The latest from Fr. Charles:
A THEOLOGICAL AND LINGUISTIC PROBLEM
~Fr. Charles McClean, April 2011
In the present Constitution and By-laws of Immanuel Church the use of the word “elder” for officers of the congregation presents a theological and linguistic problem.
In English translations of Holy Scripture the Greek word presbyteros is invariably translated elder. But when one examines Holy Scripture one discovers that the word presbyteros/elder is never used for humanly established arrangements of church government but only for the divinely instituted pastoral office.
According to Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession (5,6) the pastoral office was instituted by our Lord in the calling of the twelve apostles:
Our teachers assert that according to the Gospel the power of keys or power of bishops is a power and command of God to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer and distribute the sacraments. For Christ sent out the apostles with the command: ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained’ (John 20:21-23).
In the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (62,63), which is in reality an addendum to the Augsburg Confession, we find these clarifying words:
This power belongs to all who preside over the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters or bishops. Accordingly Jerome teaches clearly that in the apostolic letters all who preside over the churches are both bishops and presbyters. He quotes from Titus, ‘This is why I left you in Crete, that you might appoint presbyters in every town,’ and points out that these words are followed by, ‘A bishop must be married only once’ (Titus 1:5-7). Again, [the apostle] Peter and John calls themselves presbyters [I Peter 5:1, II John 1, III John 1].” One of the clearest passages demonstrating that in the New Testament presbyter and bishop refer to the same office is found in Acts 20:17, 28: “From Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders (presbyterous) of the Church. And when they came he said to them…‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [bishops] (episkopous) to care for the church of God which he obtained with his own blood.
Grounded in Holy Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions teach that presbyteros/elder and episkopos/bishop in fact refer to one and the same office: the divinely instituted pastoral office. It is therefore on the basis of Holy Scripture that the Evangelical Lutheran Church rejects the teaching of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church and of some Anglicans that the distinction between presbyteros/elder and episkopos/bishop exists by divine institution. The presbyterate/episcopate/pastoral office was instituted by Christ Himself.
It is therefore misleading to use the word “elder,” which in Holy Scripture designates the divinely instituted pastoral office, for a humanly established office of church government. If this is nevertheless done, the result is that the unwary reader of the English Bible might well conclude that the references to “elders” in the New Testament in fact refer to the humanly instituted office of lay “elder.” There are no lay “elders” in the New Testament.
The term “elder” was in fact borrowed from Calvinism: from the Reformed tradition in general, from Presbyterianism in particular. The very name of the Presbyterian Church, which means a Church led by elders (as the name the Episcopal Church means a Church led by bishops), refers to its historic insistence that the distinction between “teaching elders” (pastors) and “ruling elders” (laymen) belongs to the divinely established form of the Church, a doctrine unequivocally rejected by the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
In some congregations of our Synod the word “deacon” is used for the office called “elder” in our Constitution and By-laws.
The word diakonos/deacon/servant is also a Biblical word, but a study of the New Testament shows that its meaning is quite fluid. It almost always designates a function, meaning nothing more than “one who serves,” but it can also refer to an office established by the apostles: Philippians 1:1, I Timothy 3:8ff. Although the word diakonos/deacon nowhere appears in the text, the seven set apart in Acts 6:1-6 have traditionally been understood as the first deacons (servants) because of the nature of their work. And this passage has often been cited as precedent for the establishment of offices intended to assist the incumbents of the pastoral office.