Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church… (14:23a NIV).
It has been said that it is easier to criticize what is in place than to replace it with what is better. I agree! The Biblical way is to transform our ideas, attitudes, and actions according to the scriptures. How can a local assembly of believers transform their view of church structure and leadership?
First, we must transform our thinking about the church itself. It is not an organization but an organism. The church is the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, its members the branches of Christ the Vine, the brotherhood (brothers and sisters) of Christ, and so it is the living building of Christ. For easy recall, we can call these the “Five Bs of the Church” (Ephesians 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 15:12-13; John 15:1-8; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 1 Peter 2:4-5; etc.) Each of these metaphors speak of the church as a living organism. They are all Christ-formed and draw their life from Christ, (which is the reason I repeated “of Christ” in the above list.) Christ is the head of this living organism. He is also the head of the body, the church (Colossians 1:18 CSB). Observe very clearly that Christ is the head of the church, not a group of elders, bishops, or a pastor. Christ is the Chief Shepherd; elders merely shepherd God’s flock under Christ’s direction (1 Peter 5:1-4). A local church and its leadership must maintain this view of being a living body, vitally connected with Christ that apart from Christ can do nothing. The current organizational view of churches suppresses a proper focus of life with Christ. The sense of fellowship with the Ascended Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:1) should saturate all the meetings of local churches.
Second, we must be willing to listen to what the New Testament Scriptures actually say about church leadership. Here is an example. When it was made, the Authorized or King James Version was the best translation of the Bible that had appeared in English. It served English speaking churches well from the early 1600s to the 1950s. However, like any human product, the KJV had weaknesses. The one that concerns us now is that it was a political translation in places. King James I required that certain passages dealing with “church government” be translated to conform with his views of the church (hence, the translation “church” for the Scottish “kirk”, when the Greek is better translated as assembly or something similar.) For example, consider Philippians 1:1. Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (AKJV, my emphasis). Compare to a better translation of this verse. Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and ministers (NABRE, my emphasis). While most modern English translations have cast off “bishops” of the AKJV, they wrongly continue to use the transliteration (letter by letter) “deacons”. The subject of ministers is not the point in this post. But the continued use of a transliteration still hinders clear views of church leadership, and that is the point. It masks what the Spirit has breathed out in the Word. Strongly held church traditions dating back to at least the early 1600s make people refuse to discuss the actual meanings of elder and “deacon” and their interrelated functions in the local assembly. This must change.
Why is this important? It becomes important in the relationship between “pastor” and “elder”. I think that many would hold them to be equivalent based on Acts 20:17, 28. From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church… Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God… (NIV, my emphasis). Then what happens in contemporary North American churches is “interesting” (in the negative sense of that word).
- The elders and members of a church want a (usually) seminary trained man to be “the pastor” to handle the preaching of the word and other “pastoral and administrative” duties. They want a “senior pastor” or “lead pastor” who will be “the face of the church”. They may hire other “pastors” to handle other aspects of pastoral work, such as youth pastor, counseling pastor, visitation pastor, small group pastor, women’s ministries pastor, etc., if the church is large. While the lead pastor and the elders are theoretically equals, the senior pastor is the man everyone looks to for vision, leadership, and the Sunday morning preaching.
- Depending on the doctrinal beliefs, spiritual gifts, skills, personalities, and spiritual maturity of the pastors and the elders, they can have a more or less harmonious relationship. If the church is “successful” (an increasing number of “nickels and noses”), it is in everyone’s best interests to make it work. “Success” can mask the wrong underlying ideas, attitudes, and actions until a crisis comes.
- When something does go wrong, the blame game starts. In a larger church, it is easy to blame the staff and dismiss the assistant pastors, since they are not the face of the church. If there is a moral failure of the senior pastor or a power struggle between him and the elders, a church has very serious problems. It is rare to resolve such power struggles in a godly manner. Either the senior pastor or the elders must leave the church. Which happens is a matter of personalities, their popularity in the church, and their ability to manipulate people.
Next time, I want to talk more about pastors and elders and the biblical idea of leadership. However, I don’t want this post to end on a negative note. I am very glad that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the church! As one who served for thirty-five years as a pastor, I rejoice in what the Lord does for the good of his people through the Holy Spirit and the Bible. He loves his church dearly, and he wants the churches to welcome him back as their functional Lord (Revelation 2-3). This will require transformation of the structure of local churches. Healthy organisms require healthy structures. We need better ideas of church leadership than the contemporary board room model, which produces power struggles. The transformation can happen as leaders and members understand what the Lord has actually set up for the leadership of his people.
Grace and peace, David