Leadership in the New Testament Church

September 19, 2017

This was a message prepared for a small group of the Lord’s people whose insightful and careful leader is being lost to retirement and other volunteer work.  The group is seeking direction.  There is denominational pressure toward “standard” patterns, but some are concerned that the New Testament- style we have been choosing could be lost in such a situation.  Perhaps it will be helpful to others who are in a similar dilemma.

Leadership in the Church

Many, if not most of us have chosen to be at GMF precisely because it is NOT like other “church” groups that we have encountered. We need to keep this in mind as we discuss and attempt to discern “What now?” as Jim and Ruth have felt led to move on. Who we are, and who we choose to become, will both affect and be affected by that decision.

It is fairly easy, for example, to observe whether the primary loyalty of a group is to a “kingdom of this world” or the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, if, as soon as you walk in the door, you observe that an idolatrous national symbol adorns their “center of worship.”
It is similarly easy to discern a group’s “definition of church” by the titles and the deference accorded to their “leadership”. When well-meaning people responded to the news that we were “looking for a church” with an enthusiastic “Oh, you should come listen to our preacher (or minister, or pastor, or bishop, or choir, or worship team)”, we knew immediately that we would NOT find the fellowship we were seeking there. An “audience” at a “performance” is not our definition of “church.”

When, years after a couple of earlier abortive visits, we visited GMF again, we saw something quite different, and very rare. We saw a group trying to function as a brotherhood. And for better or worse, here we are.

More than 60 years ago, I had been attracted to a small group at college who were trying to become a brotherhood informed by and copied after the New Testament. It has been a long and often futile effort. I have never understood why folks who say they follow Jesus pay so little attention to the only source of reliable information about his instructions! Seems like that should be a no-brainer! It is only in the New Testament that we can find any reliable record of the transformation of a wildly diverse assortment of people into the “Body of Christ” – the Kingdom of God!

These folks knew they had become involved in a drastically different new life. Teaching was crucial, in order to learn how this new life was to operate. Fellowship, the sharing of their lives, provided the context for practical experience in Kingdom living. “Wonders and signs” accompanied the message, but the greatest wonder of all was the transformation of those thousands of individuals into a cohesive brotherhood.

Recently, Jim has done a beautiful job of describing some of the challenges of becoming the Body that the Lord intends for his people. In fact, the decision to be joined to the Body of Christ should be the last individual decision of a person’s life! From then on, he is no longer a single individual, but a part of a larger whole, a member of the Body. Alone, a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear, can neither survive, nor fulfill its intended purpose. It can’t even be properly related to the Head, without the necessary connecting parts! A finger is of no use unless it is connected to a hand, which is utterly dependent upon an arm, and thence to a shoulder — were each individual part connected directly to the head, the result would not be a body, but a monstrosity! “Just Jesus and me” does not work! Only together can his people become an extension of his presence in the world. Stanley Hauerwas posed a crucial question: “Can we so order our life together that the world might look at us and know that God has been busily at work?”

Probably the most detailed instructions in this regard are in Paul’s letter to Ephesus. He speaks of various functional persons being given to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers — PLEASE NOTICE THAT THESE ARE ALL PLURAL!!! – for the purpose of “equipping the saints (that’s everybody, folks!) for works of service!!!” THESE ARE NOT OFFICIALS who do all the work or give orders to the others. They are ENABLERS, who teach and create opportunities for the rest, properly to represent their Lord in the world! (Jim has accepted this responsibility as skillfully as anyone I have ever seen! But there is only one of him. The church needs many, many more.)

This is the context in which the various “spiritual gifts” are found, and in which they are intended to function. That is another subject that we should study carefully, but there is not time today. For our present purpose, the message is simply that in a healthy Body, whenever a need arises, the Lord has a member of that Body available and empowered to minister to that need. If the Lord assigns a job outside the Body, he likewise provides one or more members with the ability to accomplish that task. These empowerments are not diplomas, titles, or status symbols, and certainly not hired positions; they are simply the wherewithal to get a job done. They constitute a delivery system, bringing the power of God to bear upon the human situation.

The life of the Lord Jesus will not flow through a Body whose fragments are all rushing off in different directions, taking their cues from some flamboyant “leader” other than the Head. His life will not flow through a body whose parts are atrophied from disuse. The Body will grow, mature, and become what the Lord intends only when all its parts are working TOGETHER, sharing with one another all that he has entrusted or revealed to each of them. EVERYONE IS INDISPENSABLE, if we learn rightly to “discern the Body.”

Is it necessary to assume, then, with all the Biblical emphasis on the contribution of every member, that no leadership in the conventional sense is needed, required or welcome in the Body of Christ? By no means! Leadership has not been eliminated: it has simply been redefined. True, there are no positions of dominance, prestige or power in a faithful Body. But there are many needs for leadership on the part of those who see their task as simply fulfilling one of many functions and not as a position of status or domination.

This orientation of the Kingdom, of course, was as diametrically opposed to the prevailing cultures of the first century as it is those of our own.

The Jewish and pagan religious systems had a surprising amount of common ground. In both, the ordinary person was denied the privilege to approach his god directly. The office of a priest-intermediary was required. After all, one had to be frightfully careful: a mistake could offend the deity, and result in disaster. People were familiar with the Old Testament stories of death and disaster coming upon those who dared to come too close. Pagan priests also held a tight rein on their constituencies. They ruled by dint of their esoteric knowledge and trickery shared only with their own initiates.

The gods had to be appeased, and only the priests knew how to mollify them. We saw in an earlier study how in the Jewish temple, a heavy veil was used to exclude ordinary folks from the presence of God, and how that veil of separation was utterly destroyed at the moment of Jesus’ death. For citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY once and forever!

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus has chosen to speak TO and THROUGH ALL of his people!

In practical terms, this means that ALL of the secrecy and exclusion common in the surrounding religions is totally out of order for the people of God – even – or especially – when it is enshrined in “official” structures like denominations or conferences! The New Testament, by contrast, is replete with examples of people who, entrusted with roles of leadership, went to great pains to be certain that everything was done with the utmost integrity. From every congregation that contributed to the relief offering for Judea, Paul took along a representative to ensure its safe delivery. Peter, even tho called and specifically instructed by the Holy Spirit, took along brethren from Joppa as witnesses when he visited Cornelius. After each missionary journey, Paul and his co-workers reported back to their sending congregation at Antioch. Free-lancing was not and is not the mark of faithful leadership.

Neither is taking personal credit for what the Lord does. Very early, Peter and John had opportunity for a “glory trip” after the healing of a lame man in the temple. They overtly rejected the plaudits of the crowd,, and attributed the event to the resurrection power of Jesus. Paul and Barnabas reacted the same way to the worship offered them at Lystra (Ac.14).

There will – there must – be leadership in the Kingdom. But faithful leaders will take care that there be NO VEIL – total openness, total honesty, and the complete absence of any shred of secrecy or manipulation, is absolutely necessary.

Another safeguard which helped prevent any abuse of authority is the consistent pattern that every assignment, every “office” in the N.T. church is always spoken of in the PLURAL. In every group, apostles appointed local elders (plural) to supervise the new brotherhood. Eph.4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers (ALL PLURAL) who are to facilitate the ministries of ALL THE SAINTS. And even a cursory study of that term reveals that “saints” consistently refers, not to individuals of superior power or holiness, but to ALL the people of God. There is no hint of expectation that all the jobs in any given congregation will be filled by one or two individuals hired to “run” the church. In a faithful colony of the Kingdom, NOBODY IS OVERWORKED!! If in any congregation or denomination someone is overloaded with responsibility, then someone else – probably many ‘someone else’s’– are being cheated out of the privilege to be active in the King’s service. THE PRIMARY JOB OF ANYONE IN LEADERSHIP IS TO SEE THAT THE BODY BENEFITS FROM THE CONTRIBUTION OF EVERY BROTHER AND SISTER!!!!! The second is to be busily training his replacement.

Jesus himself had sharply defined the function of leadership in the Matthew passage we read this morning, and strictly forbidden the use of any honorary titles or deferential treatment of anyone filling ANY role. The lesson was apparently learned so well that at this distance it is difficult to determine who had what responsibilities. Steven, for example, chosen for deacon work in caring for widows, became a powerful preacher. Paul’s letters refer to “apostles” (using both male and female names) of whom Acts bear no record. Philip, also starting out as a deacon, was later known as an evangelist. The concern clearly was getting the work done, not in handing out certificates of merit or protecting anyone’s “turf”.

Jesus had stated it very clearly: “You have one Teacher and you are all brothers.” Different people may be in charge of directing different aspects of Kingdom work, but NO ONE INDIVIDUAL IS IN CHARGE!

In fact there is only one NT reference to one person being “in charge” of a local group – In III Jn.9-10 Diotrephes is chastised for speaking against elder apostles, loving to be first, refusing to welcome other brethren, in short, “running the show.”

No leader must ever be beyond challenge. Paul reported to the Galatian church about his encounter with Peter, when Peter stood in need of correction. On several other occasions he challenged the “pedigree game” and deliberately rejected the “value” of his own.

How then were assignments made? In many different ways.
Saul, who was used to giving orders, was introduced to his new role by Ananias, an obscure disciple in Damascus, who is never mentioned again. Ananias’ obedience to the Lord, however was a link in the chain that gifted the world with the ministry of Paul. Later, Barnabas took him in hand and encouraged the other apostles to accept the authenticity of his conversion. How much poorer would we be, had these two not acted in faithfulness!
Matthias (Ac.1) was chosen by lot at the initiative of the first disciples, after the congregation had chosen two nominees.
The deacons were selected by the entire congregation, to minister to an unmet need among them. The twelve, who obviously exercised a degree of authority, did not act threatened or defensive when the oversight was called to their attention. They did not call a private “ministers meeting”. They threw the issue back to those who had perceived the problem, and said, in effect, “you’re right: find some qualified folks to do the job!”
Prophets (plural) and teachers (also plural) in Antioch were enjoying a prayer meeting when the Holy Spirit spoke, directing them to call Paul and Barnabas for a special assignment.
At Lystra, Paul met a promising young man and invited Timothy to join the work.

The method of selection does not seem to have mattered.
But please notice, that IN NO INSTANCE was a permanent or even a temporary title conferred upon anyone. Jesus had forbidden that!!! Each was simply called to perform a needed function!

In view of the importance of function a look at the system in action may be helpful. A good example is the account in Acts 15. The Gentile brethren in Antioch were being hassled by some self-appointed “defenders of the faith”. The troublemakers had not come with the endorsement of the brotherhood, but on their own initiative. Discussions became heated. Consequently, the church commissioned Paul and Barnabas and some others who are not listed, to take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, who were apparently serving in a supervisory capacity. Their choice is described by the same word that is translated “ordain” in other contexts. Sent by the church, they set out, reporting as they went the work of God in calling Gentiles into his Body.

In Jerusalem, they met with “the church, the apostles, and the elders.” As they repeated their report, some folks objected: likely either the ones who had caused the problem, or some of their cohorts. At this point, (perhaps there was too much commotion to make any sense out of things!) the apostles and elders gathered to study the matter. BEFORE A JUDGMENT WAS MADE, however, ALL THE ASSEMBLY (literally “all the multitude”) listened to the testimony. In an eloquent demonstration of New Testament leadership, James summarized the argument, related it to Biblical precedent, and recommended a solution. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and elders AND THE WHOLE CHURCH, having chosen men from among them, to send them to Antioch…” Their letter speaks of “having come to one mind”, and confidently reports “It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Here is New Testament leadership at its best: hearing all sides, bringing them face to face, and helping them to a Scriptural consensus that results in “great rejoicing” among the brethren. THERE WAS NO CLOSED DOOR MEETING OF AN HIERARCHICAL IN-GROUP, but simply open sharing of perceived light among the citizens of the Kingdom.

Clearly, there will – there MUST – be leadership. That is to be neither lamented nor celebrated, neither sought nor avoided, but carefully controlled, and conformed, not to the pattern of the world with its executives, flow charts and committees, but to the model of our Servant King. In the Kingdom, all the citizens function together, in obedience to their ONE leader, each filling the role assigned to him at the moment, in the power of God, in faithfulness and joy.

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