In small churches, and large, there is often a perpetual power struggle between individuals, as the desire to have pre-eminence in the assembly is made manifest. The lust for power in the church is not new to the present generation. The words of the apostle John sound familiar. “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.” (3 John 1:9). The apostle Paul had to contend with Alexander the coppersmith, who did him “much harm” (2 Tim. 4:14).
Unlike the corporate world’s model of organization, the Church is designed by the Lord Jesus so that He alone is “over” each person in the body of Christ.
An ambitious pastor, bishop, or elder might protest such a thought, and note the words of Acts 20:28. “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
It would be easy to conclude that there are individuals in the local church who hold an office, and are suppose to tell other people what to do, and they must submit. It would also be a wrong conclusion.
Attention should be paid to the little Greek word “en”, translated “over”, in the Authorized Version. This preposition is used about 2,700 in the New Testament, but is nowhere else translated “over.” The word means “in”, or, “among”.
In his pastoral epistle, Peter instructed the elders to be very careful not to “lord it over” the church. “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). The phrase, “being lords over”, is the translation for the word katakurieuo, which means, “to lord against, i.e., control; subjugate.” Elders are not to try to subjugate others, nor should anyone in the assembly try to dominate another individual.
The authority that is to surface in the body of Christ is not based on an inherent authority because a title is given, an office is held, because someone is rich, is personable, or has a strong personality. True spiritual authority is to be experienced in the assembly “because the gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit are made obvious through people” (Wade Burleson, Fraudulent Authority).
Biblically, the entire body of Christ shares authority. Ideally, every believer should be submitting themselves to one another in love, in the assembly, in the fear of God (Eph. 5:21). It is the will of the Lord that younger people in the church respect their elders, meaning those who are mature in life and in the Christian faith, should be listened to. “Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Yet, each person in the Church is to be subject one to another.
If the local Church would give out more towels, and less titles, a new spirit would permeate the fellowship.
The curse of Christendom is the acceptance of a hierarchy of rulers in the local Church, allowing them to limit the freedom of members of the body of Christ. No one can serve without their approval, and supervision. Their arbitrary rules, and regulations must be followed explicitly. Spirituality is then measured by how co-operative, and submissive, a person is to the leaders of the corporation, not by how well a person submits to the Lordship of Christ. Those who fail to comply with the whims of the church leaders are brought back under control through some form of discipline, such as public shaming, benign neglect, not being served communion, removal of membership, or excommunication.
Because the local church is viewed as an institution, a legal organization, and not as a living organism, the corporate chief executive, guided by a board of directors, has the final say on all congregational matters, but not the Spirit, nor the Word, nor Christ. In today’s Christendom, the “one Lord” of Ephesians 4:5 is more often the pope, the pastor, the board of deacons, or some committee. Very rarely in an authoritarian structure is the truth spoken to others in love so that all may grow up in Christ, who is the true head of the church (Eph. 4:15).
To say these things is not to suggest there is no structure in the local assembly. The desire to be a spiritual leader can be a divine impulse, and pleasing to the Lord (1 Tim. 3:1). What is not to be desired, seized, or grasped, is a spiritual office in order to control others. There is no place for that in the true church. Any supervision of the assembly is to be done by consent. Persuasion, not the will to power, is to characterize the elders, and deacons, and all others who serve.
It is instructive to note, the word office, does not appear in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:1. The word is episkope, and means, “inspection (for relief); by implication, superintendence.” The idea of a formal office, with inherent authority over others, is not in view.
Technically, there is no formal “office” of elder, though there is a place for a group of individuals to come together in the church to oversee the work of ministry. There is no formal “office” of deacon, but there is a place for individuals to serve the saints, reflected in Acts 6, and elsewhere.
The Christian diakonia is to reflect the mind of Jesus, who “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). The modern elder, the modern deacon, has a self-image of being a ruler of the congregation, not an overseer, or a servant.
Let an elder, or let a deacon, go with Christ to wash the feet of others, feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and serve wherever necessary, and much tension will be reduced in the local church. The concept of a formal “office” is unfortunate, and misleading, in the spiritual life of the local church.
How we do church today is a conversation worth having. Foundational principles are worth re-evaluation.
There is a reason why small congregations remain small after ten, twenty, or thirty years. There is a reason why the church is not having more of a cultural impact on society. There is a reason why the average pastor leaves a congregation after four years, on the average. The struggle for authority is time consuming. It is emotionally consuming. The struggle for authority is self-destructive, and other destructive. Congregations would be better served if the following truths were taught.
First, biblical leadership is built on the principle of persuasion, not authoritarianism. It is a towel the Lord Jesus gave to his disciples, not a title, or an office. There is no formal office in the local church whereby someone has authority over others, who are to be servile to them. However, there are gifted individuals who surface to oversee others in love, but never by compulsion.
Second, every believer is to submit to one another. This is a concept that is rarely taught, if ever. Co-operation, not competition, is to be the guiding principles within the body of Christ.
Third, only Jesus Christ is the head of His body. The Lord God reigns.
Fourth, the church is an organism. Movement must be made away from a spirit and structure of authoritarianism, uniformitarianism, and exclusivism. Whole denominations have been established on the concept “dividing in the name of unity.” Then there is the cry, “Us four, and no more.”
Church, we can do better.