My Social-Salvific Ritual Framework

This is a summary of my interpretation (or adaptation?) of the ritualistic framework for soteriology that I’ve learned from reading Peter Leithart’s materials. I favor it, because I think it does a good job modeling ordinary human social and developmental reality and the perspective from which the biblical authors were writing.

This soteriological framework is fundamentally sociological. Salvation ordinarily occurs in a context. It takes a social form. It’s a community with a past and a future—its history and destiny. It has an objectivity that comes before the individual who is initiated into it and who internalizes it via ritual. Salvation takes the form of the Church, the Family and Household of God prepared by God for God. The Church is the community and context of salvation outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

In this sociological framework, induction and participation in this social environment is grounds for being named according to its character and benefits. It is the community of those who are the called, the adopted, the justified, the sanctified, and the glorified.

Holy Baptism at the Lord’s Font is our rite of initiation in this community. And covenant renewal worship culminating at the Lord’s Table, feasting on the Lord’s Supper is our rite of renewal in this community. These rites formalize our relationship with Christ and our identity in Christ in a manner similar to that of other ordinary human social rituals.

The development of individual faith in this context begins with the Faith. One is brought into the Faith, and the Faith is inculcated into the one through the regular ministry of the Word and the Sacraments. This is a common ancient understanding of what it means to be a believer. A faithful one is he who is abiding in the Faith.

In this framework, salvation works from the outside in. The grace of God gets at a man from the outside in through the Gospel preached into the ears, the water poured on the skin, the bread and wine consumed in the mouth, the love of the brethren bestowed in daily life in fellowship.

And, in fact, it’s the freedom of God in his invisible mysterious ways that determines in what way these graces and blessings will impact the individual. A man is like the earth that drinks in the rain falling upon it. And it’s the freedom of God that determines what sort of growth that ground will yield. Are these graces and blessings nurturing life and perseverance? Or are they feeding hardness and apostasy? Time will tell as God wills.

In my view, the difference between this ritualistic framework and a standard systematic theological framework (e.g. the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards) is that the latter framework restricts itself to the individual’s subjective appropriation of salvation. It limits the scope of the substance to the “internal” world of the individual. It makes the attribution of participation in the benefits of salvation generally improper to apply to those not internalizing salvation unto eternal life. A standard systematic view will speak of such people (i.e. the presumptuous reprobate) as mere “external” or “legal” participants. This isn’t wrong according to its own logical construction and its accuracy regarding decretal election and salvation applied to the individual. But it doesn’t reckon well with the biblical language about those who apostatize. Such souls are spoken of in ways that indicate significant participation in the blessings and person of Christ.

This ritualistic sociological framework enables those who believe in Reformed decretal soteriology to maintain decretal election unto preservation while acknowledging a real and significant participation by those who do not persevere but apostatize. I think this view comports better with the notion of “those who were once enlightened, who tasted the heavenly gift, and had become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and had tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” but fell away. Indeed, all such blessing wasn’t internalized and didn’t save such a soul to the end. But a profound participation occurred, because such attribution indicates as much. And that’s because the apostate’s prior participation was in the communal life of salvation. That communal participation rightly deserves to be called (and is called in Scripture) a participation in salvation.

This sociological framework gives weight to the threat of excommunication, whether it’s the excommunication imposed by duly ordained authorities upon a congregant who’s in serious and recalcitrant sin, or the subtle and slow self-excommunication of a man who comes to believe he no longer needs to participate in the life of the Church to be in good standing and spiritual health with God.

Given this sociological framework, various scriptural statements regarding the efficacy of baptism make sense in light of one’s initiation into the communal context of salvation:

  • Baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21)
  • Baptism justifies (Romans 6:7)
  • Baptism forgives and washes away sin (Acts 2:38; 22:16)
  • Baptism unites with Christ (Romans 6:3-4)
  • Baptism clothes in Christ (Galatians 3:27)
  • Baptism regenerates (Titus 3:5)

These effects don’t need to be explained by appeals to “baptism” as a metonym or a code word indicating something else, nor to a magical power in the water that doesn’t always stick, nor to charitable presumption and attribution as the way of satisfying conformity with a theology of decretal election and perseverance. Baptism straightforwardly does these things because the fundamental frame of reference is induction into the society of salvation where the reality is inculcated in the individual.

This sociological and ritualistic framework has a lot of explanatory power. I hope you’ve gained something from considering it.

Victims, Perpetrators, and the Good Scapegoat

I’m convinced that in this time and place in culture the message of Jesus as the Scapegoat of God who ends the pattern of violence in the world is needed as desperately as the more familiar message of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The Pattern Perpetuates

I’ve sat through more than one training course for creating safe spaces for children in public environments. One thing you learn in these training courses is a common factor about the backgrounds of most child abusers: they were abused as children themselves. As the truism goes, most abusers of children were abused as children themselves. But thankfully, the other half of the truism is that most abused children will not grow to be abusers themselves. In the kindness and mercy of God, humans can find resilience and develop antifragility. And such victims can grow to be more keen toward and vigilant against such injustices than the average person. The outcomes are uncertain and remain long hidden.

There is potentially great folly in trotting out the victims of grievous sins and crimes and establishing them publicly as the unimpeachable figureheads of their own causes. Doing such things with genuine victims is a dangerous gamble that sometimes pays off and other times proves amass tragedy upon tragedy. The folly in doing so is one side of a two-sided coin. The victim of something heinous has higher than average possibilities for two things: 1.) being an ardent effective advocate for the cause of defending and preventing future victims of the same injustices, and 2.) being the next generation of victimizer in a vicious cycle of perpetuating further injustices.

And those are not mutually exclusive possibilities. An individual can enact both of them simultaneously. It is the temptation of a life lived as a professional victim—victimizing other with vindictive bitterness.

The professional victim is someone who is consumed by victimhood as a mark of identity and a source of power in a reversal of circumstances. Fueled by bitterness, professional victims go beyond mere cries for empathy to emotionally blackmail other people. Playing the victim card is used shut down personal responsibility and thwart actual justice. This is the truth behind the truism: hurting people hurt people. Some hurting people merely hurt others by accident. Some hurting people become so embittered that they hurt others on purpose while not even viewing it that way. One can be a professional victim, and one can be an advocate of professional victims.

Victimization is real. Traumatization is real. Traumatized victims need sympathy and wise pastor care that shows due sensitivity while smartly ministering a long-term course of resilience. All this is deeply true. But professional victimhood is a sad reality as well.

Victimizers are not bizarre monstrous aberrations of our species, which is an otherwise benign and good-natured lifeform. They come from somewhere. They are the product of something. The general willful ignorance of the relationship between being victims and becoming perpetrators in our culture is an exercise in insanity.

And how dare I say “they” as if “they” isn’t all of us in the final analysis?

We thoroughgoingly Augustinian Christians let no one off the hook. We darn well know every last one of us is both a victim and a perpetrator of our own sin upon ourselves and others. In truth, each of us is simul victima et commissor—at the same time, a victim and a perpetrator. And there’s only one way to break that cycle.

As my friend put it:

If you do not take your victimhood to the Cross, you will victimize someone else in your bitterness and contempt for your oppressor.

Christ is the Great and True Victim sent from on High. And he is the ultimate Girardian Scapegoat for a whole world’s worth of misdirected anxieties, shame, blame, bitterness, resentment, and so forth. All of that victimization pours out from the mass of victimized perpetrators called the offspring of Adam.

We must bring our victimhood to Christ, where it is nailed to the cross and buried in the tomb with our Lord. And we must daily reckon ourselves to be vindicated conquerors in the one who sits enthroned at the right hand of God and is conquering all his enemies.

The Pattern Terminates

Christ in the role of scapegoat has some parallels or counterparts to the role of shepherd. In some respects, it’s only a matter of the point of view. Christ is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep as he himself teaches. In the eyes of his sheep, that’s who he is and what he does.

But in the eyes of the religious leaders during the days of his flesh, he was the scapegoat, the man clearly to be blamed for everything and who needed to die so the nation would survive as Caiaphas prophesied. Christ was the one upon who the unbelieving religious leadership and their riotous mob heaped their collective anxieties, paranoia, suspicions, prejudices, projected guilt, and systemic shame.

In his book The Scapegoat, author René Girard unpacks his “mimetic theory of violence” and the scapegoat mechanism. He explores ancient mythological tales and shows their parallels to what happened to Jesus in the Gospels. The myths and the Gospels are both persecution narratives.

The ancient myths were told from the perspective of the persecutors as they perceived their victim to be the indisputable source of all societal ills, plagues, failing crops, and so forth. Therefore, the victim’s death is obviously justified. It’s virtually his civic duty to die in light of his heinous transgression against the peace and welfare of the community. Of course, the ‘culprit’ must be compelled to confess his guilt so all is neatly in order before he’s properly executed. And with his death, peace and abundance are restored.

However, the Gospels tell the persecution narrative from the perspective of the victim and his allies. The hysterical mob’s anxiety-laden irrationality (otherwise disguised as solemn, serious, and severe sensibility in the self-delusion of the persecutors) is shown plainly for what it is. An innocent man bears the blame and frustration of the people.

In Girard’s framework, the scapegoat mechanism as it commonly functions isn’t seen for what it actually is by those writhing in the throes of mimetic violence. But in the case of Christ and in the shadows of the Old Testament, the scapegoat is called out by name. It abides as an understood reality in the liturgical life of ancient Israel. It was known that a ritual of “scapegoating” was being enacted as a source of comfort to the community, and this was a rite instituted by God for the assurance of the people (Leviticus 16).

On yom kippurim (the “day of coverings”) two goats were brought forward in the sight of the whole assembly of Israel, and lots were cast regarding the goats. One goat was “for Yahweh”, and it was slain. Its blood was sprinkled upon the kapporet (the “mercy seat” or “footstool of placation”), overshadowed by the wings of golden cherubim and resting atop the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy place deep within the heart (or rather at the very summit) of the tabernacle.

The other goat was “for Azazel” (meaning “for utter removal”), and it was expelled alive from the camp of the people of God, never to return. All year every year, the follies and weaknesses of the people flowed up the ceremonial system as a great accumulator of sin and unrest, gathering upon the high priest as the ceremonial head and representative of the assembly in the eyes of Yahweh. On the Day of Coverings, the high priest pressed his hands on the goat for Azazel and confessed over it all the failings of the people, ritually heaping the holy community’s guilt upon the scapegoat. All the community’s attendant anxieties psychologically flowed with the impartation of their guilt onto the scapegoat. The goat was then lead out into the wilderness to Azazel, to utter expulsion. The people were ritually assured as they saw their sins and fears carried away into the wilderness.

Christ the Incarnate Son in himself is the entirety of the worship and offering system of the Old Testament in its fulfillment. We see this in a number of ways. For instance, he is both the Lamb of God who’s slain and the Great High Priest who offers his own blood up to God to purge our sins, cleansing us from all unrighteousness. Likewise, he’s the Great High Priest gathering up our sins and anxieties, and he’s the True Scapegoat, heaping the failures and attendant anguish upon himself and bearing it away from us. It’s important to understand the Good Scapegoat’s service as being more than the bearing away of our judicial guilt. It’s also the expulsion of psychological anxiety. We are called to cast all of our anxieties upon him, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). So, this is our Great High Priest’s ministry of compassion to us and his pastoral care for us as the Good Shepherd who cares for the Flock of God.

In this, we’re called to imitate our Lord. The Church, the Body of Christ, are those who by God’s grace bear the anxieties of others in our ministry as we are given for the life of the world. And we must come to Christ, the Head of the Body, with all our gathered anxieties. The Good Scapegoat will bear them all away into utter expulsion, and he’ll give us blessed assurance that we have peace with God and with one another.

Rival Bible Projects

There are two projects of biblical interpretation going on under the label of the Christian Faith and under the roofs of many Christian churches and denominations in contemporary Western culture.

Project 1: Listening to Scripture as not merely the words of men but the Word of God. It’s hearing and heeding the Voice of the Sovereign Lord, recognizing and submitting to the presence of his Person and Attributes. It’s a servant obeying his Master.

Project 2: Listening to Scripture as merely the words of men as they grow and evolve from generation to generation, slowly attending to their former ignorance and confusion, in their contemplations of God. It’s a consumer negotiating a deal.

Project 1 is the historic Christian Faith.

Project 2 is disguised heathen infidelity.

Project 1 is knowing that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and not leaning upon one’s own understanding. It’s about recognizing that one cannot trust one’s own impulses and intuitions. It confesses the need for God’s grace to reform one’s thoughts and desires.

Project 2 is treating all of one’s own internal impulses as beautiful expressions of authenticity and a fresh work of the Holy Spirit doing something new in the Church. It’s a failure to recognize the subversive and destructive reality of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Project 1 knows that there is a different Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different Gospel (all deceptive and malicious) than what the Church faithfully received from the Prophets and the Apostles and the Lord himself.

Project 2 is offended by this notion.

Project 1 is walking in paths of righteousness and persevering in faith.

Project 2 is horny faith deconstruction.

Project 1 is faith seeking understanding.

Project 2 is presumption seeking affirmation.

Project 1 is the Spirit and life.

Project 2 is the flesh and death.

So, in addition to saying what goes on under many church roofs, it’s important to say that these two projects go on in many Christian hearts.

Project 1 is seeing the invisible, hearing the inaudible, and touching the intangible.

Project 2 is being blind, deaf, and numb.

Speak Life

I spent time with a friend not long ago who grew up Roman Catholic but has been in the Assemblies of God since college. We were catching up in family anecdotes, and he used a phrase I haven’t heard in a long time and that isn’t typical lingo in my Christian circles: “Speak Life.”

He was telling me about the effects of speaking life over your children (and others) or failing to do so. Shall we call it a self-fulfilling prophecy? There really does seem to be something to it. Setting aside the kookiness of Word-Faith and other such bizarre distortions of Christian spirituality in the Charismatic movement, there’s still a particular sensitivity and emphasis on spiritual matters that I appreciate (even envy a bit) in my Charismatic friends.

I can understand what he’s talking about even within my own particular circles where we talk about the formative power of rituals. One of the things we say is that the ‘magic’ of how a ritual accomplishes the thing that it proclaims is that we all agree to act as though it does. Our habits of speech and the sort of content we speak into the world (even in our non-verbal communication) and over other people repeatedly are indeed social rituals that form or deform people. Words are indeed like food—either nourishing or corrupting. Speak life, not death.

(And trying really hard to keep the TobyMac song out of my head, cuz I can hear those words. Fortunately, I only know those words from a sound clip in a radio station commercial or something.)

Glimpses of the Imago Dei

A Sketch of the Biblical Meaning of Divine Image-Bearing

My developed impression is that most Christians think being made in the image of God, aka Imago Dei, is a broad, flat, and generic affirmation of the universal intrinsic dignity and worth of humans as the special creatures God made us to be. I don’t think that’s the meaning of the Imago Dei in Scripture. I do think that the teaching of universal human dignity and worth is something that can be derived from the doctrine of the Imago Dei, but that’s not the heart of the matter.

Resources

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge and advertise a number of resources on this subject. The primary source for much of this is the book Images of the Spirit (1980) by Meredith Kline. Alastair Roberts does an excellent review of Images of the Spirit as well as two follow-up sessions on being created in the image of the angels and women and the image of God.

Imago Dei and the Divine Council

Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.

Who is the “us” and the “our” in God’s utterance here in the creation account? I am of the opinion it’s the Divine Council that we see pictured in several places in Scripture. It’s God and the gods. The one true and eternal God and his heavenly angelic host. It’s the tribunal that renders judgment and instructs in the discernment of good and evil.

Let them have dominion … Fill the earth and subdue it …

Genesis opens with God who makes the light shine in darkness and has all authority. He speaks, and creation obeys. He establishes lights in the firmament of the heavens to rule over the day and the night and demarcate time. Luminaries are symbols for the angelic host and for the kings of men. This connects the Imago Dei to kingship and judgment.

Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.

For the longest time, I read this passage as though the emphasis was on the image of God conveying a certain worth upon mankind and therefore demanding the blood of the one who sheds the blood of man. I don’t dispute the truth of that. It’s there. But now I wonder if the emphasis here is on man as the avenger of the blood-guilt of his fellow man. That a man exercising kingship and judgment must avenge the bloodshed of the innocent. The Imago Dei is being evoked here to explain why man is being made the avenger.

The word of my lord the king will now be comforting; for as the Angel of God, so is my lord the king in discerning good and evil.

The angels of God in the old order were intermediaries and teachers of judicial wisdom. The Angel of Yahweh (who is most likely a theophany and specifically a christophany) in particular is connected with being an agent of judgment. So much so that King David is repeatedly compared to the Angel of Yahweh in his power to execute wise judgment. The king by definition is the man required to discern good and evil, i.e. judicial wisdom.

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

The prophet also has a connection to the Divine Council. The prophet by definition is the man who is brought into the Divine Council and is sent to represent the Divine Council.

Imago Dei and the Glorious Spirit

In various places in Scripture, we see the Spirit as the visible Glory and Presence of God. The Prophet Ezekiel recounts this shrouded Glory in vivid detail as wheels and cherubs, beastly faces and multitudinous eyes, an altar and a throne, and a man of fire and metal beneath a rainbow. It’s blanketed in clouds and thunders as it moves here and there.

This is the same Glory shrouded in darkness, full of fire, and resounding in thunder that descended upon Mount Sinai. This is the Presence that was the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that would go before the Israelites. It brooded over Israel like an eagle over her chicks and bore them on its wings, just as it brooded over the waters in the creation.

The words used to describe the way the ominous cloud moved and sounded upon Mount Sinai are the same words that describe Yahweh moving and speaking in the Garden to the man and his wife. In fact, Yahweh comes in the “Spirit of the Day” in the Garden.

By threading all of this biblical information together about the Spirit as the Glory and the Presence of God, there are a few things to draw from it about the image of God.

Firstly, the Spirit as the Glory and the Presence is the pattern on the mountain that Moses saw and used to build the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is made in the image of the Spirit. Likewise the Aaronic high priest is an inside-out version of the Tabernacle. He belongs to the Tabernacle and is a part of the furnishings and a member of the court. He is made in the image of the Tabernacle and is thus made in the image of the Spirit who is the Glory and Presence of God. The Spirit is the pattern for the image.

Secondly, the phrase “Spirit of the Day” connects the Spirit with the Day of visitation and judgment. And rendering judgment has already been shown to be a defining aspect of the Imago Dei. The Spirit as the Glory and the Presence is the pattern for the Day of the Lord.

Imago Dei and the Threefold Office

It’s been shown that the Imago Dei is tied to aspects of functioning as king (through the exercise of judicial wisdom), as prophet (through the invitation into the Divine Council and the dispatching from the Divine Council), and as priest (through mediation of the Glory and the Presence). So, the Imago Dei is filled with connotations of functioning as prophet, priest, and king. All three of which are anointed offices, and together are the threefold office of Christ the Anointed One. The First Adam is called the image of God. And unsurprisingly, the Last Adam is wrapped up in being the Image of God.

Imago Dei and Sonship

And Adam … begot a son in his own likeness, after his image …

God makes Man in his own image and likeness. And Man begets a son in his own image and likeness. The function of imaging is caught up in the idea of sonship. The title Son of God is routinely synonymous with being the Davidic King.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

So here we have Christ named according to two references to a Son: image and firstborn. This is Christ as the Last Adam, the New Man, the New Creation.

For whom God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that Jesus might be the firstborn among many brethren.

Being the Image of God is tied up in being the Son of God. And those who are in Christ are the sons of God who are being made into the image of the Son of God. We are made sons in the Son. We are made images of the Image.

And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.

All those who are in Adam bear the image of Adam who was in the image of God. But he transgressed and marred the image with sin, the image which all those in Adam likewise bear. But all those who are in Christ bear the image of Christ who is the image of God. He has succeeded as fully faithfully functioning as the image of God. And all those who are in him are being conformed by God to that image of the Son.

Imago Dei, the Man, and the Woman

So God created Man [Adam] in his own image;
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

In the day that God created Man [Adam],
he made him in the likeness of God.
He created them male and female,
and blessed them and called them Man [Adam]
in the day they were created.

Along with the flat claim of universal human worth and dignity, I also commonly hear the claim that the Imago Dei is a broad, flat, generic claim of the equality of men and women. I also don’t believe that to be the heart of the idea, though equality of worthy and dignity can also be derived from that.

Upon close inspection, it’s clear that the man is in the image of God and can stand for the whole of mankind as a male and female population in a way that the woman cannot. The man is the image of God in a more direct fashion than the woman, but the woman is also involved in being the image of God.

But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. … For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. … Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.

The Apostle Paul makes this asymmetry and directionality of representation explicit. The man is the image and the glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man. The man is not made for the woman, but the woman is made for the man.

And the purpose of this asymmetry and directionality of representation finds its ultimate fulfillment in the Whole Christ that is Head and Body, Husband and Bride. We can look to the Book of the Revelation to see this motion pictorially.

In the opening chapter, we learn that this vision happens in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. This sets the context as one of God’s visitation and judgment, which is in the image of the Spirit. Christ is present as the Son of Man, a new Adam and priestly figure moving in the midst of the seven lamp stands that are the seven churches. He is arrayed as a priest and is a man of fire and light and metal in the same manner as the likeness of a man in the heart of the Glory Spirit that Ezekiel saw. This evokes the symbology of the high priest as being a walking inverted tabernacle in the image of the Spirit. So at the opening, Christ is the man in the image of the Spirit.

In the closing chapters, we hear of the Lamb’s Bride who is prepared for him. The City of God comes down to earth. The Bride is from the Lamb and for the Lamb (the Husband). He has given his Spirit to the Church. The Church as his Bride in him has the Spirit. The Spirit and the Bride together say, “Come!” The Bride has become conformed to the image of her Husband and is his glory. She too is depicted in images of precious refined metal, a rainbow of gemstones, and light. She is full of the life and light of God and the Lamb.

Imago Dei and Corporate Worship

In the Reformed and other traditions, the first two of the Ten Commandments are:

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image …

By distinguishing the first two commandments in this manner, the Reformed tradition is making a distinction that some have called covenantal apostasy vs liturgical apostasy. In the First Commandment, the service and prostration to all false gods is forbidden. To do so is to break covenant with the one true God by covenanting with another false god. But in the Second Commandment, any representation of the one true God using false images is forbidden. To do so is to profane the worship of the true God and to mislead the people in their understanding of God.

There are several reasons to not make images of God for use in worship. But one reason is that there is no need. There is a lawful image of God already present in worship: Man. If man is present in the worship of God, then God’s appointed Imago Dei is present. And this is true at several levels.

Firstly, all worship in the New Covenant happens in heaven. On earth, it need only be in Spirit and truth and doesn’t depend on geography. By faith through the Spirit, we ascend into the Presence on the true Mount Zion and in the true Jerusalem where we find Jesus the High Priest—Mediator, Minister, Intercessor. He who is the ultimate Image of God is already front and center in our worship by faith.

Secondly, when we gather for earthly worship which is patterned after heavenly worship, there’s a Man, a liturgist or minister, who functions as the local representation of Christ at the head of local worship. In his ordained office, the minister on earth visibly images the one who is the visible Image of God ministering in heaven.

Thirdly, the Holy Congregation (all those who are in Christ) are being transformed from glory to glory and are being conformed to the image of the Son who is the Image of God. The Totus Christus (the Whole Christ) is the Head and the Body and is the Great Mystery of the Ages. All those in Christ are being transformed and conformed to the image of the one who is the Image of God. Christ is the Head and Husband of the Church who is the Body and Bride. He is the Image and the Glory of God, and she is the image and the glory of the Man.

The false images of our own devising in worship (or elsewhere) are a distraction from the ministry at work in all the functioning and faithful true images of God who are present in worship and life.

And He Gave Gifts to Men

A Sketch of Offices and Functions in the Church

What follows is a sketch of the various offices in the church. I gathered these details from looking at Scripture and pondering how the institutional church in her various locations and forms has implemented and developed her offices through history.

The most basic idea behind offices in the church is a recognition of qualified individuals being specially invested with authority and responsibility to carry out a function as their calling. Just how “official” that process becomes leaves some room for interpretation and implementation.

I offer one caveat about studying the offices of the church in Scripture. It’s true that God has given us all that we need for life and faith. Scripture is sufficient for us. But that’s a far cry from Scripture being an exhaustive “How To” manual about anything. What we know about church offices in Scripture comes to us as situational details in the context of stories and occasional letters. The raw data is messy. Christians can wrestle in good faith about how to more formally develop and apply the teachings and can come to differing conclusions.

The Threefold Work:

The scope of the work of church offices comes from the threefold office of Christ and the threefold marks of the Church. Christ, i.e. the Anointed One, occupies the three anointed offices seen in the Old Testament: the priest, the king, and the prophet. The three offices are all representatives and representations of God to the people and of the people to God. Each does so with respect to its core functions.

A priest is one who leads the worship and service of God. He tends to the Lord’s Table by bringing food from the people to God and from God to the people. He comforts the people and leads them through their alienation in weaknesses and failures to restoration.

A king is one who exercises judicial wisdom over the people and is accountable to God on behalf of the people. He is the agent of God’s justice among the people. He must lay down his life for the sake of the people. He is enthroned upon his suffering for the people.

A prophet is one who is called into the divine council and speaks for the divine council as a covenant lawyer on behalf of God. He calls the people of God to covenant faithfulness and reminds them of their covenant with God. He also advocates for the people to God.

The classic threefold marks of the church are the right teaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments, and the right tending of the Flock. These display the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices respectively. The establishment of these functions by Christ as marks of his Body the Church necessarily implies a fourth mark: the right appointment of the Officers.

The various church officers are oriented to these various functions and identity markers.

The Gifting Principle:

In Ephesians 4, Paul describes the unity of the people of God (vss. 1-6). There is one Body. It is filled with one Spirit. It is ruled by one Lord. It is expressed as one Faith. It is marked by one Baptism. It is birthed by one Father. But there is a great diversity of individuals in this unity of the people. And it sometimes leads to striving which calls for peace.

One cause of diversity is the grace of God given in different measures (vss. 7-10). Christ has given gifts to his people, and they are not all the same gifts distributed to all the same individuals. And some of the gifts he’s given to his people are the officers of the church for the purpose of edifying the Body (vss. 11-13).

Therefore, officers are those given their offices by Christ based on the different measures of grace given by God. Not all are qualified because not all have been given the same gifts.

The Servitude Principle:

In Philippians 2, Paul describes the humiliation of Christ and his subsequent exaltation by the Father (vss. 5-11). Although he was in the form of God, he did not cling to equality with God. He effaced himself. He took the form of a bondservant. The bondservant or slave is the lowliest of the various kinds of servants.

Christ taught that rising to greatness (i.e. status, agency, authority, and influence) in his kingdom is measured by sinking to servitude. Those individuals given greater positions and influence over his people must adopt a mindset and lifestyle of faithful servitude to the people. This is why the traditional clerical collar is a stylized shackle.

Therefore, officers should understand their offices as a calling to a heightened form of suffering, self-effacement, and burdened obligation to those whom they are bound.

Office of the Elder:

The elder is an old man. He ought to be elderly. The rationale behind that qualification is that wisdom rarely comes without age and experience (even if it sometimes doesn’t come with it). And there are general behavioral expectations for godly elderly men and women in Scripture (Titus 2:2-3).

The title of elder is functionally interchangeable with the titles of pastor/shepherd and of bishop/overseer. Those titles and the related functional terms are used interchangeably in Scripture (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). They are spoken of as ruling and as those who have the rulership of congregations. They keep a guarding watch over the Flock of God.

As such, they are representatives and representations of Christ in his kingly rule. They are his undershepherds. He is their Arch Shepherd. When the sheep look at the elders, they are not to see oversheep (fellow congregants) but rather undershepherds. They are to be recognized as office-holders set apart from the flock.

Elders in the New Testament aren’t all that different from elders in the Old Testament (Exodus 18). They are men of qualifying character who can be trusted with exercising and enforcing judicial wisdom in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-16).

Office of the Teacher:

The teacher is listed closely alongside the pastor in Ephesians 4. And in 1 Timothy 5:17, the elders are to be commended if they rule well and especially if they labor in the word and teaching. So, there is some measure of association and yet distinction between pastoring and teaching. Some elders focus their activities and giftings as ruling elders. But others labor in the word and doctrine in a way that ruling elders don’t. These are teaching elders or teachers. Traditionally, this has sometimes been recognized as a distinct office called the doctor of the church.

In James 3:1, teachers of the church are said to be subject to stricter judgment. Therefore, their skill and substance demand the highest quality as those whose teaching bears more weight in the church. As office-holders with authority and responsibility, they’re subject to the character qualifications just like their fellow officers of the church.

Office of the Minister:

A minister or liturgist is one who does the work of the people, i.e. a public servant. In the civil realm, the governor is called a minister of God who enforces justice (Romans 13:1-5). In the ecclesial realm, the minister is the governor of our gathered public service.

The work of the ministry or liturgy is mentioned a few times in Scripture. As an office, it’s never directly addressed. The office is deduced by necessity from various principles which govern and inform earthly gathered worship on the Lord’s Day. The Letter to the Hebrews has repeated warnings that we must learn the lessons of the Exodus Generation, because we are subject to something superior to what they had. Their worship was patterned after the things in heaven (8:5). How much more so should ours be? They came to a mountain to serve God and hold a feast to him. We come to the heavenly mountain by faith (12:18-24). The worship of the Israelites had a high priest called a minister just like our worship does with Christ in heaven (8:1-3).

Therefore, it’s fitting that our gathered public worship should be led by one who serves as a representative and representation of Christ in his priestly ministry.

Office of the Evangelist:

An evangelist is one who proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom. He is a herald. The office of the evangelist is listed among those in Ephesians 4 and is distinguished from apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers. Philip the deacon is also called an evangelist (Acts 21:8), and certainly, he did that work when he went to Samaria and when he met the Ethiopian Eunuch. Timothy is also called to do the work of an evangelist (1 Timothy 4:5). Evangelists appear to be or can be missionaries in practice. The work also seems to involve a degree of apologetics with outsiders as evidenced by the work of Stephen and Philip.

Office of the Deacon:

A deacon is an attendant or one who runs errands. The office first appears in Acts 6 as the size and needs of the church become unmanageable for the apostles alone. The apostles recognize they are to focus upon the ministry of the word and prayer. Seven deacons are appointed to attend to matters of mercy ministry in the church. But some of the deacons like Stephen and Philip go on to do evangelism and apologetics.

Like the elders or bishops, deacons have character qualifications (1 Timothy 3:8-13). And those qualification resemble the expectations for younger men and women (Titus 2:4-8).

In light of the diversity of what they do, the office of the deacon appear to be that of the assistant to the offices of the elder, the teacher, and the minister. Deacons are prospective elders, teachers, evangelists, and ministers in training. And some deacons simply remain as such. They assist and have a proven character to be appointed to a place of assistance.

Office of the Widow:

A widow is a woman who’s dependent upon the church for her life and who has devoted herself to the service of the church and the ministry of prayer. The office of the widow has character qualifications similar to those of elders and deacons and even involves official registration (1 Timothy 5:3-16). This is a distinctly female office whereas many of the other offices are prominently male offices. The widow is a counterpart of sorts to the elder.

One Last Thought:

As I said earlier, the raw biblical data is messy. It shows offices as less objectively formal than we often see now. Or a bit more fluid. There is a high degree of recognition of God’s giftings connected with functioning and office. Offices in Scripture have a certain degree of fluidity in their informality.

One outcome of that fluidity and the variability in God’s giving of different gifts is that some individuals can and do function in more than one office. Peter is an apostle, but he calls himself a fellow elder. Timothy is an elder, and Paul tells him to do the work of an evangelist. Paul says he’s been appointed as a preacher, apostle, and teacher.

And to a certain extent, simply exercising the function of God’s gift is a statement about the place and purpose of a member in the Body. And the Body has a vested interest and responsibility in encouraging and regulating that function for the sake of all.

A Note of Apostles and Prophets:

I do acknowledge the offices of the apostle and the prophet that are present in the New Testament. They’re named among the offices given by Christ in Ephesians 4. But for the purposes of this sketch, I omitting them from discussion. There’s much controversy as to whether they’re relevant in the present time or are essentially historical and presently defunct. Personally, when I read about “the household of God, having been built on a foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-22), I get the sense there’s a significantly historical progressive aspect to the spiritual construction project.

A Note on Ecclesial Gender Roles:

A brief word on sexual distinctions in church offices. I didn’t focus on addressing it in my post, because it’s a fairly complex conversation to have. It’s one I certainly want to be having and think we need to be having. And Lord willing, I’ll manage to capture some of my thoughts on liturgical and ecclesial sexuality in writing one of these days.

My short(ish) answer is that if we were to operate in a far more natural cultural context (one in which our creationistic embodied teleologies were more immediately obvious to us), then we’d see a distinctly male ruling eldership emerge. At present, we live in an anti-creationistic cultural context that has thoroughly infected the church. The perceptions of church office have changed as significantly as the perceptions of man, woman, and marriage have. It’s an odd game to play, arguing about male-only leadership when the game is being played by incapacitated players on a misshapen field where the structure and function of ecclesiology and the pastorate have been revised and hollowed out.

I do think woman are naturally oriented to some sort of eldering and deaconal duty. It’s not a statement of office as much as it is one of natural function. If the elders are the spiritual fathers of the church (as they should be), then the church needs spiritual mothers as well. Fathers are not mothers, and mothers are not fathers. There needs to be an effective natural patriarchy forming the structure of the church. And there needs to be an effective natural matriarchy filling the substance of the church. Again, sexual distinctions would be obvious if we lived in a natural context that made sexually differentiation readily apparent.

Downfall of the Household

The present state of affairs in the contemporary Western world is highly unnatural. It has rendered people largely out of touch with what they are as human beings—as creatures of God embedded in his creation and intuitively aware of this simple fact. Industrialization and technology have reshaped our day-to-day lives and our expectations in life. And we’re largely oblivious to the changes. Being out of touch with our nature has left us intuitively confused about many things. We’re adrift as a society and searching for the recovery of things we can’t even name.

In the church, we’ve been equally oblivious to the changes. We’ve looked at industry and technology, and we’ve largely declared them neutral and benign by default. Some among us have been keen enough to know that’s not the case. And some are becoming more and more acutely aware of what has happened and why.

What I want to do here is offer a brief sketch about the collapse of traditional households and how that collapse has hollowed out the agency of men and women. About how it has created confusion where it formerly didn’t exist. And I do so regarding the family and the church, though much more could be said.

The Traditional Household

When we hear the word “household”, we typically have the impression of the family and the home. And while that impression is correct, it’s far from a complete definition. The traditional household does involve a family and a home. It involves many generations of family and a place where they live. It also involves a place where they work and the work that is done there. The traditional household is an estate. It’s a place where domestic and economic life are wedded. It’s the site of a family business. It’s the accumulated heritage of generations. The traditional household was the basic unit of agency and dominion in the ancient and medieval world.

Insofar as the traditional household is the culmination of intersecting marriage, family, domesticity, and economics for generations, it’s the natural household. It’s the ordinary state of affairs that God’s created order produced from the beginning by the creation’s inherent design. The natural household is the basic functional unit for taking dominion according to the creation mandate.

Not every husband and wife were fortunate enough to have a household. And not every individual was fortunate enough to be born into the family who had the mastery of their household. Many lived and died as servants of one status or another. Some as the favored domestic servants or laborers for hire. Others as the lowliest of the low, as bondservants. Nonetheless, servants and their families had standing and affiliation with the masters of the households they served.

The Household and the Scriptures

The households we see in the Scriptures are traditional households. They begin with the household of the Patriarch Abraham. This household is the chosen and called out people of God. It comes from the accumulated wealth of the generations prior to Abraham. And even though Abraham and Sarah lack a biological heir for many years, their household is made up of many servants, many families of servants. It’s large enough that Abraham’s household has a small army that is three hundred strong. And God makes his covenant with Abraham and his entire household.

Households continue for two millennia well into the time of the church in the days of the Apostles. Entire households become Christian households on account of the atmosphere of allegiance established by the masters of those households: Cornelius the centurion in Caesaria, Lydia the textile merchant in Thyatira, the prison warden in Philippi, Crispus the synagogue chief in Corinth, Philemon in who’s household the Colossian Christians assembled, and more.

It’s important to bear in mind when the Scriptures exhort how a man should order his household that this isn’t going to apply flatly to every man. Some men have households. Other men are a part of their master’s household. We can’t simply take the exhortations to the heads of households and put them straightforwardly upon every Christian man who’s a husband and father, because a household is more than a family.

Usurpation by the Corporation

I’ve often come to say that we can have households, or we can have corporations. One or the other can be the foundation of our economy and society. Realistically, we can’t have both. They’re both competing for who has agency, headship, and dominion in the world.

With the rise of industrialization, productivity has moved off of the household estate and onto the factory floor. Our economic activities have been outsourced from households to companies. And companies have merged and expanded into corporations. A household is almost entirely a thing of the past with a few vestigial exceptions such as small business owners. And even those businesses have not been free of some measure of influence. The small business owner is the 1.0%. The CEO is the 0.0001%.

Households generally don’t exist in our culture. Again, it’s a mistake to confuse a family with a household. There are lots of families but exceedingly few households. Most of us are employees (i.e. servants) in some corporation’s mega-household. And we enable their agency, headship, and dominion in the world. Admitting this is simply being honest and aware of our situation. This is why most Western working adults don’t feel like we have much agency in our own lives. It’s because we really don’t.

Head of the Household

Man is the head. The man is the head of the woman. And the man of the household is the head of the household. The most common mistake conservative Christians make about male headship is that it’s the direct assertion of the man’s authority. It’s not. It relates to authority. But it’s most directly a statement of the man’s prominence.

The man is the part that sticks out. He naturally has highly visible agency in the world. As the head of the household, he’s the most prominent part of the household protruding into the affairs of public life. He leads the household into the world. He’s outwardly oriented in his agency. He’s the figurehead of the household to the society. He’s the spear tip of the household’s exertions into the world.

But when virtually all men are the servants in the mega-households of corporations, they are not heads. Only in the thinnest remaining sense are they the heads of their families. This is precisely why men feel adrift and stifled in our current culture.

Understanding this reveals the errors and dangers in ultraconservative Christian efforts to reestablish male headship in our culture. It should be obvious from nature that a man simply is the head. He doesn’t have to wrestle the place and power of headship away from the woman. If that kind of struggle is happening, it’s a sign that we’re misperceiving the situation. In truth, most men have almost nothing over which they’re the head. Certainly not over the sort of false expectations being placed upon them in conservative Christian counterculture. It’s overreaching. It’s synthesizing an extreme performative definition of masculinity and unreasonably insisting that every man carry it out to meet the acceptable minimum for godly manhood.

What ends up happening is men trying to operate under this overreach end up turning their “headship” inward upon their families. It ends up turning a man into a tyrant over his own family if he’s not careful and thoughtful.

The alternative distortion is that the man becomes a “servant leader” in such a way that he merely functions as the promoter and enabler of his wife and the expansion of her agency at the expense of his own.

Heart of the Household

When the man is called the head, that does not mean the woman is the tail. That’s foolish. Woman is the heart. The core. The woman is the integrating center of the family and the household. She is the filler and glorifier of what the man has formed and maintained. She is just as intimately involved in the affairs of the household. In the traditional household, she’s a participant in the economic life just as much as the domestic life.

Tearing the traditional household in two by outsourcing productivity to corporations and separating it from domesticity is rending asunder a woman’s place and power. The cruel dilemma of women having to choose between either economic activity or childcare plus housecare is a distinct product of the current world in which we live.

I specifically did not say “housekeeping”. That word is terribly misconstrued in our time. Yes, a woman is to be a housekeeper. But when Titus 2:5 exhorts women to housekeeping (oikourgos), that isn’t simply summed up by cooking the meals, washing the dishes, and cleaning the laundry. It means “household guarding”. That’s estate management.

Consider the parallel passage in 1 Timothy 5:14 about women managing the house. That’s oikodespoteō. The verb form of “master of the household”. Women are admonished to be good and effective “despots” of the estate. They are exercising mastery and authority.

Female agency is divided in two. I don’t get the impression many people realize this. And it’s evident in the misguided attempts by ultraconservative Christians to assert that the woman’s place is in the home in the mistaken sense that her natural sphere of activity is strictly domestic life.

Hands of the Household

We live in a high-mobility industrial capitalist economy where large corporations have supplanted natural households as the agents of dominion in the world. It’s shackling the average husband and wife with a terrible dilemma when it comes to limited choices and ability for income and childcare. It can’t be answered by appeals to the natural dynamics of traditional households. Here, the traditional household is torn asunder. The economic and domestic aspects that once occurred under the same roof and on the same land are now displaced geographically and administratively. Every apparent possible outcome in this scenario still results in the agency of the husband and wife (i.e. their joint ability to exercise dominion in the world in a more ancient and biblical sense) being maimed and crippled in some way.

If most of us thought about ourselves as being analogous to and roughly positioned as the various classes of favored and not-so-favored servants under the dominion of a master of the house in the ancient world, I think we’d understand ourselves better.

I have sympathy for my fellow members of the working-servant class. We aren’t going to get out of this any easier than ancient servants could escape from their servitude.

The Household of God

In each new dust-up over authority, agency, and office in the church (women serving as pastors and teachers, etc.), it strikes me that the root cause of the controversy, confusion, and mutual frustration is analogous to the problems of the contemporary household.

The church is the household of God. And just as the natural household in our culture has been hollowed out, and the agency of men and women has been stifled and maimed, the ecclesial household in our culture has been thinned and drained of agency. We generally don’t realize it. And ultraconservative Christians have made all the same parallel errors in the church as they have in the home in attempted to recover what was lost.

The household of God gains the earthly means of its power by taking up and subsuming natural households for Kingdom purposes. If natural households are a thing of the past, the church as a household is equally so. The church has no real agency in the world. It’s not a public reality to be reckoned with by the culture. The church has been reshaped by market forces for the ends of corporations just as the family has been.

Because the church isn’t a household over households, it has little or no real headship to speak of. There’s almost nothing about the average church that is obviously a prominent male headship function. This is why liturgical sexuality and gendered agency are not readily apparent to a lot of Christians. This is the root cause that needs to be addressed. The restoration of churches as local households of God would essentially automatically correct and clarify matters.

Conservative Christians zealously defending male-only church leadership are promoting something in the church that’s very much like what they defend regarding the husband’s headship in the home. It’s not natural headship. It’s redefined to accommodate cultural estrangement from nature. Male leaders are expressing their agency too much inwardly in the church. They need to lead out. What conservative Christians are trying to reserve as male-only leadership is at least partially the function and the essence of a traditional matriarchy to fill what’s inside the church. Shepherding is outwardly oriented. But that function is stifled in our present situation. We’re tempted to turn inward like arbitrary tyrants, because it’s the easy thing to do, just like with the natural household stripped of agency. Male leadership will be most obvious where its most naturally evident, i.e. a high-stakes defense of the local church against outsiders. The most obvious case of male-only pastoring is to be the most abused and battered bondservant of the whole flock.

Corporations and Revisionist Marriage

The weakening of the traditional household and the outsourcing of much of its power has paved the way for a redefinition of marriage. Life in the natural household reinforces the natural view of marriage. With the establishment of corporations as usurper-households, marriages have adjusted to optimize themselves for the service of the new masters of the households. Read more about Revisionist Marriage here.

Corporations and Revisionist Pastorate

Just as our adjustments to optimal living as wage-slaves in corporatistic consumerism has redefined marriage, we’ve redefined the pastorate and the ministry to the point that it’s gender-neutral upon sight. If we don’t operate with the original vision of the pastor/ minister as the most burdensome, loathsome, dishonorable of callings in some respects as the true slave of the people, it won’t be obvious that this is only something we ought to inflict upon a certain sort of man. Read more about a Revisionist Pastorate here.

Afterthought in the Aftermath

There’s no going backward. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. But there’s a great deal of mystery and uncertainty about what it will mean to go forward in a way that restores our natural humanity and recovers our agency.

Undershepherds and Male Agency

Church elders display a Christ-signifying instrumentality. They do this as they exercise the agency of undershepherds over their congregations as they were and are exhorted by the Apostles Peter and Paul in 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20 respectively.

I exhort the elders who are in you—I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One and a partaker of the glory to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God in you—exercising oversight—not reluctantly but resolutely, not for shameful profit but ferociously, not as those lording over their portion of the inheritance but being exemplary specimens to the flock. And at the appearing of the Chief Shepherd, you will receive the imperishable victor’s laurels of glory.

– 1 Peter 5:1-4 (my translation)

The Apostle Peter is writing to the elders who are in the congregations. The Apostle asserts that he is a fellow elder with them, a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One (Christ or Messiah), and a partaker in the glory to be revealed at the Second Coming of our Lord to consummate his kingdom in its fullness.

As an apostle (a “sent one” or authorized ambassador) of Christ the King, Peter issues this kingdom directive or summons (exhortation) to the elders of the churches. The office of the apostle is another case of representing or signifying the person and office of Christ. In this function, it is the authoritative capacity of speaking for Christ to the nations. This office draws on the image of political ambassadors of state sent to embassies in foreign nations. This is essentially the same concept and office applied to the Kingdom of Christ.

This passage is thick with the language of sheepherding. For instance, there are several occurrences of terms in the Greek word family [poim–]. The precise noun for shepherd [poimēn] is not used in this passage, but it clearly implies elders are synonymous with pastors or shepherds, which is literally the same office. Pastor (herdsman) and pasture (grassy field) are related words from the Latin verb for grazing [pascere]. Elders are to feed and tend or shepherd [poimainō] the congregation or flock [poimnion] of God. The word for flock is a variation of the word for a flock of sheep [poimnē] and appears to have been coined to refer to a group of people with purposefully sheep-like connotations. At the close of the exhortation, Jesus is alluded to as the Chief Shepherd or Arch-Shepherd [archipoimēn] using a compound term with the root for a shepherd [poimēn]. Yet again, this implicates the elders in these churches as assistant shepherds or undershepherds.

Peter knows this role of shepherding well. After his resurrection from the dead, the Lord told his apostle, “If you love me, shepherd my sheep.” The Apostle John translated and recorded the words of our Lord using the same Greek verb [poimainō] used by Peter. The Lord’s Ambassador, as a church elder, extends the calling to shepherding out of a love for Christ on these men who are his fellow elders over the congregation of God.

The work of shepherding God’s people has deep roots in the time of the Old Covenant. It was an easily accessible metaphor for the Israelites as an agrarian nation settled in the Promised Land and as the descendants of the Patriarchs who were sojourning shepherds. After forty years as a prince in Pharaoh’s court and another forty years as a shepherd in Jethro’s camp, Moses was prepared to lead the congregation of liberated Hebrew slaves—so prone to wander! The young shepherd boy was anointed king over God’s people, and the nation of Israel confessed David to be the one of whom Yahweh had declared: “You will shepherd my people Israel and will be ruler over Israel.” And shepherding language was a standard metaphor in the writings of the prophets for the priests and the judges in Israel, often regarding their unfaithfulness to tend God’s people and their selfish devouring of the flock for their own gain. This shepherding legacy serves as the background to Peter’s exhortation to the elders. Conversely, elders as leaders of the people also has an extensive background under the Old Covenant reaching back just as far and wide. The key element in the analogy of the shepherd is rulership.

The passage from 1 Peter also uses the verb for watching like watchmen. This notion also has strong connotations with shepherding in ancient Israel due to its associations with the responsibilities of the priests and the judges as the rulers and guides of God’s people. Prophets are likewise called watchmen in Israel—perhaps the most famous being Ezekiel—on account of their responsibility to be attentive, discern impending trouble, and sound the alarm. According to the Apostle Peter, church elders are to exercise oversight or watch over [episkopeō] their congregations. This verb belongs to the same Greek word family as the noun for the office of the overseer or bishop [episkopos]. Elders are the watchmen of the church under their care. Such watching or oversight involves diligent and competent contemplation and thorough inspection to mark out the kinds or qualities of persons, things, or actions under observation.

In 1 Peter 5, elders (old men), pastors (shepherds), and bishops (overseers) all appear to occupy the same functional office within the churches, at least with respect to their rule over congregations and care of congregants. Earlier in 1 Peter 2:25, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Shepherd and Overseer. If there is any firm distinction or difference between the three named offices, it is not apparent in the biblical text.

The Apostle Paul exhorted the church elders at Ephesus to the labor of shepherding in a similar manner to the Apostle Peter. That exhortation is a second witness to establish the truth of this matter:

Take heed for yourselves and all the congregation [poimnion] of God in which the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers [episkopos] to shepherd [poimainō] the assembly [ekklesia, i.e. church] of God which he obtained (1) through his own blood (2).

(1) or preserved
(2) or through the blood of his Own, i.e. Christ

– Acts 20:28 (my translation)

Without belaboring the point, the Apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian church elders to labor as shepherds and watchmen over the congregation, mirroring the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to the church elders elsewhere in Asia Minor. These two Ambassadors of Christ demonstrate consistent policy directives for all churches as embassies of the Kingdom of Heaven.

All of this imagery should evoke the thought of John 10 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which preceded the exhortations of the Apostles and which culminated the shepherding legacy of the people of God under the Old Covenant. Elders are being distinguished as undershepherds over the flock of God. When the sheep (congregants) in the flock look at the elders, they see undershepherds rather than oversheep. Elders typify or represent the Chief Shepherd. They serve the Chief Shepherd, and they are authorized and appointed to do their shepherding under the authority of the Arch-Shepherd. Elders are distinguished from the flock and associated with the Shepherd by their function (office) in the eyes of the flock. This establishes elders as functioning representations of Christ as they labor with him shepherding and overseeing congregations. Even if elders are sheep in their own right in Christ’s eyes and likewise in need of Christ’s shepherding, our Lord has set up these men in such a way so the flock does not look on their office as that of a fellow sheep but as an undershepherd who authoritatively models the Chief Shepherd.

The domain or union language employed by the Apostle Peter is also provocative. Elders are verbally distinguished and said to be “in” their flocks, and the flocks are said to be “in” their elders. That echoes the language of all the believing ones being in Christ and Christ being in all those who believe. It’s also like Jesus saying his disciples are in him, and he is in them, as he is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and so forth. To speak of elders and their flocks in this way puts them in a juxtaposed relationship, which once again distinguishes them in their office from the congregation and lends itself to Christ-like functional representation.

There are a number of descriptions used by Peter to illustrate the agency of elders in their shepherding. The elders must not shepherd reluctantly [anagkastōs]. The word indicates constraint or compulsion by external agents pressing hard upon the will of the elders. It connotes characteristic hesitation or passive submission. It is not the elders who should seemingly be ruled by congregants who lead them around like sheep nor be goaded into compliance. By contrast, elders should conduct their shepherding resolutely [hekousiōs]. The word indicates firm assertiveness and strength of will, even presumptuousness or defiance.

The elders must not shepherd for shameful profit [aischrokerdōs]. The word indicates any sort of dishonorable or disreputable advantage or gain from the position. Occupying the office of an elder should not elevate or empower a man into a lifestyle of comfortable ease and lavish privilege. By contrast, elders must shepherd the flock ferociously [prothymōs]. The word indicates an eager readiness arising from a focused indignation or harnessed fury. There is a masterfully honed spiritedness or fieriness in the elder serving as a well-regulated furnace at the heart of his work to withstand and carry him through the rigors of the calling.

Elders must not shepherd by lording over [katakyrieuō] their portion of the inheritance [klēros], which appears to refer to the local congregations they oversee. Elders are not to exercise the sort of lordship used by earthly lords who oppress their subjects for the sake of their own privilege or advancement. Instead, elders are to shepherd as exemplary specimens [typos]. The undershepherds stand out as types, examples, patterns, models, or representations. They are to exemplify and represent the dutiful and humble servant-lordship of Christ rather than the lordship of earthly rulers. Elders exhort the flock in word and deed like the Apostle Paul did: “Become imitators of me according to the way I imitate Christ.” Elders are to exercise true lordship over the flock in suffering and self-effacing servitude in their rule which fosters security and loyalty in the congregants who submits to them.

At the glorious appearing, Christ will come again on the Last Day to judge the world in righteousness. At that time, an elder who has shepherded his flock faithfully will receive his champion’s crown or his victor’s laurels [stephanos] of glory. A crown of glory which will be imperishable or indefectible. Peter uses the imagery of a champion runner who outperforms his competition, wins the contest, and receives the garland (wreath crown). But the glorious crown of the faithful elder is made of branches and flowers which do not wither but proclaim his faithful efforts forever. Peter also draws on the imagery of the glorious laurels crowning the victorious commanders of armies as they parade through the city streets, returning triumphant from battle. Elders will receive glorious everlasting recognition from Christ for labors well done.

The elders of the church must contend in their work in the service of Christ, because it is contentious work to shepherd the flock of God, to keep the wolves of the world at bay, and to oppose the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. As undershepherds, they cannot act as mere hired hands with questionable commitment to the integrity of the flock, who withdraw and distance themselves at the first sign of trouble. Elders must lay down their lives for the life of the church. Such is the way of good shepherds as representations of the Good Shepherd.

In my translation and examination of 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28, I employed appropriate word choices to accentuate the prominently and distinctly male character of the agency of church elders who shepherd a whole community. This isn’t mere generically male agency but the highly conspicuous agency of virtuous alpha-males who have the most competence-dominance in the whole community.

No single English word exists to encapsulate this idea of competence-dominance (as I’ve borrowed the term from Jordan Peterson). It’s conceived as the skill to ascend the social hierarchy to the place of greatest influential prominence and to maintain that position through well-functioning relationships with those in the group. It’s the path to being the man which all women desire and all men desire to be and to befriend. He who plays fair and enables others to play. He who takes up the cause of the widow and the fatherless. He who seeks true justice for all. He who embraces responsibility for himself and those with whom he stands by bearing up and carrying his cross and the cross of his whole world. In truth, he is the man who, however imperfectly, most approximates Christlikeness.

Our present circumstances under the cultural sway have brought a radically egalitarian influence to bear upon all sectors of society including the church. Much of the efficacy to this comes not so much from any conscious effort on the part of ideologically possessed individuals or interest groups—though there is that—but from systemically deforming tendencies inherent in our culture for a variety of reasons. These have a propensity to neutralize or obscure the significance of constitutive differences between males and females as demographic groups.

It would be grievous negligence, a failure to faithfully shepherd and oversee the flock, if elders were to refrain from declaring the whole counsel of God. Special attention should be given to this point. The watchmen ought to possess the competence to see the threat unambiguously and the courage to blow the trumpet resoundingly.

The combative connotations of rulership language emphasize the spiritually militaristic character of the office. The heavenly culture of the church collides at her peripheries (the frontlines) with diverse hostile cultures that rise and fall in the present world. The elders must lead the charge on these spiritual battlefronts, and elders must hold the walls and defend the gates from worldly and demonic onslaughts.

It is the tribal imagery of the warrior men encircling the camp with their spears aimed outward at the prowling menace. Women holding the center with children huddled and reassured. The work of shepherding the community by guarding its borders requires a form of militaristic agency for which men are designed and are morally responsible to exert. Our Maker has made it so.

“A woman shall not take up a man’s gear.” In Deuteronomy 22:5, the Hebrew word refers to the tools, implements, or combat gear of a man. The text is not so much a prohibition on cross-dressing as a denunciation of cross-functioning in naturally (creationistically) sex-segregated duties. We do not thrust women into combat in this manner, because it would be an “abomination” to our Lord to do so.

This isn’t to say pious women have no place in warfare, especially the spiritual-liturgical warfare of the church. It is to say women function in a different mode of warfare and have different weapons of war. A substantial argument can be made for a biblical motif where pious women are equipped by God with righteous deception as a powerful tool in the war against tyranny and oppression and receive honor and glory for it.

If the imagery of a tribal encampment facing a predator seems too crude, primitive, or distant from contemporary life, the cold reality of the present teaches the same lesson. The safety, security, comfort, and convenience of modern society was established and is maintained through the harrowing exertions of an overwhelmingly male workforce. In our world, the overwhelming majority of active military combatants, field personnel in law enforcement, firefighters and first-responders, coal miners, oilfield and pipeline workers, electric linesmen, construction and demolition workers, fisherman, farmers, and so on are men. One could dare say it would be an even more exclusively male labor force if not for the technological developments of this civilization that was sheltered by the prior exertions of men. Technologies that grant artificially flattened terrain and increased ability to women in these fields.

These men preserve the metaphorical fortifications that surround and protect us from every threat lurking beyond. They sustain our world by the sweat of their brows, the gashes on their hands, the fractures of their bones, the blood pouring from their open wounds, and the tempered steel of their nerves. And then they return to the dust from whence they came in a tragically swift fashion.

The work of shepherding the whole church community is no different. It demands the harsh labors of men to maintain the walls. This is not a matter of muscular physicality, even if that may come to bear on certain occasions. There is an accompanying psychology that is most characteristically prominent in the alpha-male which enables this work. The physicality and the psychology are not flatly and evenly present in all men. And they are not uniformly absent in all women. This is a partially overlapping bimodal distribution, and the extreme male end of the spectrum is in view.

Note carefully how none of these observations reveal men striving to get ahead of women and be the first to lay claim to these brutal forms of servitude. None of these observations argue for men having to strive to attain this role. These observations reveal men to simply possess this sort of agency. To take up the outwardmost positions in the male frontlines of defense is not something that men have to outperform women to achieve. It is simply the way in which men are designed and what they do.

And none of this is a denial of the place and need for women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. In his pastoral Epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul calls older women (female elders) who possess a pious reputation to lead younger women into similar piety. There is much feeding, tending, and guiding involved in this calling. And it is a duty that men—elders or otherwise—are far less equipped to do for a variety of reasons.

To probe the metaphor of a shepherdess-elder by looking to literal shepherdesses, the Old Testament contains several insightful narratives about women tending to sheep and other livestock. Two highly illustrative cases are Rachel in Genesis 29:1-12 and the daughters of Jethro in Exodus 2:16-20. In both cases, these women led the sheep of their father’s flock to wells and gave them water. To even cite these women and their shepherding is to cite their dependence on men to enable them. In Rachel’s case, she waited each day for a man to remove the heavy cover stone from the mouth of the well. And one fateful day, it was Jacob who removed the cover stone for her. In the case of Jethro’s daughters, they were harassed and driven away from the well by cruel shepherds. But it was Moses who “arose and saved them” and who “delivered [them] out of the hand” of the shepherds. It signified the very same thing in the very same language which Yahweh would accomplish through Moses in delivering his people Israel from Egypt. These women labored faithfully in their particular capacities as those who tended flocks. But their labors depended on men first digging wells, men routinely rolling away heavy cover stones, and men rising up to save and deliver the women from other tyrannical men.

Once more, the point is not to deny the place and the need for godly women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. Nor is it an assertion of comprehensive inferiority in the agency of women. It is a refutation of the place, the propriety, and the plausibility of women as elders over the whole community. They cannot encompass the community as a whole society in a function that is readily interchangeable with men and fundamentally indifferent to gendered agency. Women cannot effectively accomplish the totality of the work of shepherding every segment of the community, because women lack the capacity to shepherd the one critical segment of a comprehensive community that possesses the capacity to shepherd its own: men atop the competence-dominance hierarchy.

The only sort of person that every sort of person in the community of a local church will follow is competent-dominant men. If any other sort of individual is appointed to the most prominent eldership, the compositional breadth of a congregation will assuredly shrink from the slow attrition of such men. They become disinterested and disillusioned. And it’s readily apparent this has, in fact, already occurred in the contemporary Western Church. We can scarcely recognize a virtuous alpha-male as possessing characteristically masculine godliness rather than faulting him for nonconformity to a standard of gender-neutralized or distinctly feminine piety. The lack of strong male leadership is a frequent and growing problem not only in the Western home but in the Western church.

The simple fact that the elders of whole congregations (functioning at the highest levels of prominence in the community) are, must, and will be males is no more coincidental than the simple fact that the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate as a man. He is the unique Son of God. He is the Head and Savior of the Body. He is the Husband who seeks, saves, and weds the Bride. Jesus Christ is a man. And he is not a man inconsequentially, neither are his representative undershepherds.

Perhaps what this essay has really demonstrated is that the office and function of elder as it is commonly conceived in many local churches and the contemporary Western Church at large is something quite different than what has been envisioned and explained here. And if so, take heed! That is a significant lesson to learn.

Traditional Pastorate vs Revisionist Pastorate

My view of the pastorate is a parallel to Traditional Marriage vs Revisionist Marriage. The church is the household of God. And like any household, the church has a marriage in its structure. The Whole Christ consists of our Lord Jesus as the Husband and Head and the Church as his Bride and Body. In a local church, the shepherd and his flock represent this relationship and live out relational dynamics akin to a husband and a wife (among other things). A shift from traditional marriage to revisionist marriage goes hand in hand with a shift from traditional pastorate to revisionist pastorate.

The traditional pastor rules and disciplines.

The revisionist pastor coaches and contains.

The traditional pastor is someone people fear. He’s a reverend.

The revisionist pastor is someone people idolize. He’s a celebrity.

The traditional pastor faces outward in confrontation with the wilderness. He guards the frontline between the church and world. He builds the walls and sets a watch to maintain a haven for his congregation to flourish.

The revisionist pastor turns inward on the congregation. He’s not a fan of confrontation. He’s the president of a country club that’s not especially intimidating to the surrounding community. He’ll manage a lot of programs.

The traditional pastor is a passionate yet self-disciplined warrior-poet.

The revisionist pastor is a professional therapist, motivational speaker, and marketing consultant. And the skills of a schmoozer will carry him a long way.

The traditional pastor builds and maintains the house.

The revisionist pastor moves in later and redecorates.

The traditional pastor takes the risks and puts himself in harm’s way first.

The revisionist pastor just works to make the clubhouse a docile safe space.

The traditional pastor takes responsibility on behalf of his congregants. He’s like Jesus bearing the guilt and affliction of his people.

The revisionist pastor distances himself and does image management. He’s like Adam letting Eve go first and scapegoating her later.

The traditional pastor is a father.

The revisionist pastor is a nanny.

The traditional pastor is a man. It’s blatantly obvious why. And not just a man but a man among men. The kind of man women want and men want to be.

The revisionist pastor could just as well be a woman. In fact, women can probably do the job better. Everything distinctively male about the calling has been castrated off. And the good and lawful substance of the revisionist form plays to the strengths of female agency.

P.S. Please, do not misinterpret any of the deformations or shortcomings in the couplets as parallel or analogous to female agency in the last couplet. I did not say that and do not mean that. These are two separate and overlapping issues. If you have an understandable instinct to look for that error, please note that I am not doing that.

Traditional Marriage vs Revisionist Marriage

The traditional view of marriage is natural marriage, i.e. creationistic marriage. Natural marriage is an institution. It’s a public asset. Church and State both have vested interests in it and put their hands to it. It’s a firm linkage of covenant, sexual activity, procreation, domesticity, and economics. It’s intrinsically potent and fruitful by its design. It begets children as icons of the mutual sacrificial love and affection of the husband and the wife. It’s externally oriented for dominion and hospitality in the world. It’s deeply embedded in broader social networks which it supports and supplies and which support and supply it. It’s marked by fulfillment of social obligations to the past and the future.

The revisionist view of marriage is hyper-romanticized. It’s internally oriented, focused on serving as the exclusive source of emotional support and intimacy to the couple. It’s a private affair. It’s contractual. It’s volunteeristic. It’s consumeristic. It’s sterile by default. It produces children as a voluntary and autonomous act of manufacturing. Children are a self-expression to develop and curate the couple’s personal brand identity. It’s focused on making oneself feel fulfilled. It’s self-contained and therefore detachable and mobile in the broader society. It’s optimized to meet the needs of corporations, i.e. expanding their dominion in the world. It’s optimal form is same-sex marriage.

And most married couples (even most self-styled conservative Christian couples) live out the revisionist sort of marriage more than they would care to admit.