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Head of the Church

I remember the first time I was ordained as a ruling elder in my 20s. The interim pastor, Harry Beverly, called in the big guns, and we had a visiting teacher in the training class for elders that year. Dr. Bonneau Dickson was known as "Mr. Presbytery" in the Atlanta presbytery. He had served at my church decades before and had become the executive presbyter, served in that capacity for decades and retired, and had been retired for decades. He was in his 90s and was still going about by himself, and he came to our elder training. He asked us one question: "Who is the head of the church?" Having no preassigned reading and not prepared for a pop quiz, we looked blankly at each other. The answer is "Christ is the head of the church." The Book of Order says that Christ is the Head of the Church (F-1.02). The Bible says that God "has put all things under [Christ's] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church." Being slightly more prepared now and looking back, it seems kind of embarrassing that we could not come up with this answer.

The point is that when we think of church polity, we think of how we organize ourselves; we think of humans holding office; we think of hierarchies. The question "Who is the head of the church?" makes us think of pastors and heads of staff; it makes us think of executive presbyters and moderators of church councils; it makes us think of denominational leaders. The one thing that our wise, old guest teacher wanted us to know is that church polity ultimately runs out and is not about all that. Church polity is about the Lordship of Christ. Christ is the head of the church.

This informs the way we choose to organize ourselves as Presbyterians. The word presbyterian comes from the Greek, presbuteros, which means "elder." We organize ourselves by electing elders to rule us. This has precedent in the New Testament. It is a familiar form of government in America: we elect representatives to set laws and presidents to execute those laws. This similarity is no accident; several in the Continental Congress that wrote our constitution were Presbyterians. This form of government is an alternative to the form of government from before the reformation. The Catholic Church (or, as it was known before the Reformation, the Church) was organized in hierarchies. Priest reported to Bishops reported to Cardinals reported to the Pope. That form of government is known as "episcopal," after the Greek word, episcopos, which means "bishop." Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopals, and Methodists have episcopal forms of government. The other extreme is to minimize the form of government and let each congregation run itself as a pure democracy, with the entire congregation voting on all things in a congregational meeting. Baptists, Mennonites, and (to a lesser extent) Quakers have what's called a "congregational" form of government. To put it simply, the episcopal form of government is "top-down," the congregational form of government is "bottom-up" and the presbyterian form of government is somewhere "in-between" (a representative democracy, not a pure democracy).

BUT. But the idea that Christ is the head of the church turns all this "inside-out," or maybe it turns all this "upside-down." All these forms of government are about how WE rule ourselves, but we DON'T rule ourSELVES—Christ rules us like the head rules the body. There is no head of the government of the church but Christ. What kind of head is Christ? "You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (John 13:13-14, NRSV). Christ models headship as a servant. If we picture the Presbyterian hierarchy of denomination > synods > presbyteries > congregations > members, Christ is the head of that hierarchy, yes, but it is all upside down. As the head of that hierarchy, Christ has humbled himself and lowered himself and emptied himself and taken off his robe and put on a towel and become our servant and washed our feet. Viewed this way, Christ serves the church, who serves the denomination, who serves the synods, who serve the presbyteries, who serve the sessions, who serve the congregations, who serve the members, who serve the world.

A pastor is not the head of the church. The session is not the head of the church. Elders (ruling elders and teaching elders) do the work of governing because that work needs to be done just as Peter's feet needed to be washed. "Ruling elders are so named not because they 'lord it over' the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and guide in its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life" (F-3.0202). In other words, when you think of "ruling" in the presbyterian system of government, you should think of a ruler used for measuring, not a ruler of a country. The principals of presbyterian government are that the church is one church governed by elders gathered in councils who seek and represent the will of Christ (F-3.02). Pastors and ruling elders work together to come to decisions as a form of service to Christ, our head. There's a lot of fallenness in us still, but when things are working, the ruling and teaching elders at every level of the presbyterian form of government work as colleagues supporting one another to serve the whole church.

Some serve as officers and leaders doing "official" things. Over the next several months, the current session will activate the officer nominating committee to recruit people who share this calling. Please prayerfully consider whether you feel called to discern Christ's will for the world and for this congregation, whether you feel called to work collegially to serve Christ's will for us to be the body of Christ here in FPC Pauls Valley. BUT ALSO, we all serve each other as the body of Christ. We hope to find meaningful ways to live as part of the body of Christ and contribute to the church living out the will of Christ. Some are Sunday School Teachers; some keep the air conditioners running; some sing or make music other ways; some study; some cook. We are all necessary to the mission of the church. Christ, our Head, serves us, we serve the church, and the church serves the world to bring glory to Christ.

--Chas

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