“The disciple of the Spirit is bidden to announce what he has learned to the elders of the Church of Christ, that is, to those who, owing to their capacity to receive spiritual doctrine, possess a ripe endowment of wisdom.” -Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles IV.11
What is it that ails us? And how may we amend? There are as many answers to these questions, it seems, as there are United Methodists. Each partisan theology, each new trend from the pop sociologists, each “national conversation,” each personal biography furnishes another. For myself, I favor those which eschew managerial technique for spiritual discipline (as from their different regions of the Church in their different ways Trey Hall and Timothy Tennent both recommend). How can it be, after all, that the Church, which is the body of the Son of God, formed by his Spirit, can be healed apart from a spiritual healing? We are not what we are because we were born flesh and blood. We are what we are because we were born from above, through the One who came down from heaven, and the heavenly Holy Spirit, and the Holy One who is in heaven.
“The health of an annual conference corresponds to the health of its order of elders.” These are words I heard often spoken by Bishop Scott Jones, now of the Texas Conference, when he served my own Great Plains conference. He meant them in reference to the order of elders whose shape and character is outlined in our Book of Discipline, the order from whom so many of our pastors are drawn and which holds the place of leadership and primacy among our clergy, the visible order of elders. In this essay I would like to apply them to the invisible order of elders, the one which is marked off not by stoles and ordinations but by the witness of the Spirit and the holiness of heart and life. This is the true order of elders, as the Church Father Origen points out in the epigraph above, and I propose that our current situation of discord within our denomination proves Bishop Jones’ words even truer with respect to them.
But what is this business of a visible order of elders and an invisible one? Well, let’s go over some history.
As the Church grew in the early centuries it recognized the need for a stable institution of leadership which could be passed down in an orderly fashion and command respect regardless of the person who occupied it. In the second century, authors such as Irenaeus of Lyons appealed to this institutionalized leadership of bishops and elders as an important check on the esoteric spiritual elitism of Gnostic groups like the Valentinians. The existence of a solid, recognized order of elders preserved the unity and catholicity of the church, whereas a reliance on charismatic spiritual leaders had the potential to fragment the body of Christ in a thousand directions.
However, even as the Church acknowledged and committed to the importance of this visible, institutional clergy, it was recognized by many that the true authority and true leadership in their communities rested with the spiritually mature, whether ordained or not. While the visible orders of bishops and elders came to be necessary for the good functioning of the Church in this world, authors like Origen reminded the early Christians that this world was not their home: the true nature of the Church is spiritual and heavenly, not earthly and institutional. As such, it was those who lived spiritually already in this life, suffused with the divine love of the Holy Spirit and truly walking in the way of Christ, who were the true elders and the true bishops. Sometimes these true elders also served in the positions of institutional authority, but sometimes, although true priests in the spirit, they were laypeople in the visible flesh.
This wisdom of the early Church, acknowledging the need for visible, institutional elders and bishops while pressing the truth that the real elders and bishops of the church are the spiritually mature, was recognized by John Wesley, a student of the early Church and, in time, a spiritually mature man himself. This was one of the reasons why he put lay Christians, men and women, in charge of classes and bands and even gave them the authority to preach. It is why he felt the Methodist movement was necessary for the Church of England in his day, where there were visible elders and bishops aplenty but all too few of the invisible, true, and spiritual ones.
And indeed the Church in certain times and places has gone through dry spells where the true elders and the true bishops are absent, even as she never goes without the visible, institutional ones. These are the times which Amos calls famines of the Word of God, for it is in the lives of the true elders, the spiritually mature, that the Word of Christ dwells richly. It is through their lives, their witness, and their prayers, that we are fed with the spiritual Bread who has come down from heaven, Christ himself, just as it was by the disciples’ hands that the 5000 tasted of the five miraculous loaves. Without their spiritual pastorate the flock of Christ is led astray and wanders into all the thorns and thickets of worldly delusion, just as when they are present to shepherd us even the corruption or fecklessness of the visible clergy cannot quench the life of the faithful. They are the leaven without which we cannot rise; it is they who have received the mind of Christ and where the mind is gone the body possesses no direction.
Can our present straits then be anything other than a sign that in United Methodism this true order of elders is not strong? As the fleshly and visible health of an annual conference or a denomination corresponds to the health of its fleshly and visible order of elders, so its spiritual and true health is tied to the health of the spiritual and true order. Without this true health of the spirit, even a healthy body would amount to nothing, a lump of institutional flesh, an agglomeration of buildings and books and bonds with no life to animate and move.
And how would our efforts change if we acknowledged this? We would acknowledge once and for all that an end to what ails us does not lie in reorganization of our visible institutions. We would acknowledge that it does not lie in doctrinal formulae and legal enforcements. Indeed, we would humbly confess what we ought to have known, that the Kingdom of God is within us. We would pray not so much for bishops and pastors who hold to our preferred school of theology, but rather in whom the Spirit of God is pleased to dwell. Indeed a step further, if we became converted on this score it would demand that we stop putting all our faith in visible leaders and visible efforts, period. It would demand that we start praying rather to God for spiritual elders, saints all among us, whom the Spirit of Holiness has molded into vessels of honor.
And those of us who are ordained and called pastors and bishops (or any for that matter who are named, we might say, to commissions) might learn to distrust the vain glimmer of our authority, having learned that it is poor and impotent because it is visible and fleshly. In its place we might seek that true authority, whether for ourselves or acknowledged in others, which is spiritual and therefore mighty. Let us see our Peters running to the house of Cornelius, that righteous man whose alms were remembered by God, whose prayer went up like sacrifice, who was visited by angels! And let us see our Peters giving their own hours to prayer and the dreaming of dreams which the Spirit promises. Let us seek the Lord while he may be found, the kingdom which is the Spirit (and the Spirit’s to give) and its righteousness, which is Christ himself, and with him God will also give us all things.
Charles “Austin” Rivera is a provisional elder in the Great Plains conference and PhD student at Yale University studying Patristics.
Image: The Angel Appearing to Cornelius the Centurion, by Jacob Backer (1608-1651)