Thoughts on being a “teaching elder”

Something that has struck me over the last couple of weeks as our Bible study groups get into their stride is the diversity in the approaches of the participants. I was well aware that there was a wide range of belief and approach in the contemporary Church and as people get comfortable expressing their views a good part of this range is being demonstrated.

As someone who has just completed a degree in theology I know, too, that there is an an even greater variety to be found among theologians, alive and dead. There has been and continues to be substantial disagreement within the Church on a large number of issues.

So how am I to respond when people say things that differ from my own positions? This will depend a bit on how I see the views expressed in the context of orthodoxy as against heresy. There are a number of things that are clearly constitutive of what it is to be a member and especially a minister of the URC. Trinitarian Christianity is part of what I affirmed when I was ordained and I would feel the need to point this out.

Would this mean I should suggest to people they should conform or be excommunicated? I don’t think so. I would be under an obligation, I think, to point out the tension but it remains a matter of conscience whether they can reconcile their beliefs with the nature of our denomination.

There more interesting case is where people express views that are, I think, compatible with orthodoxy as so defined but, in my view, wrong. Most contemporary Christians are, my experience suggests, more Arminian than Calvinist in their view of human participation in salvation. Few would accept that our redemption was a matter purely of grace and nothing to do with any merit of ours.

I believe this to be wrong and very grievously so, but I also know that this is a minority view and has never been uncontested. It is possible, it must be possible, to be both wrong and orthodox. The orthodox do not agree with one another.

As the person in the churches with the theological expertise how should I handle positions that I disagree but also know to be mainstream and acceptable?

It seems to me that the only honest and helpful thing to do is to say what my own beliefs are while making clear that it is quite possible and acceptable to disagree with them, where appropriate saying that my own view is a minority view.

A good example of this is the question of universalism. I have come to align myself more or less with Karl Barth on this. I think it is going to far to assert that all will definitely be saved but not to say that this is not ruled out and may therefore be hoped for. I hope and pray that in the fullness of God’s time all will be made good, all restored, all redeemed.

At the same time I’m well aware that this has historically been very much a minority position in the tradition, although it has become more important in the last 50 years or so. In discussing matters of salvation with my congregations it would be wrong either to suppress my own view or to try to pretend that it was anything other than the minority view it has been.

My belief is that in encouraging confidence in and comfort with disagreement, held in love, I will assist those among whom my ministry is lived to express and develop their own faith. This may be different in many matters from my own but this shouldn’t prevent us walking our disciple ways together.

Furthermore people who develop their own understanding and become comfortable with expressing it should be more able to share the good news as they experience it and to find the best way to live it out in service.

As teaching elder my responsibility is not to impose my own interpretation of our traditions or of the Bible but to provide a point of access to all of its riches so that others can make us of them as they seek the will of Christ for them.

  1. James Church said:

    I don’t think Calvinism is the minority view, certainly not in the Reformed Church at least. I was never taught Calvinism but grew up with believing that God had pursued and saved me through pure grace because it was my experience and exactly what the Bible taught. Consequently I constantly rejoice that I am His and He is mine. I don’t know many Christians who would argue that they are saved by their own works (even the Catholics I know don’t believe that). Everyone seems to accept that grace saves us but works evidence the grace of God in our lives. Of course, I would readily question a person’s salvation if they felt it was based upon their own works or intelligence. I think its my pastoral duty to do this because I don’t want people to build on a shaky foundation. The same of course is true of universalism, whilst God is the judge I cannot lead people to put their trust in a vague possibility of a universal salvation when God in His Word extends to us a sure and certain hope given by grace, through the gift of faith, in Jesus Christ. I think your duty as a teaching elder is to guard the truth once and for all delivered to the saints and to preach the true gospel of Christ Jesus. Not everyone will accept this but His sheep know His voice. Bless you. James

    • If grace saves why does it matter what people believe?

  2. Anne Shearer said:

    Grace isn’t abstract. It’s God’s love drawing us back into a proper relationship with Him which involves conforming us into His image through the most effective way of showing us what He is like, His Word. The preacher’s job is to present the Bible as the Truth in such a way that people feel more encouraged to read it and apply it for themselves. It is not his job to correct every point of doctrine but to help people see what the Bible says, and submit their judgement to God’s word. He, Jesus, is concerned about the doctrinal views which affect our character, like knowing we cannot impress God with our righteousness, but not with eschatological problems over which we have no control

    • I think that about captures it, Anne. To me the main job is to help people grow in confidence in approaching the Bible (and also the tradition) in order to grow in faith. To present pre-digested doctrine as something simply to be accepted and repeated can’t do this.

      • James Church said:

        I hope that is not what you think I am doing. I believe my main point earlier is that trusting in your own works or intelligence as your righteousness is to live with a delusional pride that obscures the wonder of the God’s grace, muting people’s praise, and robbing them of a sure and certain foundation in the righteousness of Christ Jesus our Lord. As to your earlier question, ‘If grace saves why does it matter what people believe?’ I think Ephesians 2:8-9 explains that quite clearly: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ Grace saves, grace comes to us through faith and that faith is itself a grace gift of God. I suppose another way to look at it is to say grace uses the means of faith to bring about our salvation.

      • No criticism of you was intended, James. I do find it a genuine puzzle. I’m sure that grace alone saves and that those with a more sketchy grasp of doctrine are in no worse position thereby, but at the same time I feel compelled to search for the truth of God’s will and even of God’s nature, through the guiding of the Spirit and as a gracious gift.

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