Empowered Elders

Leadership in the church should be different from leadership in the world. In the world, leadership takes the form of a pyramid. There is a hierarchy of power with one person at the top. In contrast, leadership in the New Testament is always defined in the plural. No one is ever designated as the single leader of a local church.

However, for most of history, the church has moved towards the hierarchical model with the episcopal form of government. Even the modern independent churches have senior pastors above their elders and other pastoral staff. They are now moving even further towards hierarchy by creating a new breed of apostles, who will take a place in the pyramid above the senior pastors.

The New Testament calls us to a radically different model of leadership; a model which has never really been tried, except in the early church. This model is joint leadership by a team of leaders who are equal in status, but who bring different gifts to the leadership process. There should be no hierarchy or pyramid. The coordinating and directing role is assigned to the Holy Spirit.

The power of a team is greater than the sum of the abilities of its individual members. A team of leaders who are empowered and lead by the Spirit has the potential to be more effective than the pyramid model which is used in the world. As the church moves into a time of intense battle for the future of the world, an extremely effective model of leadership will be needed for the people of God. The church will never be victorious, while it relies on a leadership model borrowed from the world.

There are four important principles that are essential for this new leadership model to work. These are:

  1. Plurality of Leadership
  2. Fourfold Ministries
  3. Discipleship
  4. Replication of Ministries

Each of these principles is important.

1. Plurality of leadership.

The principle of plurality of leadership is basic to the New Testament. Each church should be led by a team of elders (Acts 14:23). The minimum number would be three or four. A church will be led by a group of elders working together.

The elders would all agree to submit to each other. None of the elders will make an important decision without the concurrence of the others. They will each give the others permission to speak into their lives to provide correction. All important decisions for the church will require a consensus among the elders. This principle of plurality of eldership provides covering and protection for the church. There will not be one elder who stands above the others. Having one leader at the top is both dangerous and unbiblical.

An example of this structure is found in the church of Antioch, one of the most successful churches in the New Testament. Luke tells us that in Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul (Acts 13:1). That is, there were five elders who led the church together. There is no suggestion that one of these elders was the overall leader.

According to Acts 14:22,23, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every place where there was a group of disciples. This was all that was needed to make a group of disciples into a church. Nothing more was needed. They never appointed a single pastor to take charge.

The circles in the diagram below represent the elders of a church. The lines represent their commitment to each other and the relationships between them. The strength of these links between the elders is the source of the strength of the church.

I have drawn a church with five elders. However, the number is not as important as the strength of the relationships between them. Even though they have different ministries, they must have strong relationships with each other. Maintaining these relationships will be almost impossible if there are more than about five leaders. (They will also be maintaining relationships with six or seven people whom they are discipling.) One person cannot relate in this way to more than about twelve people. Therefore if the number of elders increases to more than about five or six, the relationships between them will weaken and the covering will be broken and the strength will be lost. The chinks in the relationships will allow evil to get in.

Plurality of leadership has not been taken seriously by the church. It has long been normal in the church to have one person, usually a pastor, as leader. Even churches with elders will have a senior elder or pastor. The common cry in the church is "We need a pastor" or "We need a leader". However, this desire for one man to lead is a consequence of the fall. Sinful people have a tendency towards slavery and domination (1 Samuel 8:6-9), but those who have been redeemed should have the same mindset.

The New Testament never states that a church should have "a pastor". Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church. They never left one man to run a church or singled out one elder to be a senior elder or pastor. They "committed them to the Lord in whom they put their trust" (Acts 14:23). In Antioch there were "prophets and teachers", not one pastor.

When Jesus ascended, he left his disciples with no one person to be the leader. He had carefully discipled them, and taught them to expect the Holy Spirit, but he deliberately avoided appointing a person to take charge. An attempt by two of the disciples to obtain a position of precedence was strongly challenged by Jesus (Mark 10:35-45). The disciples did very well without a single leader (see Dangers of Leadership by One Person).

Plurality of leadership has not worked well in the world, as sin gets in the way. Sometimes, one of the leaders will try to dominate and take control. In other situations, the leadership is divided and is paralysed by mistrust or bickering. Most people believe that because group leadership does not work in the world, it will not work in the church. They find it safer and easier to have one person in charge. However, the church should be different from the world, especially in its leadership. We need to understand the implications of Jesus command to "Love one another as I have loved you." This command is particularly important for church leaders. It is the key to understanding how plurality of leadership can work.

Christian leaders should be free of the sinful emotions, attitudes and behaviour that divide and corrupt leaders in the world. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 outlines a set of attitudes that will enable several Christians to lead together. These attitudes are not easy, but they are very important. If they cannot be emulated between the elders, we cannot expect the church members to love one another. The commitment of the elders to loving each other is the key to how the body of Christ "grows and builds itself up in love" (Eph 4:16). Love at the top produces love throughout the body.

The best example of this leadership style is the Trinity. The Father said about the Son, "Listen to him". However, Jesus said he could only do what he saw the Father doing. He also said it was better for him to go away, so that the Spirit could come; but the Spirit, when he came, gave glory to Jesus. Each of the members of the Trinity has absolute freedom and authority to exercise their perfect ministry. Yet each one honours and submits to the others. No one is in control. They demonstrate perfectly how three persons bound together by love can work together in perfect unity.

2. Fourfold ministries

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of the role of elders. He lists four different functions that elders may have. An elder can be an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, or a pastor and teacher. These are not different offices, but represent different tasks that an elder may do. Each elder will fulfil one of these functions, according to the gifts that Christ has given him. Not everyone is an apostle or a prophet, but each one exercises the ministry to which God has called him. Whatever his gifts, the elder uses them to strengthen the people of God and to build up the whole church. And while apostles, prophets, and evangelists are important, primary leadership in the church will be exercised by elders who are pastors and teachers.

All of the ministries listed in Eph 4:11 will be represented in the church eldership. This gives balance to the church. Without this balance the church will not grow to maturity and unity.

At least one of the elders will be a prophet (R). He provides vision for the church and keeps it on the right track. He will ensure that there is an emphasis on holiness. At least one of the elders will be an evangelist (V). This will ensure that the church continues to grow. The rest of the elders will be pastor/teachers (P). They will ensure that new Christians are discipled and grow spiritually, leaving their old lives behind. There should be one of each of these three ministries in every church. There will be more pastor/teachers than evangelists and prophets. A balanced leadership will ensure that the church has the correct balance between evangelism, nurture and discipleship.

In the New Testament, teaching was done within a teacher/disciple or shepherding relationship, not by giving lectures. So pastor and teacher are not different ministries, but different ways of looking at the same ministry. Paul says that elders who teach are worthy of double honour (1 Tim 5:17). The elders to whom Paul is referring are pastor/teachers. The other elders are prophets and evangelists.

Moving into an ascension ministry is not a "great" or "heavy "thing. An Evangelist is a Christian who loves to reach the lost. A prophet is just a person who has a passion for truth and righteousness. A pastor is a Christian who loves to see people restored and nurtured. The church has made these ministries so "big" that only few can enter them. This has robbed the church. Most believers should be able to enter into one of these ministries.

The elders would meet together on a regular basis to develop strong relationships with each other. It was at such a meeting of the "body of elders" that Timothy received the laying on of hands (I Timothy 4:14). At these meetings, the elders would pray for each other, and for their church. They would guide, encourage and teach each other. As a body, they would exercise oversight over the whole church.

Any decisions affecting the whole church would be decided by all the elders when they met together. If a church is based on relationships, rather than programmes, there will not be many decisions to be made. The only really big decision will be when to send out a new apostolic team.

When Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, he poured out the Holy Spirit. He also gave gifts to the church for building it up to maturity (Eph 4:8). The gifts he gave were apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor/teachers (Eph 4:11). Jesus obviously considered that all four of these gifts were necessary for the church to build itself up in love. Yet, we seem to think we can manage with only one, the pastor/teacher.

The modern church has been almost universally dominated by pastors. Prophets and evangelists have been sidelined to para-church organisations or itinerant ministries. Many evangelists, and some prophets, take appointments as pastors so that they can get into ministry. The ministry of the apostle has virtually disappeared. All churches want a pastor/teacher as leader. We have become so used to this, that most Christians cannot even imagine anything different. I do not know of any local church which has tried to set up a leadership structure that includes all four of these ministries.

Jesus was only able to lead his group of disciples on his own, because he functioned perfectly in each of these ministries. He is a pastor, a prophet, an evangelist and an apostle. However, a human leader can only function in one of these ministries. A church must have all these ministries to function effectively. Without an evangelist, a church will not grow, as it should. The church will need to adopt church growth techniques from elsewhere. Without a prophet, a church will be weak in vision and at risk of sinfulness. The pastor will often have to go and look at what has been successful in other churches to obtain a vision. I suspect that the reason that we have so many immature and weak churches is that we have not accepted the gifts of leadership that Jesus gave us.

All of the ascension ministries are needed for a local church to grow to maturity. Many of the spiritual gifts required will be manifested in other church members, but the ascension gifts must be manifested in the leadership of a church. One person cannot exercise all these ministries. This leaves no alternative but plurality of leadership.

We need to start taking the ascension gifts seriously. A local church should be led by a team of elders. At least one will be a prophet. At least one will be an evangelist. The others will be pastors/teachers. Each will bring different gifts and skills, but no one will take preference. No one person will be leader, instead different people will lead, depending on the situation and who has the gifts that the situation requires. This model of leadership will be extremely demanding. It will require incredible trust, loyalty, honesty, humility and love. Some will say it is too hard, but it is what Jesus expects of his leaders. It is what makes us different from the world.

3. Discipleship

Every person who becomes a Christian will be discipled so that they grow to maturity. Discipleship means learning to be a Christian by following the example of another Christian. The disciple will be taught the truths of the Christian faith in the form of on-the-job training. The person discipling will provide correction if the disciple goes wrong. The person discipling will work in a very close partnership with the Holy Spirit. They will immerse the disciple in continuous prayer.

Submission to the eldership will be a condition of entry to the church. This is symbolised by their being inside the lines between the elders. I am not talking here about the heavy-handed submission that has damaged some churches and destroyed some Christians in some cults. Submission should not be a "heavy" thing. It is just a willingness by believers to allow more mature Christians to speak into their lives, by being teachable and willing to accept correction. Eldership is not about control, it is for protection and development.

Submission must always be voluntary. While Christians are in submission, they are protected from evil. Disciples should be free to leave at any time, if they do not accept the authority of the elders. The elder’s goal is to see them grow to maturity, not to build an empire.

Each church member will be submitted to one of the elders in particular and to all in general. Each elder will be accountable for some of the church members, but all elders will be able to speak into the life of any member. This will not be a very formal process. When a new member joins, one of the elders will say to another, "You look after this one" or "I’ll take this one". Quite often, some of the discipling will be done by other mature members of the body. The elder responsible will just watch from a distance.

A new Christian will be taught the basics of the Christian life. They will have lots of questions. Some may need deliverance or healing. They will be taught to read the scriptures and to pray. The most important thing they will learn will be to hear God speak. This will allow the Spirit to work in their life. He will do most of the work.

The basic things should be covered within the first few weeks of their being a Christian. From then on it will be a matter of watching from close by. The elders may still need to answer an occasional question. The disciple may need an odd warning, "Have you prayed about that" or "What is God saying about that". Prayer covering will be the most important part of discipleship.

Towards the end of the first year, the elder should start guiding the disciple into a ministry. They will help them to identify their gifts and calling and put them in contact with those who can teach them. For example, a potential pastor may start to assist with discipling even newer Christians.

Most of the discipling will be done by the pastor/teachers. The evangelist will be more occupied with preaching the gospel, than developing new Christians (unless they have an urge to evangelise). Prophets tend to have very high expectations of their disciples, with the result that they can easily be crushed. They will be more focused on developing holiness and vision in the whole church as a group. However, prophets will have a role in discipling potential prophets and evangelists will assist with discipling potential evangelists. Every member will need the ministry of the prophet from time to time. The evangelist will encourage all members to witness to Jesus. Sometimes new believers will be discipled by one of the other members of the church, with the more difficult aspects being handled by the elders.

Jesus managed to disciple eleven men successfully. Therefore it is unlikely that one elder would be able to disciple more than ten (c.f. Deut 1:15). This means the elders will be very focused. They will get very fast growth in their people. The danger when elders are spread too thin is that people do not grow. (One leader with 120 disciples will have no impact.)

4. Replication of Ministries

Elders will replicate their ministries in their disciples (i.e. produce clones of themselves). This is an extremely important principle. Every person who has developed in a ministry should be training up several people in that same ministry. In this way, the ministries of the church will multiply. Multiplication of ministry is as important as multiplication of membership.

Potential evangelists will tend to be drawn to the evangelist. Potential prophets will be drawn to the prophet. Potential pastors will be drawn to the pastors. They will learn all that they can from them. That is why each elder is shown as having people with a similar ministry close to them in the diagram. Each elder will be developing some people who have potential to develop into a similar ministry. They will train someone to replace themselves if they are called to leave. Jesus said that everyone who is fully trained is like his master (Luke 6:40).

The true test of the quality of a church is what has happened to a person who became a Christian in the church three years earlier. Are they functioning in a ministry (Jesus disciples were)? If they are not, then the church is not functioning correctly. Is there a development path for the new Christian? Can they expect to be functioning in a ministry within three years? In a quality church, this will be normal. (People who come to Christianity with severe problems, may take longer to grow to maturity, but they should be on the same path).

Key Points

The following points about this leadership model should be noted.

  1. The strongest Christians are on the outside. The elders are on the edge providing protection for the church. Their protection comes through submission to each other.

  2. The elders are held together by a strong bond of love and commitment. Unless they are submitted to each other, it will be dangerous for others to be submitted to them.

  3. There is a clear distinction between being inside and outside the church. The lines represent the boundaries of the church. Their purpose is coverage and protection, not control. There will be no one sitting on the fence.

  4. Participation is voluntary. People are free to leave at any time they choose. In the modern world, it is no longer possible for the church to hold people in the church by fear or authority. If people are not happy, they will leave. The only way to hold people is to draw them in by love.

  5. The love of Christ will be modelled in the relationship between the elders. This love will be replicated amongst the rest of the Christians.

  6. Each Christian has strong relationships with other Christians. The relationships between the members are where the strength of the church resides. A key role of the elders is to build these relationships.

  7. The newest Christians will be in the centre. They will be drawn to the centre by the love that will be evident in the church. The centre is the safest place to be, as they will be surrounded and protected from the world by many Christians. They will be surrounded and held in the centre by love that is real.

  8. Everyone will be looking to the elders, so they will also be looking outward. For example, the potential evangelists will be going out to share the gospel.

  9. One person leadership is always dangerous and should be avoided.

  10. I am suggesting a radical change in the leadership model that is common in the conventional church. (If it does not seem radical then you have misunderstood what I am saying.)

  11. This model provides excellent spiritual protection to everyone in the church.

One person cannot be Jesus.

It takes three people to represent God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One person cannot contain the fullness of the Spirit. It takes two or three to contain him. Therefore, only "shared leadership" can represent the fullness of God.

The best example of this leadership style is the Trinity. The Father said about the Son, "Listen to him". However, Jesus said he could only do what he saw the Father doing. He also said it was better for him to go away, so that the Spirit could come, but when the Spirit came, he gave glory to Jesus.

Each member of the Trinity has absolute freedom and authority to exercise their perfect ministry. Yet each one honours and submits to the others. No one is in control. The Trinity demonstrates perfectly how three persons bound together by love can work together with shared leadership. To manifest the full glory of the Trinity, the church must have shared leadership.

The Role of the ascension ministries is fully described in a Being Church Where We Live. It also explains how they work together as elders.

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