In addition to my faculty responsibilities at Biola University, I am a member of a pastoral team at a local church (www.graceevfree.org). We do not have a senior pastor. Our understanding of this is captured in two ministry values, namely “Elder Leadership” and “Spirit-led Decision Making.” It is my hope that the following summary of these ministry values might challenge you in your understanding of how the body of Christ is to function.
1) How is the church to function?
Ministry Value # 6: ELDER LEADERSHIP
We believe the New Testament teaches a plurality of elders as the model of church leadership (1 Peter 5:1-2; Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 5:17-18). Along with our commitment to the priesthood of all believers, we also recognize the need for strong, Spirit-led, biblically instructed elder leadership under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. However, the elders are not the only shepherds at Grace. We want to see all those with pastoral and teaching gifts using them regularly. The leaders of our small groups function as pastors of their small flocks within our church. We believe pastors/elders should function primarily as shepherds who emphasize the ministry of the word, prayer, discipleship and the spiritual health of God's people. They are not primarily administrators, managers, etc.
However, in answering this question, we must keep the main thing the main thing. The church functions with Jesus Christ as the Head and His children as the body (Colossians 1:18). God is the Head of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3). The church is always responsible to Christ as our Head. This must always be the case.
2) Why a plurality (“elders”=“overseers,” “bishops,” “pastors”)?
The elders are plural in number (Acts 11:30; 14:21-23; 20:17). Often when elders are referenced, there seems to be a plurality (cf. James 5:14). We do not believe that there should be one person “in charge,” but rather a plurality. The church should not seek to hire one person to do all the work. As priests, we all as members of the body of Christ are to be serving and ministering. Elders or “pastors” are not men hired to do the work of the ministry; instead, they are godly men set apart by God from the body to provide leadership to the “priests” who are serving and ministering. Therefore, we believe that the Bible teaches that the church is to choose capable, Spirit-led, godly, and spiritually mature individuals to represent the congregation in making decisions as they seek God together on various issues needing direction. The qualifications for these godly individuals are clearly set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.
3) How are elders chosen?
It is imperative that only qualified individuals serve in these official capacities within the church. The qualifications for these offices are clearly defined in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. It is the understanding of our church leadership that 1 Timothy 3 allows for women to serve as deaconesses, but not as elders (cf. 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Corinthians 11:1ff; 14:26ff.). It is also imperative that each officer be members in good standing at Grace Evangelical Free Church for a sustained period of time and that they fully support the Doctrinal Statement, Ministry Values, and Membership Covenant. These documents are central to this body of believers and, under the authority of God, His word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, point us in a direction for our various ministries.
4) What are the leadership offices in the church?
We believe the Bible teaches us to utilize a structure consisting of two primary offices. The two offices are rooted in Acts 6 in “the Twelve,” the precursor to elders, and “the Seven,” the precursor to deacons. Both offices are to provide leadership in the church (cf. Philippians 1:1), but it is clear that the deacons assist the overall leadership of the elders (Acts 6). The elders are the overseers and shepherds of the flock, who devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word” as they lead (Acts 6:2-4; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The deacons are servants, who assist the elders in managing and shepherding the flock, devoting themselves to “serving tables” (Acts 6:2). It is imperative to note that both of these offices function, not to replace the ministry of the body to one another, but to enhance the ministry that should already be taking place in a body of Spirit-indwelt people (1 Corinthians 12). Note the structure as follows:
ELDERS Under the lordship of Christ, providing Spirit-led leadership for the body
DEACONS Partnering with the Elders in ministering to the needs of the body
5) The question then follows: How do we corporately, in unity, make decisions in our desires to faithfully follow Christ?
Ministry Value # 7 SPIRIT-LED DECISION MAKING
Under elder leadership, we seek to make decisions in the church by prayerful consensus and the leading of the Holy Spirit, rather than by one person's authority or by congregational voting (Acts 15:28). The New Testament does not picture the church as a dictatorship or a democracy. Biblical images used to describe the way a church functions are a family or body where each member is necessary and valuable but with distinct functions.
Generally, the book of Acts is used to support the various views of church government. However, in Acts, the exact structure and process is unclear. Acts is what we would call a “descriptive” (describes for us how the early church functioned) book, rather than a “prescriptive” (prescribes for us how we are to function) book. At the beginning of the church, the apostles are providing the leadership for this new movement (cf. 1:12-26). In 6:1-6, the whole congregation chooses “the Seven” to assist the apostles. In 13:1-3, a select group of church leaders choose Barnabus and Saul for their missionary endeavor. In chapter 15, the apostles and elders make a major decision about doctrine in the church (see especially verses 6, 23)–the Jerusalem Council. In 20:17-38, Paul resembles a “bishop” who provides oversight for all the Ephesian elders. No process is viewed as the exclusive process over the others. Each seems equally appropriate. However, as the church grows, the New Testament seems to teach that elders are appointed to provide the leadership of the local churches. And, as the apostles die off, the elders are the ones who provide the ongoing leadership to the local bodies of believers.
Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is clearly set forth as leading in all aspects of the church. He is leading the work of God in this world as Jesus leads, seated at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33).
In light of this, the responsibility of elders is to do everything possible to seek the Lord for direction, keep a clear focus on God’s call to the church, and maintain unity in the body so that we can effectively minister within our church and to our community. It is important that leaders be well-informed of the needs of the congregation and that they hear their thoughts and opinions (i.e., their heart). God works through a Spirit-led consensus of these leaders.
The responsibility of the congregation is to entrust themselves to the leadership (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Corinthians 16:15-16), pray for them regularly, and support the direction the elders set as God leads them in their decision-making, with grateful hearts for what God is doing. The interaction between leaders and congregation will act as a “check and balance” as decisions are being made. We see the wisdom in creating a process that allows input from both the congregation, which is also Spirit-led, and leadership, with elders having the leading voice in the process. Our goal is to have godly leaders while maintaining a spirit of unity and partnership (Acts 6:5).
The process will not always be smooth, but God will work through the different thoughts, opinions, and personalities to lead us along. Trust will be important for leaders and congregation to develop. Philippians 2:1-11 must be a model for us. God will get us where He wants us as we seek to serve together.
6) What have we been learning as elders at Grace as we seek to live out our understanding of biblical teaching?
*the necessity for a growing kingdom mindedness
As our church grows, it can be easy to become program-oriented or to become focused on this church and its ministries. We, then, can easily become a machine, living for the present.
*the necessity for a growing Spirit sensitivity
We feel that, in many ways as individuals, we are “infants” when it comes to knowing the leading of the Spirit. However, as a group we see maturity, and this is affecting us as individuals as well. Seeking the Lord in prayer is our pattern, even our natural tendency.
*the necessity for a growing humility
The congregation is not the only entity submitting, for we have to humbly submit to one another as well. The Holy Spirit works through consensus, and elders must also submit to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is leading us as a congregation through the collective leadership of the elder team.
*the necessity for a growing unity
Satan seeks to divide; the Holy Spirit brings unity. We must strive for unity in all things as we make decisions. Everything in this present, evil, worldly kingdom wants to battle against what only the Lord can bring.
*the necessity for a growing vision
We are not in a small battle. As sin becomes more overwhelming and people increasingly have a diminished view of God, our vision for what God can do in people’s lives must increase. The kingdom of this world will become, and in fact is becoming, the kingdom of our Lord.
*the necessity for a growing courage to be holy
The god of this world is creating a stronger and stronger current away from the holiness of God, holiness that we are to be emulating in our own lives. We must not only NOT lose heart, we must vigilantly increase in the courage to be holy in the days in which we live.
*the necessity for a growing integrity
A “long obedience in the same direction” is our calling. We must constantly be in a state of being transformed, where our “walk” is equivalent to our “talk.”