Choosing Church Leaders Wisely
by Sam Geli, December 3, 2015: WARNING-(Disclaimer) Nominating committees in many Adventist churches are in the process of electing officers for the new year, at this time of the year. If you are satisfied with the process and the criteria that are used, and are happy with the status quo, stop reading this article.
To rule or “oversee” the church means to serve the church. In the household of God, the concept of “oversight” is radically transformed and interpreted entirely in terms of “deaconship” or “ministry” or “service.” The office of the one-man pastor has no Scriptural support. Nowhere does the New Testament ever imply that one man (pastor or local “first” elder) is to have sole authority over a local congregation. On the contrary, the earliest churches enjoyed the ministries of multiple elders whose job it was to pastor the flock (cf. Acts 20:17,28; 1 Peter 5:1,2).
A most unhealthy trend among some Adventist churches which have tried to implement this more Scriptural model is the multiplicity of pastors-elders will be assumed. The point of this article rather will be to argue against the traditional (worldly) view of authority in the church bound up in the concept of the church “office.” Sometimes the local church elders dominate the leadership role in the local church to the detriment of the congregation. There are no term limits on church elders and the incumbents tend to rule on and on, perpetuating their influence over several generations.
That might sound strange at first. After all, didn’t Paul write to the Romans: “Inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office”? (Romans 11:13, KJV). And in his first letter to Timothy, did not Paul write of “the office” of a bishop” and “the office of a deacon” (1 Tim. 3:1,10,13, KJV)?
Those words certainly do appear in the King James Version of the Bible. But what is truly astonishing is how foreign to the Greek text those terms are. In the Romans text it is his diakonian, his ministry or “deaconship,” which Paul magnifies. In 1 Timothy 3:1 it is episkopes, “an oversight,” which is sought, which may or may not bear the traditional connotation of “church office.” Most interesting of all is how the King James Version translates a single Greek verb, diakoneo (“to serve”) with the clumsy phrase “use the office of a deacon” in 1 Timothy 3:10,13.
Are these mere semantics? Does it matter whether or not we regard elders and deacons as holding “offices”? I believe it matters insofar as it presupposes a worldly authority structure in which person dominates person. This type of authority has no Scriptural sanction. In many Adventist churches today the Board of Elders assumes the primary role of leadership, surpassing the local Church Board.
The oversight of the church is not an office but a function. Leaders lead by example and by submission. Elders are just that: older, wiser people in the church who are known and trusted and admired and imitated, whose opinions and insights and advice are sought, whose character and spirituality are beyond reproach. This pastoring is a role or function, but it is not an office invested with certain powers or political authority.
But is not this type of authority implied in the New Testament’s exhortation of believers to “obey” our leaders? “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful to you” (Heb. 13:17, NRSV). We might note also the basic meaning of the term “bishop” (episkopos), which literally means “overseer.”
At first glance this concept seems to create an immediate tension with the concept of diakonia, “deaconship” or “service” or “ministry.” In fact, these two terms, “deacon” and “bishop,” evoke contradictory images. Yet we know that all elders are deacons (i.e., servants). These two concepts can be reconciled. The same people are called to both rule and obey.
The key to unraveling that tension is to be found in passages such as Matthew 20:25-28 and Mark 10:42-45. In these passages Jesus clearly points out that spiritual authority is exercised in an entirely different way from worldly authority.
To rule or “oversee” the church means to serve the church. In the household of God, the concept of “oversight” is radically transformed and interpreted entirely in terms of “deaconship” or “ministry” or “service.” Peter states this explicitly in 1 Peter 5:1-5. “I exhort the elders…to pastor the flock of God among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly” (vv. 1-2, my translation). Furthermore, they are not to exercise authority as “lords” but as “examples” (v. 3). “In the same way” younger Christians are to accept the authority of the elders (v. 5a), “and all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another” (v. 5b, NRSV).
To illustrate this point we need look no further than Jesus’ great disciplinary outline of Matthew 18:15-20. Of course it is the duty of any member of the body, not just a (serving) leader, to approach the one who has sinned; and in any case a member who has been sinned against must also approach the offender to reconcile (cp. also Luke 17:3,4). If reconciliation and/or repentance is not achieved, does the case then go to the elders? Not necessarily. A third and possibly fourth party is brought in, but Jesus doesn’t indicate that the third or fourth parties need to be elders. If that effort is unsuccessful, does it then go to the elders? No. On the contrary, it goes straight to the entire church body for prayerful resolution. Just where are the elders in all of this? If they truly are the “rulers” and decision-makers of the church, surely they would figure prominently in this passage. But they don’t.
The ramifications of this fact are far-reaching. It means that the elders are not the primary decision-makers in the church, contrary to much standard Adventist church practice. In the early church it was the Holy Spirit operating through the context of the entire body which made decisions on behalf of the church (cp. Acts 13:2,3; 15:22; 1 Cor. 1:10-15).