Review: “They Smell Like Sheep: Spiritual Leadership for the 21st Century” by Lynn Anderson

This book is an easy read, but there are profound insights to be found here. I don’t think the author intended to give us an exhaustive analysis of biblical church government. (For this, Strauch’s Biblical Eldership is the standard.) In fact, when Anderson strays too far into exegetical territory he begins to get into trouble. But where this book really shines is when he’s showing us the heart of what it means to shepherd God’s people. The wonderful nuggets of wisdom throughout the book are not only worth the purchase price, but worthy of repeated reading. Even for those of us who may be very familiar with these principles, this is a healthy, refreshing reminder of what this leadership thing is really all about.

Anderson divides the book into two parts. In the first part, he presents three interrelated models of spiritual leadership (especially true of church elders). These models are shepherding, mentoring and equipping. This is definitely not a book on theory. He writes with the pressures of the real world in mind, to elders who have families and demanding careers to maintain. Anderson gives us vivid pictures of the three models, and makes clear the necessity of each. Again, many elders may already be aware of these principles, but it’s so easy for us to begin to lose our priorities. This book helps us bring our ministries back into proper focus.

The second part of the book describes elders and what kind of people they are to be: men of experience, men of character, and men of vision. As I noted before, his exegetical work is the weak point of the book, but thankfully it’s not his main focus. He rightly brings out the plurality of pastors (elders) in each church, but many of his illustrations seem to show a distinction between himself and the elders. Since this book isn’t primarily about the doctrinal aspects of eldership, this lack of precision may actually make the book more accessible to people with different understandings of eldership. But if you use this book in a church that has a biblical form of eldership, you’ll need to add some clarification to certain parts of the book.

I thought the stories Anderson sprinkled through the book were a valuable addition rather than a distraction, effectively illustrating the relevant principles. I found many anecdotes sticking with me even after I was finished with the book, such as the man who resigned as elder so he would have time for shepherding(!), or the stories showing the problem of ineffective assimilation (ouch). His accounts of the wonderful men who had mentored him reminded me of the godly men who modeled Christian leadership and shepherding for me, and also that I need to be doing the same for others.

As I already mentioned, Strauch’s book is best for examining the biblical teaching on church elders. And for nuts-and-bolts books on ‘eldering,’ I’d recommend Christ in Church Leadership by Paul Winslow and Dorman Followwill or Eldership in Action by Richard Swartley. But for a book on the heart of shepherding, with many gems of wisdom and practical insight, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better book than this one.

Review: “The New Testament Deacon: The Church’s Minister of Mercy” by Alexander Strauch

I have great respect for Alexander Strauch. His book Biblical Eldership has not only been tremendously influential in my own life and ministry, it has helped to bring solid, healthy, biblical leadership structure to churches all over the world. I believe Biblical Eldership has had—and is still having—an historically significant impact on the evangelical church. (I recently reviewed it here.) I expect it to be remembered as a classic work of pastoral theology.

But that’s Biblical Eldership; I’m now reviewing The New Testament Deacon. And, I have to admit, despite my admiration for Alexander Strauch as a leader and a biblical exegete, I’m somewhat disappointed with this book.

Now, there is much of value included here. Strauch rightly counters the idea that deacons are ruling executives or building and property managers. He stresses the need for pastoral elders to devote themselves to the priorities of their ministry without being drawn into needs that are real but distracting. He notes the need for effective organization in the church.

He also gives us much helpful background information specifically regarding deacons. Discussions of the Greek wording, how deacons relate to overseers/elders, the scriptural qualifications for deacons, etc. are all illuminating (though many will disagree with his views concerning female deacons). Most of his exegesis of Acts 6 is sound, although he interjects a distinction between ministry of “word” and “deed” that isn’t really borne out by Scripture even considering the references he gives—certainly not enough to extrapolate the nature of church offices.

Practically everyone will agree that the office of deacon is normative for the church today. The problem is that Strauch goes to great length to define the specific, unvarying nature of this church office when Scripture decidedly does not. He does this on the basis of a single example from Acts 6. Is this conclusion warranted?

I agree with Strauch that this passage is likely showing the prototype for deacons. But we must tread carefully here because the text does not identify them as such. While we may agree that this passage shows an early example of deacons, some scholars do not, and there simply isn’t enough in the text here to allow us to be dogmatic in our insistence that these men are deacons.

But even assuming we could unquestionably establish these leaders in Acts 6 as deacons, does this one example define the nature of their ministry? Ironically, on page 43 Strauch cautions us that we are not to take this passage as a strict blueprint to be followed in every detail. He continues, “Thus a local church today has flexibility in how its deacons are chosen, how many are selected, and what they are specifically to do.” I completely agree. But then he later notes, “. . . as long as the deacons minister to the congregation’s welfare needs, they are doing their job.” So apparently we’re careful not to take Acts 6 as a strict blueprint—except for the fact that (in this lone example) these leaders saw to the distribution of food.

It’s clear from the rest of the book that Strauch sees this not as just one possible example of ‘deaconing,’ but as the primary, scriptural duty of all deacons. Unfortunately, in many key places in his argument he relies on conjecture. Perhaps his conjecture is correct, but it is conjecture nonetheless, and not supported through clear exegesis of the text. Many other scholars have concluded that the biblical principle illustrated in Acts 6 is simply that whenever a ministry need would take the elders away from their pastoral duties, then it is appropriate and healthy to appoint other leaders to meet this ministry need. This view seems to be much more careful with the text, and doesn’t go beyond what the Bible clearly teaches. This lack of definition need not be burdensome or confusing to deacons (or their elders); it actually frees churches to fill whatever non-elder ministry roles they have in their specific contexts. This will often include the care of the physical needs of the people, but also provides a model for the leadership of any church ministry that would tend to distract the elders from their primary pastoral ministry.

To so truncate the church office of deacon, based solely on a single example from a narrative passage of Scripture, does not seem to be the soundest of hermeneutics. It’s unfortunate that much of the content in the book rests on this conjecture and goes beyond what Scripture clearly teaches about deacons. While this book includes much of value and was written by an elder/pastor whom I highly respect, sadly, I cannot recommend it.

Review: “Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership” by Alexander Strauch

This book has become the standard for works on eldership, and deservedly so. If you’re only going to read one book on church leadership (other than the Bible), this is the book to read. If you plan to study pastoral leadership extensively, this is still the perfect place to begin. Strauch is thorough, he covers all of the relevant passages, and his exegesis is consistently sound and balanced. His writing is clear and easy to follow. The book is not only enjoyable to read, I find it spiritually edifying as well.

The first five chapters examine core principles of biblical eldership: pastoral leadership, shared leadership, male leadership, qualified leadership, and servant leadership. In chapter six, Strauch gives an extensive biblical defense of a plurality of pastoral leaders for each congregation (without a senior pastor). The following chapters provide exposition of all the relevant passages. There is occasionally some overlap, but this actually fits the layout of the book and proves to be quite helpful, especially considering how entrenched most of us are in traditional leadership models that lack any biblical support.

His exegesis is outstanding, and the presentation is excellent throughout. When you’ve finished reading this book, you should have a good handle on this view of church government—whether you agree with it or not. (Although I haven’t found any substantive critiques of Strauch’s work. In my opinion, his interpretation of Scripture is so sound and well-reasoned that it’s hard to refute.) Along the way, he responds to common challenges to a plurality of pastoral elders and shows how they are fallacious.

Strauch wrote this book to “clarify the biblical doctrine of eldership,” so it is “primarily doctrinal and exegetical in nature.” There are other books that help with practically applying these principles. I would particularly recommend Christ in Church Leadership by Paul Winslow and Dorman Followwill and Eldership in Action by Richard Swartley. These are great supplements for Strauch’s work, but I recommend that you start right here. This book provides a solid, biblical foundation for further application.

Some have thought that the lack of examples and specific applications is a weakness of the book, but I actually consider it a strength. Strauch does offer some very practical insights, but he sticks to the biblical principles and avoids giving us a handbook on distinctive leadership practices from his particular church background. His balanced, focused approach has allowed this book to be utilized by churches from very different traditions, and widely varying sizes, to great benefit.

This book is helpful at putting to rest many common misperceptions about biblical eldership. It is not leadership “by committee;” it doesn’t demand that all elders serve in exactly the same way and in the same capacity; it does allow for dynamic teachers or leaders to fully use their gifts; etc. The biblical model provides us a well-defined framework for church leadership, but also great freedom in how we apply the scriptural principles. Strauch clearly shows that many churches that include elders in their leadership structure do not actually have a biblical form of eldership. He also carefully explains that many churches that seem to have all the expected terminology of a ‘biblical eldership’ actually have a senior pastor model in everything but name.

This is an excellent resource and still the best book available on biblical eldership. I can’t recommend it more highly.

Review: “Shepherds & Sheep: A Biblical View of Leading & Following” by Jerram Barrs

This book is pleasantly concise (98 pages including endnotes), but ably provides a solid overview of biblical church leadership. The book was written in 1983, and Barrs seems to be especially responding to ministries that stress a controlling “shepherding” or “covering,” and also churches that overemphasize a directing type of prophecy with no checks or safeguards—both of which were prevalent at the time. He also shows the danger of a licentious, anything-goes kind of approach, but doesn’t spend as much time exploring this side of the imbalance. Along the way, Barrs reveals some of the unhealthy extremes in the teachings of Watchman Nee, as well as troubling practices in Witness Lee’s Local Church movement.

But the relevance of this book isn’t limited to specific church movements. Both a libertarian lack of control and a legalistic authoritarianism are both potential dangers for churches at all times. The author focuses on the biblical principles of church leadership and shows how a consistently scriptural leadership model will protect us from falling into either extreme. When we neglect scriptural principles or enforce our own extra-biblical standards, we fall out of the balance described in the New Testament. I particularly appreciated Barrs’ insightful comments about the ‘upside down pyramid’ approach, having been part of a church that followed this kind of structure.

Some readers may quibble with details of the author’s views on apostles, elders, prophecy, etc. But even if you disagree with certain aspects of Barrs’ positions on these issues, you can still benefit from the main points on which he focuses attention. For instance, along with Howard Snyder (in the book’s foreword) I would disagree with Barrs’ assertion that the office of Apostle of Christ was limited to the 11 plus Paul. But his warning about leaders today claiming to be Apostles, with no or inadequate clarification of what they mean by the term, is spot on and necessary. His understanding of prophecy generally compares well with those of Wayne Grudem (Prophecy in the New Testament and Today) and DA Carson (Showing the Spirit). One may not agree with every nuance, but still appreciate the way he seeks to guard against the abuse of supposed prophetic utterances used to control others and direct their lives in very detailed ways. He brings out the biblical principles of a plurality of pastoral leaders in each church and the ministry of each part of the body, but in a book of this brevity it’s understandable if he doesn’t explore the application of these principles in greater depth.

This is a brief, but very helpful, book on a healthy, biblically balanced model of church leadership that leads to liberty in the life and ministry of churches, and on the necessity of guarding against the extremes of both license and legalism.

Review: “The Team Concept: Paul’s Church Leadership Patterns or Ours?” by Bruce Stabbert

From time to time, I’m going to post reviews of books related to elders and pastoral leadership. I’ll try to add these books in somewhat chronological order, first reviewing the earliest books. Hopefully these reviews will be helpful to those seeking more knowledge and wisdom on this important topic.

To my knowledge, before Alexander Strauch’s book was published (Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership), this would have been the only full-length treatment of church elders not written from a specifically Presbyterian point of view. Although Stabbert’s book has been eclipsed by Strauch’s, this is still an excellent book on biblical church leadership.

Stabbert devotes the first three chapters primarily to biblical exegesis of the relevant passages showing a plurality of pastoral leaders in the New Testament churches. He then follows with some helpful discussion of various aspects of biblical eldership. Here are some of his points that I especially appreciated:

Chapter 1: What’s in a Name?
In this opening chapter, the author examines each of the words used to describe church leaders, and shows how such terms as elder, overseer, bishop, pastor, etc. refer to the same leaders. He also very quickly and effectively shows that a distinction of one pastor from the rest of the elders is contrary to Scripture.

Chapter 2: One or Many?
This chapter traces the consistent, biblical pattern of plurality among the pastoral leaders of each individual church. Some have speculated that each city included many house churches, and have used this conjecture to challenge the concept of plural pastoral leaders for each church. Stabbert does an excellent job of showing the fallacies of such a challenge.

Chapter 3: A Verdict That Demands an Evidence
He does a good job handling those biblical leaders that some claim are exceptions to a pattern of plural pastoral leaders (Timothy, James, etc.). I wish he had gone into a little more detail regarding James, particularly the amount of baggage placed on one word in the Greek (krino), which can simply mean to offer one’s opinion or perspective.

Chapter 4: If the Shoe Fits
Stabbert lists ten benefits of adopting this biblical model of church leadership. Very helpful insights.

Chapter 5: We’ve Never Done It That Way Before
Ably handles common objections to this leadership model. I particularly appreciated his discussion of pastoral training, seminary education, and the overemphasis of a unique “call” to pastoral ministry.

Chapter 6: How Now?
Good thoughts on how to make sure a process of change in a church is a healthy one.

Chapter 7: The Inside Story
Solid section on the qualifications for elders. Helpful discussion on the desired age of elders. (Can a 24-year old seminary graduate be considered an “elder”?) Excellent description of the “Indigenous Principle,” i.e. raising up and using pastoral leaders from within the congregation rather than routinely hiring from outside.

Chapter 8: Player-Coaches
Insightful description of what the biblical duties of elders really are.

This is still a very helpful book. For anyone serving or preparing to serve as an elder, or for a church considering a transition to leadership by a council of co-equal elders, I think this book would prove to be beneficial and edifying.

So what exactly do elders do?

I’m going to move on to other topics (I promise!), but some have responded to the series on team pastoral leadership by asking, “So what do elders do?” If our traditional understanding of the pastoral role isn’t entirely accurate, what would a biblical job description for these church shepherds look like? Here is an explanation of the role of the elder, as drawn from Acts 6:4; 20:28-31; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:6-11; James 5:14-15; 1 Peter 5:1-3.

Pray for the church
The elders are to devote themselves to praying for the spiritual health and vitality of the people in the church, and to lift up to God any needs of the people.

Teach the church
The elders are to be involved in teaching the people the Word of God and overseeing other teachers in the congregation, to make sure that the body is well-fed spiritually, so that the people might grow as fully committed and mature followers of Christ.

Lead the church
The elders are to be continually seeking the will of God for the direction of the church by constant prayer, study of the Scriptures, and wise consideration of the needs and opportunities of the church. They should regularly seek the input and counsel of others in the body, and then should lead in applying biblical principles to specific situations and circumstances.

Care for the church
The elders should demonstrate loving concern for the spiritual well-being of the people in the church. They are to be available to pray with and counsel anyone in the body struggling with spiritual, emotional or physical problems.

Guard the church
The elders are to be constantly on guard against any false teaching or harmful behavior in the church. They must be able to refute false teaching and act decisively against any destructive activity.

Equip the church
The elders are not responsible for all the ministry within the church, but through their ministry (as described above) they are to equip their brothers and sisters in the body to minister to each other and serve one another in love. The elders should help the people discover their spiritual gifts, provide opportunities for them to use and strengthen their ministry skills, and train new elders and pastors.

A couple of final points that I think are very important:

  • Not all elders will be equally gifted in every area of responsibility. Some elders will be better leaders than teachers. Some will be excellent at teaching in small groups or one-on-one, but not at teaching in large group settings. This is healthy and one of the reasons why the biblical pattern is a group of leaders pastoring the church. The strength of the different elders will complement and balance each other. However, all of the elders should be involved, in some way, in each of these areas of ministry.
  • Not all elders will pastor as a full-time vocation. Some will be supported financially by the church, particularly those who devote great amounts of time to studying and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18). However, each elder shares in the responsibility to shepherd the church of God, and no elder is to be elevated above the others.

A few remaining challenges

This post is the last of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

I’m going to wrap up this series by discussing the remaining common challenges to the idea of each church being led by a team of elders.

The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear model. We have freedom to structure our church leadership in a way that works best for us.

Some people claim that the Bible is so ambiguous or inconsistent about leadership structures that we can simply use whatever works for our particular situation. It’s true that the New Testament doesn’t provide us with elaborate instructions on the minute details of church leadership. And this does give us great flexibility in applying scriptural principles to different cultures and contexts. But there is actually amazing consistency in how the New Testament describes the pastoral leadership of the original churches. James, Paul, Peter and Luke all describe the churches as being led by a plurality of elders.

James’ letter is most likely the earliest letter included in the New Testament, dating from the early to mid 40s AD. He refers to church leadership by elders in James 5:14. On the other hand, Peter’s teaching on elders comes late in his life (1 Peter 5:1-4). In the book of Acts, Luke recounts how Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church during their very first missionary trip (Acts 14:23). Years later, Paul is still following the same pattern, directing Titus to appoint elders in each town in Crete, and writing fairly detailed instructions to Timothy regarding the appointment and ministry of the elders of the church. We see this leadership structure for the churches consistently utilized and taught throughout Paul’s apostolic ministry.

As I noted in a previous post, we have accounts of elders being appointed, qualifications listed for elders, and instructions addressed directly to the elders of a church (with no mention anywhere of a sole, primary or senior pastor). Not only do we see this impressive consistency regarding the pastoral leadership of the churches throughout the New Testament, we have much more biblical teaching regarding church elders than we do for such important practices as baptism and communion. We can’t simply pretend that God hasn’t provided this pattern for us. And we shouldn’t introduce another form of church leadership unless it has clear biblical precedent.

The church can’t be led by a committee, it needs a primary leader.

It’s unfortunate that this challenge is heard as often as it is, because it’s really kind of a cheap shot. This is what, in logic, is called a “straw man argument.” It’s trying to cause your point to seem stronger by making your opponent’s view sound silly and easily torn apart (hence “straw man”). Why would I describe this challenge as a straw man argument? Because no pastor or Bible scholar who teaches about the church being led by a plurality of pastoral elders ever advocates for the church being led by a “committee.” They may use terms such as ‘council of elders’ or ‘pastoral team,’ but they don’t refer to committees. Committees don’t have a very good connotation for many of us, so using this kind of pejorative term is a way of stacking the deck against one’s opponent. We should never use a description for our opponents’ viewpoint that they wouldn’t use themselves.

Of course, the real problem with this challenge is that it’s not accurate. The implication here is that no one elder can ever exercise significant leadership beyond that of the other elders. They all have to be equally involved in every decision or ministry. But this just isn’t the way biblical elderships operate. For example, if the church is beginning a construction project, and one of the elders has considerable expertise in construction, then his leadership will be respected and probably followed (as the other elders consider and approve his ideas). If an elder has vast experience and wisdom in financial matters, then his voice will carry much greater weight when approaching fiscal decisions, and the other elders will respect his leadership.

Leadership by a council of co-equal elders doesn’t prevent God from using one man in a special, dynamic way. If one of the elders has a tremendous teaching or evangelistic gift, then the other elders will strive to give him ample opportunity to fulfill this ministry. What this model does resist is trying to see one elder as the primary leader in each and every situation, and formalizing this primary leadership into a ‘senior pastor’ role that is absent from the New Testament. In many churches, the plural leadership model serves to free a gifted pastor/teacher to pursue the ministry that best suits his gifting without the need for him to try to be all things to all people.

The famous Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers was reputed to have argued: “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” I would agree. But just who is the head of the body of Christ? Isn’t that Christ himself? If the church has a primary or senior pastor who is viewed as the head of the church (as Rogers was advocating), doesn’t Rogers’ axiom actually argue against such a senior pastor model? Wouldn’t this constitute two heads of the body—Christ and the senior pastor? According to Rogers’ own argument, shouldn’t we view such a leadership structure as a freakish anomaly? The elders are not the heads of the body; they lead the body in seeking the will and direction of our Head. And they resist the temptation to assign that primary role to one of their own.

But we’ve never done it that way before! And what about all the churches that have senior pastors? Are they all wrong?

In many discussions about church eldership, it eventually becomes obvious that this is the underlying objection. Most of us prefer the familiar. We don’t like change, especially when it seems to go against the norm. Of course, whether a practice is familiar or not is ultimately irrelevant. The real question  for us must be: What does the Bible teach? And we can see in our history, and in Scripture itself, that the majority can be very wrong. Even if churches follow an unscriptural model of ministry for 1000 years, it doesn’t somehow sanctify it and make it healthy.

When Martin Luther opposed unbiblical practices in the church of his day, he was faced with these same kinds of challenges. How could he think he was right and everyone else wrong? (Although many others had opposed the same unbiblical practices.) How could he have the audacity to oppose the established tradition of the church? His response was simple; it was bold, yet humble. If anyone could show him in Scripture where he was in error, he would repent. But if they could not, he could do nothing else but accept the witness of God’s Word over accepted, traditional practice, no matter how well established. Those of us who are proponents of what we see as a biblical form of eldership—the pastoring of the church by a group of co-equal elders with no elder elevated above the rest—would invite the same correction and take the same stand.

Encouragingly, there have been many throughout the history of the church who have called us back to this scriptural model. Today, there are more churches who follow such a biblical structure than most people realize. And more and more churches are returning to these New Testament principles of pastoral leadership. It can be helpful to learn about real churches who follow such a model. If you’d like to check out some examples, just email me [see here].

Many wonderful people of God are serving as senior pastors, or serving in churches that have senior pastors. We would never want to dismiss them or ignore the good that God is doing through them. Still, we must continue to strive to be as biblical in our church practices as we can be, and to lovingly challenge our brothers and sisters where we feel they are diverting from what is scripturally normative. The more we follow God’s plan for the church, the more our churches will be healthy and thriving, the more of a vibrant witness we’ll be to the world around us, and the more we will glorify and honor the One whose church it actually is anyway.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges [see above]

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

If you’ve ever served in leadership in a Calvary Chapel or Vineyard Christian Fellowship, chances are you’re familiar with the term “Moses Model” or at least the idea behind it. This teaching isn’t new; we see it much earlier in church history. It’s essentially a mono-episcopal model, with one bishop/pastor overseeing each church. This particular version of the model was most clearly articulated by Chuck Smith, longtime senior pastor of the original Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, CA.

“Pastor Chuck,” as he’s affectionately known throughout the Calvary Chapel movement, first showed that the leadership structure for the people of Israel could be charted as a pyramid, with the people on the bottom, the priests and judges above them, Moses at the top, with God over all. Then he taught that we should follow this pattern in the church and pictured it with the people on the bottom, the elders/deacons/assistant pastors above them, the pastor on the top by himself, and Jesus over the pastor. (You can find this teaching and the diagram below presented in The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel by Chuck Smith.)

There are many serious problems with this approach. To begin with, Moses led the entire people of God (probably more than two million people), not just a local gathering of Israelites. If we consistently apply this model to the church, it would lead us to something closer to a Pope than a local pastor. Thankfully, we know that Moses’ role was a unique one, and that he didn’t foreshadow the New Testament local pastor, but the New Testament Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 1:17; Acts 3:22-23; Hebrews 3:1-6). Moses was the mediator who went between God and the people. Today, the pastor doesn’t fill that priestly role—Jesus does (1 Timothy 2:5).

While many insist that the pyramid is actually turned upside down, with the pastor serving the entire body, it still leaves a diagram showing not “one mediator between God and man,” but two—Jesus and the pastor. This is revealed to be more than just a diagram fluke by a pattern of unhealthy authoritarianism. I should hasten to say that many Calvary Chapels and Vineyards are pastored by loving, humble men who seek to do the best for the flock. But the leadership model itself opens the door for serious abuses of authority.

Most of the people in the churches don’t see any of this. But when you become a leader, you’re taught not to question the leadership or views of the senior pastor (publicly or privately). To challenge him is seen as a sin just as Aaron and Miriam sinned by challenging Moses. To even ask questions is often seen as being divisive, and if those questions involve the senior pastor, you’ll be told to “touch not God’s anointed” (misusing Psalm 105:15, and also 1 Samuel 24:6 and 26:9-11). You’re taught that if you can’t agree or follow the senior pastor, then you should quietly leave the church and go someplace else.

Chuck Smith illustrates this extreme view of authority in a story he tells in The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel. The church in Costa Mesa had started a local Korean fellowship, which was pastored by a medical doctor. After some time, the new fellowship appointed a board of elders. The Korean congregation had grown quite large, and the elders began urging the pastor to give up his medical practice and serve the church in full-time pastoral ministry. The pastor disagreed, and went to Chuck Smith for advice on how to handle these conflicting viewpoints as to how the church should proceed. Pastor Chuck’s solution? Fire the elders! Apparently, when there’s a difference of opinion between the pastor and the elders, the way to handle this is to get rid of the elders! It’s shocking to me that Smith has not only written a public account of this story, but he actually uses it to teach leadership principles to Calvary pastors.

(It’s unfortunate that this kind of authoritarianism has led to abuses of power in many of these churches. In fact, there are people who meet online as a kind of support group who tell how they’ve experienced abuses of authority by Calvary pastors.)

In The Philosophy of Ministry of Calvary Chapel, Smith gives us a little more insight into how he sees the role of the elders in church ministry. Apparently, they are there to shield the pastor from flak due to unpopular decisions. Even though the pastor concurs with the direction taken (actually being the one who approves every decision), he need not face the criticism of those in the church who may disagree. When people complain, the pastor can point to the elders and say, “The board made their decision.” The elders then become the lightning rod for any criticism, and the pastor preserves the favorable impression the people have of him personally. It’s difficult to find the pastoral ministry of New Testament elders in any of this.

Another concern with this model of church leadership is that it leaves the pastor without any real accountability. He answers to no one but God. This is a dangerous place to be. It’s nice to be put on a pedestal, but it’s painful to slip off! Tragically, there have been many instances of moral failure that have devastated families, whole churches, and the pastors themselves. It’s not a loving thing to put a pastor in such a vulnerable position without having a secure system of accountability to fellow pastors who love him and who will tell him the truth, even if it hurts.

There are many wonderful, admirable qualities of the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements, and we can learn a lot from them. Unfortunately, their leadership structure has too often been their Achilles’ heal. Seeking to avoid being a ‘hireling’ (John 10:12-13), these men make themselves the Shepherd of the church. We see this honor as reserved for Christ alone. He is our Chief Shepherd, or Senior Pastor (1 Peter 5:4). He graciously calls the elders of the church to assist him in shepherding our brother and sister believers, and we want to faithfully fulfill this pastoral ministry. But we see no place in Scripture where anyone other than Jesus follows the model of Moses and serves as the pastor of the church.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”? [see above]

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

In the New Testament, we find what are often referred to as “the pastoral epistles.” These letters do, in fact, cover a number of issues that are particularly pastoral in nature. Two of these letters were written from Paul to Timothy, and the third was written from Paul to Titus. Does that mean these two leaders were pastors? It’s not hard to find books or articles that refer to Timothy as “the pastor” of the church in Ephesus. And since all would agree that Paul instructed him to exercise leadership of the elders of the Ephesian church, wouldn’t that make him a kind of senior pastor? We need to look more closely at the ministry roles of these two men.

Timothy
Timothy’s name comes up frequently in accounts of Paul’s ministry or in his letters to the churches. Timothy was obviously an integral part of the ministry work of Paul (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22). In Romans 16:21, Paul refers to him as “my fellow worker.” While most would agree that Timothy wasn’t an Apostle of Jesus Christ in the same sense that Paul was, many references show that he shared in Paul’s apostolic ministry. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, he and Paul are both referred to as “Christ’s ambassadors.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:6, Paul refers to himself, Silas and Timothy as apostles of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 16:10, Paul says that Timothy was “doing the Lord’s work, just as I am.”

What is even more significant is that Paul shared his writing credit with Timothy no less than six times and wrote two epistles directly to him. This is an amazing public recognition of the fact that Timothy shared in Paul’s ministry. Only two other men were acknowledged in this manner: Silas (twice) and Sosthenes (once).

1 Corinthians 16:5-12 is an interesting portion of Scripture that shows the way Paul and those who worked with him were frequently on the move. Timothy was often left for a time in one place or sent ahead to another (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:19-24; 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 6). The places where Timothy ministered were consistently places where Paul had just been or to which he was on the way. This going ahead or staying behind was a distinctive characteristic of Timothy’s ministry.

So, when Paul sent Timothy ahead, or left him behind, what exactly was Timothy to do?
I Corinthians 4:17 says that he was sent to Corinth to remind the people there of Paul’s ways and teachings. 1 Thessalonians 3:2 tells us that Timothy was sent to Thessalonica to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. So why was Timothy left in Ephesus? According to 1 Timothy 1:3 it was to “stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth.” He wasn’t left to pastor the church; he was left to correct problems with the church’s pastors. And according to 1 Timothy 3:14, Paul was intending to be there soon himself.

There is no solid reason to assume that Timothy was still in Ephesus when Paul wrote
2 Timothy. The wording in 2 Timothy 1:18 and 4:12 seem to indicate that he was in some location other than Ephesus. Wherever he was, he was preparing to leave (2 Timothy 4:21). Of course, we almost expect this kind of temporary stay when we see the itinerant nature of his ministry throughout much of the New Testament. Although he was probably in a different location, the purpose of his ministry as expressed in 2 Timothy compares well with what we saw in 1 Timothy. The things that Paul had taught Timothy, Timothy was to “teach . . . to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” Timothy faithfully shared in this apostolic ministry of training church leaders who would be able to carry on the local work. There’s nothing in the New Testament indicating that Timothy had a regular pastoral role in a local church.

Titus
We actually have less reason to assume a pastoral role for Titus. In Titus 1:5, Paul gives Titus very clear instructions: “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you.” Since Titus was sent to towns all over Crete, this is obviously not describing the role of a senior pastor. Just as we saw with Timothy, Titus was sent to further and complete the apostolic work of Paul.

The only reason people assume a senior pastor role for these men is that they appointed and/or worked with the elders of various churches. But we’ve seen that this was actually a primary aspect of their work as Paul’s apostolic delegates.

The only other defense for the idea that Timothy—or Paul for that matter—was a church pastor is the length of time that he stayed in place. For either one, this was usually a matter of months or even weeks, occasionally longer for Paul (his three-year stay in Ephesus being the exception rather than the rule). This fits an itinerant, apostolic ministry of planting and strengthening churches much better than it does that of a senior pastor.

Timothy was highly valued by Paul, a great blessing to those to whom he ministered, and a wonderful example to us. However there is no scriptural support for the claim that Timothy was the pastor of the church of Ephesus, or that he or Titus were pastors of any other congregation.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus? [see above]

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

Some people think the ministries of Peter and James show a senior pastor role in the New Testament churches. Let’s consider each of these key leaders.

Peter
Most evangelical Christians reject the idea that Peter was the “Pope” of the New Testament church—and for good reason, since this is not taught anywhere in Scripture. But I find it curious that many of these same people accept the idea that Peter was in leadership over his fellow apostles, a kind of “senior apostle,” even though this idea relies on some of the very same assumptions! Of course, the most important question is: What does Scripture say? What role does the Bible show Peter filling?

Since our current topic is primarily an in-house debate among evangelical believers, I’m going to skip the peculiarly Roman Catholic claims about what Scripture says about Peter, such as him being the rock on which the church is built, receiving the keys of the kingdom, etc. I don’t mean to seem dismissive of any Catholic readers of this blog, but exploring these claims would take us too far afield from the issue at hand.

Something we should notice when examining the biblical references to Peter is that he’s never given a title that is distinct from that of the other apostles, and he’s never instructed to serve in a role that is distinct from theirs. Everything he is called to do, the other apostles are called to do as well. We also see events in Peter’s ministry that don’t fit easily into a senior pastor model. When Peter returns to Jerusalem after evangelizing and baptizing the Gentile Cornelius and his household, he is criticized for his actions and has to give an accounting (Acts 11:1-18). Earlier, when the apostles heard about the conversion of Samaritans, “they sent Peter and John” to Samaria to check things out (Acts 8:14). There is no indication at all that Peter initiated this mission; the apostles evaluated the situation together, made their decision as a group, and exercised their collective leadership by sending two of their number, Peter and John, to Samaria.

Of course, as we continue reading these passages, we can’t help but notice how prominent Peter seemed to be among the apostles. Almost from the beginning, if someone is going to say something, it’s likely to be Peter! He serves as a kind of spokesman for the group. And he continues to be prominent through the birth of the church and into the first part of the book of Acts. The question is: Does this prominence mean that Peter exercised a leadership over the other apostles and a role distinct from theirs? The answer is: Not by itself. We need to know more.

If a football player gains greater recognition and attention than his teammates, does that mean he has an official leadership role over them? Maybe; maybe not. We understand that sometimes prominence is just that—prominence. This gives us an opportunity to clear up a common misunderstanding regarding church leadership by a council of elders. Sometimes people assume this requires each elder to minister in exactly the same way and to have the exact same prominence. But it doesn’t mean this at all! Elders are going to have different strengths and different mixes of spiritual gifting. Some will be gifted teachers, and their teaching should be appreciated and respected. Others will be better leaders than teachers. Some will thrive in a very public leadership role; others will prefer more behind-the-scenes administration. Still others will be better at pastoring as counselors or in informal discipling. But they still all lead and pastor the church as a group.

There is nothing about leadership by elders that would preclude God from using one of the elders in a very public, prominent ministry. But this doesn’t mean that this elder is now the pastor of the church (or the ‘senior pastor’). It simply means that his ministry is more public and well-known than his fellow pastors. Just because I’m currently the only elder supported full-time, and so do most of the adult teaching, doesn’t mean that I’m the pastor of the church. It just means that I’m serving in a different capacity than my fellow elders. But we still lead and pastor the church as a group.

There is nothing in the biblical accounts of Peter that contradict the New Testament pattern of church leadership I described in my original post. On the contrary, Peter fits this model of shared, plural pastoral leadership of the churches very well.

James
James is also sometimes mentioned as a biblical example of a senior pastor. There are a couple of reasons for this. First we notice that he seems to be distinguished by name from the other elders in one passage (Acts 21:18), and possibly a second (Acts 12:17). What do we make of this? It could be the same kind of prominence we saw with Peter. But there’s something else we have to consider. In Galatians 1:19, Paul seems to indicate that James is an apostle. If this is so, doesn’t it make sense that, as an apostle, he would be distinguished from the other elders?

The only other passage that might show a senior pastor role for James is found in the account of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. After many other leaders speak, James gives his krino (verse 19). Some Bible versions translate this as James giving his “judgment,” which seems to imply that James is formally leading the council and thus declares his final judgment. But this isn’t the only way to translate this Greek word, and other translations read that James is giving his “opinion” or telling the others that “I think that . . .” The problem is that this one word is just not conclusive enough to establish, by itself, such an authoritative role for James in the Jerusalem council. Indeed, it can easily lean the other direction, which seems to me to better fit the context of Acts 15.

The most that one could say, based on the examples of Peter and James, is that sometimes one (or more) of the elders may become more prominent in their service than the other elders. Of course, this doesn’t contradict the New Testament pattern of shared, plural pastoral leadership of the churches. And this is a far cry from expecting that each church will have one—and only one—of these prominent leaders, and formalizing this prominence into a church office that is distinct from that of the other elders, and a leadership role that isn’t mentioned anywhere else in Scripture.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James? [see above]

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?