Leadership in the Local Church

Worship Wars was Pastor Hopson’s recent teaching series on Wednesday nights at Poquoson Baptist Church. Click here to listen to the recordings.

The following is part 23 in a series of articles based on the Worship Wars series.

Leadership in the Local Church

The world is replete with different models of leadership. Monarchy, where complete authority rests in the oldest member of a particular family. There’s autocracy, where an individual like a dictator has absolute unquestioned authority. There’s anarchy, which really isn’t leadership at all. Nobody has authority or control and everybody does whatever they want. There’s aristocracy, where those with privilege rule over those less privileged. There’s oligarchy, where a few rule over the many. And there’s democracy, where the people govern themselves either directly or indirectly through representatives. This study is not about what is best for nations, but what is best for the local church. So which of these methods of leadership best fits the local church?

I’ve seen churches with something like a monarchy—one influential family rules over the entire congregation with one individual leading the pack. I’ve seen churches with an autocracy, where one individual (often a pastor) making all the decisions without any accountability, feedback or limits on his authority. I’ve seen churches with anarchy, where nobody has any authority or control and everybody does whatever they want. I’ve seen churches with something like an aristocracy, where those with privilege (often it’s the privilege of having been in the church longer) rule over those without privilege. I’ve seen churches with something like an oligarchy, where a smaller group of individuals like a board or a committee rules over the congregation. And I’ve seen churches with something like a democracy, where everyone has an equal say and an equal voice and the majority vote dictates the direction of the church.

I want to suggest to you that none of these approaches are a biblical approach to church leadership, even though we’ve probably seen real-life examples of most of these. The biblical approach to church leadership is laid out for us in Colossians 1:15-18:

15 [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent.

The biblical model for church leadership could be called a Christocracy, meaning that the local church is ruled by Christ. Or, to put it another way, Jesus is the Lead Pastor of every local church.

How can that work practically? Jesus isn’t physically present to tell us what to do. He doesn’t hire and fire for us. He doesn’t tell us how to vote in members’ meetings. He didn’t write our constitution. He doesn’t pick out songs for Sunday. He doesn’t preach the sermon or pick out VBS curriculum. So how does a Christocracy work? It works when we understand and obey what Jesus’ teaches us in His Word. When it comes to leadership in the local church, nothing is more pertinent than understanding specifically what Scripture teaches us about our unique roles in the local church.

Most of us understand that we have different roles in the home. Moms are different than dads who are (or should be) different from kids. Neither is better than the other, but they have different God-ordained roles to fulfill in the house. The local church is similar. Philippians 1:1-2 briefly mentions these different roles in the local church:

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

What roles do we see in this text? First, Jesus is Lord. Only Jesus is sovereign over the local church. Second, Paul is an Apostle. Now, the text doesn’t explicitly say that Paul is an Apostle, but a cursory reading through Paul’s other letters makes this abundantly clear. Paul has authority to speak to the church as an Apostle commissioned by Jesus Christ. We believe that the formal office of Apostle no longer exists in the local church. So there’s nobody like the Apostle Paul who can speak authoritatively to local churches today. But we can still submit to apostolic authority by submitting to the teaching of the New Testament. I believe this is what Ephesians 2:20 means when it says the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.”

Third, all Christians are saints. All of us are on equal footing in Christ. We’re all equally made in the image of God, equally fallen in sin, and equally redeemed by the Gospel. With three exceptions, all of Paul’s letters are written to local churches—to all of the saints. If you’re a member of this church, you’re responsible to help advance the gospel, guard our doctrine, promote unity, discipline members, and even make decisions as a congregation. All of us are saints.

But you’ll also notice two subgroups within the local church: some are pastors and some are deacons. Let’s start with overseers, what we usually call pastors. There are three words in the original language used to describe the pastor in a local church. Sometimes they’re called overseers, emphasizing the call to exercise oversight in the local church. For example, 1 Timothy 3:1 says “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Sometimes they’re called shepherds, emphasizing the call to care and feed the church as God’s flock. For instance, 1 Peter 5:2 says “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Sometimes they’re called elders, emphasizing the spiritual maturity required to lead a local church. For example, James 5:14 says “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church.” Or Titus 1:5 says, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.”

Some of our friends in different denominations will say that those three words “overseer,” “shepherd,” and “elder” actually refer to three different positions. I think that’s a wrong understanding of the New Testament. Consider how 1 Peter 5:1-3 combines all three terms into one office:

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Notice that this isn’t meant to be a dictatorship. Pastors shouldn’t drag their people, but lead them humbly and lovingly. Notice also that Peter exhorts the elders among you. The overwhelming biblical evidence seems to indicate that one of the ways churches avoid autocratic pastors is by appointing a team of pastors to shepherd the flock together. So pastors are the spiritually mature men who lead and feed the local church. What then is a deacon? The word simply means “servant.” And the biblical evidence suggests that the role of a deacon is simply to come alongside the pastor or pastors to enable them to concentrate on their primary ministry, which is feeding, leading, guiding, and guarding.


© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017


Image Credit: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2016/05/5-signs-worship-wars-are-over.html

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1 Response to Leadership in the Local Church

  1. That was a very interesting to learn that the biblical model for church leadership is Christocracy. I do agree that real-life examples of leadership don’t really have the same feel to explain the biblical approach to the churches’ kind of leadership. Thanks again for the explanation!

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