Cultural Bias-The Bible And The Role Of Elders And Deacons

(This is the third post in a series around this question:  Are we reading our own Cultural Biases into the Bible?)

In examining the issue of cultural bias influencing one’s understanding of the Bible, nothing is protected from examination–even the practices of my own Tribe, the United Methodist Church.  Here is today’s question:  Are ‘deacons’ and ‘elders’ to be considered clergy (pastors/preachers) or laity (the person in the pew)?  Who’s right?

In case you may be unaware of this, but in my Tribe the offices of Elder and Deacon have traditionally been restricted to clergy or those engaging in specialized ministries–us folks who go through extensive education and even more extensive inquisitions from what we call the Board of Ordained Ministry (the Board of Ordained Ministry prefers the term “interview”, though it often looks more like an inquisition).

In other Tribes, the offices of elder and deacon are given to the laity; from among the rank and file membership.  Though my knowledge of these Tribes is limited, my experiences with members and pastors is that the deacons and especially the elders, carry great authority, even to having pastors and other staff fired, and of course, choosing who will be “hired”.

The first mention of Elders in a church is found in Acts 11:30 when Paul and Barnabas delivered a love offering from the churches in Antioch to the church in Jerusalem.  The word that has been translated as “elder” is the Greek word presbýteros, (pronounced pres-boo’-ter-os) and is comparative to the Greek word présbys ( which means elderly).  It refers to someone who is older;, a senior.  It is the same word used to describe key leaders in the Sanhedrin as well as local community leaders.  In other words, the church “borrowed” this word from the Jewish tradition.

First mention of “deacon” is in Romans 16:1, a letter Paul wrote around 57 A.D.  The Greek word used is diákonos, (pronounced dee-ak’-on-os) probably came from an obsolete word diákō (pronounced dee-ak’-o), which means to run on errands, an attendant, a waiter at table or in other menial duties, and one who executes the commands of another such as a master; one who is a servant, or attendant.  Now this doesn’t sound like someone with great authority or who carries around a big stick.

As I did my due diligence in this research there’s another word or “office” described by Paul–bishop!  It’s mentioned only twice in reference to people:  1 Timothy 3:1-2 and Titus 1:7.  It’s the Greek word episkopḗ, (pronounced ep-is-kop-ay’) and means  inspection, examine, and to visit.  It comes from the word episképtomai (pronounced ep-ee-skep’-tom-ahee) and means to go to see, relieve:—look out, visit.  By the way, it’s the same word found in Matthew 25:36 when Jesus said, “I was sick and you visited me.”  This “office of bishop” is seen only in a limited number of Tribes, mine included.

From these passages I see nothing about these offices (deacon, elder, bishop) being limited to clergy/preachers.  Furthermore, I do not see nor hear that idea of wielding great power or authority, especially the offices of deacon and bishop.  So how did these offices of the early church become what they are today?  In other words, “Where does this show signs of cultural bias?”

What I see is the influence of the Roman Catholic Tribe.  Now to my Roman Catholic friends, please understand I am NOT picking on you or putting your Tribe and Traditions down.  I’m simply stating a historical fact.  The first major organizing of the church resulted in the formation of what we know as the Roman Catholic Church/Tribe.

The first significant reorganization of the church happened in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” (FYI, use of drums and guitars in a sanctuary were not listed in this document).  This led to what we now call the Protestant Reformation.  As bodies of believers, churches reorganized and new Tribes formed.  Over the decades and centuries these newly formed Tribes either copied the formal clerical structure of the Roman Catholic Tribe, or in an effort to distance themselves, went in the opposite direction of putting major leadership among laypersons rather than preachers.

This was influenced by Western Civilization of creating a hierarchy of authority and power.  Tribes such as mine, used the term “elder” and “bishop” to create that sense of authority and power.  These offices and roles were a far cry from the very first churches.  The influence of Western Europe and England are seen in how the Greek words are translated, in particular, the office of Bishop.  The word most commonly used in the English language is OVERSEER.  That sounds like an office filled with great authority, when in reality it is a word about visiting the sick, examining and looking at what happens.  OVERSEER also was used to describe an office in the ancient Feudal System.

At least to me it seems we have brought cultural biases when it comes to the offices of deacon, elder, and bishop/overseer.  And I find myself at odds with my own Tribe in the use of these offices.  I am also at odds with other Tribes that use these offices as forms of power and authority rather than offices of serving, caring for and caring about people.

Again, I am not asking or expecting anyone or everyone to agree with my thesis that these offices are another way that we have added cultural bias to our understanding of the Holy Writ.  But if we have added our cultural bias to even one part of the Holy Writ, then there is a high probability that we are adding our cultural biases into other parts.  What if, mind you, I’m only asking What If, What If we spend our time in the Holy Writ without the teachings and commentaries of our Tribes and listened to what was written?  What If we sought the Giver of all Wisdom to guide us in the struggle of understanding it for ourselves?  What If we looked back to the original languages as to the meaning of those words without adding cultural influences on those words?  What If we sought the Holy Spirit to be our Guide, instead of primarily resting upon our cultural biases?

A very good friend, mentor and spiritual guide in my life came out of a Tribe with a very strict legalistic background.  But now Tim embraces Grace and the understanding that the body of Christ is more than one Tribe, than God longs for Relationship over Rules.  I asked him once what led to his personal transformation.  He told me it happened as he was reading the Bible and the Holy Spirit began to challenge his personal cultural biases.  Maybe this is what we all need.

 

Are We Reading Cultural Biases Into The Bible?

 

Lately I have been troubled, more so than usual, about an issue that surrounds the Bible.  And my troubled spirit revolves about this question:  “What does The Bible say about                                 ?  Simply fill in the blank with any topic or issue.  My issue is not about what The Bible speaks into our hearts, but what WE speak into The Bible as we read it.

I am seeing and hearing a lot of what I call “cultural bias” into what The Bible says.  For the sake of thought, allow me to define what I mean by “cultural bias”  Cultural bias is “the tendency for people to judge concepts and interpret ideas and truths through a narrow view based on their own culture.”  In other words, we read into The Bible the influences of our culture.  One of those influences, especially for the Western Church (by this I mean mainline U.S. churches), is what we have been told it means.  Sometimes this meaning is an age-old meaning.  It is what we believe, what our parents believed, what our grandparents believed, ad infinitum.  At other times, it’s the modern, more “enlightened” view.

Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien wrote a book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.  In this book they point out 2 immediate dangers by reading the Bible with these “western eyes”.  First is making yourself the center of this search for the meaning of the Bible.  We tend to search for things we think are relevant us to and ignore the rest.  The other immediate danger they describe is, well I’ll just quote them:  “Second, and perhaps more seriously, a me-centered approach to the Bible confuses application with meaning. Simply put, I am not the focus of the Bible’s meaning; Christ is.”

While this may explain some of the issues, it does not address all of them.  Over the next few posts, I am going to look and speak into some of our “church cultural biases” into some issues.  And it may be that when we see how we have made “our” culture central in what The Bible says on these issues, there may be other, call them truths or principles of The Bible that we have read “our” interpretation into those passages to the exclusion of any other possible meanings.

I guess what I am attempting to do is to ask, “Where are we wrong when it comes to the truth of The Bible?”  And here is where you, the readers, can participate in this journey.  I am going to list some of what I see as “church culture biases” as it pertains to understanding what The Bible says.  I would like to invite you to post in the comments section other things that have been either long-hold or modern interpretations of what The Bible says about “life issues”.  So far here is my list in no particular order of importance, and please feel free to add to the list or share your insights.

  • What does the Bible really say about divorce?
  • Are those who have been divorced really excluded from church leadership?
  • Are ‘deacons’ and ‘elders’ to be considered clergy (pastors/preachers) or laity (the person in the pew)?  Who’s right?
  • Who is ‘authorized’ to administer (or serve) Holy Communion/The Lord’s Supper/The Eucharist/The Mass?
  • What does The Bible really say about women as teachers, pastors, or preachers?
  • What does The Bible really say about human sexuality?
  • Does The Bible approve of slavery?  What does it really say about it?
  • Which is a more accurate term:  Christian or Disciple?
  • What does The Bible say about “the church”?
  • Does God insist on us being a “Christian” nation, and does this fulfill our mission?
  • What is the “proper” way to worship?

Well, for right now, this is all I can think of; so if you have more ideas or questions, or arguments, share below in “Comments”.  Right now I am like the cat who ate some cheese and then went to wait beside the mouse hole.  “I am waiting with baited breath!”

Assumptions

Maker:S,Date:2017-10-3,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E:Y

It is easy, so very easy, TOO easy, to read our assumptions into the Truths in the Bible.  I know, because I have been guilty of doing it.  The sign you see is one in front of a local church.  I know some of the people, and they love Jesus.  But something about this sign doesn’t seem right to me.  Now before you accuse me of “judging” them, or being a fundamental literalist, know that I am reading a really great book called 12 Steps For The Recovering Pharisee (like me).”  Here is what The Spirit is teaching me:  “Don’t Read Your Assumptions Into My Texts!”

The Shepherds did NOT follow the Star.  They followed the verbal directions of the Choir Director of Heaven’s Choir.  Here is the story found in Luke 2:8-16 (NLT)

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”  13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”  15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.

Was that Star present?  Absolutely!  The “Wise Men” saw it and followed it.  Were they the only ones who could see that Star?  No, anyone who looked up at night could have seen that Star, but only those “Wise Men” knew what to do with it.  The Shepherds, on the other hand, received verbal directions on where to find the newborn Messiah:  In the stable at Bethlehem.  Being Shepherds, they would have known where that Stable was at; and if there were multiple stables in and around Bethlehem, they would have known their locations, too.  That’s what Shepherds do!

But this sign reveals something that, well, I want to talk about.  Again, I’m not criticizing or judging; just an observation.  Because the Wise Men followed the Star (that is in the Bible; Matthew 2:1-12) does not mean that the Shepherds (or anyone else, for that matter) followed the Star.  This person simply took their knowledge about that Star and applied it to the Shepherds.  There was a star and there were Shepherds!  Voila and Ta-Da!  The Shepherds MUST HAVE followed that Star.

It’s not just with the Incarnation Story that people take one part of the Bible and add it to another part.  The danger of “assuming” things about a passage creates damage; to people and to churches.  Our natural tendency (the one influenced by the Father of all lies) is to find ways to prove our point.  The Enemy is skillful and unfortunately, very successful, at helping us take the “text” out of its “context” simply to prove our point.

God has been taking me on an incredible journey of simplicity that is profoundly impacting both my faith and my life.  The Spirit has given me a, call it “Formula” or “Bible Reading Plan” that looks like this:

  1. First, I begin listening to some Worship music.  I use my earbuds so as not to disturb anyone, and to not be distracted in my personal worship time.  I also pour my cup of coffee and sit in front of the fireplace.  It helps me to stay focused on worshiping God.  Being ADHD, it’s easy for me to be distracted.  Finding this place helps me remind myself:  “Hey!  Dummy!  This moment is about God being honored for who HE IS, not what I need or need to be doing!”
  2. I read the Sacred Scriptures without any agenda or bias.  I ask the Holy Spirit to speak into my mind and heart.  I listen to the words I’m reading, pushing aside anything anyone has ever told me about the passage or what I think I know about the passage.  I approach it as if it is the very first time I’ve read it.  (By the way, I’m in my 3 consecutive reading of Ephesians, each time I start over, I treat it like it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it.  I found it takes me 6 to 7 days to read this letter.)
  3. I focus on the context of the passage.  When did God say or inspire those words?  What was happening in that culture, in that moment?  Sometimes there are other questions, but the last one I ask is important:  What does this say about God’s passion and desire to restore this fallen creation?  In other words, “How is God moving to make me (and others) into what HE originally intended BEFORE Adam and Eve sinned?”
  4. I ask this question:  “What is God saying to me?”  I write my answers down in a journal.
  5. Then I ask the second question:  “What does this say about me?”  This can get a little dicey and requires a lot more focus from me.  Sometimes it convicts me.  Other times it affirms me.  And there have been a few moments when I discover God’s view of me is different than my view of me–sometimes even better than I see myself.
  6. And now, I am moving into the third question.  This question is the one that  will determine if I will allow this Word to transform into who God says I am.  “What am I going to do about it?”

I am finding this approach helps to clear my head of any assumptions I may be bringing into the Story of God’s work of Restoration.  You see, when we ASSUME anything, it makes something out of “U and ME”.  Figure it out.  And if you ASSUME alone, it just makes you “it”.  What I’m saying is, “Folks!  Stop assuming YOU are the final authority on the Bible.  Stop assuming YOU are right.  Don’t read the Bible to prove your point.  Read the Bible to show where you are missing that mark of being all you are created to become, not so that you can point out where you think people are wrong.  Stop taking passages out of context!  Please!”  I remember something from my homiletics class.  Dr. Thompson said it many times:  “A text taken out of its context is only a pretext, and never the Truth.”

Love God with all your heart.  Love others the way Jesus loves you.  And make sure all the glory goes to Him!  Amen and Amen!

Oh, here’s a post script, and it comes from the stories around the birth of Jesus:  God speaks to different people in different ways–but if we follow His directions, be it by a star or by the Choir Director of Heaven’s Angel Choir, we get to the same place.  But you have to follow HIS directions.