(This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the local church)
Who leads the local church? One of the ways that many churches can be distinguished is how they answer this question. Even growing up as a Baptist, I have experienced churches that are congregationally led, senior-pastor led, elder-body led, and even deacon led. Before attempting to answer the question of who should lead the church, it is important to examine each of the Biblical roles in the church to understand how they are supposed to operate.
1. Pastors / Elders
In the New Testament, the men who exercised authority in the church were given a few titles. The most common modern title “pastor” literally means “shepherd” (Eph. 4:11), however, the term “elder” is most often used in the New Testament (Acts 16:4, 1 Tim 5:17, Tit 1:5). The term “overseer” is also used (Php 1:1, 1 Tim 3:1-2, Tit 1:7), and seems to be synonymous with “shepherd” (cf., Acts 20:28, 1 Pt 5:2-3). These titles give us some sense of the work of pastors. The term “elder” refers to spiritual maturity rather than age (1 Tim 3:6); such men should be able to lead others in their walk with God. As shepherds and overseers, they are to protect the church and nourish it with the Word of God. The Bible additionally urges elders to “care for the flock” (Acts 20:28), to “exercise oversight,” and to “be examples to the flock” (1 Pt 5:2-3). Peter defined his own pastoral work as “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Notably, “the ministry of the word” does not need to be limited to preaching and teaching but could be any ministry where knowledge of the Scriptures is necessary. These could include ministries such as counseling, performing special services, resolving disputes in the church, or providing training for specific areas of service. In fact, the elder qualification of being “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2) is probably a reference to one’s knowledge of the Scriptures and ability to apply them than rather than being an entertaining or charismatic speaker. Notably, there is no biblical merit for a “senior pastor” or “lead pastor” position, just as there is no support for “associate / youth / music, etc.” pastor. Rather every model of eldership in the Bible is a model of plurality; a group of men who collectively lead the church without any one of them having more authority than the others. This is evident in the churches of Jerusalem (Acts 15:2) and Ephesus (Acts 20:17) and is the understood model throughout the churches of the New Testament (Jam 5:14, 1 Pt 5:1).
The title “deacon” means “servant.” The origin of this role seems to be in Acts 6 when a dispute rises in the church over the distribution of food among widows. Rather than the apostles serving tables, Peter charges the congregation to, “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3). Their task is to, under the direction of the elders, do whatever job is necessary so that the elders can limit themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. The deacons’ task could be anything from checking on members to putting up chairs to overseeing an area of church ministry. Whatever needs done in the church that would relieve the burden on the elders, it is the deacon’s job to do it. Just as a servant cannot say “that’s not my job,” neither can a deacon, though at times there may be jobs that exceed a deacon’s capacity. Consider an illustration. Suppose a member has missed church for some time and other members have tried to talk to them but they seem unwilling to return. The elders may enlist the deacon body to investigate the situation. Upon visiting the lapsed member, a deacon may realize there is a spiritual problem that needs pastoral care beyond the deacon’s ability. In this case, the deacon would report back to the elders and one (or more) of the elders would seek to provide Biblical counseling to the lapsed member. However, it might also be that the deacon could resolve the issue alone, in which case he has fulfilled his purpose in saving the elders from unnecessary distraction from their work.
The members of the church are those individuals that the local church has identified as followers of Christ and have committed themselves to that congregation. There is a mutual commitment between all the members to care for one another, and bear one another’s burdens and joys (1 Cor 12:25-26). Members are called to love one another (Jn 13:34-35), encourage one another (1 Ths 5:11), and help their fellow members grow in their relationship with Christ (Eph 4:16). The role of member is different than the others because pastors, deacons, and apostles are also considered members of the church. Each member contributes to the good of the local church by serving in a particular area of ministry (1 Cor 12:5-7) and providing accountability for the church. The members provide accountability to other members by confronting them on sin and enforcing church discipline (Mt 18:15-17, 1 Cor 5:11-13) and accountability to the elders by weighing their teaching against the Scriptures (1 Ths 5:19-21, cf. Acts 17:11). Additionally, it is the responsibility of the congregation to select deacons for the elders to approve (Acts 6:3-6).
The term “apostle” means “sent ones.” While Jesus initially commissioned twelve apostles (Acts 1:1-8, cf. 1 Cor 1:1, 1 Pt 1:1), this term took on a broader meaning for those who were sent out by the local church (Acts 13:2-3, 13:50-14:4; Gal 1:19; 1 Ths 1:1, 2:6). Today we would call these individuals “missionaries.” Apostles / missionaries must meet the Biblical requirements of elders as demonstrated by the fact that the Jerusalem counsel was comprised of elders and apostles (Acts 15:6, 22-23, 16:4). The task of the apostles is to help establish churches by making disciples through leading people to faith in Christ and training them to be obedient to Christ (Mt 28:19-20, though notably this is also the work of the church as a whole). Apostles / missionaries are also responsible for appointing elders in new churches (Acts 14:23, Tit 1:5). Once elders have been established in a church, they will take over the task of appointing new elders (2 Tim 2:2). Some may wonder whether elders could just be selected by the members, but in many cases a large portion of the congregation lack the spiritual discernment to assess whether a person is Biblically qualified to be an elder. Consider the following scenario: A few missionaries plant a church in a remote village and see a small number of people come to faith in Christ. After a few years, the missionaries begin to discuss appointing elders in the church. Many in the congregation state that the village chief should be invited to be one of the elders as well as an older, respected man in their congregation. Culturally, to pass them over, would be a great offense even though neither meet the Biblical qualifications for eldership. Should the missionary give in to the congregation’s request? Of course not. The missionary will need to train up leaders and give authority to those who meet the Biblical qualifications of eldership.
So Who is the Leader?
After understanding the roles of each position in the church it may seem somewhat difficult to answer our introductory question: who is the leader of the local church? While the elders exercise authority over the local church, they are accountable to the church members. At the same time, the members do not have authority over who is selected to be an elder. However, the Bible makes clear who is the true authority in the church: it is Jesus. Peter tells the elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” and calls Jesus “the chief shepherd” (1 Pet 5:1- 4). Though the elders exercise authority of the church, they do so under the authority of Christ and the Scriptures. The moment any pastor steps outside of the Scriptures, the members have the responsibility of confronting them and, if necessary, removing them from their position. Likewise, whenever members fall into sin, fellow members, deacons, and pastors are called to hold them accountable. So, in all these things, each person in the church recognizes that every person in the church, regardless of their position, is subject to Christ and one another.
Live for Jesus.