Who’s in Charge Here? Leadership in the New Testament ChurchRelated Media
I remember seeing (or hearing of) a book entitled, Sacred Cows Make Good Hamburger.104 There are a lot of sacred cows in the Christian church, and it is no doubt time for us to grind up some of them. These “sacred cows” are beliefs, traditions, and practices concerning the church, all of which fall short of the Scriptures. In this series, I have chosen to speak of them as “barnacles on the bottom of the boat” – things that have grown attached to the church, but which have little or no biblical basis. I believe this lesson on church leadership will reveal some pretty large barnacles on the bottom of the boat, barnacles (beliefs and practices related to leadership) which need to be given careful scrutiny. I would like to focus on the subject of church leadership in our quest to identify and grind up a few sacred cows.
We all need to be very careful here, for the “cows” of this lesson are “sacred” to us, and thus we are naturally inclined to be defensive. If you were to argue, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it,” there would be no debate. The question is whether or not this is the biblical way to do it. What does the Bible teach us about the leadership of the church? Who is in charge there? That is what we hope to discover in this lesson.
My approach in this lesson will be to begin by establishing the doctrinal foundation for the New Testament teaching and practice regarding church leadership. Next, we will take a closer look at the words of our Lord to church leaders – His disciples – in Matthew 23. Here, Jesus will teach us how to lead, both from the negative example of the scribes and Pharisees, and from His own positive teaching, teaching which He exemplifies in His life and ministry. Then we will turn our attention to the principles, commands, and practices of the New Testament. This will set the stage for some concluding words about the application of what we have seen from the Scriptures.
Foundation Stone Number One: The priesthood of all believers. I must begin by distinguishing the “priesthood of all believers” from the “priesthood of every believer.” I think there is a measure of truth in this latter expression, but in our (Western) individualistic culture this expression can be understood in a way that makes each and every believer appear to be independent and autonomous, as though we are our own best priest. The expression, the “priesthood of all believers,” places the emphasis on the corporate nature of our priesthood. We collectively minister to men as the body of Christ.
While we may be tempted to go straight to the New Testament, and specifically to 1 Peter 2 and Revelation 1 and 5, we need to remember that the promise to be a priestly nation was first given to the nation Israel:
4 “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I lifted you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 And now, if you will diligently listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, 6 and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you will speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:4-6, emphasis mine).105
The question arises, “What happened to Israel’s priesthood, and how did this priestly mantle fall upon the church?” Let us observe how this came about.
The offer to become a priestly nation was given to the Israelites in Exodus 19. The law is yet to be given, beginning in chapter 20. Instead of looking at what happened from the account in Exodus, we find some added details provided by Moses at the second giving of the law (to the second generation of Israelites) in the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses reminds the Israelites that in those early days, God spoke to the Israelites (not just Moses) “face to face”:
1 Then Moses called all the people of Israel together and said to them: “Listen, Israel, to the statutes and ordinances that I am about to deliver to you today; learn them and be careful to keep them! 2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 He did not make this covenant with our ancestors but with us, we who are here today, all of us living now. 4 The Lord spoke face to face with you at the mountain, from the middle of the fire. 5 (I was standing between the Lord and you at that time to reveal to you the message of the Lord, because you were afraid of the fire and would not go up the mountain.)”. . . (Deuteronomy 5:1-5, emphasis mine).
The Israelites were terrified by the thought of continually experiencing God “up close and personal.” They would rather keep their distance:
22 The Lord said these things to your entire assembly at the mountain from the middle of the fire, the cloud, and the darkness with a loud voice, and that was all he said. Then he inscribed the words on two stone tablets and gave them to me. 23 Then, when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness while the mountain was ablaze, all your tribal leaders and elders approached me. 24 You said, “The Lord our God has shown us his great glory and we have heard him speak from the middle of the fire. It is now clear to us that God can speak to human beings and they can keep on living. 25 But now, why should we die, because this intense fire will consume us! If we keep hearing the voice of the Lord our God we will die! 26 Who is there from the entire human race who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the middle of the fire as we have, and has lived? 27 You go near so that you can hear everything the Lord our God is saying and then you can tell us whatever he says to you; then we will pay attention and do it.” 28 When the Lord heard you speaking to me, he said to me, “I have heard what these people have said to you – they have spoken well. 29 If only it would really be their desire to fear me and obey all my commandments in the future, so that it may go well with them and their descendants forever. 30 Go and tell them, ‘Return to your tents!’ 31 But as for you, remain here with me so I can declare to you all the commandments, statutes, and ordinances that you are to teach them, so that they can carry them out in the land I am about to give them.” 32 Be careful, therefore, to do exactly what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn right or left! 33 Walk just as he has commanded you so that you may live, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land you are going to possess” (Deuteronomy 5:22-33, emphasis mine).
The Israelites did not want a priestly role; they wanted Moses to assume this role and to be their mediator. God does not chastise the nation for requesting that Moses become their mediator; He acknowledges that their request was wise. It won’t take very long for this to become evident, for just a few chapters later the Israelites will be worshiping a golden calf while Moses is up on the mountain. And because the Israelites were stiff-necked and disobedient, it meant almost certain death if they got too close to this holy God:
For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I went up among you for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments, that I may know what I should do to you’” (Exodus 33:5).
It was the hardened hearts of the Israelites that put them at risk. They, like us, were “prone to wander,” prone to leave the God they professed to love. Until their heart problem was solved, there was no way that they could be a priestly nation. They needed a mediator, and Moses (for the time) was the solution to their problem. Had it not been for the mediatory role Moses played, the nation Israel (humanly speaking) would be no more.
Nothing more is said of a priestly nation until we come to the New Testament, and suddenly it appears after the birth of the church:
4 So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God’s sight, 5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it says in scripture, “Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and priceless cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame.” 7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, 8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.
5 And from Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood 6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen (Revelation 1:5-6, emphasis mine; see also 5:9-10).
How did this come about? It came about through the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, and the New Covenant which He established with His blood. This is especially evident in Revelation 1:5-6. The Israelites were well advised to “resign” from being a priestly kingdom because of their wicked hearts, which predisposed them to disobey God’s commands, rather than to obey them. But through the work of Jesus, our sins are forgiven, and we receive new hearts. Being a priestly nation no longer depends upon our ability to keep God’s commands, but rather upon the cleansing work of Jesus at Calvary. Because of His atonement for our sins once for all, we need not draw back, as the Israelites did, but rather we are to draw near:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22, emphasis mine).
Because we have a Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who has cleansed us from our sins, we can draw near to God, and thus the church can serve Him as a priestly nation. Thus, the priesthood of all believers is now in effect, and it greatly impacts the way the church is led.
Foundation Stone Number Two: The Headship of Christ over His Church. Once again, we begin in the Old Testament with His prohibition of idolatry in Exodus 20:
3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, 6 and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:3-6).
God will not tolerate idolatry because He alone is God, and He will not share His glory with anyone or anything else:
6 “I, the Lord, officially commission you; I take hold of your hand. I protect you and make you a covenant mediator for people, and a light to the nations, 7 to open blind eyes, to release prisoners from dungeons, those who live in darkness from prisons. 8 I am the Lord! That is my name! I will not share my glory with anyone else, or the praise due me with idols” (Isaiah 42:6-8, emphasis mine).
When we come to the New Testament, we find numerous passages which speak of our Lord’s exaltation above anything else. This is often described in the context of the church:
18 – since the eyes of your heart have been enlightened – so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the incomparable greatness of his power toward us who believe, as displayed in the exercise of his immense strength. 20 This power he exercised in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms 21 far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things. 23 Now the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:18-23).
9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
9 For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head over every ruler and authority (Colossians 2:9-10).
The text on which I would like to focus is found in the first chapter of Colossians:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, 16 for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him – all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son 20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross – through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:15-20, emphasis mine).
I am most interested in verse 18, and particularly the statement that “he himself may become first in all things.” I think I prefer the rendering of the ESV or of the NKJV, both of which speak of our Lord’s preeminence:
18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent (ESV, emphasis mine).
18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dad, that in all things He may have the preeminence (NKJV, emphasis mine).
The goal of the Father was to make our Lord Jesus preeminent. That is, He purposed for Him to be the object of our affection and attention. He meant for the Lord Jesus to be prominent. God purposed for His Son to receive glory from all creation. This truth has immense implications for us in terms of how we “do church,” as we shall see in a moment.
Let’s begin by looking at the text in Matthew 23:
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ 8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:1-12).
These words of Jesus could not be clearer in their indictment of the Jewish religious leaders (who were soon to orchestrate His death), or in their instruction to the disciples (and thus the church) regarding leadership. I believe these words directly bear on the matter of church leadership today, so let us listen well to our Lord.
Frankly, I am surprised to read what Jesus said about the scribes and the Pharisees in verses 1-3. These “spiritual” leaders of Jesus’ day have seated themselves in positions of authority. But rather than attack their authority, Jesus encourages the crowds and His disciples to give heed to their teaching. I am assuming that what Jesus said of civil authorities also applies – to one degree or another – to the religious leadership of the nation Israel:
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (Romans 13:1-2).
Our Lord assumes the authority of the religious leaders and instructs the crowd and His disciples to obey their teaching.106 But if Jesus told men to obey the scribes and Pharisees, the instructions which follow in verse 3 were a stinging rebuke to these leaders. Men were to give heed to their teaching, but not to their deeds. These men were hypocrites, something Jesus will repeat several times in Matthew 23.107 Then and now in that part of the world disciples not only learned at the feet of a master, they also followed him, imitating his every action. Jesus could not encourage men to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees, for reasons that He is about to spell out.
The picture our Lord “draws” of these leaders is not very attractive. They lay heavy burdens on men’s shoulders, but they do nothing to help carry the load. This is in stark contrast to what we read in chapter 11, or in Galatians 6:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).
1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. 2 Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
These Jewish religious leaders were a burden, rather than a blessing.108 I think it may be safe to say that they not only lay burdens on men that they refuse to help them carry; they lay burdens on others which they do not endeavor to carry themselves. They had all kinds of loopholes which excused them from obedience to God’s commands.
The scribes and Pharisees were “status seekers,” always playing to the crowds so that they might be regarded as spiritual and might be followed as leaders. Everything was about appearances, rather than reality. They loved all those things which set them apart from (above) others, things such as the place of honor at banquets or certain articles of clothing or special titles of honor. These men were seeking their own glory, and not the glory of God.
In verse 8, Jesus turns to His disciples instructing them regarding how they are to lead in a way that is drastically different. I believe that verse 8 is probably the key to understanding verses 9-12. The disciples were not to allow themselves to be called “Rabbi” because this position and title belonged to no one but Jesus. He is the Rabbi; He is the teacher. To take this title is to seek to usurp the preeminence of our Lord; it is to aspire to glory that rightfully belongs only to our Lord.
It is also an offense against our brothers. When we aspire to attain honor that belongs only to our Lord, we exalt ourselves above our brothers. Jesus says that we are all brothers. Of course, some men are leaders and others are not. Thus, I don’t think Jesus is talking about authority here, but glory. We dare not seek to elevate ourselves above our brethren, as though we were somehow better than they.
If we are not to assume titles which exalt us, rather than our Lord, and which elevate us above our brothers, neither are we to assume the title “Father,” which belongs to God. Now I don’t believe that Jesus is seeking to prohibit us from referring to our biological dad’s as “father;” I believe that He is referring to the use of the term “Father” as a spiritual title. Jesus is talking about our heavenly Father, not our earthly fathers. We see this title used of those who are spiritual leaders in the Old Testament:
Then the king of Israel when he saw them, said to Elisha, “My father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” (2 Kings 6:21, NASB)
Now Elisha had a terminal illness. King Joash of Israel went down to visit him. He wept before him and said, “My father, my father! The chariot and horsemen of Israel!” (2 Kings 13:14)
When the Second Person of the Godhead took on humanity, He was the exact representation of the Father’s nature109 and bears the Father’s image:
6 For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us. He shoulders responsibility and is called: Extraordinary Strategist, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6, emphasis mine).
So it is that Jesus can say:
“Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9)
Since we have but one spiritual Father, we dare not give His title to mere men.
It was pretty smooth sailing when the titles were “Rabbi” and “Father.” These are titles that are not used in our church. But it gets more uncomfortable for me when I read this in verse 10: “Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ.” Regardless of how we translate the term here, 110 the sense of our Lord’s words is that no man should take (or accept) a title which belongs only to the Lord Jesus. I believe we can see that Peter (among the other apostles) took our Lord’s words to heart when he wrote these words to his fellow elders:
1 So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: 2 Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. 4 Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Peter does not elevate himself above other elders, but refers to himself as a “fellow elder.” He does not “order” them, but rather “urges” or exhorts them. He exhorts them to shepherd “God’s flock” (not theirs), and to do so without abusing their authority and fully aware that God is the “Chief Shepherd” to whom they are accountable and who will reward them for their service.
Jesus then moves from outward concerns such as one’s attire and titles and places of honor to the root issues of the heart. Those who are truly great are those whose heart is filled with the desire to serve others. Those who seek to elevate themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted. Unlike His adversaries, Jesus practiced what He preached:
3 Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. 5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:3-11).
So, to sum up the teaching of our Lord, true spiritual leadership is not only vastly different, it is presented in stark contrast to the kind of leadership we see from the Jewish religious leaders (or the Gentile leaders) of His day. Heavy handed, authoritarian, ego-fulfilling leadership is out; humble servanthood is in. Followers of Jesus need to humbly serve Him and give Him all the glory. We dare not take upon ourselves those functions, offices, or titles which belong solely to our risen and glorified Lord. I believe that we shall see this played out in the principles, commands, and practices of the apostles in the New Testament.
There are several governing principles which underlie the commands and practices of the apostles in the New Testament. Let me list those I consider most crucial.
Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.111 As Head of the church, our Lord is the One who guides and directs His church. Now I understand that He does this through His Spirit and through the leadership of the church.112 But it is Christ in whom we must place our faith. First and foremost, it is Christ whom we are to follow. And it is God the Father and our Lord to whom all glory and honor belongs.113 Christ should be preeminent in His church.114
The brotherhood of all believers. We find this statement by our Lord in Matthew 23:8. The backdrop for this statement is our Lord’s prohibition of taking the title “Rabbi,” which would appear to set one man above the rest. It should be noted that Jesus is speaking here to His disciples, who (with the exception of Judas) will become His apostles. No one of them is to assume either the title or the position of preeminence above the rest. This is our Lord’s place. The disciples (apostles) are all brothers.
We need to be careful here because Jesus is not forbidding men from holding positions of authority. The apostles will have apostolic authority, and thus their teaching and their decisions (as in the Jerusalem Council) are to be followed. The same could be said for the elders of a local church. These are men who are to be respected and obeyed:
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you (Hebrews 13:17; see also 1 Peter 5:5).
What is forbidden by our Lord in Matthew 23:8 is illustrated in 3 John by Diotrephes:
9 I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not acknowledge us. 10 Therefore, if I come, I will call attention to the deeds he is doing – the bringing of unjustified charges against us with evil words! And not being content with that, he not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but hinders the people who want to do so and throws them out of the church! 11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is bad but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does what is bad has not seen God (3 John 9-11).
The priesthood of all believers. Closely related to the brotherhood of all believers is the priesthood of all believers. The church is not a collection of individual believers who each minister on their own. The church is a body that collectively ministers to itself and grows to maturity, and that corporately carries on the ministry of our Lord Jesus on earth.115 The church is not a collection of “Lone Rangers.” To put it in musical terms, the church is not a gathering of soloists; the church is a choir.
14 But I myself am fully convinced about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another (Romans 15:14).
14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God. 13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception (Hebrews 3:12-13).
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).
The principle of body life. This is perhaps another way of stating what has been said above. The church is a body, and thus it must function as a body. The members of the body are all inter-dependent, and no member is autonomous. The body ministers to itself and also ministers to others. The head of the body is Jesus Christ and no mere mortal.
14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. 16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love (Ephesians 4:14-16).
The “work of the ministry” is the work of the body.
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12, emphasis mine).
The principle of ministry through spiritual gifts.
28 And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues. 29 Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? 30 Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? (1 Corinthians 12:28-30)
When the church gathered, it was not so that one man’s ministry would dominate the meeting, but so that a variety of gifts and ministries could bless those who assembled:
26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26).
It would appear that in the Old Testament just a small minority of the Israelites were gifted by God’s Spirit for particular tasks. There is no indication that the gifts of the Spirit were distributed among the entire congregation of Israelites, as is the case in the church today.
There are but two offices of leadership in the church. There are but two offices in the church: elders and deacons. Each of these offices has its own responsibilities. But while there are only two offices in the church, a great variety of spiritual gifts are divinely distributed among the members of the body of Christ. Too often there is the assumption that having the gift of pastor-teacher is equivalent to holding the office of “pastor.” But no such office exists in the New Testament. All of the elders are to “shepherd the flock of God,” and not just one man.116 And beyond this, every member of the body ministers to the body.
The principle of plurality. This principle may encompass several of the earlier principles, but it is still worth stating on its own. Contained within what I am seeking to demonstrate here is what I might call the principle of diversification or the principle of division of power. Think about it. We see this principle in the Godhead, as there is both unity and diversity in the Trinity. In the Old Testament, we see power distributed between the offices of prophet, priest, and king.117 You will recall how strong God’s reaction was when Saul, the king, took upon himself the function of the priest.118 It would cost him his kingdom. And so in the New Testament, we find that the church is to be ruled by a plurality of elders, and not just one man.
The headship of Christ is evident when a plurality of elders comes to a decision that all can support. I will not tell you that governing by a plurality of men is necessarily the quickest or most efficient method of leading, but it does cause men to look to our Lord and to His Word for guidance. And when that sense of His will is reached, we can move ahead with unity and with confidence.
The Word of God is our authority. There is a sense, of course, in which authority comes with the office of elder (or, in the early church, the office of apostle). But it is God’s Word that is our ultimate authority. That is part of what the Reformation was all about. Sola scriptura was the doctrine that only the Scriptures had authority to speak for God, not the Church. Put differently, when the edicts and declarations of men contradict the teachings of God’s Word, God’s Word prevails – every time.
We can see this in those texts which proclaim the authority of God’s Word.119 We can also see it in Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders:
28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32).
Paul knew that he would not see these men again. He likewise revealed that false teachers would arise among them, as some would seek a following of their own (the very thing our Lord forbade). But in spite of knowing this, Paul commended these men to God, and to His Word. That is what will keep them from error. That is what will build them up in their faith. Our authority is God’s Word.
New Testament Commands
In Scripture, we can learn how to lead by doing the opposite of what ungodly leaders do:120
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling down she asked him for a favor. 21 He said to her, “What do you want?” She replied, “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He told them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right and at my left is not mine to give. Rather, it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 Now when the other ten heard this, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:20-28).
19 For since you are so wise, you put up with fools gladly. 20 For you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you, if someone exploits you, if someone takes advantage of you, if someone behaves arrogantly toward you, if someone strikes you in the face. 21 (To my disgrace I must say that we were too weak for that!) But whatever anyone else dares to boast about (I am speaking foolishly), I also dare to boast about the same thing (2 Corinthians 11:19-21).
1 So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: 2 Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. 4 Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Peter 5:1-4, emphasis mine).
Biblical leadership even means looking out for those who go astray within the church, and perhaps even within the church’s leadership:
28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32, emphasis mine).
12 And what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may eliminate any opportunity for those who want a chance to be regarded as our equals in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).
9 I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not acknowledge us. 10 Therefore, if I come, I will call attention to the deeds he is doing – the bringing of unjustified charges against us with evil words! And not being content with that, he not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but hinders the people who want to do so and throws them out of the church! 11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is bad but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does what is bad has not seen God. 12 Demetrius has been testified to by all, even by the truth itself. We also testify to him, and you know that our testimony is true (3 John 9-12).
New Testament Practices
The consistent practice of the apostles was to appoint a plurality of elders to lead each church that was founded:
5 The reason I left you in Crete was to set in order the remaining matters and to appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless, the husband of one wife, with faithful children who cannot be charged with dissipation or rebellion. 7 For the overseer must be blameless as one entrusted with God’s work, not arrogant, not prone to anger, not a drunkard, not violent, not greedy for gain. 8 Instead he must be hospitable, devoted to what is good, sensible, upright, devout, and self-controlled. 9 He must hold firmly to the faithful message as it has been taught, so that he will be able to give exhortation in such healthy teaching and correct those who speak against it (Titus 1:5-9, emphasis mine).
23 When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23, emphasis mine).
When problems arose and when decisions had to be made, they were made by a plurality of leaders (initially apostles and elders, and eventually elders). Often the congregation (or other interested parties) was involved in the process:
1 Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. 3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. 6 They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6).
1 Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. 2 While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off (Acts 13:1-3).
1 Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement (Acts 15:1-2).
New Testament leaders were servants, who sacrificially gave of themselves for the sake of those they led:
33 I have desired no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine provided for my needs and the needs of those who were with me. 35 By all these things, I have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33-35).
5 For we never appeared with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed – God is our witness – 6 nor to seek glory from people, either from you or from others, 7 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became little children among you. Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, 8 with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9 For you recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery: By working night and day so as not to impose a burden on any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, as to how holy and righteous and blameless our conduct was toward you who believe. 11 As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his own children, 12 exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you live in a way worthy of God who calls you to his own kingdom and his glory (1 Thessalonians 2:5-12).
The church is to be led by a plurality of men – elders who are assisted in their duties by deacons. They are to be servants in heart, men of high character and principles, men who are highly regarded within the church and without. The work of the ministry is not the work of the pastor, but the work of the church, and gifted men have been given to the church to build it up to carry out its responsibilities.
More than anything, we desire to demonstrate the reality that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. It is He who is to be preeminent, He who is to receive all praise and glory. When people come to our church and ask, “What’s it all about?” or “Who’s in charge here?” we hope that they very quickly perceive that it is all about Jesus, that He is the One who is in charge. It is not about the preacher, or about any one man in the church, it is about Him. As Paul has written,
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
We desire to do church to the glory of God, so that people see it is Jesus who leads us, who meets our every need, and who receives the glory. This church is about Jesus. He is God come in human flesh. He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” He is the One who died on the cross of Calvary to bear the penalty for sin. He is the Head of the church.
If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ as God’s only way to heaven, His only provision for the guilt and punishment of our sins, then I urge you to trust Him today.
103 Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 7 in the series, Can We Serve Church Cafeteria Style?, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 16, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
104 I would give more specific information about the book, but it was years ago that I saw it, and there are at least three books available at this moment with very similar titles.
105 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
106 I am assuming that this is within that which God’s Word commands or allows, and that one would not be obligated to violate either God’s Word or one’s conscience.
107 Matthew 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29.
108 Contrast Paul’s conduct among those to whom he ministered (2 Corinthians 11:9-18; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).
109 Hebrews 1:3.
110 The translations differ here. The NET Bible has “teacher;” the NIV “teachers;” the NASB “leaders;” the CSB “masters;” the ESV “instructors.”
111 Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:8-19.
112 An example of this is found in the sending out of Barnabas and Saul by the church in Acts 13:1-4.
113 See 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 2:7, 9; 2 Peter 1:17; Revelation 4:9-11; 5:11-13; 9:11-12.
114 Colossians 1:18.
115 Ephesians 4:4-16.
116 Acts 20:28-32; 1 Peter 5:1-4.
117 This same division of power is seen in our federal government with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.
118 1 Samuel 13:8-15.
119 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 2 Peter 1:2-4, 12-21.
120 I realize that there are some secular leaders who actually imitate the biblical principles and practices of leadership, simply because “they work,” because it is “good business.” But the Scriptures focus on the kind of Gentile leadership that is dominated by the flesh, and instructs Christians to lead as servants, rather than as “lords.”