Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Biblical Church Leadership – Pt. 5

While there is a team leadership approach indicated in Scripture, there is also the concept of what is called a “first among equals” as well. Not all of the elders are gifted equally in the areas such as biblical knowledge, leadership and experience. There are some who seem to naturally stand out among the elders with their gifts of teaching or leadership. This is what was often referred to by the Romans as primus inter pares or the “first among equals” or primi inter pares meaning “first ones among equals”.

As with the twelve disciples, there was an inner circle of three, Peter, James and John, that stood out among the group. Out of those three, Peter stood out as the prominent leader of the group. This in no way implies that these leaders dominate or have sole authority, but that they seem to be gifted in their leadership ability.

On occasion, Jesus chose only Peter, James and John to join Him to witness His power, glory and agony.

-Luke 8:51; 9:28
-Mark 14:33

It is seems to be evident in Scripture that Peter stands out as a “first among equals”. Peter’s name is listed first in the list of the names of the apostles:

-Matthew 10:2-4
-Mark 3:16-19
-Luke 6:14-16
-Acts 1:13

In fact, Matthew even refers to Peter as “the first”. This does not support the Roman Catholic Church’s erroneous elevation of Peter, but merely underscores Peter’s outstanding leadership within the twelve. You should also notice that if you pay close attention to how often Peter is mentioned in the Gospels that Peter stands out as a prominent figure among the Twelve. It was also Peter who was charged with the command by Jesus to “strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

The book of Acts clearly demonstrates Peter’s leadership abilities.

Acts 2:14,42; 4:33,35; 5:12,18,25,29,42; 6:2-6; 8:14; 9:27; 15:2-29

You should note that it is Peter who stands out as the natural leader in the first twelve chapters of the book of Acts. It is interesting that if you do a word search on the name “Peter”, how often his name appears in contrast to the other Twelve. His prominence as the natural leader and key spokesman should be clearly evident.

Acts 1:15; 2:14; 3:1; 4:8; 5:3; 5:15, 29; 8:14-24; 9:32-11:18 (Partial list)

It is also interesting that you can split up the book of Acts between two central figures; Peter (Acts 1-12) and Paul (Acts 13-28).

When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he spoke of Peter, James and John as being the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem, yet another example of the concept of the “first among equals”. (Galatians 2:7-9)

Peter’s giftedness was necessary to help energize, encourage and strengthen the group of Twelve. His ability as the natural leader and chief speaker proved to be the impetus that encouraged the group to take action. But what is important to note is the fact that Peter was surrounded by the other eleven apostles as his equals, keeping him well balanced, strengthening him and helped protect him from his weaknesses. What is important to recognize is that Peter’s prominence was not given as an official rank or title, but was more functional in nature.

We can also observe the principle of the “first among equals” in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas during their first missionary journey. Both were apostles, but Paul stands out as the chief speaker and leader. (Acts 13:1-13; 14:12)

The concept of the “first among equals” can be discerned by the way a congregation is to honor their elders. 1 Timothy 5:17 says “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” It is imperative in Scripture that all elders must be able to teach. But not all elders desire to work primarily at preaching and teaching. There are those who are particularly gifted in this area and have a strong desire to do so. These men should be recognized by the congregation and should receive double honor for their work.

The elders who are the “first among equals” do not rule by making all the decisions and controlling the rest of the group. To treat this individual as the “pastor” and the others as “elders” or “lay elders” has no biblical warrant, and will not result in establishing biblical eldership.

The key advantage of the “first among equals” structure is that it allows for drawing on the diversity of gifts within the eldership team, without creating a superior official ruling over subordinates. The leading elders receive no special title, and the difference is more functional rather than a formal position.

In many cases, it is necessary that the congregation provide the necessary financial support to allow the highly gifted elder(s) to focus their attention on their service to that local church body. Attempting to juggle full-time employment outside of the church may take too much time away from the needed focus and attention to the tasks of eldership. This in no way means that part-time elders are ineffective. There are many who are self-supporting or what would be referred to as “tentmaking elders” who are very effective leaders and teachers. But the time and effort that they can devote to the task of eldership is limited. This probably can also be affected by the size of the church; the larger the congregation, the more time is needed to devote to the task. As a congregation grows, the more beneficial it is to support some of the elders at least part-time.

1 Timothy 5:17 puts emphasis on the support of those whose primary work is to labor in the Word of God. It is essential that the flock be nourished through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. This is so the flock can grow, be strengthened, and protected from false doctrine. This can only occur though the diligent study and handling of the text, with precision and accuracy, which God demands from those who are elders. It is vitally important that the congregation honor those men with their support.

Stressing the part “among equals” is important. Elders who are particularly gifted need to be encouraged to use their giftedness. But they also need the accountability of their fellow peers as a checks and balance to curb negative tendencies such as ego and greed. If a gifted elder seems resistance to that accountability, that should be a warning that he is headed down a self-destructive path.

But there is a danger with the concept of the “first among equals”, as there is with any form of governing structure run by humans. Elders can have a tendency to relinquish much of their responsibility to a couple of particularly gifted men. This arises due to the tendency in human nature for people to become lazy and allow others to do their work. But once this happens, biblical eldership disappears.

There is also the danger that a domineering, power hungry elder will abuse the concept of the “first among equals”, attempting to take over the key ministries and forcing his own agenda. These types could care less about having fellow colleagues. Instead they only want men who are loyal to them, the typical “yes men”.

To help combat these tendencies, leadership and the congregation must take the biblical requirements for eldership seriously. Self-willed, domineering men are unqualified for church leadership and should be removed from their position. (1 Peter 5:3; Titus 1:7) Those elders who do not carry out their God-given responsibilities need to be removed from their office. Elders should be ready and eager to carry out their task (1 Peter 5:2)

Elders also need to work closely together as a united team, building camaraderie of trust and encouraging one another to grow. It is important that the elders focus on ministering to one another as well as taking care of business. This needs to include spending considerable time in prayer. It is also important to include times of relaxed fellowship to build friendships and teamwork.

It is also important for elders to be active in building up one another. Younger elders need to be mentored by the more experienced elders. They need to challenge one another to continue to educate themselves. And they need to exercise discernment to recognize when their colleagues are growing weary and recommend that they take a time of rest. These things are vital to the spiritual health of the eldership.

1. Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, p. 45-50.

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