In the first article of this series, I outlined a schematic of a local church, without which a church is driven not by biblical Marks (Orthodoxy, Order, Ordinances) and Works (Evangelism, Edification, Exultation), but by cultural forms and pragmatic functions—i.e., personal or community preferences. In the previous article I focused in on the fundamental Mark of Orthodoxy, suggesting that we must be clear in what orthodoxy 1) includes (fundamentals of the faith), excludes (heretical false teachings), and allows (diversity of views on non-essentials). In this article I will explore the second vital Mark of a local church: Order, or the relationship between church leadership and the congregation.
From Orthodoxy to Order
The primary responsibility of church leadership is to safeguard the essential Marks and Works of the church, especially the foundational Mark of Orthodoxy. Paul sought to prevent the danger of heresy when he told Timothy, the pastor in Ephesus, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Paul earlier described the leadership in Ephesus as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, who were uniquely responsible “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). Though the offices of apostles and prophets ceased in the first century, the other offices of evangelists, pastors, and teachers were to endure until the church arrives at unity, maturity, and doctrinal stability (4:13–14)—that is, in every generation since the first century. So, the idea of gifted leaders doing the local church work of proclamation (evangelists), shepherding (pastors), and instruction (teachers) is not a man-made concept. The Holy Spirit called such men to specially-ordained offices of the church for the purpose of protecting and promoting orthodox belief and practice. And Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 2:2 indicates that the offices were to have a permanent quality.
In fact, Clement—a contemporary of the apostles and later the pastor of Rome around A.D. 96—recalled the establishment of this order by the apostles that remained in his own day: “The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ has done so from God. Having therefore received their orders . . . . they [the apostles] appointed the first-fruits of their labors, having first proved them by the Spirit, to be overseers and deacons of those who should afterwards believe” (1 Clement 42:3–4). Later Clement wrote, “Our apostles also knew . . . that there would be strife on account of the office of the overseer. For this reason . . . they appointed those ministers already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” (1 Clement 44:1–2). Just a few years later (A.D. 110), the aged pastor of Antioch and personal acquaintance of the apostles said of the ordained pastor, elders, and deacons in a local congregation: “Apart from these, there is no church” (Ignatius, Trallians 3.1). This is what we mean by the essential Mark of Order—that leadership established by the apostles intended to continue on to our own day.
Through the apostles God has established an order of leaders to shepherd, train, and exhort believers. Around A.D. 58, the apostle Paul made a brief stop in Miletus where “he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). There he gave that specific group of officials the following charge: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). From Acts 20 we see the convergence of three key terms that identity the same body of leadership: presbyeroi (elders), episkopoi (overseers), and poimaino (to pastor or shepherd). At this early stage in the development of local church order, “elders” and “overseers” were interchangeable terms, and these officers of the church were responsible for pastoral leadership. When we read in Ephesians 4 of those men given to the church as “evangelists,” “pastors,” and “teachers,” Paul was referring to the elders of that church. About five years later the apostle Peter also used the same united trio of titles—elders-overeers-pastors—indicating that these various responsibilities rested within the same group of leaders in the churches (1 Peter 5:1–2).
As this apostolic order matured, a presiding elder, known as the “overseer” emerged as the prime among equals. Timothy and Titus were early representatives of this office, as were the “messengers” (angelos) of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2–3. It’s also possible that the “evangelists” (euangelistes) of Ephesians 4:11 identified this office in the local church. Equivalent to our modern day “senior pastor,” he was to lead the counsel of elders, who themselves were responsible for the preaching, teaching, and pastoring ministries of the church. So, in the biblical and early church order, all pastors were elders, and there were no elders who were not ordained, gifted, trained, and qualified men who were actively engaged in the pastoral and teaching work of the church.
Working under the authority of the ordained elders (preachers, pastors, and teachers), the deacons assisted in the work of the ministry (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8–13). These leaders were responsible for more than merely temporal affairs of the church. They ministered as junior leaders in whatever capacity was necessary, including the administration of the ordinances under the authority of the elders.
Neither Anarchy nor Democracy
The Bible’s description—read in light of the actual situation in the ancient church—presents a clear picture of the apostles’ established church order. The official ordained group of “pastors-overseers-elders” were in charge of teaching, preaching, shepherding (1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1–2). Some—but not all—elders were paid (1 Timothy 5:17). But all of the pastors were elders. There is no biblical or historical justification for separating elders and pastors.
The biblical church order makes it clear that the church is not an anarchy, an assembly without clearly-defined leadership. In fact, God never established any secular or sacred institution that lacked clear order. From human government (Romans 13:1) to the family (Ephesians 5:22) . . . from Israel (Exodus 22:28) to the church (Titus 1:5)—God’s institutions reflects order. Even within Triune equality, God the Father functions as the head, sending the Son and the Spirit into the world (John 14:16–17; Galatians 4:4, 6; 1 Corinthians 11:3). A groups of Christians without ordained leadership is not a church.
Neither is the church a democracy, in which final authority over the shepherds is distributed among the flock. I’m reminded of the Latin words engraved above the House Chamber of the Minnesota capitol: VOX POPULI, VOX DEI—“The Voice of the People is the Voice of God.” Unfortunately, many Christians believe this is how God leads the church—by majority rule. But not if the Bible has the final say! God intends that the local church have ordained leadership. The elders—a term synonymous with pastors and overseers—were to be the leaders of the church, to shepherd the flock as servant-leaders, yes, but as leaders nonetheless.
Some of you may be thinking, “Doesn’t this kind of elder authority rest decision-making in a select few—the pastors and teachers of the church?” Yes. This is the counter-cultural teaching of Scripture. To be sure, the covenanted members are to be involved in ministry as the Lord gifted each one (see 1 Cor 12—14; Eph 4). However, their primary relationship to the appointed elders was to submit without grumbling or complaining.
Now that’s a word Americans hate: submit. In a nation birthed in rebellion, the suggestion of submission to our human leaders sends chills up our spines. Yet Scripture is clear. The congregation was to pray for, support, and follow the leadership of the ordained pastors (Hebrews 13:7, 17). When we read the Bible in its historical context, letting it say what it says (and not what we want it to say!), then there’s nothing ambiguous, nuanced, or complex about this. Submit. Obey.
Anticipating objections, though, the writer of Hebrews adds the fact that elders will “give account for their work” to God. We often forget that since God is sovereign and Christ is the head of the Church, every elder is under the headship of God and Christ. Instead, we think they are under our headship and try to turn God’s order upside down. We treat elders like our representatives, as if they were supposed to be moved and molded by the whims of the masses or champion the agendas of their “constituents” (again, Vox Populi rears its ugly head).
In other words, both the ordained elders (pastors and teachers) and the covenanted members (congregation) each have their biblical roles and responsibilities. Leaders shouldn’t abdicate . . . and members shouldn’t usurp. Leaders should pastor . . . and members should submit. Only when we align ourselves closer to the biblical Mark of Order—and not our own personal opinions—can we move beyond the preference-driven church.