Wednesday, May 25, 2011

1Timothy 3:6 and Non-seminary Trained Lay Elders

A couple thoughts of mine on the topic of lay-elders. Just sort of hammering out some thoughts here, as it's a topic I'm still digging through Scripture to resolve. I grew up Presbyterian, where the church organization would feature a senior "teaching elder" accompanied by a number of lay elders, who were generally NOT seminary-educated but were simply full-time doctors or plumbers or whatever and who served as elders once a week, basically. Over the last few years I've really started to question this practice, because it seems to me that this invariably leads to a system of unqualified men serving in leadership roles in the church, and I wonder if this goes against a part of what the Apostle Paul described to Timothy as requirements for what the elder role should be, namely this particular passage:

1 Timothy 3:6: "He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil."

That term "new convert" in the ESV is νεόφυτος (neophytos) in Greek, meaning one who has recently become a Christian, but I think that the KJV rendering of this term is interesting, and telling, in that it uses "novice." And while I'm sure there are lay officers installed that have a solid Christian walk (and perhaps some Seminary education) it makes me wonder what the danger is in trusting the leadership of the church to men who haven't really been thoroughly tested in the faith through the rigors of seminary dedication (particularly in the Presbyterian situation where, as I recall, lay elders would teach/lead worship). I don't believe that seminary is mandatory, but it definitely plays a big part in training up men who have solid, comprehensive understanding of not just exegeting scripture, but church history, systematic theology, hermeneutics, counseling, teaching, etc.

Oak Ridge Reformed Baptist, where is attend now, is led by a plurality of two extremely-gifted teaching elders, one fully-seminary educated and the other very close. This model of multiple teaching elders seems like the right direction for a number of reasons: first, because, as I understand it, the term for overseer, ἐπισκοπή, is generally used in the plural in Paul's epistle to Timothy. I think there are other spots in the New Testament that talk about multiple men leading specific churches. But the second reason is that it appears that there's something of a blessing in relaxing the practice of only one guy being the "ringleader" of the church, and instead dividing up the teaching and leadership responsibilities between two or more men. Speaking as laity, I can see how that should mean less burden exclusively placed on one man, but rather one or more men work together, support each other, share teaching responsibilities together, handle issues of the church together, etc. Having become part of a model of elder plurality, I can't see ever going back to the singular model again.

That being said, I'm reminded of the last church we attended. Good ministry with solid teaching by two very talented seminary-educated men. But one of the things they did, which I found a little questionable, was the planting of an off-shoot church work led by two men who were NOT seminary educated, and who were instead privately educated by the church leadership prior to being installed at the church plant. I had some trouble with this, in that I think this goes against I Tim. 3:6 cited above: again, this seems to speak of installing "novices" in place of men who have undergone 2-3 years of dedicated, focused seminary training. The heavy-duty reading, the rigorous exegesis, the Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic, the living-breathing God's word. A man who dedicates those years of time to seminary reminds me of how the prophet Elijah had to spend 3 years living in the wilderness, waiting and trusting in God, or how the Apostle Paul spent 14 years in the desert drawing close to God before his ministry work began. There's something there about the importance of dedication, training, preparedness, that you don't pick up studying theology in someone's home. I could be wrong, but I'll say this much: when Pastor Justin comes back to visit from Southern to teach, it's such a blessing to be able to glean from the knowledge and understanding that God is cultivating in him during his seminary studies. Seminary education is so foundation to what the elder role needs to be.

Paul's warning in I Tim. 3:6 speaks of someone who is newly-planted that, in their immaturaity, risks being puffed up with pride. But more than that, I would be concerned that an inexperienced elder is just not tested, and would not be prepared for every situation to be expected as an elder, be it experience in teaching adn answering difficult questions, being able to provide deep, sound expositions of text, or even the ability to faithfully and Biblically offer council. I just can't see that being cultivated out of a dedicated seminary experience.

It's like the situation of needing heart surgery: I could go with the man who's studied the body in school for several years and has gained extensive, valuable experience, or the nurse who has watched, been involved, and participated in, heart surgery, but never went to school for it. Or even the intern - with some school but not the full training and degree. If I needed the surgery, I would INSIST on the doctor, not the nurse or the intern.


  1. If you would like to know what is the most wrong about the Christian community today, it is the refusal to believe in this: I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. {Galatians 1:11-12} After all, who amongst the original 12 apostles would be qualified to teach by the standards you addressed in this article?

    Of course, if one refuses to believe that our Heavenly Father still seeks to personally reveal things about Himself and the righteousness of all of His most awesome ways (let alone earnestly listen for), how can it be discerned that a preacher really has been personally taught by Him, but doesn't the same question also apply to all who graduate from seminaries? Moreover, how can anyone discern between what they have been taught and what others believe? For even radical Muslims have their sacred texts and thousands of years of tradition to base their faith upon--do they not?

  2. I know we've gone back and fourth on the topic of ongoing revelation, but what I was really getting at was the elder role as a concentrated, dedicated study vs. someone who reads the Bible through and then decides to lead a congregation w/o a full educational overview of the history of the church, the languages, etc, etc.

    I think of a comment I read in an article by John Frame - 'Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus' in which he makes the comment, "If you try to minister to people without a solid knowledge of God's Word and an ability to apply it to human needs, you are worse than a physician who treats people in medical ignorance. Worse, because the consequences can be eternal."

  3. The failure of our meeting of the minds serves as a perfect example of what I have been trying to encourage you to pursue. For what I have been talking about is the explanation of what is meant by this or that in our Heavenly Father's Holy Scriptures--not necessarily new revelations, and with there being so many different interpretations, based upon all of the different translations, it should be very easy to see where there is as great of a need for this as there ever has been. Yes, if we really are pretty much all on our own in this world at this time, the point is moot, but if nothing has changed since the days of Apostle Paul, would it not be the height of foolish to refuse to listen to His counsel?

  4. I just noticed the "Faith Cometh By Hearing" on the icon for on your side-bar here, which is from Romans 10:17, with the rest of it being, "And hearing by the word of God." Is this not another great example of why there is still a great need for our Heavenly Father to speak? For is this verse referring to the Bible or the Author and perfecter of our faith? If it is the Bible, then it would be the source of our salvation, and woe be it unto the billions who were never given an opportunity to hear it preached down through the ages.

  5. So I'm curious (not being facetious here, but simply wondering) what happens if you tell me that God told you directly that a certain passage means "A", and someone else of a Pentecostal background says that God told him directly that same passage means "B", and in this situation A != B?

  6. No, that is actually a very good question, and the key has to do with what He has been already personally revealing to you. For the way it is meant to work in order to make it easier for us to accept what He wants us to know and understand is that He will tell you something, which will correspond with a verse (or passage) in His Holy Bible, which will correspond with what He has given someone else to say, who may not even be one of His at the time.

    You see, none of this has been about getting anyone to abandon His Holy Scripture, nor to place their faith in anyone else but Him. It has been, however, about trying to help as many as will to see where the cart has been placed in front of the horse. For when every Bible has been burned, and the voice of every Christian silenced, the lost can still be saved because the true Word of God will always be there, just as He has always been.

  7. Well, to your last point, about the Word of God reaching those unable to receive a Bible or the teaching of a missionary, I think there might be something to that - and this is definitely a struggle for a great many people, self included. I do believe there's something to that, in that God does work in mysterious ways to reach people that may be outside of what we see as the large redemptive plan (for instance, Jonah was bringing the message of repentance to Ninevah, yet its interesting that Ninevah was a wicked bunch of Assyrians that were not of Israel - so why would they be part of God's message to repent?) So who knows... this is a message we'll see resolved someday.