Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Biblical Mandate?

Wolfgang Simson lays out an ecclesiology (a theology of the Church) in his book The House Church Book. At the core of his ecclesiology is the fivefold ministry—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers—found in Ephesians 4:11-13. He asserts that this leadership model has been ordained by God and, therefore, the pyramid-structure of the senior leader models of many American evangelical churches is fundamentally unbiblical. But we don’t get to see his exegetical work. He seems to take it for granted that Ephesians 4 is the paradigm of church leadership. And while I want to obey Scripture with a clear conscience, I’ve come to realize that it’s not always so simple as pulling out one passage and applying that to Christians across all time and space. So I want to take a brief look at some of the key church leadership passages in the NT and see if I can’t come to some conclusions. (As I write this, I’m not convinced either way on this issue.)

Ephesians 4:11-13

This is the defining text for Simson, and it’s as good a place as any to start. The first thing that I see is that God gave five types of people to the Church for the purpose of preparing them for works of service. When we look at this passage in the light of 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12:4-8 many similarities become evident—enough that we can conclude that this is, like those, a spiritual gifts text. These five roles are really five gifts of the Spirit, and the gifts are Spirit-enabled people who are, for the Church, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

But does this mean that every church in every place must have at least one person operating in each of these gifts? Has the Holy Spirit given every local congregation an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher? But before we can begin to answer these questions, we have to look at, at least, two more texts.

I Timothy 3:1-7

When I come to this passage with Ephesians 4 in the back of my mind, I immediately notice that Paul makes no mention of apostles, prophets, or the rest. Instead, he uses the rather generic term overseer. And rather than describing the task of the overseer, he talks about the character required for the office.

The relevant question for this discussion is, “What is the relationship between overseers and the five roles mentioned in Ephesians 4?” The fashion seems to be, in Evangelicalism anyhow, that the senior pastor is the overseer operating in all five of the Eph. 4 gifts. (And if not all five, then the gifts left out are not present in that congregation.) The fivefold ministry is accomplished, then, by this one man.

But does this make sense of the biblical record? Let me ask some probing questions. Are apostles overseers? Are prophets overseers? What about evangelists? And pastors? And are teachers overseers? Perhaps, in the letter to Timothy, Paul is talking about an office, and in the letter to the Ephesians, he is talking about the spiritual manifestations of that office. In other words, some people are overseers through the gift of apostleship and others through the gift of prophecy—and so it goes. 1 Timothy 3 is about the character of the people who lead the church, and Ephesians 4 is about the gifts and mission of those leaders.

But we still don’t have a clear sense of a biblical structure of Church leadership. Let’s look at one more passage and see if we can come to some conclusions.

Acts 6:1-4

This is, I believe, the genesis of the ministry of deacons. The twelve disciples chose seven men to administer the needs of the Church, while they themselves kept at their task of “prayer and the ministry of the word”. One of the interesting things about this passage is that Luke’s purpose in writing it is to introduce Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His point was not to lay a foundation for Church governance that would endure through all time and in every place.

Rather than finding a biblical Church leadership model in Acts 6, what we have is a really good idea. The Spirit guided the twelve disciples to not get bogged down in the details of food distribution, but to keep at their primary work of prayer and the word. This delegation of responsibility also empowered other men to step into leadership roles, which, in that instance at least, greatly improved the overall health of the congregation.

The conclusions of this very brief exercise are:
  • The fivefold ministry is a function of the gifting of the Holy Spirit.
  • Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are the gifts of the Spirit to the Church.
  • Overseer is an office that has specific character qualifications that must be met.
  • Overseer is the general term for church leader.
  • Anyone operating within the fivefold ministry who meets the character qualifications can be an overseer.
  • Wise delegation of leadership responsibility leads to healthy Church environments.
But have we found a biblical mandate for Church leadership structures? I don’t think so, but I’ll have to give it some more thought and, hopefully, come back to the issue tomorrow.

1 comment:

Brendon said...

I'm enjoying watching you vet this out. I was introduced to the idea of a more proper leadership structure some years ago when I read Neil Cole (Organic Church and now Church 3.0). I gave a crap then, but sadly I found myself pretty much alone in the idea of seeing how it might work and my sole income was from operating in the church structure that I was to rally against. So, I gave up on the idea of stepping out and exploring it more closely. Now I just drink the cool-aid and keep my mouth shut.

I rock.