Just an elder/deacon? That’s a triple not-so-fast!

(The following is the Keynote Address delivered to “Officers as Spiritual Leaders,” a training event sponsored by the Presbytery of Homestead at Southern Heights Presbyterian Church, Lincoln NE; Jan. 11, 2014.)

Good morning and greetings to you from the Presbytery of West Virginia, the Synod of The Trinity and the First Presbyterian Church in Morgantown. It’s quite an honor to be here today to talk about something about which I feel very strongly, and that is the role and the position of elders and deacons within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

And you’ll notice that I work hard not to use the terms clergy and laity. That is not a distinction Calvin would endorse – although I do acknowledge it’s a convenient shorthand we’ve fallen into (and that’s part of the problem).

I gotta’ tell you, it occurred to me more than once as I was preparing for today – and that was often laying awake at night or standing in the shower because, after all, isn’t that where YOU do your best thinking? – I thought many times: I’ve just got to learn to say, “No.”

Who am I, really, to stand before this presbytery and be so bold as to think I have anything to tell you that you don’t already know or that is worth hearing?

Just because I come from more than 50 miles away surely doesn’t make me an expert.

Why didn’t I suggest that you ask Joe Small instead? If you don’t recognize the name, Joe is the denomination’s former director of theology and worship, is an internationally recognized Calvin scholar and someone who has done a lot of thinking and writing about Calvin’s theory of ordination and the role – and importance – of elders and deacons in the life of the church.

I am, you see, just an old – emphasis on old – Southern Presbyterian who has been fortunate enough to be around Joe and some others, and to serve and observe in several places, and bold enough – there’s that word – to stick my neck out every once in a while.

But then I thought: Isn’t it actually a perfect example and appropriate modeling of just what I want to get across that I – not a minister of word and sacrament, or in our recovered terminology, a teaching elder – accept this invitation?

And I did take a vow – just as you did – to serve with “energy, intelligence, imagination and love.” I definitely have a love of the PCUSA and what makes it unique and special; my imagination can run wild; and – sometimes – I have energy. I’ll let you be the judge of the intelligence part.

And so, let us begin, and it’s only appropriate that we begin with prayer – a familiar one to you all, I’m sure: Please join me in prayer:

O Lord may the words of my mouth, and the meditations in each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

So, probably the best way to set out on this is to tell you my story.

My story begins in Greenville, South Carolina back in the 1950s. One of my earliest memories – and certainly my earliest church memory – is as a pre-schooler, sitting next to my mother in the pews at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, a church which has sadly seen fit to leave this denomination in recent years. I remember singing. I remember having to sit still during the sermon. I remember looking at the stained glass windows. And, frankly, not much more.

But my church journey really began at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenville, which today remains a strong, growing and faithful part of the PCUSA. From there my story is in no way unique. Indeed, it might once have been called the norm, although that’s becoming less and less the case today.

As I mentioned, I was brought up in the Presbyterian Church – the old PCUS, the so-called Southern Church. I did all the things many kids did back in the ’50s and ’60s: went to Sunday school regularly, sang in the youth choir, participated in youth Sunday, youth group – an occasional youth trip here and there – even sat on a committee at Westminster.

But then I went to college in the fall of 1969, never darkening the door of the church in my college town. Sure, Margaret – who some of you will meet later – and I had a big church wedding, and were sporadically active at Westminster in our early married life, but I wouldn’t really say we were regular churchgoers.

Until we had our first child, Greg, that is. You know, the one who is now the Rev. Gregory G. Bolt, serving at First Nebraska City? It was then that we resumed our activity, and it has grown ever since.

As I said, a pretty boring, and common, tale.

But in 1983, we left Greenville and moved to Atlanta where I had been hired to work for The Associated Press. We visited a few churches out in the suburbs where we lived – even went to a Methodist church – but were invited to come to visit a small church even a bit further out – Lithonia Presbyterian Church, and that’s where we ended up. I’m honest enough to admit that one of the reasons we first visited the church, aside from the personal invitation, was that there was a “doctor” in the pulpit of this obviously small, community congregation, and what that symbolized was important to me.

It was at Lithonia that the light came on.

It happened one morning as I was leaving Sunday school. You see, virtually every journalist gets asked along the way to help with the publicity of whatever organization they’re in. And so I had been asked to help write material for the annual stewardship campaign – there was a letter, bulletin inserts, that sort of thing.

As we were leaving class one Sunday, my friend Jonathan Pascal, who had been chair of the campaign, turned to me and said, “You did a really nice job with the stewardship campaign. Thanks.”

Like many of us, I’m not really sure how to react to compliments or praise, so I shuffled my feet – figuratively and literally – trying to deflect the comment, saying something like, “Thanks, but it was nothing, it was just what I can do.”

And that’s when the Spirit took over.

“No, really,” Jonathan said simply and quietly. “Not everyone has that gift.”


Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)

It was at that moment that I understood that whatever abilities I have to communicate had been given by God, and it was at that point that I really began serving – first on Session there in Lithonia, then through a series of moves and different services within the denomination, regionally and nationally, and then becoming stated clerk of the Presbytery of West Virginia. I currently am chairing for a term the foundation which supports campus ministry in West Virginia – even though that’s not my day job, which is as one of the spokespersons for West Virginia University.

Permit me a digression here that I hope you find interesting: Some folks don’t realize that West Virginia University has produced more Rhodes Scholars than all but one land-grant university in this country (University of Wisconsin). One of those Rhodes Scholars is someone whose name many of you might recognize: Ford Lewis Battles, who produced the definitive English translation of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Now that I’ve earned my keep at WVU, let’s get back to the idea of gifts.

It’s that same Corinthian passage about gifts, and the ones that follow it, that offer us a clear understanding of our role and importance in the life of Christ’s church.

Let me ask you a question: How many of you have said, either by way of explanation to friends who ask what it means to be an elder or to serve on session, especially, but also the diaconate, or even said to yourself something like: “Well, it’s kind of like the congregation’s board of directors.”

Or another question: How many of you have said, when asked a question about faith, or about the church, or about theology, “I don’t know, I’m just an elder.” Or “I’m just a deacon.”

Well, as Lee Corso from ESPN’s College Football Game Day would say, “That’s a not-so-fast.” In fact, that’s a triple not-so-fast!

If there’s one thing you walk out of here today with, one idea that sticks with you, let it be this: “There is no such thing as ‘just’ an elder.” “There is no such thing as ‘just’ a deacon.”

In his monograph entitled “Ordination and Authority,” Joe Small decries what he calls the church’s “captivity to secular models of managerial organization.”[1] (You just knew I was going to quote Joe Small, didn’t you?)

Joe says that, “Today, in far too many congregations, pastors act as managers of an organization, working to rationalize mission, enhance efficiency, and increase market share.”

He continues, “Elders act as a board of directors, reviewing and approving management’s strategy and programs, and monitoring financial and property assets. Our current situation in the church is light-years removed from the originating vision. In the Reformed tradition, presbyters — teaching and ruling elders — meeting together in sessions, presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies, are to act as ‘good stewards of the manifold grace of God’ (1 Pet. 4:10). Their mutual calling is to ensure clear proclamation of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, and to nurture congregational fidelity to God’s new Way in the world.”[2]

Did you hear that? “Their mutual calling.”

I had the privilege of serving on the General Assembly Council – what we now call the Presbyterian Mission Agency – in the early 2000s, and one of my colleagues during some of that time was the Rev. Dr. Thomas Gillespie. Tom, who had just retired from the presidency of Princeton Theological Seminary, and I got to know each other a bit as we also served together on the GAC’s Congregational Ministries Committee.

It’s fair to say that Tom and I didn’t necessarily agree theologically. But we respected each other a great deal. I consider it one of the greatest compliments I have ever received that at my last GAC meeting, Tom came up to me and said, “You are just the kind of elder I would love to have in the churches I served. … You’d drive me crazy, but I’d be lucky to have you.”

I like to think that what Tom was recognizing was that I tried to take the office of elder seriously – and not as a member of some supervising board of directors, but as someone who understood the ministry of the position.

You see, the role of elder is unique in the structures of Christian denominations. It is one of the major differences – perhaps THE difference – between Presbyterians and Baptists and, certainly, Episcopalians. Of course there are other differences when you add Catholics and Orthodox to the list, but elders still stand out there as well.

And, in addition to being a major difference, I would argue it is perhaps THE major gift of Reformed theology to Christendom.

Again, as Joe Small puts it: “[S]ome ministries are considered to be necessary to the spiritual health and faithful life of every Christian community. The whole church gives order to these necessary functions by regularizing their shape, their duties, their qualifications, and their approval. These ‘ordered ministries,’ and the persons who are called to them, are grounded in baptism and established in ordination – the whole church’s act of setting apart for particular service.”[3]

Elders are so important to us Presbyterians, and so significant in our theology, that it is no surprise, really, that in many ways the major effort at church union in the latter half of the 20th Century fell apart over the very idea of elders.

A brief history lesson may be in order here: What was called the Consultation on Church Union was created as a result of the efforts of a Presbyterian – Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, the so-called Northern Church – and an Episcopalian – Bishop James Pike. In the end, it failed to reach its goal of church union, or even very much church cooperation, because Episcopalians couldn’t accept the idea of elders and Presbyterians couldn’t accept the ideas of bishops. Now, I acknowledge that’s over-simplified and there were many other reasons, but I watched many arguments and debates in General Assembly committees as commissioners tried to wrestle with just these issues.

It is not just some relic of history that our governing bodies above Session are all equally divided between teaching elders and ruling elders. “In the Reformed tradition, both [Ministers and elders] are ‘presbyters,’ and neither exercises ministry apart from the other.”[4]

As our Book of Order puts it: “This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders. Ruling elders are so named not because they ‘lord it over’ the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Teaching elders shall be committed in all their work to equipping the people of God for their ministry and witness.”[5]

And it is why we all answer the same ordination questions to start with:

  • Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?
  • Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?
  • Will you fulfill your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?
  • Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?
  • Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?
  • Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?
  • Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?[6]

We do and we will, with God’s help.

It is only after we have agreed to all eight of those that we get questions unique to our particular ministry:

  • … Will you be a faithful ruling elder, watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture, and service? Will you share in government and discipline, serving in councils of the church, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?
  • … Will you be a faithful deacon, teaching charity, urging concern, and directing the people’s help to the friendless and those in need, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?
  • … Will you be a faithful teaching elder, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the councils of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?[7]

So all of our ordinations – whether as teaching elder, ruling elder or deacon – are on the same level and different only in the specific tasks to which we have been ordained:

  • Watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture and service.
  • Teaching charity, urging concern, directing help to the friendless and those in need, showing love and justice of Jesus Christ.
  • Proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people.

Joe Small argues, and I think he’s right, that as we have lost an understanding of the ministry of elders and deacons, our church has become diminished – he calls it “the increased clericalism of the church.”[8]

To put the full weight of the ministry of Word and Sacrament on teaching elders “failed to acknowledge the centrality of Word and Sacrament in the vocation of elders whose ruling/measuring of fidelity to the gospel in the congregation was at the core of their ministry.” (emphasis added)[9]

As Joe says, “Pastors are seen as the real ministers, while elders are relegated to minor supporting roles.”[10]

Over time, this has led to alienation which eventually leads to fewer resources and, I submit, threatens the future of our denomination.

Joe sees hope, however, in the recent reconstruction of the Book of Order, noting that deacons, teaching and ruling elders are no longer called “officers” but are now “ordered ministries.” This is significant – if we will listen – in that this language reinforces the “indispensible partnership in a unified ministry that equips the whole people of God for the ministry and mission of the whole church.”[11]

One of the key elements of the Reformation was Luther’s and Calvin’s emphasis of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Listen to 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Luther wrote: “All Christians are priests, and all priests are Christians. Worthy of anathema is any assertion that a priest is anything else than a Christian.”[12]

Writing in Presbyterians Today in March, 2004, Jack Haberer, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook says, “John Calvin applied that message by forming a polity wherein laity and clergy alike would serve in ordained offices of leadership — as peers in proclamation of the Word, peers in intercessory prayer, and peers in mission service.” (And I apologize for using “laity” and “clergy,” but that’s what Jack wrote.)

What Joe Small called “increased clericalism,” Jack calls “creeping clericalism” and says it has led to “a spiritual inferiority complex” among elders, deacons and others along and continues “to minimize believers’ perception and fulfillment of their priestly call.”[13]

So what I want to get across to you is to get rid of that inferiority complex.

Listen to our own Book of Order – and yes, the Book of Order is an incredible theological document and worthy of your study.

For elders:

As there were in Old Testament times elders for the government of the people, so the New Testament church provided persons with particular gifts to share in discernment of God’s Spirit and governance of God’s people. Accordingly, congregations should elect persons of wisdom and maturity of faith, having demonstrated skills in leadership and being compassionate in spirit. Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships. When elected by the congregation, they shall serve faithfully as members of the session. When elected as commissioners to higher councils, ruling elders participate and vote with the same authority as teaching elders, and they are eligible for any office.[14]

For deacons:

The ministry of deacon as set forth in Scripture is one of compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed, those burdened by unjust policies or structures, or anyone in distress. Persons of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly and sisterly love, sincere compassion, and sound judgment should be chosen for this ministry….

Deacons may also be given special assignments in the congregation, such as caring for members in need, handling educational tasks, cultivating liberality in giving, collecting and disbursing monies to specific persons or causes, or overseeing the buildings and property of the congregation. Deacons shall assume other duties as may be delegated to them by the session, including assisting with the Lord’s Supper.[15]

As Joe Small said, the new Book of Order refers to all three – teaching elder, ruling elder and deacon – as ordered ministries.

Here’s what it says:

The Church’s ordered ministries described in the New Testament and maintained by this church are deacons and presbyters (teaching elders and ruling elders). Ordered ministries are gifts to the church to order its life so that the ministry of the whole people of God may flourish. The existence of these ordered ministries in no way diminishes the importance of the commitment of all members to the total ministry of the church. …

Ordination to the ministry of teaching elder, ruling elder, or deacon is unique to that order of ministry.

The call to ordered ministry in the Church is the act of the triune God. This call is evidenced by the movement of the Holy Spirit in the individual conscience, the approval of a community of God’s people, and the concurring judgment of a council of the Church.[16]

“The call to ordered ministry in the Church is the act of the triune God.”

God has called each and every one of us, in baptism and in ordination, to be priests, to be ministers, to all of God’s people – that is, in effect, to all people. It is not farfetched to say that we disobey God when we don’t understand and act on the importance and significance of our call as ruling elders and deacons.

As Paul writes in 1st Corinthians:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1st Corinthians 12:12-13, 27).

So claim your ordination, and your place in the body, and fulfill your God-given calling.

To God alone be the glory.

[1] The Rev. Joseph D. Small, “Ordination and Authority.” (Louisville: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2009), Page 7

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, Page 5.

[4] Ibid, Page 7.

[5] Office of the General Assembly, Book of Order: 2011-2013 (Louisville: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2011), F-3.0202.

[6] OGA, Book of Order, W-4.4003

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Rev. Joseph D. Small, “The Travail of the Presbytery,” in A Collegial Bishop, eds. Alan Janssen & Leon Van den Broeke, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] As quoted in “What do Presbyterians Believe About the Priesthood of All Believers,” Presbyterians Today, March 2004.

[13] Ibid.

[14] OGA, Book of Order, G-2.0301.

[15] OGA, Book of Order, G-2.0201-2.0202.

[16] OGA, Book of Order, G-2.0102.

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One Response to Just an elder/deacon? That’s a triple not-so-fast!

  1. virginiahollis says:

    great message John. thanks for posting it.

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