CHURCH LEADERSHIP: ONE MAN OR PLURALITY?
The Early Church
Eldership is the early church pattern of the New Testament Church leadership. In the early church, leadership (elders) was always in plurality, not a one-man structure it has metamorphosed to over the years.
Today, the church is run in many different formats: as a sole-proprietorship, joint partnership with spouse or others, and so on. Many mega churches adopt other corporate formats that compete favourably with any blue-chip company of the world, with commensurate dividend.
When the name of a ‘church’ is mentioned, the name of the ‘owner’ readily comes to mind. He is the founder. Together with appointed pastors, deacons, elders and other loyalists, they run the church through programs, activities, services, membership drive and branch network. This is an average man’s concept of a church.
However, the New Testament church was run by plurality of elders, also called overseers, bishops or pastors (Acts 2:28; Phil 1:1). None of them was or acted as the head of the church, not even those who established any assembly. None presided over any assembly. They appointed elders to run each of the gatherings autonomously, and returned to their local assembly to prepare for another open door. Worthy of note is the fact that they were always sent by their local church. They never went on their own or under their personal ministry, leading, vision or burden (Acts 13:2; 16:6-7; Gal. 2:9).
Where the apostles could not appoint elders for any reason, other qualified people were charged with that responsibility. (Tit 1:5).
As each of the new local assemblies grew, grace for service in the particular assembly became manifest among members. Such were recognized and ordained to function in their calling, including Apostles who would be sent out at the appropriate time to birth other autonomous assemblies in other places. Thus, the church expanded, not by the effort, vision or strategy of a man or the council to multiply, expand and have branches under them, but as the Lord added to them.
Paul always addressed his letters to the “saints,” “church” or “faithful brethren,” through the “bishops (elders) and deacons” (Phil. 1:1); always in plural, because there was no individual head of any assembly. Individuals were only recognized according to their function, not headship. He usually charged the leadership to read his letters to the assembly, which was a spiritual family (Eph 2:19). And so, the term, “apostles and elders” in each local assembly was common, appearing about six times in the books of Acts alone. Every assembly was birthed through the labours of the apostles and sustained through the labours of the elders.
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There are two leaderships in the church: Elders and Deacons. The latter is more of a function as the need arises (Acts 6:1-5). There are also two types of elders.
(1). Elders by Calling: These are those called into specific offices in the five-fold ministry. They labour in spiritual matters: the Word and Doctrine (Eph.4:11-14; 1Tim.5:17). It has nothing to do with physical age; they may be young and inexperienced, but called. This position cannot be desired (Heb 5:4).
(2) Elders by Leadership. These are those who provide leadership for the church and they may or may not labour in the word (1Tim.3:1-7; Titus 1:7). These are also called Bishops or overseers. These are not necessarily young, and they are usually full of experience. Anyone with qualifications can desire the position, unlike the first one. They can be like Jethro to Moses.
The two of them function by plurality, everyone functioning in their ministry and the church recognizing them so (1Tim 5:17).
The first type of Elders is recognized by the office they are called into, e.g. Elder-Pastor, Elder-Teacher, Elder-Evangelist, etc. But the other performs more of a leadership role than spiritual. (1Tim.3:6).
The Five fold Functions (Eph 4:11)
The Evangelist goes all out, spread the net (gospel) to bring 'all sorts' in the river (world): crabs, fishes, worms, dirt, snakes, etc. He brings them home (assembly).
The Pastor receives them, to 'sort', i.e. wash, care, tend and make them presentable.
The Teacher gives them specific instructions: God’s requirement, duties, etc (doctrines) for their build-up and continuous 'survival' in the house (assembly).
The Prophets and Apostles are the foundations stones (Jesus is the chief corner stone and members are lively stones (1Cor 3:10; 1Cor 12:8; Eph. 2:19-22; 1Pet. 2:5) in which the assembly is built on. They guide the assembly from wolves and ensure building the [spiritual] house of God according to pattern, as one having the master plan of God’s eternal purpose: to have a bride for His Son.
Prophet is like someone on the watchtower who, by virtue of his strategic standing has a clear vision, and thus can provide instruction as the oracle of God. He always speaks with zeal and passion because he sees clearly the divine working of God and desire everyone to be in alignment.
Let us compare him to an ambulance driver. He could appear reckless on the wheels; break all the speed limits, traffic laws, etc. You may think he's crazy, but he's not. He sees beyond and has a destination in mind he wants to take people to.
Similarities and Differences
New Testament prophets are different from the Old Testament prophets. The latter operated outside the priesthood. They were more of seers, mediums, dreamers and diviners. The Spirit did not reside in them, only came on them for specific work, and they foretell, forth tell and prophesy as given the unction, and then, it went back. This order is now the priesthood of all believers as kings and priests. Prophesy a gift to all, and every one can desire it (1Cor 14:1).
The New Testament prophet labour exclusively within the church, among the brethren. They are like the chief security officers, guiding the flock from attacks and aggressions. The Spirit doesn’t just come and go, but resides in them specifically to know, by revelation, forth tell and foretell with power and authority the mystery of the eternal plan of God as regards the church (Eph 3:3-5). New Testament prophecy is teaching the mysteries of the kingdom and speaking the mind of God for comfort and edification.
The Apostle on the other hand has all the functions of the prophet and also functions in an ‘ambassadorial’ position: goes out to plant churches, appoint leaders and elders in those churches and return to the home church, to get ready for another of such.
Who is the Leader?
So, who heads the 'team'? Who is the leader in the church setting?
Let us answer the question by asking another question. While we have engineers, doctors, architects, accountants, lawyers, etc, who is the head or who is superior? If we can answer that, we should be able to answer the earlier question.
Elders in the church function in their individual and specific calling, not in the overall plan of God. God is the Lord of the harvest and harmonizes all together. Just like we have small parts and organs in our body and they function autonomously but for the overall well being of the body. Ultimately, Christ is the head and He will build, grow and sustain His house. Growth is not by special programs, anointing services, seminars, evangelism and crusade or membership drive. God adds to it such as would be saved (Acts 2:47).
Consequently, no office can stand alone or without the other. Elders are called to serve, feed and lead by example and for the purpose of order (1Cor 12:1-21; 1Pet 5:2-30). They are to ‘equip’ (empower, prepare or give tools) to the saints “for the work of the ministry” (Eph 4:12). The work is for all the saints, not them alone. They are to labour together with the saints, not for them (1Cor. 3:9). They are not to establish centres where people can come to labour for them and they would be the head. We must recognize, honour and respect them for their work’s sake (1Thes.5:12-13). But not make them Jesus or Holy Spirit (Acts 17:11). They are brothers among brethren.
Can a Teacher pastor a church? Can an Evangelist labour in doctrine? Again, let us answer this question buy asking another question: Can a lawyer give injection to a patient or can an architect defend a suspect in the court? The answer is yes, and the evidence is all we see around today. People with enough experience can do it better than a professional. But does that make it right or make them qualified? Paul warned: "Let everyman wherein he is called abide" (1Cor.7:20,27). Angels who did not abide in their estate are delivered into everlasting chains (Jude 1:6). It is important for everyone to be sure of his calling and election (2Pet 1:10). God is a God of order. He will only score you on what He calls you to, not what man, situation or qualification makes you to be.
The True Church
It is evident that we cannot start or join the church of God, because the church is not physical and cannot be seen or founded, we are born into it by [spiritual] birth, much like the natural birth into our family. When we are born [again] into it, we function according to our ability (1Pet 4:11), i.e. the grace of God in us.
Our denominations, organizations and ministries are our efforts to show God what we can do. It is building a religious empire which God would rather love to pull down. He is more interested in us and our walk with Him than our work for Him.
How then can we know the true church of Jesus Christ today? Fellowship and Eldership are important functions of a true church. Church is expressed when saints gather, not when crowd gather, or when we do a program or service. It grows as the Lord Himself adds to His church. Graces for service manifest among members and none is dominant to the obvious control of the gathering. Body ministry is enhanced as all build and labour together. It is not a one-way traffic from a gifted person who steals the show (Eph 2:22; Phil 1:27; 1Cor 3:9).
But the Constantinian system (the clergy-laity) being practiced today seems to be here for a longtime to come. Where there is a ‘church, there is usually a man (often the pastor), who is the head (actually founded, owns, runs or is posted to) the church. Members only participate in offering and allied services.
A church led by a one man as the pastor, apostle, bishop, or any other title (they are basically the same thing, anyway) with other junior officers need to go back to the early church pattern to look into the apostolic practices. Jesus is the only shepherd, we are all sheep. But He has appointed some sheep among them for the purpose of function and order and He gave them ability in that regard. They are still sheep, not lions. Reversed order is religion.
So, who appoints these elders: is it the pastor-founder, deacons or the bishop? Can anyone appoint himself into any office as common today when he is called?
God is not dealing with individuals but the church. The only thing He is doing is building a bride for His Son. We cannot labour on our own outside the church. We are not the church, only a member (1Cor 12:27). He is however releasing grace to individuals to build the Church. Whatever gifting we have is for the church and must be recognized by the church, otherwise it is not recognized by God.
Grace cannot be hidden (Tits 2:8). As we come together in the normal fellowship, each one naturally manifests the grace in a certain ministry. This grace is evidence to both leaders and others. The church through the leaders, simply recognize this grace for service and ordain such into it in the multitude of witnesses (1Cor 7:17). You don't act like a pastor because you have been ordained as one, but rather, you are ordained as one because you are manifesting the grace in that functioning. This is not deliberate, but innocently, because that is where God is calling you to labour in the church.
Should we continue with our traditional concept of church leadership or we accept God’s standard and the apostolic pattern of the early church, practiced and passed down to us by the disciples? The decision is entirely ours.