We have been studying the relationship between elders and spiritual gifts. We found that while all elders as believers are gifted, no particular gift is required for eldership. In the last article we looked at the biblical pattern of elders functioning as a team, noting the first of two vital principles, that spiritual gifts are intended to be complimentary and never competing.
The Second Important Principle
Working together with others in leadership is rewarding! There is fruitfulness and joy but there are also dangers. Mistaken ideas about gifts and authority can give rise to serious problems when church leaders cease to be servants and become masters. Without question, humble servant leadership is first and foremost a matter of the heart. But those who lead in the church must understand that spiritual authority comes only from God, never from any spiritual gift. Knowing this truth as theory will not suffice. It must be thoroughly worked out in the life of the church.
Thinking it through
It will help us to observe that the New Testament writers never confuse gift with office. Spiritual gifts are not titles and do not carry within themselves authority to act. Elders as “under shepherds” are made by God (Acts 20:28), and accountable to Him (Hebrews 13:17, I Pet. 5:4). While gifts are permanent (Rom. 11:29) and part of the believer’s spiritual birthright, leadership positions depend upon a certain degree of spiritual maturity and recognition of performance. Because authority can be dangerous when concentrated in one person, the church is to be led by a true plurality. One of God’s provisions to protect the church from autocratic rulers is an equal brotherhood under Christ without religious titles, a point clearly taught by our Lord Himself (Matt 23:8). Peter charged the elders not to become lords over God’s heritage (I Pet.5:3).
Evidence of misuse in the church today
Many people would find these truths new and even shocking. In many churches, “The Pastor” is the presiding religious official in the church. He may have a board of elders but he presides. He may or may not have a shepherding gift, but his title refers to his office. Although we can be thankful for every godly church leader, it is not too much to say that there is absolutely no support in the New Testament for a position of church “Pastor” or any other official gift for that matter (e.g. “Teacher”). Examples abound of the dangers of a single person as the recognized authority in the church.
What steps can elders take to protect the local fellowship from authority problems? They must know and seek to apply the New Testament pattern for church leadership watching carefully for signs of imbalance in power. True plurality must be defended making sure that no brother has greater authority than the other elders, even though because of a particular gift he may be more visible. This should hold whether he gives full time or part of his time to the work.
Careful terminology should be encouraged. Believers must be trained to avoid using spiritual gifts as titles. Sometimes I ask young students, for example, how many times the expression “the Apostle Paul” is found in Scripture. Of course the answer is never! “We have no pastor” is commonly heard, meaning we have no church official with that title. But since God has provided a number of men, women and young people in the assembly with priceless pastoral gifts, it is better to exclaim that we have many pastors!
Guarding against elevating any gift to an authoritative position or office will also help young believers discover and develop their gifts—a vital part of elders’ work. We’ll look at that in the final article in this series.