Christ the Chief Elder: A Brief History

On September 16, 1741, the leaders of the Moravian Church were meeting in London to make a number of important decisions. One of them was to choose a new Chief Elder.  Being Chief Elder was a big job. The Chief Elder was responsible for the spiritual welfare and temporal welfare of the whole Moravian Church. He prayed for the church, and he was frequently called upon to mediate between strong personalities.  When the church was a little community in Herrnhut, Germany it was a manageable job. But the Moravian Church had grown into an international fellowship stretching from Greenland in the north, to South Africa in the south. It would soon stretch to America in the west.

At the time of the meeting, Leonard Dober, one of the first missionaries to the slaves in the Caribbean, had been serving as chief elder for several years. Dober was tired. The job was wearing him out. Not only so, but members of the congregations were beginning to complain about how he did and did not do things. So, Leonard Dober officially asked to lay down this office. Then the rest of the elders, made up almost equally of men and women, set about considering his request.

In those days, Moravians still used the Lot. The lot, actually three lots, always allowed for three possibilities—“Yes,” “No” and “Wait.” The Elders asked the lot if Leonard Dober could stop being Chief Elder and the answer was “Yes.” They then submitted a series of names of people they thought able to replace him. Each time they submitted a name, the lot said, “No.” The Elders grew worried, and they took the time to pray and read the Bible. The texts they read and talked about were like the texts that we read today. They all spoke of Jesus played as the Good Shepherd and Lord of the church. Let me say that again. All the scriptures they read talked about the role that  Jesus played as the Great Shepherd and Lord of the church. Finally, the elders decided to ask whether Jesus himself undertake the office of Chief Elder. To their surprise, the lot said, “Yes.” Then, in good Moravian fashion, they sang a hymn of praise. Afterward, they all agreed that what had taken place among them was so important that it should be announced to the whole Moravian Unity on a single day.  They set the date of November 13, 1741, for the announcement, and the rest is history.

While a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I used to enjoy discussions around the table at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Many different denominations were represented.  Sometimes we talked about things in our denominations that we were proud of.  Sometimes we talked about things in our denominations that embarrassed us. I learned that not all Presbyterians were proud that their church once espoused a doctrine of unconditional election, where-in God chose some members of humankind to be saved and left the rest of humankind to be damned. I learned that some Methodists were not at all proud that their church used to teach the doctrine of “entire sanctification,” in which a Christian could live is a state of sinless perfection. Most Methodists thought Christian Perfection was worth pursuing but doubted any attained it. They feared that those who claimed they had were more than a little self-righteous. Meanwhile, all the Presbyterians and Methodists, and all the rest, learned that I was embarrassed by the doctrine of Christ, the Chief Elder of the Moravian Church. I reasoned that the New Testament teaches that Jesus is the Head of his Body which is the church, and I thought it was an act of hubris that we Moravians saw fit to proclaim him as head of our little denomination.

For years I struggled with the doctrine, but now I understand the doctrine at a deeper level. Those old Moravians knew that Jesus is already the LORD of the Church and the Great Shepherd of All the Sheep. In asking Jesus to serve as Chief Elder of the Moravian Church, they were not asking him to do anything other than what he was already doing. Rather, they were seeking to bring our part of the body of Christ into conformity to him.  The election was a pledge that in all Moravians as a church, we would seek to please him. I believe that whether as individuals, or as a congregation, we please him anytime we make it our purpose to “seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the crippled, strengthen the weak, and remind the fat and the strong that God has a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he has appointed, Jesus Christ.”  Finis

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