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.