December 14, 2009

Paul and Church Order—Gordon Fee

I have the privilege of participating in a great class on church eldership and leadership through my church, using curriculum from the Center for Church-Based Training in Dallas. And one of the issues we have been addressing early on has been the role of elders, specifically as seen in the NT. So I've been taking this opportunity to do a little reading on that particular subject. The first author I've dug into on this question has been Gordon Fee, from his book Listening to the Spirit in the Text, a spectacular collection of essays focused especially on things Pauline. In it he has two essays concerned with church order.

A few key emphases come up in Fee's discussions. The first is that Paul envisions leadership as something that is exercised from within the people of God (that is, the "laity") as opposed to something that was exercised from without, by a particular person or class of people set apart from that people (a departure, driven by christology and ecclesiology, from Israel's system of priests). Hand in hand with this emphasis is that leadership is envisioned much less (if at all) as exercising authority than as service: while it is true that churches are exhorted to submit to their leaders, the focus that emerges from Paul's vision of leadership is one of service to the body, exercising of spiritual gifting to build up and equip. A second key emphasis is on the distinction that must be made between "office" and gifting. Paul's concern with overseers and deacons seems to focus on the recognition of the Spirit's gifting of people in these areas and the congregation's role in discerning and recognizing that gifting. I would interpret this to mean much less focus on the particular "offices" that each church must fill and selecting the proper people to do so (though the latter is not necessarily an illegitimate enterprise, though it must be understood at least to some extent to be something that goes beyond the specifics of the text). A final emphasis that comes out in Fee's writing is the assertion that leadership at the local level seems to always have been plural: he is quite critical of a strong divide between "clergy" and "laity" at this point. (This last discussion is complicated some by the recognition that Paul envisioned two types of authority: an apostolic, itinerant sort that was exercised by the Jerusalem apostles, by Paul himself, and by his deputies Timothy and Titus, and a local authority established in each church.)

Fee's reconstruction of church order in Paul's writing is I think a very helpful corrective to some assumptions that many of us may bring to the text. Especially enlightening are his emphasis on the fact that "office" is of less importance than it is often accorded today. Fee is also very good on hermeneutics, and makes the point that Paul doesn't seem to be dictating a specific model of church order (that doesn't seem to be his concern) nearly as much as focusing on the character of leadership that is exercised. In a sense, that means many of our modern questions about how to organize a church are underdetermined by the evidence in the NT, though clearly there is much of relevance here. Thus, we must be careful to articulate and consider the question of the nature of the evidence we are given in these letters and how we transfer that information to our current context: how do we relate the "spirit" of the instructions to the "letter" of Paul's instruction, how do we travel from one cultural context to another, from one historical situation to another? And how does the setting and situation we infer from the text serve as God's authoritative word to us (if it does and to what extent) or how is it just the background into which that authoritative word functions. In short, these two essays provide a vast amount of food for thought, with deep exegetical insight paired with relevant hermeneutical reflection. They help us chasten our reading of the text by investigating our assumptions and also help us act as faithful members of God's people seeking to carry out God's will as expressed in his word for his gathered people.

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