Rethinking Church, Part 3: God-ordained Leadership
Only with the strangest manner of Biblical interpretation can one find any measure of a God-created office of leadership in the church outside the office of Pastor. Regardless of church governance structure, almost no denomination or local church has a Pastor-free approach to ministry. Some give a minimalist role for the Pastor, but all have a Pastor under one title or another.
The New Testament gives three words about church leadership that must be considered to know what a Pastor does.
- · Episcopos literally means “overseer” and is sometimes translated as Bishop.
- · Presbeuteros means “elder” and can be used in the sense of age and wisdom or in the sense of position of authority.
- · Poimeno means “shepherd” and is often given in a verb form and is an instruction for Elders and Overseers to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:1-2).
These three words describe the roll of the Pastor. Because they are used interchangeably, it is impossible to separate the role of episcopos and presbeuteros. They are the same person carrying out a distinctive role. So the Pastor is the overseer, giving wisdom from his position, and doing it through a shepherding spirit.
In John 21:15-17, Peter is instructed to “tend my sheep” and “shepherd my sheep.” These are not synonymous, but give direction to Peter on what he is to do and how he is to do it.
The instruction to “tend” is a how word. When the word is studied closely and followed through the New Testament, we learn that it describes the watchful, careful eye of the shepherd as he fulfills a protective and caring role, gazing over his sheep. It is the picture that brings comfort inPsalm 23 when the lamb fears no evil because “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd tends his sheep by lovingly standing guard over them.
Consider these instructions for Pastors—
“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:24–26, NASB95)
“Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;” (1 Peter 5:1–2, NASB95)
These instructions are “how” more than “what.” They speak of the heart and the manner of the Pastor. Any Pastor who carries out his duty with a coldness of heart, a cruelty of spirit, or a selfish motive is not being true to the Biblical command to “tend” the sheep. He is not, in the Biblical sense, a Pastor.
The second instruction is to “shepherd” the sheep. This word describes what the work involves, and reveals that the work of the Pastor is a shadow of the substance of the leadership work of Christ. That is, the Pastor is under-shepherd to the true Shepherd who will ultimately reign over this world. Consider these descriptions of the work of the coming Christ—
“and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father;” (Revelation 2:27, NASB95)
“And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.” (Revelation 12:5, NASB95)
“From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.” (Revelation 19:15, NASB95)
Of course, you easily notice that the coming Christ will rule the nations of the world when He reigns in His coming Kingdom. In the church, the Pastor is the shadow of the substance of the leadership work of Christ. That is, the Pastor is the ruler of the church. Some will take offense at any notion of a ruling Pastor, but this is the clear instruction of Scripture.
Perhaps you are saying “what does Christ’s rule of the nations have to do with a Pastor who Shepherds sheep?” What you must know, however, is that the Greek word “Shepherd” is poimano (used earlier to define the role of the Pastor), and the Greek word for “rule” is poimano! That is right, they are the exact same word, with the exact same meaning. When we are told that Christ will rule the nations, the word is shepherd (notice he uses the “rod” of a Shepherd to rule the nations, except that this rod will be a rod of iron).
When Peter and other Pastors are told to shepherd they are being instructed to rule. It is, unequivocally, a power word. Pastors are to rule with the tender heart of a shepherd who loves his lambs, and this kind of rule will save the sheep from many harms.
The Means of Rule
The Pastor has one tool that he can best use to rule the sheep, and that is his preaching and teaching. The scripture has repeated instruction for the Pastor/Elder/Bishop to “instruct, teach, or prescribe.” Consider these examples—
“As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines,” (1 Timothy 1:3, NASB95)
“Prescribe and teach these things.” (1 Timothy 4:11, NASB95)
“Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach.” (1 Timothy 5:7, NASB95)
“Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.” (1 Timothy 6:17, NASB95)
Instruct and prescribe are stronger words than English readers may first realize. The same word is often translated command, order, or direct (seeActs 1:4,5:28,40,10:42,15:5,16:8,23,17:30,23:22,30).
Doubtlessly someone says, “Why should the Pastor have all the control? This is too much power in one person! Where are the checks and balances?” Because of this, many post-reformation denominational groups and local churches have established “multiple elders” within one church. While this is not an article on single-versus-multiple elders, let me just say that if multiple elders are the understood form of church leadership in the Bible, then the Bible poorly communicated and explained such a leadership system. The plural use of “elder” in the New Testament can easily be explained because there were always multiple Pastors because there were multiple churches. But if there were multiple elders in one local church, the Bible never gives any of their names, never explains any of their duties, and never tells us how multiple-eldership worked in the local setting. I think the Biblical case for multiple eldership is woefully weak.
Daniel B. Wallace, an imminently qualified Greek scholar who has done wonderful work in textual criticism, ventured into a defense of multiple-elders in this article. Because the Biblical text itself is not irrefutable evidence for multiple elders, Dr. Wallace ventured into some of the most ridiculous attacks on single-Pastor rule that I’ve ever seen. For example—
- “If there is just one leader, the church will inevitably take on that man’s personality, including his quirks and faults. But if more than one person leads the church, there is the greater chance that the church will be balanced.”
- There are “disproportionally high number of moral failures” in single-Pastor systems.
- If a church stops growing after a Pastor leaves it is “due to the magnetism of a single person.”
- The constitution was written by Christians who understood depravity and they put checks and balances in the American system.
- Churches with multiple elders will be “less idiosyncratic, less dependent on one person,more accountable”
- What evidence shows us that when a group is under the leadership of a committee, that group is more “balanced”? And is balance what we want in the church?
- What evidence shows that moral failure is lower in churches that are ran by committees of Elders?
- If a church stops growing due to the loss of a magnetic pastor, should magnetism be avoided altogether?
- What does the US Constitution have to do with God’s organization called the church? Shall the Supreme Court decide our leadership structure?
- Are groups that are committee-led truly “less idiosyncratic” or “more accountable”?
Alexander Strauch wrote a booklet entitled, Biblical Eldership: Restoring the Eldership to Its Rightful Placein the Church (available here) in which he says “Shared leadership is rooted in the Old Testament system of Elders” and “Leadership councils were common in the Middle East and the fundamental governmental structure of the nation of Israel throughout its Old Testament history.” These statements are, I believe, totally unfounded. A cursory review of the Ancient (or modern) near east will show that leadership councils were never fundamental to either government or religion, and certainly were not fundamental to the nation of Israel. Can you recall a “leadership council” at work in the Old Testament? Strauch refers to Exodus 3:16 and Ezra 10:8 for support. Let’s consider his support.
““Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt.” (Exodus 3:16, NASB95)
This instruction is given to a man (Moses), who had just been called to go into a people group that had never been a nation. Moses was instructed to lead the people of God out of Egypt into the Promised Land using the dictatorial tone of a Prophet from God. He would lead them out of Egypt, where they would become a nation under the rule of one God who directed one man. We see nothing of a “leadership council” at work in the Exodus story. The Elders of Israel were used to simplify organization and to represent the congregation, but never to be a decision making body.
In Ezra 10:8 the “counsel of the leaders and the elders” speak to the people, but Ezra was clearly and unequivocally the ruler of the people under the counsel of God. Whatever role the counsel played was far more administrative than decision oriented.
In short, Wallace and Strauch fall short in using Biblical, theological, or even pragmatic reasons for a plurality of Elders.
First Among Equals?
I’ve often heard of the Pastor as “first among equals” in a multi-elder system. How can this be? Equality, by definition, speaks against this. In a “first among equals” I have found that all the equals are not equal in authority, accountability, or responsibility. They are equal only in vote, which means the Pastor can easily end up as the sacrificial lamb, slaughtered by the elders whose only responsibility was the monthly meeting and the deciding vote. If the church is going to be led by a council of elders, then let that council truly be equal. Let them divide the preaching duties equally, divide the salary equally, divide the ministry equally, and only have decisions that are 100% in agreement, thus acting as one man. Since this is a literal impossibility, I think it best to have one man who is the Pastor/Elder/Bishop. This man will do the preaching, teaching, ministry, and decision making, and receive the salary for doing so. This is true equality!
If History Matters
History should never be a deciding factor in theological and Biblical issues. However, sometimes History does shed light on these issues. Until the Protestant reformation, multiple-Elders in a single church was unheard of. The strong Pastor as authority in the church was consistently the only pattern of local church governance.
Clement of Rome, who died in 101 AD and was taught by the Apostle Peter, is the first Pastor beyond the Apostles for whom we have written material that is somewhat trustworthy in its source. Clement is very strong on Pastoral authority within the church, and wrote to the Corinthians about the schism that had developed in their church over leadership. He says to them, “Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest anyone deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that ye have removed some men of excellent behavior from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honor.”
In other words, Clement chided the church members at Corinth because they removed presbyters who were “of excellent behavior” but did not satisfy their personal own demands. Such activity continues to our day.
The Bottom Line
The church should be led by a single Pastor who is the tender ruler of that congregation. He is responsible to God for the spiritual welfare of the congregation. As a mature believer, he seeks and provides wisdom and Biblical instruction and he prescribes his understanding of God’s will to the congregation through his ministry. When this kind of ministry happens, the church will be in unity, it will display the character of God, it will receive and deliver a clear word, it will be efficient in decision making and problem solving ability, and it will instill respect for authority in church, home, and society.
Since the Pastor is a man and can fall into sin, there are safeguards given in scripture which both prevent the disaster and solve the dilemma. This will be the subject of the next post.
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Dr. Randy White is Pastor of First Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, the author of The Antichrist: What You Can Know, What You Need to Know, and host of the Word for the World radio broadcast. You can contact him at Randy@RandyWhiteMinistries.org.
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