom used today, means ‘relating to money.’
The Deacons’ management of the things of the church, the temporal and financial affairs of the congregation, frees elders to focus on the people. With the expansive job description of elders, especially the broad oversight for the things of the church, the ability to focus on people has been made difficult if not impossible.
This job expansion has engendered ineffective elders because it has directed them toward a product rather than a process of transformation and growth through the work of Holy Spirit. Sanctification, unlike justification, is a process. It is a lifelong process of repentance, transformation, and growth. It is a process that occurs in Jesus Christ and in relationship with others through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work. Bucer testified that the mark of the transformed Body of Christ was its overflowing works: “Such a church and community of God is clearly visible in its distinctiveness; for by its fruits one can know the tree.”14
The institutional model tends to focus on maintenance and preservation of structures and organizations rather than personal discipleship. One need only look at the growth of corporate responsibilities and duties for sessions in the Presbyterian Church throughout the 20th century to see such priorities.
God’s desire is not first or last that His children bear fruit, but that they keep relationship with Him. Tom Oden makes the point simply and powerfully:
The Triune God’s plan for redemption is accomplished only when God’s own Spirit dwells in the human heart so as to refashion it. It is unthinkable that the prize offered to parents for the talent of their children might suddenly become more important to them than the joy of actually touching and embracing their children. The token is hardly in the same class with that which it betokens. So it is with God’s delight in the life of human creatures made and restored in the divine image. God’s experience of humanity is in itself God’s delight, whatever their product or achievements or results. 15
How do elders achieve this type of government that cultivates spiritual fruit, this type that ‘structures the possible field of action of others’? Elders can cultivate relational discipleship by discerning Jesus’ vision for the church and holding the church accountable for it. This is among the elder’s most important tasks.
Leading the people of God in a unified Kingdom goal, rather than allowing ‘everyone do what is right in their own eyes,’ is key in achieving the unity for which Jesus prayed to the Father, “I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one” (John 17:23).
Discerning the Father’s will for the congregation grounded in what the Holy Spirit is doing in the community, and then leading the people in that direction through example is a spiritual practice that cultivates the kind of spiritual government called for by Miller and earlier editions of the Book of Order.
4. And Discipline
Elders may also achieve this spiritual government through church discipline. There is an amazing symmetry at work here that reflects the work of Jesus. First, elders lead people in carrying out a vision for ministry and congregational identity in service to the kingdom. This is an important part of shepherding that we see often in the Biblical narrative. But this work must be balanced with relational discipleship, a presence in the lives of people, lest it devolve into mere quixotic ambition. The shepherd must stay in the field with sheep.
An honest discussion of the role of elders demands we address the question of “What is the place of discipline in the 21st century?” The very idea conjures up images of stocks and thumbscrews, fines and shunning, pride and judgment. In an age of consumerism, an era of preaching and teaching so focused on self-gratification and achieving our ‘best life now,’ we are tempted to jettison discipline altogether. Is it possible for elders in such libertine times to discipline a congregation, or anyone, or even themselves? Yes, it is possible, but only because “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). And with God it is more than possible but necessary, especially when discipline is understood foremost as a sharing in the holiness of God.
Hebrews 12:1–11 teaches that we are the beneficiaries of the work of our High Priest, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit at the direction and out of the great love of our Heavenly Father. This work grafts us indissolubly to God and transforms our communities into a place of outpouring of the holiness and righteousness of the Triune God Himself. Discipline is a process whereby God transforms together His sons and daughters into a collective vessel of holiness and righteousness and the living image of Himself.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12 comes on the heels of one of the most inspirational chapters in God’s Word, Hebrews 11, the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1). It is a catalogue of the faithful, a genealogy filled with the luminous names of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Rahab, and David. It is intended to inspire the church to persist in their own faithful labors for the kingdom. So also intended is the example of those unnamed by the author who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated …” (Heb. 11:36–38). The role of the ruling elder is to embody the spirit of these great saints and serve as an example to the flock, demonstrating the kind of holiness toward which the congregation should aspire.
Hebrews 12 reminds readers of the example of these faithful ones who should inspire us to “lay aside every sinful weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). We do not linger long with these lesser lights. Our gaze is immediately ushered to the highest example of One who endured much, by faith, for the sake of the Kingdom, Jesus Christ, whom is called “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). In 12:3 we are encouraged again to “Consider him who endures from sinners such hostility against himself so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
Of course, Jesus Christ is more than a mere example. He intercedes for us while “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). The great Scottish theologian, William Milligan, builds his argument for the “Heavenly Priesthood of our Lord” Jesus Christ upon Hebrews. Milligan concludes that Christ’s presence at the right hand of the Father goes way beyond mere inspiration to a sinful humanity:
In the Incarnate and Ascended Lord, we have all that the human heart expects with unquenchable instinct and undying hope. Seated on the throne of that heavenly world which is above us and around us on every side is One in whom the human nature has been closely and indissolubly united with the Divine; and from that time onward humanity is filled with its loftiest potencies and most glorious prospects. At the Ascension the goal of humanity is reached.16
Most importantly, the discussion of discipline takes place amid the proclamation of Jesus’ intercession at the right hand of the Father. We are disciplined by the very fact that Jesus, the God-man, sits at the right hand of the Father. It is His relationship with the Father and our relationship with Him that provides the context, substance, and basis of our discipline.
Notes on Paideia
In Heb. 12:5-9 the word “discipline” (paideia) appears six times. The word paideia lies at the root of our English word “piety.” It is worth noting that rather than “spirituality,” which had more currency in Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition has emphasized “piety” to describe the Christian life. But the Reformed tradition’s understanding of piety derives not from an interior state, condition, or focus as in the Pietist tradition, but from this Greek word for “discipline.”
What are we told about this paideia or discipline? We are told: 1) “not regard it lightly”; 2) that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves; 3) “for discipline we have to endure”; 4) “what son is there whom his father does not discipline”; 5) “if you are left without discipline … you are illegitimate”; and 6) “we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them.” Given the parental connotations we should not be surprised that the term paideia refers most specifically to the raising of a child. Paideia is defined as:
the upbringing and handling of the child which is growing up to maturity and which thus needs direction, teaching, instruction, and a certain measure of compulsion in the form of discipline or even chastisement. Paideia is both the way of education and cultivation which has to be traversed and also the goal which is to be attained.17
In Attic Greek the understanding of paideia is the process by which people are educated into their true and highest form. Our best understandings of discipline typically fall along these lines. Flowing from the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Son to us, discipline is the act of learning obedience and, therefore, becoming grateful and joyful children of God, the true and highest form of our personhood. It is the work of the elders to cultivate, practice, and model this relational community for the congregation—first in their own lives, among each other as the session, and then amid the whole of the body.
Discipline is the work of the Holy Spirit. The final two verses in Hebrews 12 suggest a more hopeful understanding of the possibilities of discipline among a community formed by and filled with the Holy Spirit:
“For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10–11).
The goal of discipline is twofold. Verse 10 teaches that the Lord disciplines us so that “we may share his holiness.” Translated as either “share” or “partake” in most versions, the Greek word here is metalambano, a joining together of two root words, meta (a preposition meaning with, after or behind) and lambano (meaning receive or have). This phrase is used infrequently in the New Testament, but the general sense is of a heightened, indissoluble sense of partnership.
This heightened, indissoluble partnership is with the subject of this passage, Jesus Christ, the God-man sitting on the throne of heaven. John Calvin hints at the strength of this metalambano when he states, “It hence appears that the fruit or benefit [of discipline] is to be perpetual.”18
This heightened and irrevocable sense of partnership in the holiness of God is only enhanced by the heavy emphasis upon Father/Son language in verses 5–9. Karl Barth draws upon Heb. 12:10 to describe the sanctification which comes via our fellowship with the Father through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Barth proclaims that our only hope for freedom occurs through this three-fold fellowship:
But called by Him to fellowship with Himself, placed in it, united with Him by His Holy Spirit, they are free here and now in correspondence to his kingly rule at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. To their salvation they are free only for this. But they are genuinely free for this. They can look to Him and be His saints in everything that they do in this look. 2 Cor. 5:17 is true of them: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature”; and especially Heb. 12:10: they are “partakers of his holiness” and above all Jn. 8:36: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”19
This leads quite naturally to the second goal of discipline, the yielding “of the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Throughout the New Testament we see this phenomenon, most noticeably in Gal. 5:22, the fruits of the Spirit. But we also see the joining together of the Holy Spirit and peace in Acts 9:31, Rom. 8:6, Rom. 14:17, Rom. 15:13, Gal. 5:22, Eph. 4:3, and 1 Thess. 5:23.
However, the Spirit’s work is not merely a product. The very process of discipline itself must also be a “sharing in the holiness of God” and a “yielding of peaceful fruits of righteousness.” Here the church has too often fallen short. My study of elder-led discipline prior to the 20th century revealed instances of elders spying upon church members from atop a high hill attempting to observe some unrighteous deed, fines levied for sleeping during the sermon, and even torture and death. Scripture, by contrast, teaches continuity between the means and the ends. James 3:11–12 teaches, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” The guarantor of this unity and consistency between the means and the ends is the relationship formed in the unity of the Spirit and maintained in the bond of peace.
This is commanded in Christ’s instructions on how to deal with one who has sinned, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). This understanding of church discipline is couched in the context of a relationship, and the end to which we are pointed is the restoration of the relationship. Jesus’ phrase “brother” even suggests intimacy. Miller, of course, spoke about the “universal and intimate acquaintance” between elder and flock. Bucer strongly emphasized this as well: “Therefore those who wish to correct and win sinners according to Christ’s command will by definition do this with a gentle spirit … and from truly heartfelt love which makes one willing and prepared to bear the sinner’s burden … and also to make amends for him.”20
Discipline, according to Scripture, occurs in a relationship between people that is grounded in and bound together by the Triune God. I have spoken about the intercession of the Son and the work of the Spirit, now we move to the leading of the Father.
Discipline is the consequence and fruit of God’s desire to claim a people for Himself and draw them near. The Father disciplines us in love for us and we would know Him or feel right in His presence if we did not learn love what He loves or hate what He hates. Since we have made His sons and daughters through Christ, our Brother, we are addressed as such:
… have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? (Heb. 12:5–9)
We do not possess the gift of son-ship or holiness as individual believers alone. It is instead the gift of the Father given to His “sons” and shared among them. This is what it means to believe in the communion of the saints. The Father seeks for His community to live faithfully together a life transformed by this great gift. It is this gift of holiness which allows us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1) and to become an ever-growing and expanding “cloud of witnesses.” Holiness is foremost a gift to the community.
Discipline is carried out in the community at the will of the Father, through the priestly intercession of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. This perfect, loving union, one in essence, is not simply a model for us. It is itself the community into which we have been grafted through the priesthood of Jesus Christ. This community, by the power of the Holy Spirit, forms our earthly communities as we seek to share in the holiness of the Triune God.
So what about trials, asking men and women to come before the session to account for their sin, a provision still made in Presbyterian polity? They are harder to imagine today. Surely if trials occur outside this koinonia, they are doomed to fail and do more harm than good. The important question is not trials, but whether we live together in the community of the Triune God. Here the church stands or falls, and it is to this end that elders are to lead the people.
The work of the elders, 21st Century Shepherds, is to foster this koinonia regardless of the model of ministry. As suggested earlier, these imperfect models will rise and fall. But the fruit of righteousness, seeded and cultivated through the community that reflects the Trinity, is perpetually unspoiled. As elders open themselves to participate in the life of the Trinity via the intercession of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, holiness will overflow into the congregation through the relationships they form—first with the Father and then with the flock.
Dr. Eric Laverentz is Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (ECO), Edmond, OK, Coordinator of the Elder Leadership Institute, a Flourishing Life Leaders’ Coach.
1 Cited in Joan S. Gray, Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1998), 38.
2 Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls and Genuine Pastoral Ministry, trans. Peter Beale, unpublished manuscript 1993, 62. Hereafter cited. True Care of Souls.
3 Samuel Miller, An Essay Upon the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath School Work, 1832), 203. Hereafter cited Office of Ruling Elder.
4 Bucer, True Care of Souls, 52.
5 William Henry Roberts, Manual for Ruling Elders and Other Church Officers (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Education and Sabbath School Work, 1914), 91.
6 Bucer, True Care of Souls, 27.
7 “In Marge We Trust” written by Donick Cary. Original air date April 27, 1997.
8 Michel Foucault. “The Subject and Power.” Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 2nd edition. Ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 221.
9 Miller, Office of Ruling Elder, 200.
10 The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1867), 14–15.
11 Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Wilmington, DE: Bonsai and Niles, 1801), 334.
12 Miller, Office of Ruling Elder, 248–249.
13 Miller, Office of Ruling Elder, 249.
14 Martin Bucer, Quellen zur Geshichte der Taufer, vol. 7, tr. M. Krebs and H.G. Rott (Gutersloh, Germany; The German Society for Reformation History, 1969), 201. Cited in W. van’t Spijker, The Ecclesiastical Offices in the Thought of Martin Bucer (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill), 65.
15 Tom Oden, Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology III (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1998) p.37.
16 William Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of our Lord (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 34.
17 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. G.W. Bromiley, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 596.
18 John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen (Edinbugh: Calvin Translation Society, 1853), 319 (Heb. 12:10).
19 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956), 533.
20 Bucer, True Care of Souls, 66.