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Review: The Elders by R. Alastair Campbell

Though ecclesiology has been, widely, neglected in historical theological discussions, there is a growing field of research looking back to the earliest Christian communities for insights. Historical ecclesiology remains a growing field that is poised to, hopefully, receive important attention in the coming generation of scholars. If this occurs one work which will surely be included as effective for moving this field forward is R. Alastair Campbell’s The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity.

Arising out of his doctoral thesis, at King’s College in London, this text seeks to evaluate the current state of ecclesiological thought on the role of elders within the earliest churches. Campbell approaches this task by considering the how contemporary scholarship reached its majority opinion on the role of elders, then looks back at the actual Sitz em Leben of elders in the New Testament environment, and then walks forward to the second century to see how the office developed. How the early churches understood elders in their structured ministry offices, or not, will be in focus for the entire text.

Campbell sets out to accomplish this work by way of eight chapters of research. One of the first priorities in the text is describing and making an initial evaluation of Rudolph Sohm’s landmark proposal at the end of the 19th century about eldership and church order. This approach has been adopted by many subsequent ecclesiologists, perhaps most notably by Hans von Campenhausen in his work Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual in the Church of the First Three Centuries (1997.) Campbell spends the first chapter covering this information and also providing some essential references for this study.

The  second chapter steps into the ancient Israelite and early Judaistic context for eldership. Following this, in the third chapter, Campbell handles the Greco-Roman context for elders. In both of these chapters the methodology lends itself to a deeper investigation of the language and concepts employed by these ancient societies. As a result, the reader is given a multi-disciplinary investigation of elders in the formative environments for early Christianity.

Chapters four through six (and an appendix to the sixth chapter) move into the literature of the New Testament for the references to elders. Chapter four spends its time looking at the critically affirmed Pauline documents for their references to elders and the fifth chapter considers the Luke-Acts usage of such references. For chapter six, and its appendix, the Pastoral Epistles, not Pauline in their attribution, is evaluated along with the rest of the New Testament.

Chapter seven moves into a post-apostolic view of eldership by helpfully considering texts from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and a few others pertinent texts. Finally, in chapter eight, Campbell provides a summarization chapter with sections on present day applications. The author’s ending content, works cited, indexes of modern authors, texts, and topical, round out the ending material.

At the heart of Campbell’s proposal is his proposal that the role of elders should be understanding differently the majority of early Christian historians generally believe. While the majority, not consensus, view is that elders indicates an office, or at least a formal role, within the earliest churches, Campbell suggest this is incorrect. The term is a difficult one to pin down and, likely, has multiple meanings in these different contexts. As Campbell summarizes:

The main contention of this thesis is that in the ancient world the elders are those who bear a title of honor, not of office, a title that is imprecise, collective and representative, and rooted in the ancient family or household. To put it another way, we do not know who is referred to by the term ‘the elders’ unless we know the context and even then we do not know whom the term includes or excludes. (246)

Campbell’s text is an example of excellent and meticulous research that, thankfully, incorporates helpful footnotes replete with many works from antiquity and more contemporary scholarship from the 19th and 20th centuries. His handling of the sociological setting from which Christian and Jewish-Christian churches arose is particularly notable. It is not an easy thing to confront a growing body of scholarship and offer a course corrective. Campbell does his task well and presents a text worth reading for those interested in the role of elders historically and in the present churches. With the growth the neo-Reformed movements that enjoy elders over other, more traditional, offices, this is an important read to help offer corrective instruction. His engagement with a wide range of literature is admirable as is the discussions of the underlying factors of contemporary scholarship.

All that said there are a number of points at which I disagree with Campbell. Briefly, there is an admitted pluriformity of church model in the New Testament and for the first four centuries of the growth of the Church. Campbell acknowledges this movement but finds problem with the extent of that pluriformity. Being slightly neo-Sohmian myself, I would suggest the influence of the Jewish synagogues and Temple clerical systems are more influential than Campbell necessarily grants. This is a point worth discussing and hopefully additional resources will promulgate such discussions. Also, the development of the offices of the earliest Christian communities is developmental and elders, or presbyters, do in fact appear to have official capacities in local communities by the end of the first century.

Campbell has provided a valuable text for those interested parties in academia and the church world. While the writing is not overly technical, some of the discussions require knowledge of biblical and ancient languages to be fully appreciated. Though some minor typographical errors exist, the prose of the text is engaging though not overly flowing. This is a fine historical text.

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Objecting to the Obvious Reality

As I was taking a momentary break from another late, late night studying theological French for my competency exam, I hoped on Twitter. While scrolling through my timeline I saw a tweet from the venerable Michael Frost that quoted the title of a recent Fast Company piece: “In 20 Years, We’re All Going to Realize This Apple Ad is Nuts” written by Mark Wilson.

Wilson’s article is pointing out a recent commercial from the techno-cultural guru’s in Cupertino, California. Here it is:

The ad is startling and should provoke a broader conversation. However, the ad is also honest in capturing the encounter and experience so many of us are having with our mobile and computing devices. (As a disclaimer: I use the full array of Apple products for my work from iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air…I like them.)

The opening lines, as Wilson points out in his piece, are compelling: “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product.”

The images in the ad, shown during Apple’s WWDC a couple of weeks ago, then show people, students, children, and adults engaging with their devices while disengaging from those around them. The experience of the device is the ultimate engagement for them.

Now, there are certainly people that will speak more profoundly about the socio-cultural implications of the ad. My point here is this: Apple is, in an almost mind-numbing display of honesty, stating the growing reality. We are moving from engaging with each other to engaging with devices.

More and more people are preferring electronic community over physical community. They are enjoying their shows or programs digitally and neglecting the communal aspect. How easy is it to load in a movie as you hope on your next plane ride and disappear from reality for the next two hours. As we grow more technologically rich we are becoming increasingly marginalized.

This trend has been growing for some time and it is most evident in tools like Facebook, Twitter, and other “social” media services. Individuals seem more open to discuss and engage in a virtual medium rather than in person.

For our churches the growth of mediums of marginalization, be they ecampuses or even certain forms of multi-sites, where a pastor is unknown to the people he ministers the Gospel to should give us pause. While internet campuses might provide an effective platform to keep families and individuals away for a week connected, we should be challenging those who rely on them week in and week out that there is no replacement for authentic community and Christian hospitality. Both of which are marks of New Testament ministry.

It is ecclesiologically challenging to think that electronic mediums could replace physical proximity.

Yet the challenge of encouraging and embracing physical community continues to grow. Groups numbers are dwindling across the board as is the frequency of attendance from week to week. No longer is a “connected” family or person seen as one who shows up nearly 4 times a month. Yet our call to make disciples still persists.

If we consider the cost of making true disciples the necessity of physical proximity becomes the primary focus initially. When one was following a rabbi at the turn of the first century, they were expected to be in the immediate presence of that leader. Though our technological advantages allow for continued disciple-making across large geographical differences, there is still the need of being personally and physically present with the one who is doing the disciple-making.

Ultimately, we must consider this: Apple’s ad is simply stating the obvious reality…growing personal disconnect. As followers of Christ, who hope to grow true disciples, perhaps our first, and most, counter-cultural step is to call believers into physical, personal, regular community sans electronic devices.

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