When I first came to Bearwood Chapel, one of the things I said at the start was that I cannot guarantee that I will get everything right. I am human and fallible, I will make mistakes. So, the promise I made was that when I get things wrong I will be the first to hold my hand up.
I’m reflecting on that for two reasons as we talk about leaders in the church. First of all, I have always felt that an important requirement of leadership is that leaders should be teachable. We must not put them on a pedestal and infallible.
Secondly because I want to recognise where we haven’t quite got it right and take my share of responsibility for it. Leadership in the church tends to bounce between two risks. The first is that it becomes a bit like a country club committee where a select few get together and their primary role is to keep the ship steady so that none of the club members are upset. The risk is that the church becomes like its leadership, an exclusive club for insiders. This is where the other temptation comes in. The country club type church can be a very frustrating place to be – especially if you have people who are passionate about seeing the Gospel go out. So that nice, contented consensus gets replaced with something else. The problem is that we often replace it with a Business style executive. The focus is on “getting the job done” it’s very task orientated and feels very hierarchical. You start to see the pastor as the CEO with the elders as the board of directors and the other leaders as the middle management. Then the rest of the church gets divided between the workers and the consumers/customers. No-one is every very happy in such an organisation, especially the middle managers.
Now, we have been saying that we recognise that the church is meant to function together as a kind of extended family. There are lots of images of the church in the Bible including that we are a nation of priests, that we are engaged in spiritual warfare, we are like a temple being built together but I like the image of household and family because it reflects something of how the early church met together and more importantly, it reminds us that first and foremost we are sons of the Father and brothers with Jesus.
So, here’s where I put my hand up. I think we believe this and at times, this is genuinely something we get close to but I also think that at times we can slip into one of the other two situations. As one of the church elders, it is important that I put my hand up and take responsibility for where we don’t get it right.
So, with that in mind, I want to share a few thoughts about Biblical leadership in the context of the church family. There are two parts to this. The first is concerning the role and responsibility of leaders and the second is to do with their character and qualifications.
- What is the role of a leader in the church
Leaders are there to serve the church by equipping It (Ephesians 4:11-16)
You will notice that Paul describes a variety of roles here. In fact, throughout the New Testament, there are a lot of different people who seem to take a lead in the work of the Gospel. Some of those roles may be limited to a specific time and context -for example I believe that Apostles as we see them in the New Testament -specifically the 12 provide a foundation for the church by revealing God’s Word. That role was clearly limited to New Testament times.
However, there are other roles that are seen throughout the history of the church. This list talks about evangelists and pastor-teachers. Also, some people think that there may a kind of “small a” apostolic role which is to do with being a catalyst and encouragement across the churches and especially with mission and church planting. Whilst I can see that people seem to carry out that role, I think we need to be careful about using titles like “Apostle” which we might confuse with the role reserved for the 12. It is better to use language that we will understand and describe such people as missionaries or church planters.
Some roles are specific talked about and named and seem to be formal roles in the church -specifically elders and deacons – this list refers to pastor-teachers which is another way of describing elders.
The key thing to note here is that the leaders mentioned are to serve the church by equipping it to serve God and the Gospel and to encourage it to grow into unity.
What does that mean?
Well, first of all it means that leaders are servants first. They are not to lord it over the church telling everyone what to do.
Nor, are they there as subcontractors doing all the work. They are meant to equip and encourage the whole church so that everyone is using their gifts. I believe that this means it also isn’t down to the leaders to make all the decisions and for the rest of the church to comply. Rather, as we are equipped in God’s Word, then the whole church should be involved in making decisions together. Indeed, the purpose of decision making is not to find out if there is a majority or to make sure that every voice is represented rather, it is to discern God’s will together.
Some leaders are responsible for equipping the church by teaching God’s Word
In Acts 6, there are challenges to the early church, lots of practical decision-making responsibilities are falling back on the apostles. The result is dissatisfaction and grumbling. The Apostles conclude that they need to be set aside from all distractions to focus on knowing and teaching the Word as well as to prayer.
This responsibility is passed on to church elders. One of the qualifications for an elder is that he is to be able to teach God’s Word. This is the authority elders have. It is right to recognise that there is an honour in this. Godly elders should have a teaching authority in the church, not because they impose their view on others by either pulling rank or using their force of personality but because people can see that they are bringing God’s Word to bear.
The aim is that the church will be rooted in the Word of God and because it will know God’s word it will be protected from false teaching and division. This is how we grow into unity. You will notice that Ephesians 4 focuses primarily on word ministry gifts.
In Acts 20:28 Paul talks to the Ephesian elders about their responsibility both to feed God’s people with his word and to guard them from false teaching.
Some leaders are responsible for encouraging love, service and good deeds
At the same time in Acts 6, there was a need to ensure that the church was showing love and care one for another. People know we belong to Jesus when we love one another. One of our concerns is to be a church that shows love. That’s one of the reasons why as well as having teaching and training ministries we have ministries to encourage service and help such as Toddlers, the café, ESOL classes, the hardship fund.
The church benefits from having leaders who are there to encourage and organise such things. They are set apart for the task and you will notice in Acts 6 that they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Like the elders, they need to be humble and teachable. They cannot impose on others but at the same time, when a deacon sets a godly example, we should follow it and respect them as they seek to encourage us in godliness.
At Bearwood Chapel, we don’t tend to use the title “deacon” but we have lots of leaders that fulfil that type of function including as they encourage service in the life of the church. By the way, that isn’t limited to those who sit on our church leadership team. In fact, whilst meetings and groups are necessarily, I’m personally less and less convinced that the priority is about having this or that committee and being a member of it and more about how we ensure that people are taking their responsibility in and amongst the church members so that the whole church engages with decision making. After all, if we go back to the image of family life, husbands do not go off to sit in their own committee to make decisions that are then announced to the family, nor do wives either. Instead, husbands and wives bring their roles, characteristics and gifts into family decision making.
- The character of leaders
1 Timothy 3 describes what elders and deacons should be like. Now, it’s worth noting here that there is a little translation issue in the text.
The passage describes the characteristics of elders in terms of their family life. It talks about their relationship to women and their families. The passage then goes on to talk about deacons and verse 11 talks about what is sometimes referred to as “their wives.” Now, there are two issues with that. First of all, why tell us about the deacons’ wives and not about the elders’ wives? The other factor is that the word used here can, and often simply does mean “the women” in other words, the women from among the deacons. So, we see that there is a leadership team in the early churches that includes both men and women with male elders and both male and female deacons.
Now, let’s look at those qualities:
Elders are to be…
Gentle, faithful (literally a one-woman man), hospitable, wise, have a good reputation. They are required to be able to lead and look after their family. Notice:
– The standards are high in terms of character. However, there isn’t the high bar we might expect in terms of charisma or intellect. We are looking for godly men for this role
– The qualities are linked to family life because church life is family life together.
– Elders must be able to teach -because their authority and responsibility is to help the church hear and obey God’s Word. The Church is Christ’s church not Dave’s church or Steve’s church or Jonathan’s church.
Deacons are to be ….
Sober, well respected, honest (trusted with money) tested. The key emphasis here is on trust and stewardship because these are the leaders who take responsibility for practical matters, the care of others and the provision of resources.
Like with elders, we need to look at the Deacon’s home life because church is family.
Women Deacons/Leaders are to be …
Respected, self-controlled, faithful. They are not to gossip/slander. They are likely to be entrusted with knowledge about the pastoral life of the church and they are not to use this destructively to the detriment of others.
Implications for Church Life
So if these are the responsibilities and requirements of leaders then the application is simple
First of all, for those of us who are leaders or considering a possible leadership calling we should be challenged -how do we measure up?
Secondly, all of us have a responsibility:
- To make sure that we have leaders who fit these qualifications and who are genuinely called by God to serve.
- To relate well to those leaders, to respect them, to allow them to lead – not as overbearing task masters but as servant leaders who love and care for the church (Hebrews 13:7 & 17-18)
- To grow in our gifts and participate in the family life of the church, seeking its unity and seeking to serve Christ together.
 You can see more of my understanding of why this is so at https://faithroots.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/male-and-female-leadership-and-teaching-roles.pdf