Church Membership 6: Leadership in the Church


The Roman Catholic Church says, ‘No Pope, no Church!’ The Anglican Church says, ‘No Bishop, no Church!’ The Presbyterian says, ‘No Elder, no Church!’ The Baptist says, ‘No congregation, no Church!’ These simplistic statements identify where authority is to be found in the local Church. As Reformed Baptists we are somewhere in between the Presbyterians and regular Baptists. We see Christ as the Head of His church, but because He has given each of His people the Spirit, enabling them to all be priests, the whole local church with the added gift of eldership is sufficient to exercise authority and fulfil the responsibilities of the local church. Someone has said that the church is first of all a monarchy with King Jesus as its head; it is secondly a democracy with the congregation having significant authority and responsibility, and thirdly it is an oligarchy/aristocracy because of the office of elder in the church. We agree with these three statements in this particular order, we are in between pure democracy and eldership rule. We distinguish between elder ruled, where almost all decisions are taken by the elders and elder led where the elders have a leadership role but in order to help the congregation make the most biblically informed decisions where the Bible says they ought.

Today we have had the privilege of inducting Rene into the eldership. This is a solemn occasion and has been done publicly with the exchanging of promises for that very reason. It has been done with the laying on of hands as the bible commands as a symbolic act conferring the authority of office, and we trust is also a means of grace where God will supply Rene with the grace needed for his task. Given the fact that many churches are embarrassed about technical issues that relate to authority structure, the difference of opinions between Christians, and a general disinterest in deeper questions of ecclesiology you will not often hear a sermon of this nature being preached. I however am delighted to preach on this topic this morning because eldership is a gift of God and the bible outlines how it is to function. Elders are a gift to the church, a gift of leadership, a gift of authority, a gift of discernment, a gift of teaching, a gift of care, a gift of prayer, a gift of protection from wolves and the church that does not have this gift will be the poorer for it. This notion of eldership as a gift comes from Eph. 4:11 where we see Christ gives to the church shepherd-teachers in order that the truth might be spoken in love, each member protected from false doctrine and equipped to serve, and thereby cause the whole church to grow (4:15-16). A healthy church begins with its officers being faithful to their given roles and responsibilities.

I should probably make my assumptions clear as we begin. There are those who believe that the bible has no clear teaching on church structure and authority, and feel that the unassailable proof is that fact that Christians fight about this. However, if everything Christians ever fought about was declared something the bible does not clearly teach on, we would be left with nothing to believe. No, we believe that the word of God is sufficient to fully equip the man of God for every good work, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.’ Please recognise that the phrase, ‘man of God’ is applied firstly to Timothy who is in the ministry. Paul is telling Timothy that he as a minister can be confident that the Word of God is sufficient to equip him to know how to do every good work. I hope you don’t think me too presumptuous when I say that how to lead the church falls under the ‘every good work’ clause. We see Paul as an apostle does not leave how God’s household is run to chance or to personal opinion, he gives instruction to Timothy and says, 1 Tim. 3:14-15, ‘I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.’ Sam Waldron suggests that you would never walk into someone’s house and just randomly rearrange the furniture to suite your tastes, likewise we should not go into God’s house, the church and do whatever we like. We must study the word on this most important matter and seek to obey what He commands.

I need to stress our biblical basis for our views. In the Anglican position which believes that the apostle John put a bishop structure in place late in the first century. They claim that the bible does not speak to these things and that we have to depend on early church traditions to discover the apostolic structure. We forcefully disagree. We will not have the space to how they quote selectively from the church fathers, but we do hope to show that the bible does indeed give us a clear model for church authority.

Our Presbyterian and Reformed brothers believe that the church structure of elders and deacons was taken over from the Jewish synagogue. As a result when it comes to interpreting the text they assume this continuity, and it influences their interpretation, for example in Matt. 18 where it instructs us to take the matter of an impenitent brother to the church, they automatically evacuate the word church of any meaning but what they assume it must mean based on Jewish synagogue practice taking church discipline out of the congregations hands and limiting it to the elders. I might add that this interpretive approach is used when thinking about infant baptism, the assumptions they carry influence their final interpretation. As Baptists we argue that although it is clear that the synagogue did influence church structure, the apostles did not slavishly take over its form but practised authority in light of the New Covenant promises that all would have the Spirit and the priesthood of all believers. We allow the NT to indicate these details and how they should help us revise anything that might be borrowed but then altered.

This morning we will not be able to be exhaustive and answer every question related this topic so we will seek to answer these four. Who should be an elder? How many elders? What authority does an elder have? What is the churches responsibility to the elders?