The Priority of Church Leadership

Why do we gather on Sunday or any other weekday? This question is important if we want to understand the role of church leadership. If we are gathering for socialization, then there is no need for church leadership including pastors. On the other hand, if we gather for the sake of the Gospel, then the church must give priority to church leadership.

The Need for Elders

We gather because we believe in the Gospel, which tells us that the one and only God who desires everyone to return to him as sons of God and friends of God (1Ti 2:4), has prepared the only way back to him, that is, through Jesus Christ. As sinners and enemies of God, there is no way for us to return to God by our own effort. Out of his great love, he sent Jesus Christ to die as a propitiation for our sins and raised him from the dead to secure the right to give eternal life to all who have faith in Jesus (cf. Joh 1:12-13; 5:24-26). Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be forgiven as sinners and enemies of God, and saved from the wrath of God (Joh 3:36). God reinstates each believer as his son (child) through sealing the Spirit of Christ in each one until the day of redemption. Meanwhile, every believer is “to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age” as they wait for the second coming of Jesus.[1]

Since the Gospel is the basis of our existence and gathering, it is the responsibility of those who gathered to ensure that they gathered only for the Gospel’s sake. In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul warned the church not to abandon the Gospel that they have received from him (1:6). If anyone were to preach another Gospel even if Paul was to revise the Gospel that he preached, the church should not accept the new one. In fact, Paul warned anyone who preached another Gospel that he or she would be cursed (1:8-9).

While Paul was warning both the church and anyone who preached another Gospel, this warning highlights a need for every church to discern whether another Gospel has been preached among them. Although the whole church is to discern because God has given the Holy Spirit to everyone whom he has converted (Eph 1:13-14; 1Jo 3:24), there is a need for some among those who gathered to take the lead in evaluating what has been preached. This need to protect the group from another Gospel is the basis for Church leadership.

In Acts, Paul and his team appointed elders wherever a new church was formed (14:23; cf. Tit 1:5). In his farewell speech to the elders of Ephesus, Paul charged the elders to pay careful attention to themselves and to care for the church of God (Acts 20:28). In the context of Acts 20, caring means guarding the church from the threats coming from without and within. There will “fierce wolves” coming among the church members and there will be members in the church “speaking twisted things”. The aim of both groups was to draw “disciples” away from Christ to themselves (20:29-30). This would mean that they would be preaching another Gospel. Thus, the appointed elders were to guard the church of God from those who preached another Gospel.

 

Qualification of Elders

Who is qualified among the church of God to be elders? The first criterion is those who hold fast to the Gospel. Before they become elders, they must demonstrate that they are fully convinced of the Gospel (cf. 1Ti 3:9). They must hold firmly to the Gospel so that they may be able to teach sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it (cf. Tit 1:9; 1Ti 3:2). Thus, in identifying a potential elder the focus is on the person who firmly hold to the Gospel.

The second criterion is the evidence that the Gospel has changed the person’s life. In Titus 2:11-14, Paul said that the grace of God, which is a reference to Christ, has appeared to bring salvation and also to train believers “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (2:12). This implied that anyone who has been converted by God would be trained by the Gospel to renounce ungodliness and to live godly lives. Thus, a potential elder should exhibit evidences of turning away from ungodliness to godly living. While we are not expecting believers to be perfect, we are looking for evidences that there is progress in turning away from ungodliness to godliness in the potential elder.

In 1st Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9, these two lists are not exhaustive but they provide specific examples of what godliness look like. If a potential elder is married, the person should have one spouse (1Ti 3:2; Tit 1:6). This does not mean an unmarried person is disqualified. If the person has children, the potential elder is managing well his family affair (1Ti 3:4-5; Tit 1:3). This does not mean the person is able to convert all his or her children. It is impossible because only God converts. It does mean that the children are well taught.

Beside evidence in family life, the person’s attitudes and actions are aligned with godliness. Negatively, it means the person is not arrogant or quick-tempered or quarrelsome or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain or a lover of money (Tit 1:7; 1Ti 3:3). Positively, the person must be hospitable, a lover of good, gentle, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, upright, holy, and discipline (Tit 1:8; 1Ti 3:2-3). This person’s attitudes and action also produce respect by those outside the church (1Tim 3:6). Thus, a potential elder should exhibit such evidences in their lives before being considered.

The third criterion is willingness to answer God’s call to be a steward of God (cf. Tit 1:7). In 1st Peter 5:1-4, Peter exhorts his fellow elders to shepherd the flock of God. He laid three rules of shepherding. One of the rules is “exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (5:2). Anyone who serves as an elder must do so willingly as a response to God’s call. Anyone who fulfilled the first two criteria above but is not willing should not become a steward of God. On the other hand, those who meet the criteria and are willing to be an elder are doing a noble task (1Tim 3:1).

 

Fourth Criterion

These three criteria are important in identifying potential elders. There is a fourth criterion. In Acts 6:1-7, the early Church chose their first set of leaders other than the Apostles. The growth of the Church triggered a conflict within between Hebrew speaking and Greek speaking disciples over issue of feeding the widows (6:1). The Apostles decided that the Church should pick seven men “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:3). The Church was responsible for picking these men although we did not know how they picked them. However, the Apostles appointed them as leaders because they were picked by the Church (6:3,6).

This example suggests an important fourth criterion. Any potential elder who desires to serve as an elder in the church should be chosen by the Church. In other words, the Church must decide whom they want to be their elder, and give the chosen elder the mandate to lead them just as the seven men were chosen to lead the Church to resolve the issue of the Hellenists’ widow being neglected.

The list of criteria in 1st Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 is observable. Criteria such as husband of one wife or managing his own household well are observable by others. Attitudes and actions such as gentle, hospitable, sober-minded and self-controlled can be seen by others. Although Timothy and Titus were to appoint the elders, they probably depended on the Church to choose men who met Paul’s criteria and appointed them as elders. Timothy and Titus could not have done it on their own because they did not stay long in one place (cf. Tit 1:5).

 

Implications

The above discussion has at least four implications. First, every church is responsible to pick people who met at least the four criteria mentioned above. The process may be different in different churches and denominations but the responsibility belongs to every member.

Second, every member should work with the elders that they picked. While elders should serve willingly, every member is responsible to make it easier for the elders to keep watch over their souls. These elders have to give an account to God for their stewardship (cf. Heb 13:17).

Third, every member should respect their elders (1Ti 5:17). One way to respect is to avoid entertaining accusations or insinuations against an elder “except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1Ti 5:19). When there is no evidence, every member is responsible to stop such accusation by anyone. In some situations, a rebuke is warranted (1Ti 5:20).

Fourth, every member is responsible to uphold the elders in prayer. Just as Paul needed the churches to pray for him, our elders also need our constant prayer. The prayer request of the author of Hebrew is appropriate for all elders: “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honourably in all things” (Heb 13:18).

 

[1] This explanation of the gospel is from an earlier article, the priority of the Gospel (I & II). See 1Corinthians 15:1-7; Rom 1:1-9; Rom 4:23-25.

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