Since every Christian has the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit teaches each of us, is there any need for leadership within the church? Wouldn’t it be better to view ourselves as a group of equals, as every person capable of every role?
Various verses in the Bible, such as 1 John 2:27, may seem to support this idea—but only if they are taken out of context. For example, when John wrote that Christians did not need anyone to teach them, did he mean they didn’t need to be taught by him? Did he say, don’t pay any attention to what I write, because you don’t need me or anyone else to teach you? This is not what he meant.
John wrote the letter because those people did need to be taught. He was warning his readers against the idea that salvation is found in secret teachings. He was saying that the truths of Christianity were already known in the church. Believers did not need any secret “knowledge” beyond what the Holy Spirit had already given the community. John was not saying that Christians do not need leaders and teachers.
Each Christian has individual responsibilities. Each person must decide what to believe and make decisions about how to live. But the New Testament is clear that we are not merely individuals—we are part of a body. The church is optional in the same sense that responsibility is optional—God lets us choose what to do, but that does not mean that all choices are equally helpful for us, or that all are equally within God’s desire.
Do Christians need teachers? The entire New Testament is evidence that we do. The church at Antioch had “teachers” as one of their leadership roles (Acts 13:1). Teachers are one of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to the church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Paul called himself a teacher (1 Timothy 2:7; Titus 1:11). Even after many years in the faith, believers needed teachers (Hebrews 5:12). James warned against the idea that everybody is a teacher (James 3:1), but his comments still indicate that the church normally had people who taught.
Christians need sound teaching in the truths of the faith. God knows that we grow at different speeds and have strengths in different areas. He knows, because he is the one who gives us those strengths in the first place, and he does not give the same gifts to everyone (1 Corinthians 12). Rather, he distributes them so that we will work together for the common good, helping each other, rather than each going off and doing our own thing (verse 7).
Some Christians are gifted with more ability for compassion, some for discernment, some for physical service, some for exhortation, some for coordination and some for teaching. All Christians are equal in value, but equality does not mean being identical or interchangeable. We are given different abilities, and although all are important, all are not the same. As children of God, as heirs of salvation, we are equal, but we do not all have the same role in the church. God puts people and distributes his gifts as he sees fit, not according to human expectations.
God puts teachers into the church—people who are able to help others learn. As a human organization, we do not always select the most gifted people, and teachers sometimes make mistakes. But this does not invalidate the clear witness of the New Testament that God’s church does have teachers, that this is a role that we should expect to see in communities of believers.
Although we do not have a specific office named “teacher,” we do expect teachers to exist within the church, and we expect our pastors to be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:2). In Ephesians 4:11, Paul groups pastors and teachers together, structuring them grammatically as if this role were a dual responsibility, to shepherd and to teach.
The New Testament does not prescribe any particular hierarchy for the church. The Jerusalem church had apostles and elders. The church in Antioch had prophets and teachers (Acts 15:1; 13:1). Some New Testament passages call the leaders elders; others call them overseers or bishops; some just call them leaders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:6-7; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 13:17). These seem to be different words for the same role.
The New Testament does not describe an elaborate hierarchy of apostles over prophets over evangelists over pastors over elders over deacons over lay members. “Over” may not be the best word to use, anyway, for all of these are service roles, designed to help the church. But the New Testament does tell people to obey the leaders in the church, to cooperate with their leadership (Hebrews 13:17). Blind obedience is not appropriate, nor is consistent skepticism or resistance.
Paul describes a simple hierarchy when he tells Timothy to appoint elders in churches. As apostle, church planter and mentor, Paul had authority over Timothy, and Timothy had authority to decide who would be elders and deacons. But this is a description of Ephesus, not a prescription for all future organization of the church. We do not see any attempt to tie every church to Jerusalem, or to Antioch, or to Rome. That would not have been practical in the first century, anyway.
So what can we say for the church today? We can say that God expects the church to have leaders, but he does not specify what those leaders are to be called or how they are to be structured. He has left those details to be worked out in the changing circumstances that the church will find itself in. We should have leaders in local churches, but it does not matter so much what they are called: Pastor Jones, Elder Kim, Minister Lawson or Servant Chris might be equally acceptable.
In Grace Communion International, we use what might be called an episcopal model (the word episcopal is based on the Greek word for overseer—episkopos, sometimes translated as bishop) because of the circumstances we are in. We believe this is the best way for our churches to have doctrinal soundness and stability. Our episcopal model has its problems, but so do other models, for they all involve fallible humans. We believe that in our historical and geographical circumstances, our style of organization can serve our members better than a congregational or a presbyterian model can.
(Keep in mind that all models of church government, whether congregational, presbyterian or episcopal, can take a variety of forms. Our form of the episcopal model is radically different from that of the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal, Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches.)
The head of the church is Jesus Christ, and all leaders within the church should seek his will in all things, in their own lives as well as in the functioning of the congregations. The leaders are to be Christlike in their leadership, which means that they must seek to help others, not to benefit themselves. The local church is not a work crew to help the pastor get his work done. Rather, the pastor is a facilitator, to help the members get their work done—the work of the gospel, the work Jesus Christ wants them to do.
Elders and ministry leaders
Paul compares the church to a body with many different parts. Its unity is not in uniformity, but in working together for a common Lord and for a common purpose. Different members have different strengths, and we are to use these for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Grace Communion International appoints through ordination elders to serve as pastoral leaders. It also appoints through commissioning ministry leaders (who may also be referred to as deacons or deaconesses). What is the difference between “ordination” and “commissioning”? In general, ordination is more public and more permanent; whereas commissioning may be done privately as well as in public, and may be revoked easily. Commissioning is less formal, and is not automatically renewable or transferable. An ordination may be revoked also, but this is done only in exceptional circumstances.
In Grace Communion International we do not have detailed descriptions of each church leadership role. Elders often serve in congregations as pastors (senior, associate or assistant pastors). Most preach and teach, though not all. Some specialize in administration. Each serves according to ability, under the supervision of the senior pastor (the overseer, or episkopos of the congregation).
Ministry leaders come in even greater diversity, each serving (we hope) according to ability, each according to the needs of the congregation. The senior pastor may commission them for temporary assignments, or for indefinite periods. The roles of these leaders and the councils and committees that advise them are described in our Church Administration Manual. The policies in that manual allow for flexibility in organizing congregational leadership because our congregations exist in a variety of circumstances, having diverse gifts.
Senior pastors serve somewhat like orchestra conductors. They cannot force anyone to play on cue, but they can provide guidance and coordination, and the group as a whole will work much better when the players take the cues they are given. In our denomination, members cannot fire their senior pastor. Instead, senior pastors are chosen and dismissed at the regional level, which in the United States includes Church Administration & Development, in coordination with local leaders.
What if a member believes a pastor is incompetent, or is leading the sheep astray? That’s where our episcopal structure comes in. Problems of doctrine or leadership style should be discussed with the pastor first, and then with a pastoral leader (the overseer of the pastors in the area).
Just as congregations need local leaders and teachers, pastors also need leaders and teachers. That is why we believe that our denominational home office has an important role in serving our congregations. We strive to be a source of training, of ideas, of encouragement, of supervision, of cooperation. We are not perfect, but that is the calling we see set before us, and that is what we will strive to do.
Our eyes need to be focused on Jesus. He has work for us to do, and much work is already being done. Praise him for his patience, for his gifts, and for the work that helps us grow.