The Elders: Seniority In Earliest Christianity -- By: R. Alastair Campbell

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 44:1 (NA 1993)
Article: The Elders: Seniority In Earliest Christianity
Author: R. Alastair Campbell


The Elders: Seniority In Earliest Christianity1

R. Alastair Campbell

I. Introduction

The consensus view among Protestant scholars in this century has been that the elders who appear in the churches of the New Testament are the holders of a definite office of that name, which was derived from a similar office in the synagogue. The Jewish-Christian churches from very early on adopted a system of government by elders, along the lines of the synagogue, while the Pauline churches looked to the Spirit to direct the church through the operation of ‘gifts’ distributed to different members from time to time. In the latter, although in time certain administrative tasks necessitated the appointment of officers, these in no way compromised the freedom of the Spirit to direct the church through the ministry of apostles, prophets and teachers. By contrast, the elders, like their synagogue counterparts, were guardians of tradition, and represented the beginnings within the church of a pattern of government that would become legal and ecclesiastical. After Paul’s death, the Pauline vision faded, and there took place an amalgamation of the two patterns, out of which Catholicism was born. Pauline overseers and deacons combined with Jewish-Christian elders to produce the threefold pattern of ministry, a nominal victory for the Pauline order of overseers and deacons, but in reality a retreat into religion that was scribal and clerical.

This consensus can be traced back to the views of Rudolf Sohm, according to which the Church knows nothing of Law, but operates entirely by charisma. However, Sohm, who did not himself distinguish between Pauline- and Jewish-Christianity in this way, saw the elders not as an office at all, but a rank. They were the church’s most honourable members, and their charisma was ‘the gift of Love’.

Sohm’s successors moved the elders from the side of charisma to the side of Law. From being part of the Church’s golden age of freedom, elders came to be seen as the first sure sign of its degeneration, incipient embodiments of the Law and of the churches’ transformation into Christian synagogues.

II. The Argument

1. Although the earliest churches developed rapidly within a Graeco-Roman environment, their primary cultural heritage was, of course, Jewish. In Ancient Israel ‘the elders’ denoted a form of leadership that was collective and representative, with an authority derived from their seniority relative to those they represented, whether household, clan, tribe or nation. It was a term of honour for those whose power is based in relationships that already exist, rather ...

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