The Christian church has a variety of leadership styles and titles. What principles should guide it? How does leadership relate to the local church?
James McBride: Even a cursory reading of the New Testament shows plainly that each local congregation should be orderly, with properly appointed leadership. The church of God is designed to be an orderly society (I Corinthians 14:40). The Bible evidence for internal structure in an assembly is overwhelming - though too often the form is misunderstood and abused. As a church evolves, human nature seeks to organize it and almost inevitably it comes to be dominated by a ruling class. Earlier centuries of Christianity witnessed the evolution of a hierarchy of subdeacons, deacons, priests, bishops on up to - as in the Roman Church - an infallible Pope. Modern church history, too, has witnessed an abusive hierarchy of apostle, prophets, evangelists etc.
The term `clergy' with time became limited to church functionaries. The brethren - originally God's heritage [Gk. kleros = `an inheritance' - I Peter 5:3, Ephesians 1:11] - became `mere laity', and titles multiplied. Until recent times, the priest or vicar or minister wielded an authority that induced a spirit of fear in the people. The democratic `spirit of our times' has generally diluted this power. Many, however, remain confused as to the Bible teaching.
Principles of Leadership
There are key guidelines in Scripture for leadership. Ignorance of or ignoring - them will inevitably generate confusion and ultimate disintegration. Jesus, by word and by example, primarily addressed attitude. Instructing the apostles in leadership he warned them not to domineer as do secular leaders. Leaders are, rather, to be servants of the brethren, Jesus tells them (Matthew 20:20-28). As Paul put it, they are "helpers of your joy". He told the elders from the Ephesian assemblies: "Be shepherds of the church of God" (Acts 20:28). Peter described the role of elders in this way: "Be shepherds of God's flock that are under your care, serving as overseers - not because you must but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you but being examples to [patterns fort the flock" (I Peter 5:1-3).
Church leaders, in other words, are not isolated in some `ivory tower', but toiling alongside the brethren in the work of the church - just as the shepherd is out on the rough and rocky hillside alongside the flock.
The church of God is a `spiritual organism', the members of the Body known fully only to God. The visible body in the beginning was in two parts - individual independent local assemblies, and during the lifetime of the Twelve a `roving apostolate'. The Twelve were commissioned and uniquely inspired by Christ to record and pass on to future generations the purity of his teachings - recorded for us in the Scriptures. Also, they laid the foundation for maintaining the integrity and stability of each assembly.
The roles are inter-linked. The apostles personally taught the Gospel message as received from Jesus Christ - `the truth of the Gospel. They also gathered around them `students' to carry on their work. Timothy is one example. Paul told him: "...the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (II Timothy 2:2). Christ's message - once for all `breathed into' the twelve apostles - had to be accurately handed down the following generations. Sadly, this did not always happen - witness the doctrinal disarray in the churches throughout history!
The apostle Paul preached, some responded - and he moved on. The new brethren met together for fellowship, and through evangelism their numbers grew. The apostle had a loving care for all these assemblies. He couldn't be regularly with them bodily so he wrote to them to encourage and guide. Also, in his place he sent out those he had personally trained: to combat error and to generally promote order and sound teaching. Timothy, for example, was well-known throughout the areas where Paul had ministered. Titus and Epaphroditus, too, accompanied Paul but were also sent out to establish the churches.
The other major responsibility of the apostolate was to appoint leaders - elders - to the local congregations (Titus 1:5). They were men from the local assembly, suitably qualified for the task (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). Paul's model was the original pattern used by the Twelve for appointing leadership in Jerusalem: "...choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them .... This proposal pleased the whole group .... They presented them to the apostles who prayed and laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:1-6). He also drew on the inspired method of Moses (Deuteronomy 1:9-17) and used this, for example, in Antioch and elsewhere (Acts 14:23). He applied the qualifications for office and guided by the congregations, who were best placed to know the man, he appointed elders in each city.
After the Apostles, ordination simply, appointment - was overseen under the mature guidance of a `wise head' with experience and discernment. It was later abused by power-hungry leadership. But such oversight is no less necessary in our day. It is vital that the appointment of an elder to a congregation be supervised by someone highly respected in the wider church of God. In a `start-up' assembly he should be from outside the new group. This helps to authenticate the appointment in the eyes of the church at large. For the church is indeed `one Body' though separated in varied organizations. A leader appointed internally and without input from an outside experienced hand is more likely to be viewed with suspicion. He may, for example, have been appointed because he is sympathetic to a peculiar, and unbiblical, destructive false doctrine cherished by that assembly.
In sum, when an assembly is of sufficient size to require a formal structure (perhaps ten or so families in regular committed attendance) an elder ought to be appointed in accord with these criteria. They are reliable local men of proven worth and `known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom' (Acts 6:3), and `famous in the congregation'.
It's important that we do not view the ancient church through modern `denominational' eyes. Clearly, to have multiple elders presiding over a dozen or so brethren would be a redundancy. So why `elders in every city'? In Paul's day - unlike today - there were no `denominations'. There was one visible body of believers, one flock. But they assembled independently in small groups, meeting in houses (see, for example, Romans 16) which may have been, as with the synagogues in Jerusalem, common language groups or in nearby locations.
However divided, each independent group had a presiding elder. But being at that time visibly `one church' the elders worked in concert, the `presbytery'. They acted together, for example in appointment of new leaders, as with Timothy (I Timothy 4:14). They were, too, familiar with one another (see Acts 2: 42-47, 20:13-37). In modern terms, all church of God elders and assemblies in, say, Greater London or in Los Angeles or in Sydney would be in harmonious cooperation! This is the Biblical pattern. While meeting independently, yet they all came together on various occasions.
As an assembly grows, it will become apparent that the brethren are each gifted in some way by Jesus Christ. Wrote Paul to the infant Roman church: "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us..." (Romans 12:6-8). And all the gifts in an assembly are vitally needed. A mature assembly will be `fitly joined together' to accomplish the work Jesus has set for it.
Only by regular contact and committed involvement by everyone in the work of a local assembly can Christ achieve his purpose for it. The intimacy of a small group favors fellowship, prayer, personal growth.
Here's Paul's instruction: "Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing; but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25). By face-to-face encounter we can indeed encourage and pray for one another, learn one another's needs, share their joys and their sorrows, deploy our spiritual gifts. Such a format aids our understanding and participation, as the brethren or `unbelievers' dialogue with one another.
Readers might like to check the `one another/each other' verses in the Bible! The only conceivable way for us to adequately follow such Scriptural guidance is through regular face-to-face contact in a small intimate and loving group. This kind of interaction favors and enhances the growth of the individual and of the whole church. The impersonality of a large assembly is a barrier, and favors cliques, boredom, ignorance. In this sense the assembly is `congregational'. Everyone has a part in its activity according to their gifts. But the whole congregation in turn is to honour and submit to its leadership.
What Do Elders Do?
To maintain godly order in an assembly, therefore, demands someone who is properly gifted. They are not chosen from the `old boy network' or because of their generous financial support, etc. Elders must have the gifts of the Spirit necessary to be an overseer (Acts 20:28). They wilt have demonstrated to their brethren these gifts along with proven godly character.
While being aware that we are all brothers, the shepherd (pastor) must shepherd - he leads. That's his job (see Psalm 23). Each is responsible for that part of `God's flock that is under your care' (I Peter 5:2).
The pastor is to `feed my sheep'. He is to guards the brethren from predators - from within and without. He maintains that assembly as a beacon of probity in its neighborhood. He is an example to the flock of righteous living, a mature Christian - `not a novice' - able to boldly defend the Word in face of false teaching, and be sufficiently Biblically literate to teach sound doctrine - defined as good basic Christian practice (Titus 2, 3). He is to counsel, and to anoint the sick. He lovingly guides and encourage the assembly and nourishes the spiritual gifts of each of the brethren, preparing them for `works of service'.
No small task, indeed! And it isn't surprising that he is to be open to scrutiny from others.
What We Must Do
It's very clear that the strict Biblical guidance for eldership is essential. One of the qualifications of an overseer, for example, is `able to teach' (I Timothy 3:2). James writes that anyone who presents himself as a teacher of the people of God bears heavy responsibility: "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1, Jeremiah 23). By his brethren and by Jesus!
Every one, but especially those in positions of leadership in the assembly, is directly answerable to Jesus Christ - for his conduct, and for what he teaches. Now that could be more scary than answering to a mere man or group of men! But scrutiny by the church at large is essential for maintaining order and guarding against heresy (eg III John 10).
It's noteworthy that assemblies - and individual brethren - often separate and isolate themselves.
They reject commonly held teachings and do not submit their doctrinal innovations for the greater church to judge. Such vanities are a major cause of division.
Given the heavy charge laid by God on the local church leadership, it's vital that all brethren be vigilant to ensure that anyone appointed to a church office is fully equipped for that work. All of us need careful vigilance to ensure that the leadership of our assembly is of top quality and fulfills the Bible criteria. Too often a candidate for church office can be superficially plausible. He may have a pleasing personality, be well-liked, be `academic', be a business success and perhaps the richest or smartest. Such qualities can blind the brethren to his real motives. Hence the value of external scrutiny! It doesn't guarantee a good appointment but it does help us to avoid costly error (Acts 20:30-31).
Respect Your Elders!
On the other hand, with such a burden of responsibility on elders, it's not surprising that the inspired Scriptures urge the brethren to support them. "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7).
The inspired writer continues: "Obey your leaders and be submissive. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you" (v.17). Paul adds: "Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you and are over you in the Lord and who admonish [counsel] you. Hold them in highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other" (I Thessalonians 5:12, 13). The purpose is not to elevate the leadership on a pedestal - but simply to ensure a proper environment in which they can exercise their responsibilities.
There can be no Biblical argument for thinking that leadership within an assembly of Christians is superfluous. What is unbiblical is men and women (whether officially `appointed' or not) lording it over the flock for personal advantage - whether financial or to deliberately undermine the faith or for personal power and influence. What is also unbiblical is a local assembly torn by indecision and doctrinal squabbles through lack of, or lack of voluntary submission to, qualified leadership - and focused inwardly rather than fulfilling the role for which Jesus Christ raised it up.
So - maintain vigilance. An assembly at peace with itself and willingly subject to wise and compassionate leadership is an assembly well fitted to fulfil its assigned work for the Saviour - locally, and within the activities of the wider Body of Christ.
To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.
For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Volume 5 No. 5, September/October 2001. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.
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