Saturday, January 20, 2007

Biblical Church Leadership – Pt. 1

1 Timothy 3:1-7

“1 It is a trustworthy statement: if a man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
2An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
3 not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.

4 He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity.
5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?),
6 and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.
7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into the reproach and the snare of the devil." (NASB)

Biblical church leadership or “eldership” is a very important subject and I find it tragic that not only is it not practiced in a vast number of churches, but it is sorely misunderstood by the vast majority of Christians today. Unfortunately, many church members only recognize the office of pastor or senior pastor as one man presiding over a congregation, and relegate the office of elder to a select group of men who serve as some council or board of elders. These men are generally perceived as the pastor’s helpers or advisors who only assist him with some basic tasks associated with the governing of the church. Yet the New Testament paints a very different picture of the office of elder. There are basically two offices that exist in the local church as described in the New Testament; elder and deacon. This series will focus on the qualifications and duties pertaining to elders, who are responsible for leading the church. Much of the material will be taken from the book by Alexander Strauch, “Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership”, but other sources will be used as well. Strauch’s book is one of the best that I have found that handles the subject from a Scriptural standpoint.

There are a variety of terms used interchangeably to describe the office of local church leadership and includes, “elder”, “bishop”, “pastor” and “overseer”. The predominant term is “elder”. The term overseer used here is from the Greek word “episkopos” and was a common designation commonly used in the Greek culture in reference to a variety of officials. Nothing in the use of this term violates the character of the biblical office of the local church leadership, in terms of the humble servant nature of the office. This was in contrast to other priestly or lordly titles. The fact that the apostles saw fit to utilize a term such as “overseer” as a synonym for “elder”, gives indication to the flexibility that was used in communicating among the Greek speaking people. However, while there was flexibility employed in the use of terms, we must take note as to the carefulness that the apostles used, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in describing those with the responsibility of leading God’s people. This is also the same care applied to the terms describing the person and work of Jesus Christ and the Church. This is especially important because accuracy in the language used to describe the office of church leadership is critical to developing biblical thinking and practice. To get this wrong will place us in danger of drifting far from the biblical model of the church that Christ intended. And this is precisely what has happened over time as the church developed into a hierarchical model, far outside of the biblical model. The term “overseer” became known in a way far different from the usage in the New Testament, soon becoming known as the English term, bishop. This title of course came to refer to a high level church official who had charge over several churches and lower level clergy. Tragically, the original meaning of “episkopos” referring to a leader of the local church was lost. [1]

This is why it is crucial to teach the congregation the meaning of the terms chosen to describe those in charge of the spiritual leadership in the church. It is imperative that the terminology reflect as closely as possible, the original terms and concepts described in the New Testament. As Strauch points out, “False teachers have had their greatest triumphs when they redefine biblical words in a way that is contrary to the original meaning.” These are sobering words that should provide a clarion call for the church to keep due vigilance and guard against loose interpretations and alternate meanings. This issue is true of many alternate definitions and redefinitions used to describe many other concepts and truths of the Christian faith as well. Strauch sites Greek grammarian, Nigel Turner:

“The Church today is concerned about communicating with the contemporary world and especially about the need to speak in a new idiom. The language of the Church had better be the language of the New Testament. To proclaim the Gospel with new terminology is hazardous when most of the message and valuable overtones that are implicit in the NT might be lost forever. “Most of the distortions and dissensions that have vexed the Church,” observed the late Dean of York, “where these have touched theological understanding, have arisen through the insistence of sects or sections of the Christian community upon words which are not found in the NT.” [1]

The church would certainly do well to be careful with how terminology is defined and used.

1. Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, p. 32-34

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