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Elder Hostile

All good teaching elders have bad consciences and genuine humility because first-class seminaries instruct them in how much there is to know about divine science (including human and natural science) and how little they ever will.  In addition, Presbyterian seminaries do not encourage the notion that any amount of pious zeal can make up for abysmal ignorance. 

Being a Reformed pastor is like trying to play all eleven positions on a professional football team.  No one of us is good enough to line up at any one of them — much less all at once.  Nevertheless, most Presbyterian ministers succeed in demonstrating clearly that God has chosen the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong ( I Cor. 1:27).  By and at large, the problem with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not the ministers — at least not ministers serving congregations.  The problems stem from the two groups who once made us strong, and could do so again:  mothers and elders.

            I am not competent to analyze the changing role of women and motherhood in our society.  I do, however, admire the quick-thinking little old lady who found herself threatened on a dark street by an approaching thug.  Rather than showing fear, she walked up to him, smiled sweetly, and said, “I think I know your mother.”  Nearly all of us love our mothers because we recognize how crucial they have been in our life.  One scholar insisted that loving your mother was the first step toward loving God.  According to D. H. Lawrence, “In the close intimacy of the [family] the woman occupied the supreme position.  The men deferred to her in the house, on all household points, on all points of morality and behavior.  The woman was the symbol for that further life which comprised religion and love and morality” (The Rainbow, Chapter One).

            The Presbyterian Church owes a lot to mothers like Mary Diven Mateer (buried in Wooster, Ohio).  Her incredibly energetic son Calvin, with his lovely wife Julia (and the Hunter Corbetts) were our first Presbyterian missionaries in China.  Corbett was General Assembly moderator in 1907.  A great church grows on great nurture and from the great nature of her great mothers.  Mary Mateer lived to see one of her most cherished dreams fulfilled — four of her children serving her Lord in China.  (See James R. E. Craighead, Life of Hunter Corbett:  Fifty-six Years a Missionary in China and Daniel W. Fisher, Calvin Wilson Mateer:  Forty-five Years a Missionary in Shantung, China.)

            Doubtless, Presbyterian ruling elders individually are often wonderful people.  Some of them are also mothers, which makes them doubly wonderful.  However, as a group they are a sorry lot.  This elder hostile conclusion rests entirely on a single piece of evidence.  I refer to their third ordination vow:  “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” (G-14.026).  Since every minister, elder, and deacon takes this ordination vow individually, each is personally responsible for its truth.  The mystery is, “How can anyone be instructed by documents that are unknown to them?”  I suspect a great deal more teaching would take place if pastors’ salaries were calibrated to their sessions’ understanding of our distinctive confessional heritage. 

Presbyterian polity would work brilliantly if it were not for the necessary involvement of ordinary human beings who get distracted by many things.  Seminaries would hire outstanding professors who could teach the general creeds of Christendom and Presbyterian seminaries would offer a special course in the particular “confessions of our church.”  Ministers in their turn would teach interested parishioners the essential doctrines of the faith and from the best and brightest of these local theologians would be drawn the officer corps to lead onward the Christian soldiers.

            One would think that elders in-session-gathered have one task only — to understand and follow the will of God.  According to their third ordination vow, this task is accomplished with a considerable knowledge of the Bible, beginning with the book of Genesis, and a considerable knowledge of the Reformed theological tradition starting with the Book of Confessions and maintained and expanded by disciplined study and regular instruction.  It’s a great theory.

            Being neither psychologist nor sociologist nor novelist (the latter to my real regret), I cannot claim to understand mothers but I admire them immensely.  I believe that the mothers of the church are the most important single group among us.  The Mother Load is heavy.  Women are ordained by biological nature to the possibility of the maternal office.  The second most important group among us are elders ordained to fulfill a theological role.  Unlike motherhood, theological capacity is not provided to elders by their physical nature nor by their popular election but only by careful nurture. 

            Not every Christian community requires scholarly leadership.  For example, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church respects its peasant priesthood who possess no academic credentials.  The Presbyterian Church, on the other hand, has always appealed to the mind as well as the heart.  Since the word Presbyterian means rule by presbyters (or elders), one would assume our future depends on the quality of our ruling and teaching elders in their genial individuality and in solemn assembly.

To enhance our future, I propose that a simple examination on the Bible and The Book of Confessions be administered before every session and presbytery meeting.  Only those who pass the test receive voice and vote for the meeting.  All others will be offered remedial instruction.  After all, Presbyterians insist that both Scripture and theology matters.  I would rather not have a surgeon cutting on me who could not tell the difference between the arm and the leg.  I would rather not have an elder voting on Christology who could not tell the difference between the Scots and Westminster Confessions.