Sunday, 14 June 2015

House Church 101 - Leadership and Eldership in Organic Churches – Positional or functional?

This is part 9 in a series on the theology behind house churches. To see the other posts in this series you can find a link to them at the bottom of this entry.

When people who are not used to the kind of open-participatory church meetings described in my previous post get exposed to these types of gatherings, there can be confusion at the lack of a clear human leader taking charge of the meetings. Some have urged us to officially appoint elders fearing that our lack of officially ordained oversight might lead us off track. Within the organic/house church movement itself people seem to be divided on the issue of whether leadership and in particular, eldership is functional only or positional in nature. By that I mean, that some believe that those who are ‘elders’ in the church have authority over the rest of the assembly while others reject the idea. Nevertheless it is an important question and below is how I presently see things.

My position

Let me start by stating my own position on these matters. Firstly, I consider leadership to be biblical and I think that pretty much everyone associated with non-institutional forms of church would agree on this. We just think it looks different than what most people do. Secondly, I also recognize at least two levels of hierarchy in church. But instead of the clergy and laity division most espouse my version has God on top and everyone else underneath on the exact same level. Pertaining to believers, I see no hierarchy in scripture whatsoever which we will be elaborated on shortly. Let me lay a foundation for my view by quoting Mark 10:42-45:-

"And Jesus called them to him and said to them, 'You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'

For me, this verse is enough to contextualize everything else that the New Testament teaches us about the churches' relationship with power, authority, rank and the desire some individuals crave for having the spotlight on themselves in meetings (3 John 9, Matthew 20:21). Jesus Himself claimed that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Him (Matthew 28:18); which is fortunate for us considering the abuse of power that we see within the world, whether it be in business, religion, government, race, sex or anywhere else. Power always ends with the oppression of those who do not have it. Having said that, I do believe that the New Testament does indeed make a compelling case for at least two ‘titles’. The first would be ‘priest’, but since the word applies to everyone who has been born into the body of Christ (1 Peter 2:5) one can hardly make a case for hierarchy from it. Then the second word would be ‘elder’, a word which scripture records some people were appointed and officially recognized as (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). However, I contend that even elders never carried any positional authority to speak of where, in the event of a disagreement, they could pull rank on others. Elders were simply the older, more mature believers among the brethren who were acknowledged as such by the others.

In case you are wondering about deacons, deacon is simply a Latin word that means 'servant' which has been turned into a title. And prophets, teachers, apostles and evangelists are functional gifts (Ephesians 4:8) meant to equip the rest of the body.

Where problems arise

I believe it is Mark Twain who once said, “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”. While the King James Bible is generally a pretty good translation it does have some serious flaws in it, one of which is that it tends to emphasize the authority of the church and state (which was the same thing when it was written) even when it is not really there in the original language. One of the rules laid down to the translators of the King James by the monarch was that “The old Ecclesiastical Words (should) be kept, viz. the Word Church (should) not to be translated Congregation etc.”. Other words like ‘office’ and ‘obey’ pop up regularly where they should never have been used in the first place. Consider 1 Timothy 3:1 which the KJV translates this way, “This is a true saying, if a man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work”.

Thanks to 1700 years of church tradition and 500 years of biblical proof texts, the clergy/laity or hierarchical thinking about church is so ingrained in us that often newer translations simply import their preconceived ideas onto these texts as well. Consider how the Weymouth New Testament adds the word ‘church’ into 1 Timothy 3:1. The New Living Translation changes ‘good work’ to ‘honorable position’. It pains me to say this, but the NIV probably says it most accurately when it translates it this way, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” To dig deeper on the issue of how translation errors have aided the idea of hierarchy within the church I highly recommend Sean Smith’s book “Are Christians Free Indeed? which has a whole chapter on the subject”. The point is this, that a lot of the confusion caused when we try and reconcile Jesus’ words in Mark 10 with conflicting verses that seem to promote hierarchical structures (like Hebrews 13:17) can often be corrected by looking into the translation issue first.

Objections raised

Some people point to other areas in scripture where authority is spoken of. Romans 13 has been mentioned but considering Jesus’ words in Mark 10, again, I do not think that it is wise to try and make a case for hierarchy in churches based on how the kingdoms of the world (governments) operate. The two are diametrically opposed to one another. One operates by force, coercion or power over people, the other emphasizes mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21), serving others or power under people.

Luke 10:19 is another one; it is where Jesus says that He has given us authority over the enemy and to trample on serpents and snakes. Again, this verse does not apply to our relationships within the body of Christ but to something else, in this case, the seventy chosen by Christ were given authority to heal the sick and cast out demons. Really, it is Christ’s authority imparted on another for a task which is something I will demonstrate using an illustration under the next subheading. But one last point still needs to be addressed which is the hierarchical structure that is taught within families. 1 Corinthians 11:3 is often used to teach that husbands have authority over their wives (see also Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18). It reads “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”. There are multiple problems when one understands head to mean authority in this passage or when we sever it from its context. The word head often refers to positional authority in the 21st century, think of titles like ‘head boy’ or ‘head chef’ but that is not how it is meant in 1 Corinthians (or anywhere else that I am aware of in scripture). Head in this context refers not to authority but to one's source. The source of man is Christ, the source of woman is man (Genesis 2:21-24) and the source of Christ is God. Verses 8 and 12 confirm this, “For man is not from woman, but woman is from man”, “For as woman came from man, even so man comes from woman; but all things come from God”. Verse 12 (and 11) actually elaborates to counter the idea that men are superior to woman (as does verse 24 in Genesis 2) and serves to demonstrate their equality. The entire passage is actually dealing with a woman’s authority to pray and prophesy (see v5 and 10)! To really dig into this idea I highly recommend Philip Payne’s essay on head coverings which can be downloaded over here, pages 2 and 3 in his PDF list 14 reasons why 'source' is a better interpretation than 'authority' for the word head.

Obedience and submission is about following Christ’s example rather than about one being inferior to others. Obedience however is never blind, not in marriage, in submission to governmental authority or in church meetings. Some churches teach that you are to blindly obey your husband or the authority of its leaders and that you will be judged by God only in your obedience even if they were wrong. That theology never worked out very well for Sapphira. 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Revelations were all letters addressed to churches with several issues. Nowhere is the leadership held accountable in these texts but rather, the whole church.  As far as possible, we are to submit to everyone in all things (Matthew 5:38-42) but when there is any contention between what man and God says, we are compelled to answer as Peter and John did “Is it right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God?” (Acts 4:19).

Biblical leadership

I mentioned earlier that I do indeed believe in leadership and authority. Let me begin by sharing a story that a friend of mine once shared with me:-

There was once a rich man who had many people working for him in his home. One man tended his garden, another cleaned the house, and there was also an Au Pair as well as a full-time cook all living under his roof.  Before going on a holiday the man left some instruction for all four staff members with the Au Pair. The Au Pair read out each person’s duties to them as she had been instructed so that everyone would know what was required of them while the man was away.

What we learn from this illustration is that the Au Pair, while being of equal status with the other staff, still carried authority in the message that she brought because of its source. This is how I view authority in the church. Paul did not rebuke the Berean’s in Acts 17 for searching the scriptures to see if what he was saying was true, instead he applauded them for doing so.

Similarly, I view leadership as biblical insofar as it is in accordance with Christ and the Holy Spirit working through the ekklesia. Last week I shared about how one of our local gatherings went. There was no one in our midst that we referred to as leader, yet throughout our gathering almost everyone had the opportunity to lead us in songs, in teachings and in prayer as the Spirit worked in all of us.

Leadership in the church is always to be associated with serving others (1 Peter 5:1-3, John 13:12-17). In organizational churches the laity, much like the poor in society are there simply to serve and prop up the higher class citizens in our systems which is the exact antithesis of what Scripture teaches us.

Thoughts on elders

One would be hard pressed to argue against the fact that elders in the church were officially recognized in scripture. As already mentioned, Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 both mention the appointing of elders in the local cities. But this does not mean that they wielded absolute authority within the ekklesia. Church authority is never supposed to rest in the hands of one or even the few but on the whole assembly (Acts 15:22). As Del Birkey says in his book The House Church, “There resides in no one an inherent right to control another in Christ’s church. Nowhere in the New Testament are the church leaders instructed to exercise authority over the people of God...Ecclesial authority is never prepackaged according to sex or status, nor is it ever given to any one clergy or federation.”

1 Peter 5:1-2 tells us how elders are supposed to function:-

The elders who are among you I exhort…shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers…not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to who, but being examples to the flock.

The rest of us in turn are not to make their calling any harder, “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7)”. We are able to do this because elders are not supposed to be hired professionals from outside the church but, biblically speaking, chosen from within the church. This process of appointing elders is something that happened over time and quite naturally. New Testament churches were often planted and then left to themselves to develop. Then months, sometimes even years later elders were selected. Elders were simply the more mature persons within that were recognized as being further along the path than most. Their words were not law but everyone recognized the wisdom that they had. Elders were not selected based on their impressive potential as per their CV’s but recognized for what they were already doing within, for their knowledge and blameless lifestyles. Essentially, when a man is recognized as an elder his function in the body does not change in any way.


To quote from Lance Ford’s book, UnLeader: Reimagining Leadership and Why We Must:-

“The New Testament places the emphasis on the function of the Holy Spirit in the lives of men and women who are servants of God and his kingdom initiative rather than on titles and offices. Men and women have dug titles and offices out of the trash heap where Jesus tossed them, shined them up, and hung them on church buildings, office doors, and business cards.”

As far as I can tell we are to recognize authority in people when it is Christ’s authority that we see in them. Likewise, we are to imitate the example of those who have proven themselves to be godly and full of the Spirit. Giving extra respect to and heeding the advice of those who are more mature in the faith. This also means that we are to be sensitive to the Spirit's moving within the ekklesia and to the outworking of the gifts within each member. It is certainly not an ‘each one does what is right in their own eyes’ situation that I would embrace. In Revelation 2 Jesus addresses the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (v15), although He does not specifically mention what they taught, the word itself means ‘conquerors of the people’. If it is hierarchy we want, then rather let us insist on being a servant to all, seeking the well-being of others before our own, gaining neither recognition nor reward for our service. Isn’t this what the early church modeled for us?

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