Monday, July 21, 2008

Elders & Authority

The more I study and think of the issue of church leadership and governance, the more convinced I become that the essence of the role of elders (or pastors, or overseers) in the New Testament is service, rather than ruling. The New Testament emphasis regarding governance is more on function than on form, and I believe that when the whole body is functioning in the giftings of the Holy Spirit, the functions of leadership will be performed primarily by those with those gifts and with the spiritual maturity to exercise them wisely and consistently. I do not believe that leadership authority in the church inheres in a position or title or "office".

Baptists have historically been congregationally governed and not ruled by elders not only because they were small congregations and it was functionally expedient, but also because of a firm commitment to the priesthood of all believers, which implies that each person is accountable before God, without need of an intermediary for any aspect of their relationship with God. As such, we are all equal in His service, and there is no special class or group within the body with any ruling power over others. Godly people will gladly and freely defer to the wisdom and spiritual leadership of those who have demonstrated deep commitment to Christ and His Word, those who have shown great care for their spiritual welfare by humble service.

I personally wouldn't mind if more churches intentionally focused more on experiencing and expressing the New Testament basics (community, mutual edification, interactive study, giving to meet the material needs of others, service to others, etc.), and focused less on today's programs and buildings and "church work" (keeping all the plates spinning). But I don't think doing the former (basic NT stuff) and the latter (modern-day stuff) are mutually exclusive, or that the NT forbids or eschews structure or organization (far from it -- God values administration enough to have made it a spiritual gift). My concern is more with the relatively recent move toward a focus on "pastoral authority" or "elder rule" in Baptist and like-minded churches -- I understand the pragmatic appeal, but I fear what is lost (in congregational involvement, commitment, and our equality before God in Christ) isn't worth it.

I realize that, for better or worse, churches today, particularly those of significant size, are also businesses, with budgets, payrolls, taxes, insurance, utilities, property, income, and expenses to manage. And certainly God would not have us be less than excellent in whatever business practices we are faced with. Someone (or more than one) needs to administer all of that. But it is important for those who do so to remember that the essence of being a leader in God's kingdom and in the church is to be a servant, not a master. The needs and will of the congregation should always be placed before the opinions and desires of those who serve the congregation. Unfortunately, too many in such positions of leadership have adopted the view that they stand between God and the congregation as those who receive divine direction and pass it along to the people. I believe the NT makes it clear that God hasn't worked that way with His people since the veil of the Temple was torn in two.

Again, we are all His priests, collectively, and Christ alone is our head, and He leads us all by His Spirit, not just a select few who pass along His will to others.