A Rational, Reasoned Look at Leadership in the NT Church

One of the urgent issues in the growing (dare I say fledging ) house church movement in the USA is the subject of leadership. It seems we are at odds with the institutional / program-based church so much we have swallowed the idea that “What was bad for them is bad for us.” In longing to move away from top-down, pyramidal leadership and decision making and the potential dangers of hoarding power by a few, we seem to have moved away from a very biblical position as well: God calls men by the Holy Spirit to be leaders in the church!

Consider just a few, well-known verses:

  But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.                  I Thess 5. 12-13  (A.D. 50)

Clearly, there were leaders in this freshly-planted church of 6 months in Thessalonica. Paul implores the flock to appreciate and esteem their hard-working leaders, all baby Christians at that!

  Be on guard for yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.              Acts 20. 28  (A.D. 56)

Paul urges the elders of the house churches in Ephesus to “be on guard” for themselves and their flocks and to “care for the church” which the Holy Spirit made them overseers or leaders.

  This is a true saying, If a man desires to oversee, he desires a good work. 1 Tim.3:1 (A.D. 61)

Here Paul gives “carte blanch” support to the idea that to be an overseer in Jesus’ church was a noble goal, for any man!

       I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder… shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion but voluntarily, according to the will  of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.   I Peter 5: 1-3 (AD. 63)

Peter, an apostle and an elder, writing to the disciples scattered throughout Asia, further describes the place – and the pitfalls – of leadership in the church. 

“Call No Man Your Teacher…?!?”

Countless times over the past five years we were given the verse from Mt. 23 “Call no man teacher, for you are all brothers…” as THE proof text for having little or no human-headship in the house church. Somehow this sounds attractive, I do agree, but it just isn’t biblical. Let’s read Mt. 23: 8-12.

“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do no be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” 

First of all, the context of Mt. 23 is the great discourse and exposure of the scribes and the Pharisees –  which we should notice takes place just three days before Jesus’ crucifixion. I can not imagine that Jesus is giving a “power verse” for the modern house church movement under these conditions!

Secondly, what does it mean to not call anyone your father? Does that mean my own natural father? Or someone else? How do we get at the true meaning of Jesus’ words?

Good exegesis warns us: “ It can’t mean now what it didn’t mean then!”  Let me ask you this straightforward question: What did that crowd (and His disciples) hear Jesus say when they heard Him on the steps of the Temple? 

“Oh, I see, later when we gather together in our homes, we need to be careful to not exalt men and just simply come together as brothers. Jesus is alone is our Teacher and Leader…” 

NO WAY CHURCH!

To call no man teacher or father was in the context of Jesus strongly denouncing the scribes and Pharisees who made religion a matter of “externals” and self-promotion! In the following verses (Mtt. 23:13-33) Jesus follows up this rebuke with even harsher words in the “The Seven Woes” and calls them indiscriminately: “Hypocrites, Blind Guides, Fools and a Brood of Vipers”!

The scribes and Pharisees are under attack, not leadership in the church!  Jesus will build (and has always built) His church on the foundation of humble, servant leaders – but leaders nonetheless!! Whenever we get too cute or unique with our interpretation of Scriptures, I think that ought to raise “red flags” in the back of our minds.

“Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to ‘out clever’ the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deep truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or  vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong.”

(Gordon Fee, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth)

May this article stir us all on to diligence and to be workman who “rightly divide the word of truth”.

Thanks for reading. We hope this is helpful.

Yours for the Least in the Kingdom,

Jeff and Maria Gilbertson

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Bretto

    Leaders are essential in the church and there are some biblical keys to protect them from becoming pompous and Pope like.
    One key is plurality of elders rather than one head position. This also applies to apostles who Jesus sent out in two’s. You will also recall hearing Paul and Barnabas as well as Paul and Silas etc. Paul may have played a more key role at times and been a little more gifted in certain areas but it wasn’t his show, it was the Lord’s.
    Another key is that the elders were “among” the saints not above them 1 Pet 5:1.
    Another is that they didn’t have man made organizations with their own special brand name which always seems to bring at least an element of competition and corruption. The leaders were leaders by the Spirit and through relationship not through committees and the like.
    Also, leaders were underground, laying themselves down as a Christ foundation rather than ruling over people.
    Anyway, Well written.
    Bretto

  • Herobill

    I think LeaderSHIP is essential in the church. But I think having CERTAIN leaderS will ALWAYS produce “pope-like” effects, to some degree or another. I believe in giving everyone the opportunity both to lead AND follow… and having an outside worker to help teach us how!
    I like Bretto’s comments, too. A lot, actually. But “elders” scare me… in practice, not in theory. (Hope that’s clear.)
    Thanks for the challenging post.
    PS: Regarding your Thessalonians quote – I wouldn’t argue the point, but there’s a very good chance that Paul was talking about Silas and Timothy there! So it’s at least possible that Paul’s churches didn’t all have elders in the beginning.
    Just some things to think about… :)

  • Dan, Georgia, USA

    Nothing to offer at the moment. However, I appreciate receiving what “ya’ll” (you all) have offered. Our little group had its first meeting (12-21-08), and right up front, the matter of leadership is pressing for our focus. Our meeting was wonderful. “Y’all” please remember us to the Father. Thanks to those of you who have already boldly and courageously stepped “out” to forge paths for others of us to follow.