The New Testament is conspicuously silent with respect to details on church governance and decision-making. Jesus never used the word pastor, bishop or deacon, and, in fact, never mentioned any office of the church. He did not offer instructions on the responsibilities of an elder. He never introduced church decision-making models. He didn’t even see it necessary to provide a good organizational chart!
Likewise, while the Apostle Paul speaks of church offices and even the qualifications for these positions, he and other New Testament writers never define these roles clearly nor do they outline their relationship to each other. Paul simply assumes their presence within the local church.
With careful consideration, we learn that the Bible’s ambiguity may be no accident at all. We must trust that God left us in His Word exactly what we needed to know as it pertains to leadership in the church.
While Jesus and Paul may not have given explicit structural advice, they provide other teaching that speaks powerfully to the organizational needs we face. These concepts form the more important content of church structure that is often overlooked. At first glance these concepts may seem irrelevant, but they shape the values from which all church structure should flow. They are the first matters of structure and assert what we need to prioritize when considering the church’s organization. These are the matters we must get right before moving on to others. An imperfect system filled with people of integrity, humility, and grace will function far better than a perfect system filled with those who lack these qualities. The kind of individuals who fill the leadership structure of the church is often more important than the particular structure in place.
People are the Purpose
Since the mission of the Church universal is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), any church structure should lead to the life transformation of those for whom Christ died. Said another way, the measure of the effectiveness of a church’s organizational structure is the transformation of its people. Does the structure equip, empower and encourage its people? Does it hinder or help in their development? Does the structure place the focus upon maintenance or mission? Does the structure create conflict or promote peace?
Sometimes the structure of a church becomes more important than the purpose of the structure. A structure should never tell a church what it can and cannot do when it comes to mission—the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Consequently, a church should consider what God seeks to accomplish in its people, and then align its structure in a way that achieves these purposes.
Knowing that one day He would depart and leave his disciples to carry on the advancement of the church, Jesus often taught with an orientation toward the future. The gospels record how, on many occasions, he gave directives his followers were to put into practice upon the occasion of his absence. Many of these directives were relational in nature, pertaining to how his followers were to treat and care for one another.
Even in the worst and most specific church conflicts and challenges Paul addressed, he appealed to higher virtues of “faith, hope and love.” He asked the church to “bear each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2); to “in humility consider others better than yourselves...” and “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4); to express “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness...” (Galatians 5:22). With the exception of the teaching regarding our relationship to God, the greatest volume of Jesus’ and Paul’s instruction in the Scripture had an interpersonal aim. This teaching, we must assume, possesses great value from an organizational viewpoint.
Below are some values based upon the content and character of the New Testament that should permeate every church structure:
- Love—Church leaders should sincerely love one another and seek the highest good of others who also function in church leadership. Grace, giving the benefit of the doubt, and displaying loyalty to others is vital. Love is also the receptacle for God’s blessing and favor to a group of people committed to His mission.
- Mutual Respect—God has given leaders to one another. The church is not based upon the gifts of a single individual, but upon the collective wisdom of all appointed and empowered to lead in the church. Leaders must show respect for the opinions and input of other leaders. This makes the idea of teamwork a powerful reality in the church.
- Authenticity—Leaders should be honest and real with each other. Private agendas, secret discussions, and deceit cannot be tolerated. Leaders don’t just serve together— they grow and develop together. God seeks to do something in the leaders of the church and between the leaders of the church through their function of leadership. Spiritual growth and authentic faith is the result when leaders come together in Christ to do His will in the church.
- Servant-Leadership—A servant leader is one who leads for the benefit of others, not self. When, through the power of Christ, leaders come together for the benefit of others and seek the higher good of the church as a whole, they are then able to let go of personal agendas, sacrifice their rights for others, and approach their leader role as a stewardship. Servant-leadership is demonstrated by a leader who embraces the paradoxes of strength and humility, power and servanthood, authority and influence, courage and sacrifice.
The above values must be prominent in the practice of church leadership and considered in the appointment of leaders. Leaders should show evidence of these values in their service prior to leadership and a willingness to live them out once appointed. With these values and through the grace of the Holy Spirit, any challenge the church faces can be met and overcome. Without them, the church is only a shell, having the structure of a church, but void of the character that should define and distinguish the Body of Christ.