Some years ago, the board chairman of a large church announced to the congregation that the “New Testament did not apply to the church today.” He was struggling with what God had said about church government – church leadership. He did not like what he was reading. He viewed the New Testament teaching about church leadership to be “ancient” and not practical. The form, function and the qualifications of elders or leaders in our churches today is in decay in some areas and non-existent in others. The focus and vision of the church today is usually driven by other concerns and agendas, rather than what God desires. The fundamentals are ignored either directly or through well intentioned neglect. Maybe that is why Ambrose made this observation hundreds of years ago.
“ . . . [Ambrose] complains in the following terms: ‘The old synagogue and afterward the church, had elders, without whose counsel nothing was done. It has fallen out of use, by what negligence I do not know . . .” John Calvin, A.D. 1600
Unfortunately, more than just an unbiblical form of church leadership has become commonplace in evangelical churches throughout our world. While this is a very important issue, it is not as important as the decline of spiritual maturity in the lives of many leaders and pastors. It is a spiritual axiom that the quality of the spiritual leadership affects the spiritual health of the local church. It is very difficult for church members to grow beyond immature spiritual examples – immature spiritual leaders. These two issues are the cause of the fall and decline of the church in America today. Our focus will be on the local church and how to recover God’s pattern of biblical leadership.
Church Boards. Today evangelical churches function with a variety of organizational structures. The specifics of the organization are defined by the Statement of Faith, Articles of Incorporation, Constitution, and By-Laws of the church. Collectively, they define a common set of beliefs, the boards and committees of the church, the methodology for selecting their leaders and the responsibilities of the leadership and the congregation. Some churches are organized with a democratic form of church leadership with the congregation having a significant amount of control. Other churches employ an autonomous form of leadership structure that has some or no accountability to the congregation. Others are completely governed by a single influential individual. In some cases, the denomination has dictated the structure. Churches have adopted a wide variety of organizational structures for a variety of reasons. Some are organized to avoid certain problems while others have adopted structures that are a blur of multiple church constitutions and by-laws.
The governing leadership of many churches has been referred to by a variety of names, such as deacons, directors, elders, officers, trustees and servants. One church simply referred to its leadership as the “board members.” In others, the leadership can have lofty titles. Usually the title is an indication of the leader’s function within the church. In some churches, these leaders are expected to shepherd the congregation, while in others a strong business presence is desired for financial reasons.
The leadership may be passive with a paid staff completely running the church. This occurs because lay leaders are usually expected to be involved in the life of the church to some degree with the pastor usually functioning as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Most church members and pastors merely see lay leaders as organizational men and nothing more.
In most churches, the leadership serve different terms of office. The pastor(s) are sometimes permanent members of the leadership board, while the laymen rotate off and on. This arrangement is often designed to remove poor board members, prevent control of the board by a select few laymen, provide for leaves of absence, and for the introduction of younger leaders or “new blood.” The ministry roles of the pastoral staff are usually considered to be too important to have them rotate off and on. While the rotation of lay leaders is commonly designed to prevent power blocks from forming among the leadership, it ignores the obvious fact that the pastoral staff is actually the biggest vested power block in the leadership. In other churches, all leaders serve as long as they are biblically qualified. In still others, the biblical qualifications are considered to be unimportant by the very practices employed in the selection of leaders.
God’s Pattern. Theologians have studied the New Testament for clues regarding a biblical pattern for church government. No directives commanding a specific form of church organization in all of its many minute details can be found in black and white. But the Bible is not silent either. Yes, it is sometimes vague, due to uncertain word meanings, grammar and cultural contexts. As a result, scripture is used to support different forms of church government, such as congregational rule, or an autonomous leadership team, as well as other variations. Regardless of viewpoint, we will see that the biblical evidence weighs in favor of greater responsibility for the leadership and a supportive congregation. We will also see that God has given us foundational blocks for building a biblical form of leadership.
Philippians 1:1 is the only passage in scripture where we see the congregation, the saints, and the church leaders together. 1 Timothy 3:1-13 includes just the leadership. We will see in our study that elders and deacons are the biblical names for church leaders. But what is the function of the elders and deacons? What is common between the elders and the pastor? We will examine these key questions.
Leadership Qualifications. Leaders are often selected because of their business experience, financial contributions, outside political connections, professional jobs, management skills, internal church connections, as well as for their spiritual characters. These are the criteria or qualifications churches frequently use when selecting leaders. As a result they select doctors, attorneys, bankers and successful business owners. Models of holiness are sometimes desired. Biblical knowledge is usually a secondary consideration compared to administrative and organizational skills. In many churches, the pastor is the only recognized Bible expert and the leadership looks to him for spiritual guidance as well as theological and biblical knowledge. By implication, theological and biblical knowledge are less important in choosing lay leaders.
But the major criteria that is usually ignored is spiritual maturity. The marks of spiritual maturity are often minimized or even ignored in the pursuit of recognizing a sufficient number of men with the “right skills” to “run the church.” The concept of real, vital, spiritually mature shepherds and mentors of the flock is foreign in some churches.
Why and when should church members follow the admonition of Hebrews 13:7?
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and consider the result of their conduct, imitate their faith . . . Hebrews 13:7 (NASB)
The answer is, “When their leaders are spiritually mature.” The passage is very specific. The Holy Spirit says that we are to imitate the faith of someone. It does not give us an option. It tells the saints to look for three things before they follow anyone’s spiritual example. First, he must have been a leader in the church. Second, the leader must have been a teacher of the Word of God within the congregation. That means the elder was a leader-teacher or a shepherd-leader. Third, the men and women in the church must evaluate “the result of the shepherd’s spiritual life before imitating him.” What does it mean to evaluate a shepherd’s spiritual life? It means to look at the spiritual character or spiritual maturity of the shepherd-leaders and ask, “Are they spiritually mature?” If so, then imitate them; if not, look for someone else. If you are a shepherd-leader, are you spiritually mature? What does spiritual maturity look like? That is a question we will explore in this study.
Biblical Warnings. If the marks of spiritual maturity for leaders are ignored or minimized to accommodate even select individuals, the church will suffer. If the responsibilities are ignored by the church leadership, the church will suffer too!
The health and life of a church depend on the quality of its leaders and on their fulfillment of the responsibilities the Great Shepherd gave them. When the governing leadership is unqualified, the form of church government is irrelevant. When the leaders ignore their responsibilities, the church will suffer.
The church is in trouble when the leadership is either blind or indifferent to its own sins and immaturity. This was the condition in Israel, for the Old Testament records that the prophets “rule on their own authority, and my people love it so (Jeremiah 5:30-31)” and the “priests approve of their own sins and the sins of the people (Hosea 4:8-9).
In the Old Testament, God warned and condemned the priests and prophets for a variety of sins. The sins revealed spiritual immaturity, indifference to their responsibilities and duties, and impersonal relationship with God. God was displeased with the priests when they taught falsely, partially, or not at all. God condemned the priests for not exposing sin and blurring the distinctions between “holy and profane.” What is worse, scripture indicates that these “spiritual leaders” had the support of the people; and their messages were apparently weak in content, positive in tone and word, socially acceptable, but weak on truth. The lengthy list of priestly sins included indifference to the sabbath, ministering for money, and not ruling according to God’s authority. These priests did not love God. They did not have a meaningful relationship with God. They may have thought that they were favored by God, but they were only serving themselves.
For some, the priesthood was like a social club for leaders. Some leaders performed their ministry on the sabbath and as required throughout the week, but their hearts were far from God. It was service unto self and for “ . . . the favor of men . . .” (Galatians 1:10), that is, the congregation.
It is amazing that every false teacher has a group of people who think that he is great – a following. In order to be a false teacher, you need a following! A false teacher without a following is not a false teacher. If he or she does not have a following, then he or she is just a person who has bad theology. Yet many churches see the size of their following – church attenders – as an indication of God’s blessing, an indication of God’s approval. But 2 Timothy 4:3-4 tells us that what the people want is not a good indication that the church nor its leadership is doing the correct things. It only means they have a following.
When a leader is serving himself, it is time for him to consider resigning from his position or ministry or fall to his knees in prayer and confession and seek the Lord for a right heart. Malachi 1:13 indicates that some Old Testament priests were merely doing their jobs. God heard their thoughts, “My, how tiresome it is!” They did not have a personal love relationship with God. Wow, what sad words! The ministry was just a job. Hosea 4:8-10 indicates that the result was that the people were like the priest. That is, the terrible fallout is “And it will be, like people, like priest.”
Hosea 4:6 also tells us that these spiritual leaders were not shepherding the flock because the flock of God was “ . . . destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Teachers who are false, or do not know the scriptures, or are not diligent in their responsibilities blunt the growth of their congregations. God is interested in growing believers who know and love Him (I John 2:14-16). The pattern of spiritual maturity is outlined in 1 John 2:14-16. The purpose of His Word and the purpose of godly leaders is to mature believers to become like Christ. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says,
All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequately equipped for every good work. 2 Tim. 3:16-17 (NASB)
The purpose of spiritual leadership is to lead, shepherd, oversee the flock, and to be examples of spiritual maturity. They are either bad or good examples of how to love and be like Jesus step-by-step.
Summary. Our churches must be biblically organized; our shepherd-leaders must fulfill the responsibilities that God has given them out of the overflow of their relationship with Him, and they must be spiritually mature, or it is all meaningless. True godly leaders are committed to these principles. This is why it is safe for the writer of Hebrews to say,
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith . . . Hebrews 13:7 (NASB)
Spiritual leadership is “followable.” That is the path for God’s dynamic, spiritually growing church.
So how should the church be organized? What are the biblical responsibilities of leadership? What is the function of elders and pastors? How do we recognize spiritually mature men as shepherd-leaders? What does spiritual maturity look like? What follows will answer these questions.