Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

1 Timothy 3:2-7

The office of Ruling Elder is central to the way in which Presbyterians think about and practice being the family of God in the world. This is because the office is central in the formation and ministry of the earliest churches described in Paul’s letters, which have come to be received as Holy Scripture by the church.

One of the popular misconceptions of the office–one that is pernicious and damages the life of the congregation–is that somehow ruling elders are supposed to represent constituencies, or interest-groups, of the church. Paul himself describes this reality in his first letter to the troubling and troublesome church of Corinth:

11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[f] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

1 Corinthians 1:11-16

This common misunderstanding envisions elders as representatives of “Paul” or “Apollos” or “Cephas” or “contemporary worship” or “traditional worship” or “leaving” or “staying.” These elders then bring their agenda to the Session table and argue it, advocate for it, and attempt to vocally represent their constituency before the rest of the Session. May it never be! Elders aren’t constituent lobbyists, but servants.


As the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA (G-2.0301) puts it:

“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.”

This echoes the lists of qualifications found in the Pastoral Epistles of the New Testament. Interestingly, in one of the most complete lists of qualifications Paul spends the majority of his focus dealing with issues of character.

  1. “Above reproach” — does the elder conduct his life with integrity?
  2. “The husband of one wife” — is the elder faithful in her marriage?
  3. “Sober-minded” — is the elder able to thoughtfully and intelligently able to deliberate important questions?
  4. “Self-controlled” — does the life of the elder give evidence of being able life faithfully?
  5. “Respectable” — does the elder avoid scandal?
  6. “Hospitable” — is the elder able to be generous toward others?
  7. “Not a drunkard” — is the elder sober?
  8. “Not violent but gentle” — is the elder governed by the Spirit?
  9. “Not quarrelsome” — is the elder able to avoid petty quarrels and divisions?
  10. “Not a lover of money” — is the elder able to order her loves appropriately?
  11. “Well thought of by outsiders” — is the elder of good repute in the community?

Abilities/Gift Qualifications:

  1. “Able to teach” — can the elder explain or communicate the message of the faith? can she teach the Scriptures to others?

The notion that elders are somehow lobbyists in the pocket of one part of the congregation or another is pernicious. Every time that I hear this view expressed or even hinted at, I’m quick to address it. Why? Because mutual submission and unity cannot exist where one’s own agenda is viewed as the most important issue for the church body to attend to. That view is one that is worthy of swift and gentle rebuke.

A prayer for Lent

March 1, 2015 — Leave a comment

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.Dietrich-Bonhoeffer

Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;

I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;

I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,

But you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty,

And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before men.

Lord whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.


Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, Martyr & German Pastor-Theologian


From the PC(USA) website:

Christian and Muslim Egyptians are deeply grieving the death of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians beheaded by the Islamic State in Libya on Sunday. Their witness is the ultimate act of faith.

The 21 men executed were poor laborers who had left Egypt to find work in Libya. There are thousands of others who have done the same. The Egyptian government is telling all Egyptians to return home. No Egyptian can now enter Libya.

Matthew 5:11 is running through the minds of many Christians: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

“The purpose of the video [showing the beheading] was to foment sectarian strife in Egypt between Christians and Muslims,” says Ramaz Attalah, general director of PC(USA) ministry partner the Bible Society of Egypt, in a recent letter. “Islamic extremists clearly intended to provoke the 10 million Christians in Egypt to rise up violently against their Muslim neighbors. But the loving and caring response of Muslims all over the nation softened the blow which many Christians felt. All this sends a clear message that Christians are considered an integral part of the fabric of Egyptian society.”

The mother of Tawadros Yousif, one of the men beheaded, says: “I can’t wish them evil. I pray for them that God may open their hearts and give them his light.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi went on television to condemn the brutal slayings and to offer his condolences to the families and to the entire Coptic Orthodox Church. He also visited Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria to personally offer condolences. He reportedly even traveled to a small village where most of the men are from, sitting on the floor with their relatives to express his concern.

Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has released a statement expressing his “deep feelings of sorrow and pain.” In it he asks for prayers for the families of the victims but also pauses to remember others who have suffered at the hands of the militants.

“We cannot remember our Coptic brothers,” he writes, “without also remembering those who have lost their lives in equally brutal circumstances: journalists, aid workers, medical staff, religious leaders, a young pilot and communities that are considered incompatible with a fringe and intolerant element.”

Cinda Gorman, PC(USA) mission co-worker serving at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, says there is a somber feeling on the campus. “One of our quietest staff members, Eman, from the accounting office, lead staff chapel Monday and spoke very candidly about how she just wanted to stay in her office and not speak to anyone because she was so sad. But she came to lead chapel so we could pray and sing together and lift up our Christian brothers and sisters in their pain.”

The PC(USA) liaison in Egypt, Steve Gorman, says a “national week of mourning” has been declared for all Egypt. He also reports that there is an obvious step-up in the number of visible police and soldiers in the streets of Cairo.

Gorman says PC(USA) co-workers in Egypt thus far do not feel threatened. But they remain cautious and vigilant.

Amgad Beblawi, coordinator for World Mission’s Middle East and European programs, says World Mission staff will remain in close contact with PC(USA) personnel in Egypt.

Gorman asks for prayers. “Please keep Egypt, the Coptic Church and the Sisi government in your prayers. This is a major event of terrorism for this nation. There will be acts of retaliation, and there is mourning.”

I received an email this afternoon concerning the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS/L)–a terrorist group committed to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. The author concluded that ISIS/L’s literal interpretation of the Qu’ran was necessarily connected to their violent–even barbarous–methodology. Implied in the comment was a value judgment about people who take religious texts “literally.”

It put me to mind of an exchange between Rev. Canon Sam Wells and a UCC campus minister at a meeting I attended. Wells put forward a definition of Christian–for the purpose of religious life at Duke University–that connected to affirming the ecumenical creeds of the church, especially the Apostles’ Creed. The immediate reply from the UCC minister was to inquire whether a “literal” interpretation was required. After all, he argued, is it not still an affirmation of the creed to hold that Jesus was raised metaphorically. Well’s rejoinder was beautiful: “I would hate to think that after you die, you’d be raised as a metaphor.”

A critique of Biblical literalism is, at times, appropriate. However, progressives who universally condemn a literal reading of the Scripture show themselves to be as lacking in nuance as their fundamentalist friends.

The Scripture has to be interpreted in light of its genre. To read Genesis as modern history ignores the intellectual and cognitive chasm that exists between modern scientific description and ancient creation mythology. It is only a mistake to read something ‘literally’ when such a reading is unwarranted by the biblical evidence. Liberals often assume that the details in the Bible are simply an appendage to the spiritual reality that is testified to and that shifts and changes over time. Conservatives look to the Bible as an evidentiary record that establishes and buttresses their theological conclusions. The reality is somewhere in between.

Jeff Gissing:

Lent is about acknowledging our limitations–we are finite, we sin, we will die. It is also about acknowledging God’s limitlessness–God is all-powerful, God is all-loving, God is all-forgiving. At the imposition of ashes last night at FPCB we affirmed, “Ashes, the sign of your need. The cross, the sign of God’s love.”

Originally posted on Jeff Gissing:

Yesterday morning I took some time to walk down the hall to the small chapel in the church building where my office is located. It’s a special place for me since I was ordained as a teaching elder there several years ago. Going there helps me both to connect to God and also to remain connected to the vows I took when I became a minister. 

In my prayer time I used the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer. Some consider this prayer book to be outdated and prefer the 1979 version that contains more modern English. Others find that the language of the later prayer book is too common and others claim that alterations in the liturgy there reflect alterations in the church’s theology.

I’m not competent to judge the merit of either of those claims. I do, however, find the older English of the 1928…

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