I can remember the first time I started having questions about the leadership model of elders. Growing up in the Church of Christ, the elder/deacon model was all I was exposed to, and most of the time it just made sense to do it that way. In my tribe, elders (presbyters), Bishops/Overseers (episcopos) and Shepherds are all the same thing. They are functional words that describe the same position. Employing the "flat" approach to scripture, or should I say, fundamentalist hermeneutic, Titus 1, I Timothy 3, and the book of Acts were thrown together to make a unifying case for the elder model. The only problem with this is that there are some real inconsistencies with this approach.
For one, Cecil hook, in his book Free In Christ, highlights the fact that the two lists in Titus and Timothy are not identical. In Titus it mentions that an elder should have "believing children" but it says nothing about this in I Timothy. Neither one of them had access to each others letters, so we can assume that Timothy allowed men to be elders that did not have believing children while Titus did not. This scenario of the qualifications of elders should throw up some red flags to those who want to rush into a universalized approach to the leadership structure of the church. If the elder model was to be the only model for the church, you would think that there would be a little bit more clear and symmetrical listings of their qualifications throughout scripture.
Second, H. Von Campenhausen, in his book Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power, makes an excellent point when he points to the diversity of models in the NT documents. He notes that Acts, I Peter, James and Revelation mention only elders but not Bishops nor deacons. Philippians mentions Bishops and deacons but not elders. I Corinthians mentions none of it at all. This should spark a curiosity about why, if the elder/deacon model is the only model to be used for the church, is there not a uniform presentation in scripture about it. Why such varied spotting's in the NT?
Third, the 1st century church was thoroughly embedded in a patriarchal society that gravitated towards men for leadership "positions." This is not to say that women did not have leadership positions in the 1st century church. (This is a whole nother discussion) It is merely to say that the presence of patriarchy should immediately caustion us when attempting to take narratives like the book of Acts, and Epistles, which are written with this same historical context, and Pastorals, which are highly contextual and occasional documents, as prescriptive for all times and places. Patriarchy had an enormous effect on the church and the course it took in organizing itself for the long haul.
Fourth, the elder model was recycled from the synagogue. There, men were endowed with dignity and honor by virtue of their age. Some elders were elected to carry specific responsibilites in the synagogue, but not all elders were elected to do this. The average elder enjoyed a certain status of respect and leadership within the community. But it was organically bestowed on him by the community, not through a democratic nomination and election process. Neither was there an official ordination ceremony to induct them into an "office". This would have been so in the church as well.
Fifth, it is interesting that the only place you see lists for qualifications of elders is in Gentile contexts where godliness needed to be spelled out for the new comers into the faith.
The early church adopted the synagogue model of elders in a natural organic way. For them it was a no brainer. Sort of a self organizing dynamic if you will, with certain apostolic impulses operating in the background. If this is true, then we instantly are thrown into the discussion as to wether or not the synagogue model of elders was divine in origin. I tend to think it was a cultural manifestation of the Israelite tradition and served as midwife to the church in the preservation and stabilization of the communities of the 1st century in all their turbulence with persecution and heresy. That being said, the elder model was the seed of hierarchy, as Clement portrays, which rapidly developed in the late 1st century and early 2nd century.
All of this is a dead give away that the discussion of leadership models for the church is not a cut and dry issue. Nort is it purely a matter of uncovering the "original model". We have to give proper attention to the socio-historical-cultural context of both the letters and the 1st century church as whole. There is not a unified voice for leadership structures in the NT. So where does this leave us? That is for the next blog!