Ordained Servant Online
Call Me Church Governor
You can tell a lot from an author's byline. The standard Dragnet approach—"just the facts, ma'am"—informs readers of the author's name and what he does: "John Jones teaches environmental history at Capital State University." Sometimes the byline allows the author a chance to plug his new book: "John Jones teaches environmental history at Capital State University and is the author of several books including most recently, The Fascination with Carbs: How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint While Losing Weight." And then there is the tag line that reveals too much information about the author: "John Jones teaches environmental history at Capital State University, walks three miles to work each day, and is the father of two overweight children." The latter tendency reveals not simply more than we need to know, but also that the editor has probably lost the ability to control his writers.
Every author is tempted to be clever with his byline. (Word of warning to writers: don't be more clever in identifying yourself than your prose is.) This may explain why I once tried to get past an editor the byline, "Eutychus II is a bishop in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and generally brilliant." Surprisingly, the editor had less trouble with the brilliant part than with the ecclesiastical title. The editor in question is a Roman Catholic and knows bishops when he reads them. "Eutychus II," he shot back, "is no bishop."
Technically, this editor was wrong and Eutychus II in a rare instance of brilliance was right. According to the OPC's Book of Church Order, it is proper to call those called by Christ to minister with authority "evangelist, pastor, teacher, bishop, elder, or deacon" (V.2). The BCO adds that "those who share in the rule of the church may be called elders (presbyters), bishops, or church governors" (V.3). Since Eutychus II is an elder in the OPC, calling him a bishop would be perfectly legitimate.
Of course, my Roman Catholic editor may have had reservations about the use of the word bishop because of his own church's teaching about officers not in fellowship with the bishop of all bishops, the Pope. But equally understandable may have been my editor's refusing to believe that Presbyterians actually believe in bishops. Reformed Protestants are, after all, presbyterian in polity, not episcopal. Lutherans and Anglicans and even the Methodist Episcopal Church might have bishops, but Presbyterians and Reformed do not. They have elders.
The reasons for wanting to use bishop instead of elder may be admirable or lamentable. In the latter category may be an Anglophilic mentality that apes all things British and uses the titles, forms, and style of Episcopalians to gain religious stature. And as much as Reformed Protestants share with Protestant Episcopalians, giving Presbyterianism a boost by climbing the episcopal ladder is a tactic sure to backfire at some stage and betrays a lack of appreciation for the genius of presbyterian polity.
But among the better reasons for describing a Presbyterian elder as a bishop is the increasing confusion over the title of elder. On a recent flight a conversation with a passenger confirmed the original reason for trying to get bishop past my Roman Catholic editor. After talking about church backgrounds, religion, and the 2008 presidential contest, my fellow passenger asked me if I were a pastor in the OPC. When I replied that I am an elder, this twenty-something lapsed Roman Catholic with a master's degree from the London School of Economics said, "Huh, I thought only Mormons had elders."
There you have it—the dilemma of being an elder in twenty-first century America. Mormons are of course more numerous than Presbyterians and Reformed and the confusion of the American public about the title elder may be understandable. But to have one of the greatest contributions of Reformed Protestants to church government now readily associated with the strange faith that Joseph Smith dug up in the vicinity of Rochester, New York is indeed ironic, if not also humiliating.
What can Presbyterians do to make up for this deficiency in ecclesiastical literacy? One approach would be to increase the number of Presbyterians. The more Christians there are who know that elders are part of the church reforms that John Calvin instituted in sixteenth-century Geneva, not a cabal of caffeine-abstaining older gents meeting in Salt Lake City, the better the chance that average Americans would place the title and office in the correct denominational column. Another approach might be to institute a public relations campaign that shows handsome well groomed men (sort of like Mitt Romney) carrying Robert's Rules on their way to session and presbytery meetings. My favorite tactic is to write a book so that I can identify myself as "Eutychus II, the author of the recently published Ruling Elders Rule!"
My fear, though, is that none of these strategies will be successful in the short term. And as an elder, both literally and ecclesiastically, I doubt whether the associations of eldership with Mormonism will change in my lifetime. Of course, elders could simply opt for the Greek and go by presbyter, but this would invite endless and tedious conversations about the intricacies of presbyterian polity. If you think associations with Mormonism receive strange reactions from fellow travelers, consider the effects of explaining two- and three-office views, with the added wrinkle of accounting for that rare breed, four-office Presbyterians, who count teachers of the word instructing future pastors at seminaries.
In the meantime, to avoid being taken for a Mormon and having my interlocutors go glassy-eyed, I'm going to try "church governor." One advantage of this title, in addition to being listed in the BCO, is that it is novel and tasteful. No one has ever heard of it and so cannot draw unsavory connections. At the same time, the words church and governor are so familiar as to sound dignified and appropriately official. And for Presbyterians who revel in decency and order, church governor is sufficiently bland and descriptive to achieve that wonderful Reformed balance of decency and orderliness. Using the byline "Eutychus II is a church governor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the author of Called to Govern" may not clarify my ecclesiastical duties, but it should rescue me from false impressions about being linked to Brigham Young.
Ordained Servant, March 2008.