Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More on "Adding an S" to Church Leadership

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Adding an 'S': The Grammar of Church Leadership."]

Before I launch in to what I have planned to write this week, let me share something briefly.  When I logged on to write this week's blog, I noticed that my last entry was on April 17 of this year.  Seeing that date and thinking through the last several months, I cannot help but stop and thank the Lord for all He has done.

This year, the Lord has seen fit to send me into an extensive period of physical illness.  I'll spare you the details, but needless to say, it has been a long road.  It started in January, but by April, it became clear that I needed to step back from some commitments I had for a time.  I had no clue that "for a time" would mean six months, but I thank the Lord that He has restored my health to a place where I can operate more normally.  There are still lingering issues to deal with, but they are nothing like the severity of what I have walked through, and for that, I praise Him.  With that said...it's good to be back!

This past Sunday, I preached the second sermon in our series called Church Leadership: Understanding God's Plan for God's People.  In the first week, we examined 1 Timothy 3:14-15 and saw that there is a way that one "ought to behave" in the church, and this includes the office of pastor/elder/overseer.  This second sermon focused on the grammar of church leadership.  For some, this may have been a review, but I believe it was new information for many listening.  What I want to do today is review just a bit of what was taught on Sunday and then answer one lingering question (not that it's the only one...but it is one).

We first talked about the vocabulary of church leadership, specifically looking at the three main words used in the NT for leaders in the church.  They are elder (presbuteros), overseer (episkopos), and pastor (poimen).  At various times, all three of these words are used to refer to the men who serve the church as its leaders...as its shepherds.  Not only that, but we saw that these three words are used interchangeably.  Let me remind you again of the two examples given on Sunday.

  • Verse 17 (elders) - Paul calls the elders from Ephesus to meet with him
  • Verse 28 (overseers) - Paul says the Holy Spirit has made them overseers
  • Verse 28 (pastor) - Paul tells them that God has made them overseers to "care for" the church (this "care for" translates the verb form of the word "pastor")
  • Verse 1 (elders) - Peter says he is addressing the elders
  • Verse 2 (pastor) - Peter calls on them to "shepherd the flock of God" ("shepherd" being the verb form of "pastor")
  • Verse 2 (overseer) - Peter tells them that in shepherding, they must "exercise oversight" (the verb form of overseer)
Phil Newton gives a helpful summary of why these three words would be used to describe one office.  "Elder" indicates the character of the men in the office, "overseer" indicates the leadership and authority entrusted to the men in the office, and "pastor" indicates the duties of spiritual feeding, nurturing, and protecting done by the men in the office.  [I heartily recommend Phil's book, Elders in Congregational Life, for those who want to read more on the subject.]

After talking about vocabulary, we moved on to grammar.  Specifically, we were reminded that this office is primarily spoken of in the plural, not the singular.  And when it is in connection with the church, the evidence is overwhelming.  Let me list passages that indicate this plurality of leadership:
  • Acts 14:23 - And when they had appointed elders (plural) for them in every church (singular)
  • The church in Jerusalem - it is mentioned several times to have had elders (plural)...Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 21:18
  • Acts 20:17 - ...[Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders (plural) of the church (singular) to come to him
  • James 5:14 - Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders (plural) of the church (singular)
  • Titus 1:5 - This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint (elders) in every town (singular)...the NT, in general, implies one church in each city or town (church at Ephesus, church in Corinth, church of the Thessalonians, etc.)
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:12 - We ask you (referring to the church, singular, of the Thessalonians), brothers, to respect those (plural) who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.
  • Hebrews 13:17 - Obey your leaders (plural) and submit to them (plural), for they (plural) are keeping watch over your souls...
Finally, we talked about the necessity of this church leadership.  Why did it exist?  Let me give you the net-net here.  Paul appointed elders (plural) because of the physical danger that faced the church, and Paul appointed elders (plural) because of the spiritual danger that faced the church.  Physically, persecution would remain a real threat, and having a plurality of pastors would mean that the church could go on in the face of the even the fiercest opposition.  Spiritually, Paul says that even from among the elders of the church, wolves will rise up and twist truth.  Plurality enables the congregation to be protected from such twisted doctrine.

Beyond this, plural leadership in the community of faith was normative for the people of God before the book of Acts.  Many of the NT references to "elders" refer to that body of men who oversaw each synagogue.  Isn't it interesting that no author of the New Testament really goes into detail about why a single church would have multiple pastors?  It's because this was the way in which spiritual leadership had been structured for a long time.  Even before the synagogues came into being, a plurality of priests facilitated the worship of God's people.  Also, elders are appointed to help in the leadership of God's people (Numbers 11:16ff).  Plural leadership was just part of God's plan for His people, so there is no need to explain why...though the reasons stated above do underline the validity of plural leadership.

One final thing from Sunday's message...the appointment of multiple pastors/elders in each New Testament church is a reminder that the ministry of the gospel in the local church is not about any single individual.  No matter how gifted...no matter how upright...no matter how much our culture does it in other cultural spheres...no single individual should be put on a pedestal.  No single individual should be given ultimate or absolute authority.  It should be a shared authority among those men whom God has set aside for His church.

Now, one of the lingering questions that I always had when I thought about these teachings in the New Testament was: if that's the case, how did the church, particularly the Baptist church in America, move away from this leadership structure?  The more I read, the more I see that the answer to this question is complicated.  Let me give you two pieces of the puzzle.

1.  In Phil Newton's book, three reasons are proposed for the decline of the use of plural leadership in Baptist life, and they are intriguing to consider.  Let me quote it directly:
"First, in the expansion of Baptist churches into the west, the single pastor/church planter often served as a circuit riding minister, handling the bulk of church duties with plural eldership fading in the process.  Presumably, qualified male leadership was scarce in the early days.  Second, the rise of Landmarkism, with its emphasis on 'democratic rule with no elder rule' had profound influence on Southern Baptist practice and life.  Third, 'the rise of the Campbellites' - now called the Church of Christ - who 'used the word exclusiely' - caused the Baptists to react and reject the name elder, using only the word pastor for those involved in church ministry and leadership" (p. 157, end note 24).
2. In another book called Why Elders?: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members, Benjamin Merkle comes with a different perspective.  He does not address the way Baptist leadership evolved, but he does give some intriguing reasons why the practice of using a single pastor/elder may have stuck.  He gives three reasons that I will summarize:
  • Lack of qualified men - While it is true that the qualifications are spiritually challenging to anyone who would aspire to be a pastor/elder, it is also possible to be so rigorous in using them that practically nobody could fill them.  A second part of this problem is that, too often, men are caught up in other pursuits in their lives, and the aspiration to lead in the church has "all but vanished in the church."  Finally, the office of pastor has become so professionalized that many congregation's believe that apart from certain educational achievements, one cannot serve the church as a pastor/elder.
  • Lack of biblical knowledge - Many have just simply never been taught or considered the Bible's teaching on church leadership.  Too often, pastors just think of this area as "irrelevant" to teach, or a church will just do what it thinks best.  While we have to admit that there is no "leadership appendix" in the back of our Bibles, giving step by step instructions on the issue, we cannot deny that there is a great amount of NT evidence that should shape how we think and operate in this area.
  • Fear of change - Pastors have fears about the work of bringing such change, and congregations have fears about receiving and implementing such change.  Here are a few telling sentences from Merkle: "...often what people fear the most is simply change.  They may...acknowledge that such a doctrine is found in the Bible, but they are not convinced that it is worth the trouble of actually conforming their church polity to the Scriptures...Fear has become a powerful deterrent..." (p. 64).
I would personally add that beyond these three reasons, we all have a great level of comfort in what we've always known...not just with regard to church leadership, but with anything.  The leadership of our church is part of the culture of our church, and if the culture of what we have experienced as "church" has been the same for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years, then change becomes even more difficult.

It is when we face things that cause fear that we should resolve ourselves to trust in the Lord and to trust the Word He has given us.  The question is...will we do just that?