Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Polity Matters (Part 5): It's Why They Get the Big Bucks

Great discussion going on at Sharper Iron spurred by an interview with Pastor Chuck Phelps, a well-respected pastor within the fundamentalist movement. Pastor Phelps supports a plurality of elders provided that all the elders are paid--"those who labor in the gospel are to live by the gospel." He says:
The Bible is very clear in 2 Corinthians that the ox is not to be kept from feeding. In fact, the Bible says that those who labor in the gospel are to live by the gospel. And so, the congregation has a responsibility to pay, I believe, those who are serving in that regard. Now, that may not happen immediately, but it must be the goal. A church planter may come and be bi-vocational for a time, but the goal is that the church provide for the one who labors among them. The quandary I face, and actually, it saddens me to review church constitutions that set up plurality of elders, and have some that are paid, and some that are going to be unpaid, and they constitutionalize that. Now that’s wrong. That’s putting in a constitution something that is evidently against the advisement of the Scriptures- that those who are laboring in the gospel need to live of [sic] the gospel. And so, I would take umbrage with anyone who says there ought to be lay elders and then paid elders- professional elders. I think that’s wrong. I would take umbrage with those who would say that some elders are administrative- I think you’re on weak exegesis to call some administrative and some teaching. I think every elder needs to be apt to teach, and I think every elder needs to be, at least the goal of the congregation, ultimately paid by that congregation.
I fully agree with his criticism of a distinction between administrative elders and teaching elders. He is absolutely right to demand that all elders be capable of and given to teaching other believers the truth of Scripture. See evanC's salient response in the comments section for an explanation of a view I share with him that "teaching" should not be defined exclusively as public teaching of the congregation. Some of the best teachers in churches I've attended were often not the best pulpiteers. One of the most godly examples I knew in my time in Wisconsin never stepped near a pulpit as far as I am aware. But he was apt to teach in every conversation I ever had with him.

I'm sympathetic to Pastor Phelps' emphasis on the responsibility of the congregation to provide for those who minister to them spiritually. His reference to a Corinthian epistle is actually from 1 Corinthians 9:8-18. Second Corinthians 11:7-11; 12:11-18; and 1 Timothy 5:17-18 are also pertinent to the discussion. The Apostle Paul's interactions with the Corinthian church were obviously characterized by some conflict. We find numerous indications in the two epistles that individuals in the church resented his authority and ministry. It is not surprising, then that the emphasis of these Corinthians passages is on the responsibility of believers to provide willingly for those who minister to them, since many of the Corinthians may have been resentful of giving money to support a man they viewed as an enemy. Therefore, these passages need not be construed to demand that the ministers accept financial support, since that is not the point of the passage.

Paul's reference to the Lord's instruction may connect back to the occasion described in Matthew 10 and Luke 10 when He sent out his disciples to preach the gospel and gave them instructions on how to receive hospitality from the townspeople. It is tempting to argue from the evangelistic context of Christ's instruction combined with Paul's itinerant apostolic ministry that the context excludes elders from the application of these passages, but that may well be drawing too fine a distinction. It is more likely that we find a legitimate principle that any ministers of the gospel, including elders, should be paid.

The 1 Timothy passage specifically refers to elders. But notice that it does not prescribe that all elders must be paid. The point is that they are worthy of pay. It seems that the attitude of the congregation ought to be to do all it can to reward the laborers. Pastor Phelps' points that a constitutional differentiation between paid and unpaid elder roles is wrong and that paying every elder ought to be the goal of the congregation are well taken. I would contend, however, that elders should have the latitude likewise to refuse payment as Paul did.

The bottom line to me is that plurality of elders in the New Testament is not a luxury for large churches. It's the pattern.

Appointing a plurality "in every church" was Paul's practice on his first missionary journey (Acts 14:23), and "in every city" was his instruction to Titus (1:5). It seems highly unlikely that all of these churches were immediately capable of providing for the financial needs of all their pastors.

If the choice is between sacrificing the biblical model of plurality and sacrificing the biblical model of pay, I'll choose to keep the plurality every time, provided that some elders are willing to forego pay in order to minister to the needs of the body. Ultimately, we need to strive toward finding ways to implement all aspects of the biblical pattern, rather than finding excuses for why we cannot. (I'm not implying, of course, that Pastor Phelps is one who makes excuses, since he does have a plurality of elders.) When we make excuses, we settle for a deficient and extra-biblical model of leadership for our churches.

No comments: