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Should We Abandon Structured Leadership?

(Lisa Robinson)

Increasingly, I am encountering a definition of the priesthood of the believer to mean a rejection of structured leadership in our local assemblies. Because we are priests with direct access to God, we minister to each other and do not need special offices (pastor/elder) that separate clergy from the rest of Christians, aka lay people. I know that many have been hurt by the local church and especially her leaders. I get that some fear any kind of hierarchical structure for for whatever reason. That may contribute to this form of polity.

For clarification, the term was coined by the Reformers to distinguish the direct access believers have to Christ vs. their access to through clergy. This of course was in repudiation to the papists who claimed that they alone provided access contrary to Hebrews 4:14. Through this direct access, we serve as ministers of the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:18) and minister to one another (Colossians 3:15-16). In this regard, we don’t need structured leadership to minister to one another.

But I will argue that we do need structured leadership for local church. Now, I’m not framing the discussion in terms of congregationalism because I think this is something different (good article on 9Marks here).  Also, I confess that I hold to a presbyterian polity that is somewhat shaping my thesis. But even so, I’m want to be fair to alternate forms of church structure and acknowledge where there is consistency with Scripture.  I question if this egalitarian type of structure is faithful.

If we think just gathering by itself is sufficient and reject the idea of structured leadership, consider Ephesians 4:4-16. There is one body who is to walk according to its purpose, growing up together in Christ through specific means – “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers (vs 11)”

Now there is a diversity of interpretation of the five classifications mentioned.

1) They are offices representing the means through which God has chosen to work through

2) They are gifts representing the means through which God has chosen to work through

3) They refer to specific people that God has chosen to work through

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just provide what I think makes the most sense, which is  definition #1 though I can see some validity for #2. I also think its important to consider prophets and apostles in light of what Paul said earlier in Ephesians 2:20. The very foundation of what Christ built is grounded in the prophetic and apostolic witness, which is transmitted through Scripture.

But what is important is why God gives some according to these specific offices or gifts: to prepare God’s people for the work of service and so they can grow up in him and not buy into whatever good ideas might sound Christian but in reality are not. These selected categories have a function for the sake of the body.

Also consider Paul’s instruction to Timothy and Titus. Specifically, in 1 Timothy 3:1 he says “Here is a trustworthy saying: if anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task”. He then goes on to describe the qualifications for overseers (pastors/elders) and deacons (vv. 2-13). This is for the purpose of how God’s household should be conducted (vs 15) by describing what kinds of people should be leading her.

When we reject structured leadership, we’re really rejecting the means through which God wants his people to grow up in him. I love what Calvin had to say about this;

By these words he shows that the ministry of men, which God employs in governing the church, is a principal bond by which believers are kept together in one body. He also intimates, that the church cannot be kept safe, unless supported by those guards to which, the Lord has been pleased to commit its safety. Christ ‘ascended up far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ (Eph 4:10). The mode of filling is this: By the ministers to whom he has committed this office, and given grace to discharge it, he dispenses and distributes his gifts to the church, and thus exhibits himself as in a manner actually present by exerting the energy of his Spirit in this his institution, so as to prevent it from being vain or fruitless. In this way, the renewal of the saints is accomplished, and the body of Christ is edified; in this way we grow up in all things unto him who is the Head, and unite with one another; in this way we are all brought into the unity of Christ, provided that prophecy flourishes among us, provided that we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine which is administered to us. Whoever, therefore, studies to abolish this order and kind of government of which we speak, or disparages it as of minor importance, plots the devastation, or rather ruin and destruction, of the church. (I.C.R. 4.3.2)

Now reading that probably conjures up images of corruption, which unfortunately have peppered the church throughout her history. But notice also the qualifications: provided that prophecy flourishes among us, provided that we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine administered to us. Whenever I hear of a repudiation of leadership, I wonder how much of it is in response to the lack of these qualifications or abuses that have caused harm to the body. Harm comes to the church by those who suppose themselves to be prophets and apostles but inject their own opinions into the congregation under the guise of ‘prophecy’. But Calvin refers to the apostolic and prophetic witnesses through which we get Scripture that testifies to Christ. Whatever side of the gifts debate you fall under, the foundation of the apostolic and prophetic message is in the preaching and receiving of this Word that prophecy flourishes and encourages us to sing songs and hymns to one another. Harm comes when the message of the apostles is distorted by not connecting it to the complete message of Scripture. Harm comes when the ministers disregard the word they proclaim through behavior that contradicts it and self-focused kingdoms.

And if there is no structured leadership, who serves as guardians of the local assembly? Paul’s instruction to Timothy and  Titus read as a charge of protection for the sheep. Peter exhorts the elders to shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3) drawing on language Jesus used regarding people he has drawn to himself (John 10:1-17).

Surely our priesthood is for the purpose of ministering to each other and build up the body of love. But does that mean we can abandon structured leadership? I think not. Calvin’s words should sober us that disconnecting this ministry from the means by which God has ordained for the growth of the body is counterproductive to the health of the church.  If we ignore it, disparage or reject it, I think it would be to our detriment.

Check out my blog at www.theothoughts.com

12 Responses to “Should We Abandon Structured Leadership?”

  1. “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:12).

    The word translated “among” means “to be beside” or “to be with.” This speaks of position. If elders, deacons, or fivefold (Eph. 4:11-12) people with strong giftings are looking for their position—this is it. No one is to have position “over” another brother or sister in the servantship culture of the church. And this is where everything usually gets so skewed. We have built leadership structures that have created positions that set some people above—rather than among—others.

    To the elders (among) you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; “not lording it over those entrusted to you,” but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5:1-5)

    Of course, both Paul and Peter were just carrying on with Jesus’ commands that the hierarchical structures of the gentile or non-believing world should not be used in the church local or otherwise. (Matthew 20:25) (Mark 10:42)

    It’s not “structure” which is called into question, it’s the hierarchical one that Jesus prohibited.

  2. Trace M. Bailey August 12, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Miguel, I see your point; however, consider this: why would scripture exhort obedience and submission to leaders should there be no hierarchal structure? See Hebrews 13.17 (obey and submit are both imperatives). I wholly agree elders must serve willingly and out of love, but they must lead, which in and of itself suggests being followed. To be a shepherd is to be in a different position than the sheep.

    A few others notes concerning your post: Your point from Matthew and Mark has nothing to do with polity. And finally, I would add that you left a key term out of your quote of 1 Thess: preside over. The Greek term to lead, manage, preside, or be over does not show up in your 1 Thess quotation. Your argument was based on a translation of prepositions but cannot be sustained when you add the term missing from your translation.

    I wanted too add these observations and encourage you to think of elder leadership as a means by which Christ is glorified in the church. Egalitarian church leadership is neither biblical nor prudent.

  3. Miguel, that is a good point about the hierarchy vs structure. Yes, that is what I’m actually arguing.

  4. Bailey,

    “Do what your leaders tell you to do.” Seems like the common understanding from Hebrews 13:17, but that is not the message we hear when we look at the definition of the Greek word translated “obey” in this when we look at the definition of the Greek word translated “obey” in this verse. It is not the often used hypakouō, which means “to hearken to a command.” And it is not peitharcheō, which means “to obey a superior.” The word translated “obey” in this verse is peithō, which means “to be persuaded by.” The author of Hebrews is pleading for the saints to be persuaded by those who are of deeper spiritual maturity.

    Can you substantiate your claim that “Matthew and Mark (Matthew 20:25) (Mark 10:42) have nothing to do with polity.” And, are you suggesting that polity and leadership are 2 different things?

    As to the word “preside” it’s a bad translation of “proistamenous” which means to “take the lead.” Of all the major translations, only one uses “preside” and that is the NET Bible. It’s incorrect.

  5. I like 1 Cor. 4: 15 in these kind of discussions, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, be followers of me.” (1 Cor. 4: 15-16) And then Paul also mentions he has sent Timothy to them: “who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” (Verse 17)

    Note here, “fathers” (“pater”, Gk. in the plural). It is one who as a preacher of the Gospel and a teacher (Eph.4: 11, “pastor-teacher” – One “gift” and work/worker). And see Eph. 4: 12-13 also…”for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” It is these men, as the gift of the ministry as a “father/fathers”, who are the one’s that know and preach/teach the Gospel and Good News of Christ! And here too “father” is one who is simply a shepherd, a “pastor” ‘In Christ’. And the Pauline of “In Christ”, is simply but profoundly the essence of the Gospel Message (“kerygma”).

    Sadly today (as in even Paul’s time), we have “ten thousand instructors.., etc.”, which simply don’t know the pastoral element of the “Gospel” or Good News, and even “corrupt the word of God..” (2 Cor. 2: 17). See too, 2 Cor. 4: 2).

    And it was this pastoral message and essence of the Gospel, that Paul gave to Timothy also, and which Timothy was to pass on and “commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2: 2)

    See also, 1 Cor. 15: 1-11, noting too verses 12-19.

  6. I see the point about “structure” verses “hierarchy”, but if hard pressed? it really seems to be apples and oranges! Note, Matt. 23: 1-3. Jesus does not re-approach the authority of the Jewish leadership, but indeed how it is used! Though I would surely disagree with the idea of Apostolic Succession, and the idea of any separate “priesthood”, in either my own Communion-Anglican, Rome, or the EO!

    Btw, note there surely does appear to be something of a “hierarchy” in the doctrine of the Godhead, the Father is the First-Person of the Godhead, the regal and even the monarchy therein. Even Augustine held this. And the Scripture does teach that ‘the Father is also the eternal source of the Godhead, from Whom the Son is begotten eternally and to from Whom the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally.’ This is the position of the Trinity of God in the EO. And I too as an Anglican follow the same, the Single God who is both three and one (triune): Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “one in essence and undivided”. Three “unconfused” and distinct divine persons (hypostases), who share one divine essence (ousis) – uncreated, immaterial and eternal.

    Indeed, the Trinitarian Creed/creeds do get important! (The Nicene “homoousios”). Luther always stood fast here! Sorry for the bit of sidetrack!

  7. Thanks, Lisa, for a thought-provoking post. I especially liked that you pointed out the importance of “why” God gave gifts to the Body in Ephesian 4:11. As v. 12 says, “For the perfecting of the saints unto the work of the ministry, unto the building up of the Body of Christ.” Then v. 13 includes oneness of the faith, knowing Christ, growth, and maturity.

    So, it seems that the important question is not whether such and such is the right interpretation of these verses but whether or not theses things (perfecting, functioning, building, oneness, knowing Christ Himself, growth, and maturity) are happening among the believers.

  8. Truth unites... And divides August 13, 2013 at 1:38 am

    Biblical patriarchy for church and home is faithful to Scripture and is God’s design.

  9. “a charge of protection for the sheep”

    amen; may He continue to give us shepherds after His own heart who will feed us on knowledge and understanding. Jer 3:15

  10. Ironically, I think the tendency among some to abandon structured leadership is a consequence of making government the ultimate object of one’s faith.

  11. You said, “I question if this egalitarian type of structure is faithful.”

    In my opinion, the answer is no if it denies the offices of the economic structure of the church in favor of a perceived gift structure that is left up for grabs by a finicky and whimsical church membership.

    In any event, however, there is no getting around the fact that Scripture does clearly indicate a hierarchical structure of servanthood leadership.

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