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The Point Church


APEDS 2018: Reflections: January 2019

Hello again everyone,

Welcome to 2019—which is the year before 2020—which is the year of the next APEDS Conference!

The next items from our APEDS2018 whiteboard are ones that I find particularly interesting and challenging: How do we get from the development of elders and deacons to the appointment of elders and deacons? Whose responsibility is it to facilitate the process?

To date, our conversations have mostly revolved around questions pertaining to the development of elders and deacons and their wives: expectations regarding spiritual qualities and biblical qualifications, purposeful training, local church culture, etc. But the actual appointment of elders and deacons adds another dimension to the conversation. I think the challenge for us, as for the earliest disciples, starts here:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”1

Christian leadership, according to Jesus, is to be based on service. Service, following Christ’s example, is giving power away in order to bless and empower others (cf. Ephesians 4:11-13; Philippians 2:1-11). Christian leadership is other centred and sacrificial in character. Everett Ferguson points us in the right direction:

To summarize, gifts lead to service, and service results in leadership. Every function in the church is a gift of grace. God gives the ability and with it the opportunity and responsibility to use it for the good of the community. Three things are prerequisites for leadership in a congregation of Christ’s people: (1) the necessary gifts (abilities or qualifications) for doing the work; (2) the use of these gifts in service to others in such a way to show that one can and will do the work; and (3) recognition or acknowledgment of the leadership and thus a willingness to follow by the people among whom the work is to be done. All three are necessary.2

Paul made it very plain that the church of Christ is an organism made up of diverse members serving and loving and maturing through the exercise of mutually beneficial and complementary gifts that includes voluntary leadership and follower-ship or submission (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27).3 In terms of authority, the church has only one head, one King (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 1:17-23). The authority of church leaders “is the moral authority that comes from their loving service, their example, and their spiritual knowledge and experience.”4 Biblically speaking, there is no hierarchy between the King and his subjects. There is no ladder to climb in the body of Christ, no distinctions fostering privilege or rank (Galatians 3:26-29). Indeed, the way of leadership in imitation of Christ is a journey of descent, not ascent. I believe the phrase “first among equals” goes a long way towards expressing the relationship between biblical leaders and biblical followers. Like so many things pertaining to Christian truth, there is paradox here. And, unsurprisingly, this makes the answer to our question of whose responsibility it is to appoint church leaders both difficult and easy.

The appointment of the seven servants in the Jerusalem church presents a useful guide because Luke outlines the process from beginning to end (Acts 6:1-7). The need is recognised and the Twelve (apostles in the narrow and unrepeatable sense, those sent by Christ) provide the criteria for identifying suitable candidates (6:1-4). The whole congregation chooses seven men from their midst who meet that criteria (6:5). The apostles then formally appoint (ordain) the seven (deacons) to whom responsibility for managing the care of the widows is then given (6:3b, 6). On the return leg of Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas appoint elders in the churches they had established (Acts 14:23). Luke describes both Paul and Barnabas as apostles in this context (14:14), using apostle in its broader sense of missionary (one sent by the church). So, in this case, it is the missionaries that appoint (or arrange the appointment of) elders. Barnabas and Saul were themselves earlier set apart for their missionary work by the Holy Spirit and ordained to that role by the prophets and teachers at Antioch church (Acts 13:1-3). It may be that elders ordained Timothy to perform the role of evangelist (if, as I believe, the gift imparted to Timothy by elders pertained to his role as an evangelist, 1 Timothy 4:14; cf. Ephesians 4:11). Paul instructs Titus, presumably an evangelist (literally, gospeler) like Timothy, to appoint elders (Titus 1:5). A survey of Paul’s letters to the evangelists Timothy and Titus indicates that the role of the gospeler involved evangelisation of unbelievers (preaching the gospel and equipping others to do the same) and edification of believers (interpreting and applying the gospel, sometimes in the capacity of trouble-shooter correcting error or deficiencies) which is the precedent for our modern preacher. The general picture that emerges is that of an organic process, a progression from conception towards greater maturity and reproduction. Apostles/missionaries/evangelists preach the gospel to establish a new congregation, then nurture it, mature it … with a view to bringing the church to autonomy through developing and appointing its own home-grown leadership of elders and teachers and deacons. The evangelist may work along-side an eldership, as Timothy’s work at Ephesus shows (1 Timothy 5:17-20). The evangelist is not exclusively itinerant, but may operate from a long-term home base, as Philip’s work from Caesarea suggests (Acts 8:40; 21:8). But generally, the role of the missionary or evangelist, in contrast to the role of the elder or deacon, seems to be oriented towards working themselves out of a job.

This may all seem ambiguous and confusing with so much overlap and switching of roles. Missionaries who ordain elders are themselves appointed by prophets and teachers; evangelists are ordained by elders and elders by evangelists. We will be disappointed if we are looking for a clearly defined hierarchical chain of command such as those which evolved in the post apostolic era (e.g. apostolic succession).5 But if we understand the organic nature of the church, I think the confusion largely disappears. Whose responsibility is it to facilitate the process culminating in the appointment of church leaders? Every member of the organism! If the organism is healthy and each member is functioning as it ought, the movement towards growth and maturity and reproduction will be both natural and irresistible unless disease or cancer inhibits the process. In the case of the local congregation, maturity is realised when it becomes self-governing and begins to replicate itself through sending out missionaries to plant new churches. The vital question is not “whose responsibility is it?” in the sense of “who is qualified to ordain?” That would only make sense if we were looking to identify officers with the judicial authority to appoint other office holders. Such concepts are foreign to Christ (remember Matthew 20:25-28). Again, biblically speaking, terms such as bishop or deacon, missionary or evangelist, are not titles of ecclesial office per se. They describe the character and nature of gifts essential to the life of the church. Christ provides for his church gifts of leadership (Ephesians 4:7-16). And Christ revealed, through his apostles, how we may recognise those gifts (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1-13) with a view to acknowledging and supporting their role in Christ’s church (1 Timothy 3:14-15).

So, who appoints local church leaders? The local church does. That is, the local church grows and appoints its own leadership. Looking back to Acts 6, the church was given the responsibility to choose from its own midst those who met the selection criteria. The church endorsed those qualified to lead by its willingness to acknowledge them as leaders, and to follow them, based upon respect for their moral authority (flowing from their possessing and demonstrating the requisite qualities and qualifications). Administrative details such as what person(s) (e.g. missionaries, evangelists, elders, teachers) or what procedures (e.g. laying on of hands) are employed in the actual ordination of church leaders are of secondary importance from an organic perspective (such things belong to the category of expedience, I would think, given the diversity in ordination examples cited earlier). What is primary is that the local church is maturing towards autonomy (appointing elders and deacons) with a view to reproduction (sending out missionaries and evangelists). Growing and reproducing. That’s what organisms generally do (and the church, as the body of Christ, is an organism). That’s what families generally do (and the church is the household of God).

Looking forward to seeing you all in Melbourne at the APEDS2020 Conference!

Grace and peace,

Steve Wilson

  1. Matthew 20:25-28 

  2. Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 297. Every church that is serious about biblical ecclesiology should have a copy of this book in its library! 

  3. Covenant is the other vital relational component of church community, but there is not space here to expand on that. Paul also points out that marriage is modelled on this sort of organic/covenant relationship (Ephesians 5:22-33). I would argue the organic/covenant model of relationship in the church and in the home is derived from, and is intended by God to reflect, the unity in diversity of the Divine community of Love that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

  4. Ferguson, The Church, 327. For further biblical insight regarding church leadership and authority, see also Jack P. Lewis, Leadership Questions Confronting the Church (Nashville, TN: Christian Communications, 1985). 

  5. I imagine that is why some theologians conclude, erroneously I believe, that “there was no normative pattern of church government in the apostolic age, and the organizational structure of the church is not an essential element in the theology of the church.” George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 534. The reasoning is reminiscent of terra nullius, where British colonisers of Australia are reported to have determined the land was up for grabs because the indigenous peoples’ management of the land didn’t align with their own preconceived notions and practices of land use.