A few weeks ago I wrote on why the church here belongs to a fellowship of independent evangelical churches- essentially because we believe the Bible’s pattern for the local church is to be evangelical, independent and in fellowship with other churches that proclaim the Gospel. I made the point that each church should be free to govern itself without interference from authority structures outside itself. But how should an independent church be governed and led? How do we make decisions? Again- I am writing primarily for Woody Road regulars to explain why we function as we do and I describe it as a distinctive not because what I write will be unique to us but because it won’t be universal amongst all evangelical churches.
When I was a student I heard somebody I respect argue that the Bible was relatively silent about how local churches should be governed. At the time I just accepted this- there is always a tendency at that age to agree with everything that somebody you admire says! However, I am now convinced that is wrong. The New Testament is consistent in its insistence that the church will be led by a plurality of elders assisted by deacons. And that’s the reason for our practice here. It isn’t simply our way of doing things- it is about us being faithful to Scripture.
But there are crucial follow up questions. How does an elder led church fit with the concept of the priesthood of all believers? What role does the church have in making decisions? And how should elders work alongside pastors?
The elders are given authority to lead
One of the caricatures attached to an independent church is of a group of people who love gathering together to vote on everything- whether a choice of pastor, venue for a church weekend or colour of a wall. That isn’t the New Testament pattern. The church is to be led. That is the universal picture across the New Testament- you find references to elders, overseers and pastor/shepherds in the writings of Luke, Paul and Peter. It seems to me that the title of elder, pastor and bishop is used fairly interchangeably across these Scriptures as I argued in the last post. Although here in the church we tend to refer to the full-time paid elders as pastors that is not a distinction we should draw too sharply. It would be equally accurate to describe me as a “full-time paid elder” and the other elders as “part-time non-paid pastors”. Alongside the roles of teaching and pastoring the flock Paul describes the elders as those who “direct the affairs of the church” (1 Timothy 5:17). In other words- the direction of the church under God is not primarily determined by a series of votes (indicative or otherwise). No- the elders are given that responsibility by God.
Now- of course- there are two things worth noting. Although authority is given to the elders, their model of leadership must not be authoritarian. We are to follow the example of the Chief Shepherd- caring for the flock and seeking to model sacrificial service. The other thing to notice- and I fear this is hugely overlooked in evangelical circles- is that leadership is plural in the New Testament without any sense of hierarchy within the leadership. When Paul tells Titus to complete the set up of the church in Crete he is mandated to appoint elders rather than a senior pastor. Indeed the phrase “senior pastor” is completely absent in the New Testament. That is hugely important and is widely ignored even by churches that would theoretically be committed to a plurality of elders. I have been struck by this in the context of the Brexit discussions. So much of the media coverage has been speculating on what Theresa May will decide. How on earth can it be right that such a decision is down to one person? And the church must not find itself in that position. It may well be that within an eldership team that one individual is more gifted in providing strategic direction. But it can never be appropriate for final decisions to be in the hands of one individual. That’s partly because we all have limited wisdom and partly because my own experience is that church leadership does have the potential to mess with your head. Having too much power is always dangerous for any son of Adam. It is why the New Testament always assumes plural leadership.
Here at Woody Road we have three co-pastors (with Phil’s main focus being Grace Church Kidlington) who have exactly the same level of authority as the other elders. When we moved to the co-pastor model about ten years ago I had various people telling me that it wouldn’t work because somebody needed to be in charge. Can I be provocative? I suspect that advice was driven more by a secular model of chief executives (see Sam Allberry’s helpful piece here) than a New Testament model. It may be that one person takes on more public leadership (that probably is me here at Woody Road)- but they are not in a position of authority over the other elders (and I certainly don’t get my way at all elders’ meetings!). Now in years to come we as a church may end up with roles such as “Pastor” and “Assistant Pastor” to reflect differing levels of experience and the fact that one who is younger may be still receiving some form of training. But that won’t mean that the pastor alone leads the church. Under the headship of Christ the elders together lead the church. And although the New Testament has less to say about the specific role of deacons the pairing of these positions in 1 Timothy 3 indicates that the deacons have a significant part to play as the church makes progress.
Again- this is not simply our custom. It is what we believe Scripture says. And I am so thankful for the way the Lord has provided the church here with some great elders and deacons, who really do desire to serve and shepherd the church.
The church has a role in decision making
There is, though, a danger in the above argument. It can yield a passivity in the church or a lack of ownership- a sense that all the decisions are made elsewhere and that you are irrelevant if you are not an elder. That is problematic because it is clear that the whole church does make decisions in the New Testament- the choice of the proto-deacons in Acts 6 being an example of that. More than that, too big a gap between the elders and the church in decision making doesn’t fit with the New Testament picture of the church. There is no special priestly caste in the New Testament- all of us can seek God’s wisdom and so should have input into the direction of the church. In particular, though, I am minded of the image of the church as a family made up of brothers and sisters. It seems to me that it is the nature of a family that we know what is going on. Too often churches can think primarily in terms of being an institution- those “at the top” have the information and the rest live in blissful ignorance save for the “spin” that is delivered to them. No- the church is family and, as much as possible, there should be openness about discussing proposals and challenges at an early stage.
So the New Testament provided a sense of balance- the elders do provide direction but the whole church is not simply passive in that or to be kept in ignorance of what is going on.
Have we always got that right as a church? No. In my earliest years here I think we probably were too close to the caricature of the independent church that votes on everything. Perhaps the pendulum then did move too far in the opposite direction and it felt as though our quarterly church members meetings were too passive with the elders simply reporting on what was happening. I hope we are getting better. We are consciously making an effort to include topics for discussion as opposed to simply downloading information at these meetings now. Last autumn we used one of these meetings to get the whole church doing what the elders do each year- thinking through the strengths and weaknesses of the church and trying to identify specific areas where we need to make progress. It was a very helpful exercise. And the process which led to the creation of Grace Church Kidlington did seem to fit with a New Testament model (in my humble opinion!). It happened as follows:
1. The elders identified that we had an issue- the building was full on a Sunday morning and there was a danger that this could lead to a sense of complacency. This had to be done by leaders.
2. The church as a whole discussed and prayed about (but didn’t decide) the way forward in small groups at church members’ meetings and through individual feedback.
3. The elders reviewed all of this and decided that a Kidlington plant should be examined. We came up with criteria to judge whether we should move forward. Although the church didn’t vote on this, the criteria involved significant buy-in from the church so, again, the church was not passive.
It worked well- which should be no surprise if this is the Biblical pattern. After all we can expect the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures to come up with the model that works best! And that is why it matters that we seek the wisdom of the Scriptures to think through these questions rather than relying on tradition or the patterns of the world around us.