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The Leadership of The Church

June 8, 2012

For this post I’ll be going a bit off the usual topic of “Finding Jesus” to address a topic of leadership within the church.

In the past couple of months I’ve had a few conversations with people IRL about the role of elders in the church. Some hold that the senior or lead pastor has absolute authority over the guidance and direction of the church, including over the elders, some hold that the elders have authority over church matters. Which view follows what is taught in the Bible?

Make no mistake, the Bible is very clear on the matter. Let’s take a look.

First, we see in the Old Testament, in 1 Samuel chapter 8 that the people of Israel wanted a king, “like all the other nations have”. Samuel did not like this at all, and he took it to God. Gods reply was that the people of Israel did not reject Samuel or the other leaders, they were rejecting God as their “king”, their ruler. God had never intended for His people to have one ruler over them.

See, when any group of people has one leader over them, it diverts the attention away from God as their leader. They look to this one leader for their needs, and this one leader takes it upon himself to be Gods authority over the congregation or community. A community of believers is never meant to be lead that way, diverting the attention from Gods authority and placing it in the hands of one man, who invariably is going to be in error in his leadership of the congregation and community.

And when that one leader teaches (or preaches–there’s a difference) whatever he feels like teaching (or preaching) Gods Word to his congregation, although he may use Gods Word, it’s still a matter of the congregation looking to that one leader for their spiritual needs and guidance, and if that one leader is in error, the congregation or community who looks to him to lead them will also be in error. To be sure, they may look to God for their needs and for guidance as well, but only as they’re directed by this one leader–and what one person is always going to lead them down the right, or better, path? In a sole leadership role, that can only be done by God. A board of elders or deacons, comprised of Christians strong in their walk and chosen by the congregation, not the sole leader, is much more apt and able to discern the needs of the congregation and community, through spiritual gifts and prayer, than any one leader.

In the New Testament, in Mark 10, we see James and John take Jesus aside and ask Him to place them on His “right side, and on (His) left”. They wanted to be Jesus numbers one and two over the other disciples. Jesus emphatically said this was not for Him to grant. When the other ten disciples heard what James and John had done, they were–quite naturally–displeased and angry. Jesus then used the example of the political rulers of the time and said “Not so with you”, and emphasized that “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”.

One whose desire is to be sole leader can not, naturally, be a servant. It’s a contradiction. The only exception to this was and is Jesus, God who lowered Himself to serve His fallen creation.

Jesus illustrated the group leadership concept in Matthew 18: 15-17 when He talked about one of the biggest decisions in church leadership: excommunication from the church. First Jesus suggests a “one on one” approach with someone who is committing a sin against the church, then if that fails two or three. If that fails then Jesus said to take it before the congregation. Notice that nothing like a senior or lead pastor is mentioned anywhere in that lineup. Now considering the importance of a situation like that, don’t you think Jesus would have said “have the leader of the church decide” if He advocated a single top-down leader of the church?

It’s very clear here that Jesus advocates that important decisions are not to be made by a sole leader of the church, and yet there are those who would presume that authority.

Why would anyone presume that authority over the congregation, when the Bible is very clear that it shouldn’t be that way, when Jesus said it should be “not so with you”? There could be many reasons. Arrogance. A desire to be held up over the community. A desire to be a leader, which is very different from the desire to lead. A lust for power, and perhaps the control and power of being a power broker. A desire to control. I’m sure there are other reasons, none of which are good or can be justified, especially in light of what the Bible says on the subject.

A long time ago, I heard from a third party that a lead pastor of a church had said in a meeting “If you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you”. Knowing the pastor, I was inclined to believe that he would say such a thing, but had an open mind about it; It is, after all, terrible words for any pastor to say, especially a church leader. Really, think about that statement, that basically says “it’s my way or the highway”. Arrogance? Did that pastor really believe that he alone knew Gods will for the congregation? Did he really believe that he was spiritually above everyone else in the church, and knew Gods will better than all of them?

Later, I received what seemed to be sure confirmation of the story. That same pastor, who had previously whined about lack of respect for his leadership in several past Sunday messages, complained about it again and said the words “If you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you”. In a Sunday Message. Unconscionable.

Now notice that in Romans 12: 3-8 that Paul talks about the many facets of the church in regard to serving, and he emphasizes the distribution of gifts among the members to fill those roles and serve. There is not one “leader” who does all, teaching, encouraging, etc. The church functions as a group effort, with no central singular leadership. Paul repeats this concept in 1 Corinthians 12: 4-6.

In 1 Peter we see that all are called to the “priesthood”, or role of minister, serving in the capacity of whatever an individuals gifts may be. It’s also worth noting that in all of the New Testament there is no mention of the process of ordinating and designating a minister, much less a leader of the church. We also see that in all of Pauls letters to the Colossians, Corinthians and Galatians, he wrote to the entire congregation, not a single “leader” of that congregation.

Before I close, I should mention a system I became aware of, where a church that does have a single, authoritative leader has what is called “overseers”. In the church I know of that has these overseers, it seems to work (as you will see, it cannot really “work”) this way: A small group of pastors of other churches which are not a part of the same community, both congregation-wise and geographically (often being in a different state) “oversee” the functions of a church. This cannot be effective for these reasons:

Being apart physically from the congregation, how can one know what the congregations needs are? Unless one is constantly among that congregation, observing and then prayerfully discerning, this is not remotely (no pun intended) possible.

So how does this “work”? The overseers communicate with the sole authoritative leader. The weakness and ineffectiveness in this system should be quite obvious. Given that the sole leader thinks he’s Absolutely Right (“if you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you”) how can he in any way discern his own areas of weakness that need to be addressed? How can he see where the congregation needs to be lead if he thinks he’s already doing it right by doing it “his way”?

The church, meaning the body of Christ on earth, and not any individual congregation, has but one sole leader, and that quite obviously is Christ Himself. No individual congregation should ever have one sole leader. It’s simply unbiblical.

_____________

I’ve become aware of an argument that states that Paul was an “overseer”, and therefore the practice of outside overseers is in line with biblical ideology. This argument is a gross misrepresentation and misinterpretation of scripture, as well as a misunderstanding of biblical history and the role of scripture.

The argument is as follows: Because Paul was an outsider who remotely guided churches he was not a member of, he was on fact an “overseer”, and so the practice of having overseers (as opposed to the elders or deacons having that authority) is in line with biblical ideology.

Besides the arguments from scripture mentioned earlier, there are a few things that must be understood.

1) Christianity was new. The churches Paul wrote to were the very first Christian churches ever, populated by congregations of the very first generations of Christians. Paul had planted many of the early churches, and naturally felt an obligation to nurture them, hence his letters.

2) These early churches didn’t have the benefit of accessibility to the New Testament as we know it now–it hadn’t been written and compiled yet. They had the original letters from Paul, which became the scripture we have today to guide us.

3) These letters were not only important to the early church, they’re important to us now. It was necessary for Paul to write those letters so that we have that scripture to guide us today.

And to repeat, Paul wrote to entire congregations, not one sole leader of a church.

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