“Rulers and Servants, Prophets and Priests, We All Have a Calling from God”
Rev. James Rausch
I thought I would take the occasion of our ordination and installation of elders and deacons today to give us a look at where our practices and rituals of church leadership come from. The short answer is that they originate from the Bible and our ancestors in the faith, going all the way back to early Old Testament times. But it’s not in my nature to give just the short answer.
Let’s start with the New Testament, 1 Peter 5, where Peter addresses the elders of the church. He states that he too is an elder. But Peter was speaking and writing in Greek. And I get all excited when I get to share insights with you that come from knowing the Greek that was being used back then. Peter was addressing elders, our English translations say. In Greek, he was addressing Πρεσβυτέρους, presbyters. And Peter himself was a presbyter. Our English translation is spot on. The word means elder.
All throughout the Old Testament, our forerunners in the faith, the Hebrew people, can be observed as a tribal people. The way their tribes and clans and villages operated was under the authority of the elders of the tribe. They were the experienced, the gifted, and the trusted, and people went to them the have disputes settled and decisions made for the good of the people.
Often their gathering place was at the gate to the village or city. I like to think of Native American tribal culture as having many similarities. Each tribe had its elders who would deliberate on whatever matter that needed deciding. It was in groups thoughtfully discussing problems and issues openly that they found their best governance.
So, presbyters, or as the elders were called in Hebrew, זָקֵן, zawkane, have been entrusted with leadership for the common good for over 4,000 years. The Hebrew word is a bit less gentle than the Greek. It translates as “The Old,” or “The Old Ones.” We prefer elders, don’t we? You can be an elder sister or brother and still be young. I was ordained as an elder in my home church when I was about 22. My youthful inexperience showed pretty obviously as I tried to live up to the tasks of the office.
Yet in spite of my weaknesses and mistakes, God utilized my efforts and let me learn as I went. And I have always been a least a little bit proud to be a Presbyterian. When I went to seminary to really study what Presbyterians believe and how they operate, it was a great revelation to discover how this iteration of Christian expression truly reflected the core of my being. I have long thought that when Presbyterians are truly being Presbyterian, there is no other expression of the faith that surpasses them. That’s not to say that I believe Presbyterians are better than other Christians; it is only to say that when we are at our best, we are right there with the most faithful of all the different denominations.
So, the Presbyterian church gets its name by how we govern ourselves. We are the elder-led church. But Presbyterian sounds so much nicer than – elder-led. So, we stick with the Greek instead of the English. But several denominations are named for the way they are governed. You’ve heard of Episcopal churches, yes? An Episcopacy is a hierarchical structure. Priests are given authority, and bishops are given greater authority. The Roman Catholic church is the most familiar example of hierarchical governance as they also have arch-bishops, cardinals, and the Pope, who hold the highest position of authority. The Lutherans and the Methodists have episcopal structures to a lesser extent, and they do have some hybrid features that allow boards of lay persons to have a say.
Can anyone guess the third prominent governing structure by which some congregations get their name? I just gave you a hint. Congregational churches! The most democratic example of church structure, congregational churches retain most of the decision-making power among the membership as a whole. That makes for a lot of congregational meetings.
None of the systems is perfect. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Presbyterians followed the way of the tribal leaders in the Old Testament, and the church leaders we observe in the New Testament. Presbyterians like to follow Paul’s admonition that everything in the church be done “decently and in order.” So having the whole congregation, tribe, or village, discuss and decide issues was too time-consuming and inefficient. They entrusted most decisions to an elected group of presbyters – elders.
And Presbyterians were even more opposed to episcopacies because of their refusal to endow individuals with power over the church and its people. In the Reformation, it had become all too evident that priests and bishops had routinely abused their power in the Medieval church. Therefore, Presbyterians give almost no authority to individuals. I, as Pastor, cannot make the church or its members do as I please. Anything I might want can be proposed, but that darn group of elders called our session has to agree. And together we all get to vote for the people who will serve on the session and take that responsibility.
Presbyterians know that individuals are all too prone to misusing authority, and they mitigate that by only investing authority in groups instead. Other denominations don’t know what to do with us sometimes. When a need arises for denominations to come together ecumenically over some issue, the Roman Catholics and Lutherans can send a bishop or a priest. The Methodists can send a bishop. Non-denominational churches who invest more authority in their pastors can send one of them. But the darn Presbyterians always want to send a committee!
As much as it is good to laugh at ourselves, we can see clearly that this insistence has served us well over the centuries. The Presbyterian influence on the fledgling colonies of America added a great deal of fuel to the fire of resolve to throw off the tyranny of the English monarchy and form a new government – something different than had ever been tried before. Look in your history references and you will find that the Revolutionary war was often referred to by King George the III’s advisors as “The Presbyterian Rebellion.”
With Presbyterian influence, investing power to govern in a king or any individual was to be rejected. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Government by the masses was too unwieldy, so in stepped the Presbyterians with a plan to allow the people to consent to be governed by leaders they would get to elect to legislative bodies – decision-making in groups. And it could all be done decently and in order!
Consider our familiar structures of government. Closest to the people is the municipal government. Next level is the County government. Above the Counties is the state. And at the top is the Federal Government. All invested with authority by the people who elect those who will serve. Now compare that to Presbyterian structure. Closest to the people is the session of each congregation. A step higher is the presbytery. Above the presbyteries is our Synod. And at the national level is our general assembly.
The administrative and executive tasks are assigned in the Presbyterian church to moderators and clerks. No chance of the title “moderator” being confused with boss or dictator. We moderate, and the clerks make sure that decisions are recorded and communicated.
Oh, how I want to go on because there is so much more to share about our Presbyterian principles and the impact they have had on our nation. But we need to come back to focus on what we do today as we ordain and install elders and deacons. Ordination is a big word, and it is regarded differently by different faiths. Reformed Christians, of which Presbyterians are a part, have so rejected hierarchies that we don’t even make a distinction of clergy and lay people. Although those churchy terms still get used, we really don’t hold them as Presbyterians.
The Reformers, as they decried the corruption of the priesthood, declared that believers needed no mediator between them and God. Think of it, priests were those who accepted and processed the peoples’ sacrifices as a middleman between the people and God. Priests could hear confession and make absolution as a mediator between the confessor and God. Priests learned Latin and said the mass in that language that the people didn’t understand. They were literate and could read the Bible while the people could not, so they had to rely on the priest to tell them everything. The Reformers reacted to the corruption that resulted and declared that Jesus was the ultimate mediator who opened our access to God without need of specially elevated middlemen.
And they then declared the priesthood of all believers. That remains our understanding to this day. Baptized believers are all considered priests with the ability to communicate with God through prayer in the Holy Spirit. We are all responsible for forgiving the sins of others and extending the love of God to our neighbors.
So, what is a pastor? What is an elder? What is a deacon? In the Presbyterian church, these ordained offices are not above anyone. There is no individual hierarchy. Instead, these roles are particular functions to which we are set apart. People with gifts consistent with the office are identified by the congregation and asked to serve. Ordination is therefore not an elevation in status in any way. It is a commission to a task, one carried out side by side with others in the church as equals.
When we are invited to take on service as a church officer, many of us have some great hesitations. I never thought I could be a pastor. God ended up having to insist over all of my years of protests and running away. Consider Moses as God called him to lead the people out of bondage in Egypt. There at the burning bush, as God told Moses that he was chosen to the task, Moses protested no less than 5 times, trying to get God to pick someone else. “Who am I to go before Pharoah?” God said, “I will be with you.” “What if the people won’t believe this is from you? Who should I say sent me? God said, “Tell them, ‘I am that I am has sent you.’” But Moses protested again, “What if they won’t believe me or listen to me? What if they say, ‘The LORD never appeared to you’?” And God equipped him with a staff that would transform before the eyes of the elders. God said, “the elders of Israel will believe your message.” 10 But Moses pleaded with the LORD, “O Lord, I’m not very good with words.” God said, “I will give you the words.” But Moses again pleaded, “Lord, please! Send anyone else.” Then the LORD became angry with Moses.
So, if you have been invited to serve and have felt misgivings about accepting the role, you’re in good company. Moses had so many hesitations, fears and doubts. And he knew his hands were dirty. He had killed a man in Egypt and had to flee to escape accountability. He wasn’t feeling very worthy of serving a holy and pure God. But God knows people can grow and change. We can learn from our mistakes and regrets. God sow in Moses a servant who could accomplish a particular task, and God called him to put aside his misgivings and accept the role.
God is amazing that way. God could use David, who was an adulterer and a murderer. Jesus entrusted the founding of the church to Peter even knowing that Peter would deny him three times. Jesus promised the disciples at the Last Supper, while Judas was still there and Jesus was aware of his intent to betray him, “You will sit on 12 thrones with me to judge the tribes of Israel. I believe Jesus was prepared to follow through on that promise with Judas included. But Judas couldn’t bring himself to believe that God could forgive him and allow him to continue as one of the 12. Jesus said, “The Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but alas for the one who betrays him.” Judas hanged himself, and another disciple was chosen in his place.
If only, he could have accepted his own flaws and mistakes believing in Jesus forgiving grace like Peter did, a broken-hearted Judas could have been restored to the 12. This is the God who calls us to service. Knowing our past and the secrets of our hearts, God shocks us by saying, “I want you to care for my people”
And so, we are called. All of us to serve as priests. Some of us to serve as Teaching elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament. Some of us as ruling elders to make decisions and carry out duties in humility and grace. Some of us as deacons, which can also be translated as servants.
So, it’s time to continue our 4000-year-old tradition and ordain and install the next class of church officers whom God will work through to bring about effective ministry to and through our church.