Good leadership is vital! It has often been observed that “as leadership goes, so goes the church.” Bible believing Christians understandably consider Scripture to be the authoritative guide for church order. Seeking principles to guide them in personal, family and church life, they are convinced that God’s ways are best. Thus it is a valid question as to how churches seeking to follow the New Testament pattern get their leaders.
In the last article, we found that the biblical norm for church leadership is a plurality of qualified men leading a single local congregation. But where do they come from, both at the beginning of a new work, and when more are needed in an already existing assembly?
Nebulous expressions like “they emerge” or “the Lord provides” sound spiritual and have an element of truth to them, but don’t supply much practical help to those who pray that God will raise up leaders to do shepherding work among the believers. Most Christians are familiar with the conventional plan for church leadership i.e., a single “Minister” or “Pastor,” who is trained and ordained by the officials of his de- nomination and then called by the church. Such groups have seminaries and other training opportunities, so it is not hard to figure out how leadership in these churches comes about. But New Testament assemblies …..?
If we lay aside all church tradition and study the Scriptures, we will discover that as in many Bible doctrines there is a God-ordained cooperation between the work of God and the response of men in securing leaders for the churches. This cooperation can be studied in two parts that are not mutually exclusive, but interwoven; Divine Provision, and Human Responsibility.
Throughout history, God has always provided leadership for His people. In the Old Testament, one can trace the record of family patriarchs in Genesis, followed by military leaders like Moses and Joshua, and then the judges and finally the kings. In addition, the Lord provided spokesmen called prophets who were often themselves capable leaders of the people.
It is important to note however, that even when the people tried to reject God’s rule, He was always the true sovereign leader and source of authority in the nation, and never relinquished this prerogative. In this connection, one can read I Samuel 8 and 12, where Israel demanded that they have a king like the other nations.
It was probably during the Babylonian captivity, that synagogues arose and provided a new type of social and religious life for Israel, as God was now, in a sense, more available to the people. Synagogues were places where families could worship and be taught the Scriptures. They were overseen by the older, more spiritual men of the congregation called elders.
When in Matt 16:18, the Lord Jesus foretold of a “called out company” that He would build in the days ahead (for such is the meaning of the word “church”), He made it clear that He would be presiding over His people by His Spirit (Matt. 18:20). His followers were not to take ecclesiastical titles or honors but instead be simply “brethren” and “servants” (Matt. 23:8-11), under His Lordship.
During His ministry, there are incidents recorded that help us understand that the Lord as the Chief Shepherd was leaving nothing to chance; the young churches would have capable leadership. One thinks of His example of compassion for the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34) and his charge to Peter to feed and tend His sheep (John 21).
Thus when we study the earliest gatherings of Christians following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it is not surprising to find them entrusting the care of the flock to the more mature men of the assembly whom they called elders. And the emphasis in the record is more about them being “among” the people than “over” them, although both expressions are found.
Later as the gospel spread and new churches came into being, the apostles wrote to them and visited them or sent younger men to help them. But they never established themselves or those they sent as church officials. Rather, the work was entrusted to capable men from within the local congregation (Acts 14:23), and then they moved on to help others. One can trace through the book of Acts the transition from “apostles” to “apostles and elders” to “elders.” Through this process, the Lord confirmed the truth that He Himself as the Head would preside over the church, leading the assembly through those men who were most able to discern spiritual things and convey it to the rest of the flock.
In one notable passage, Paul charged a group of elders to shepherd the church of God “among which the Holy Spirit has made you over- seers” (Acts 20:28), leaving no doubt about the ultimate origin of church elders and the source of their authority.
But in addition to the Lord’s gracious work to prepare and provide, there is a clear revelation given as to what He expects from His people. Just as in the giving of the Scriptures, so in the building of the church, God and man work in concert, which gives added meaning to the word “fellowship.” Paul writes: “We are laborers together with God…” (I Cor. 3:9,KJV). What distinctive elements of this human responsibility can we identify? There are several.
For one thing, there will be a desire. I Tim. 3:1 states “If a man desires the position of a bishop [lit. ‘overseer’], he desires a good work.” In response to this inner desire, the man will be making certain choices with his time and energy that will evidence a growing heart exercise to care for people in the same way the Good Shepherd did.
Second, in two extended passages (I Tim 3 and Titus 1) we find detailed character qualities and family qualifications, to help the churches identify men who are doing the work and are worthy to be known as church elders. Wise churches watch the general tenor of the life rather than waiting for perfection!
Third, there must be, as a normal part of the discipleship process a supply of “potential elders” coming along. The whole subject of mentoring is a crucial one (II Tim. 2:2).
Finally, there must be a healthy environment in which elders can function. Various passages admonish the saints to honor, obey, and remember their leaders (I Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13).
Where do elders come from? In summary, they are recognized by the church as men in whom the Lord has worked, and they in response love the people, teach them the Scriptures, protect them from false doctrine and render shepherd care. Every believer should be praying regularly for the elders, and asking the Lord to add more to their number. Was it not His instruction to do so in connection with the harvest? (Matt. 9:38)
All this suggests a further question. As the Lord works in hearts to start the process, and as desire grows and qualifications are met, the church has a responsibility to recognize those who are qualified and doing the work. What is meant by this word “recognize?” That will be the subject of the next article.