(Section from the book titled Which direction is the Church going to? by Sandor Abonyi)
This section can download in PDF form here: Leadership of the local church
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What does God think about leadership and the form of leadership? How can we know it? Is it a fundamental question in the Bible or not?
Even at the time of the Old Testament this is what He said:
“And you shall cry out in that day because of your king which you shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day. Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” (1Sa. 8.18-20.)
“And the LORD said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king. …“ (1Sa. 8.22.)
In these verses we can see a situation when the church and the elders were not satisfied to have only the elders of Israel to lead them. They wanted a king over the elders to lead them in one person like it was with other nations. Therefore God gave them what they had asked for, because He saw that they wanted a king anyway. However, He called their attention to the result their decision would bring about through the prophet Samuel. It is possible that a thing starts very well, as it was with King Saul – first king of Israel – who started as an anointed king. In some way it can work out well:
“If you will fear the LORD, and serve him, and obey his voice, and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then shall both you and also the king that reigned over you continue following the LORD your God: “ (1Sa. 12.14.)
From these verses we can see that if the “king” (pastor, leader of a church) rules over believers both the pastor and believers will only be saved:
– if they fear the Lord and serve Him
– if they are not disobedient to the Word of the Lord
– if they follow the Lord their God.
That it is not the perfect pattern God wanted to give his people is clearly explained:
“…I will call onto the LORD, and he shall send thunder and rain; that you may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking you a king.” (1Sa. 12.17.)
Let us not be wicked either and let us not wish for a “king” (one person leader of the church) over the elders. However, if we insist on having a “king” by all means, God will fulfill our request the same way He gave a king to Israel as well. Mind you that in this case the warning of Prophet Samuel is also valid for us as well.
In the Book of Kings we can see the history of one person leadership. The outcome is generally negative for both kings and people in Israel. But how does all this relate to our present age and what relationship can it have with church leadership?
The first New Testament churches lead by elders started very well, but during the centuries that followed a clerical elite was formed with great authority, who gathered enormous riches, vast lands and had their own armies (the warning in 1 Sa 8.10-17.).
The pope had authority over kings and nations for many centuries. He nominated and destroyed kings, sent Christians to the stake. Using a phrase from the Bible we could say that the pope became the king of kings and the lord of lords. Popes consider themselves regents of Christ on Earth and their infallibility has been made a doctrine. The person who comes not through the clouds and thinks himself on earth god in one person, god in flesh, a divine one is called “Antichrist” in the Bible.
Sometimes it only depends on circumstances and possibilities how strong the power of a church priesthood which is built by layered subordination can be. Reformed churches and centralized charismatic churches are unfortunately not free from this mistake either. Unfortunately they have also adopted this bad practice.
A lot of teachings say that Timothy and Titus were also one person leaders, that is to say: pastors of churches. We should read carefully the book of Acts and the letters of Paul and we will find that Timothy, Titus and others were ministers sent to a local church with a specific reason and for a specific period of time.
They never became leaders in one person for any church, rather were entrusted with the task to “to warn, to reprove and to exhort”… or “to do the work of the evangelist”, …etc.
Others might identify the “angel of the church” in Revelations with the pastor of our present day practice. However, the “angel of the church” can only be those people in any church who are able to get revelations from the Lord in a spiritual way for a specific church. It may be a prophet whose ministry cannot work properly in the present day practice of the church and through whom the Lord may reprove the pastor who cannot hear the voice of God similarly to how it was in the days of Eli who was reproved by the young Samuel.
Let us have a look at what the Word tells us about it:
“Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things said he that holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; “ (Rev. 2.1.)
“But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches; to him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” (Rev. 2.6-7.)
We can see that this person is not necessarily one of the leaders but can be any member of the church who has ear to hear the voice of the Spirit.
There must be a pastor or else it will not work
Many people don’t dispute – because it is indisputable according to the Word – that the local church has to be led by more people (presbyters, elders), but saying that it doesn’t work in this form they think it is necessary to have a leader over them. The insistence on the traditional leadership by one person is due to the following:
– deficiency of confidence in God’s Word
– lack of well operating patterns
– human ambition to overtake control
The majority of people represent this attitude. There are some people teaching against the Word of God in this matter because they don’t have a vision concerning biblical leadership according to the Word. Obviously, they follow some unbiblical patterns in practice as well. There are people who have good vision concerning this issue and they also teach it but follow a different practice not thinking this question could have such big importance saying that it will do both ways. The Word of God speaks differently about this problem and even calls it evil when in 1st Samuel the elders ask for a king over themselves.
Causes of distortions
According to the original plan of God not even in the time of the Old Testament was the leadership model of one person required (king over the elders) though the Holy Spirit had not yet been filled onto all people as it was after Pentecost. According to the Word, not only some people of God can have the Holy Spirit but all. Unfortunately there is the wide-spread view that there are “professional believers” (priesthood) and non-professional (lay) believers. It was true for Old Testament times, however, it has basically changed in the time of the New Testament. Unfortunately, from this point of view most present churches are in the state of the Old Testament.
We should notice that what was started by the first apostles and what we can see in the lives of the first churches in the Acts and the Letters is valid for us, too. Nobody should strive to become a one person leader of his/her church with reference to the “good king” example of David, because the New Testament gives us a better pattern to follow. We can surely identify pastors of a lot of churches who want to be good kings but somehow do not succeed in doing so.
It is no wonder they do not succeed, for a person born in sinful body, even if born again, is tempted in the body. So a human can be mistaken and cannot take the place of the anointed one, Christ, and cannot function as the “head”.
During the last few centuries we got used to traditional forms to such an extent that we do not really understand what the Bible writes about. The models of our environment affect us so much – as it is with other nations as well – that we take it rare and extraordinary if the Biblical patterns are realized.
We have to believe that the question of church leadership is extremely important and God will not leave us in darkness concerning such a fundamental question.
Biblical leadership of the local church
After all this let us have a look at what the Word says about the structure and leadership of a local church. The Bible tells us about elders (presbyters, bishops) who are principals of a church in a specific settlement.
Some related verses:
“The elders, which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd (Jesus) shall appear, you shall receive a crown of glory that fades not away. “ (1Pe. 5.1-4.)
We have to discover that elders are mentioned as pastors in the Word – feed the flock of God –, over whom there is no one person as a leader (chief pastor, head principal, etc.). However, the Word mentions Jesus Christ as chief pastor, who is the Head and to whom the elders of all local churches have to give account of all things.
When Apostle Paul had the elders of the Ephesian’ church called to himself, he wrote similarly:
“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit had made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he had purchased with his own blood.” (Act.20.28).
It is the Holy Spirit who would like to be the one person leader over all churches and it is Him who makes some experienced superiors of the church overseers (elders) to watch over that the Holy Spirit can remain the leader at all times. The Holy Spirit is able to filter human mistake only through more people. The Holy Spirit can lead every church through prophecies, therefore the Word writes that “two or three persons should prophesy at the same time and others should judge.” If a single person is trusted with leading, might he or she be very spiritual, sooner or later some kind of a deviation happens or with the Holy Spirit leaving bare human control takes over. Therefore with the appointment of a board of elders (presbyters) the leadership of a local church is set in order.
“For this cause left I you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed you:” (Tit. 1.5.)
The leadership of any local church can have only one level. The words elder, bishop, superior, presbyter are only synonyms and in fact refer to the same ministry. Translators might use different words in the translation of the words but they depict the same concept:
“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you;” (1Th. 5.12.)
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, …” (Heb. 13.17.)
It is the Word that authorizes the elders to do pastoral ministry, and as we can see from the following verses to teach and to pray for the ill, too.
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” (1Ti. 5.17.)
“Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: “ (Jam. 5.14.)
From the above verses is it clear that local churches are led by elders and they are the ones who accomplish pastoral duties and are also responsible for the carrying out of all management duties in the church. This is supported by the letters of Peter, Paul and James.
Derek Prince writes similarly about this question in the 3rd volume of his book titled „The Foundation Series”. Derek Prince is an independent Bible-teacher word-wide who is impartial in this question and he comes to the following conclusion:
„…we need to analyze shortly the structure of local church leadership the way as it is shown in the New Testament. The structure is very easy: there are only two function levels (categories). These two categories are “elders’ and “deacons”.
According to Derek Prince:
– „the primary task of elders is to provide spiritual leading and guidance to the church.”
– „the primary task of deacons is physical service round the tables that is to serve the natural, physical needs of a church.” (Naturally, out of a deacon’s ministry later other ministries can develop as we can see it in the ministry of Philip evangelist as well.)
According to the Bible elders are therefore not assistants of the leader or pastor of a church, “deacons” who help the pastor, but they are the spiritual leaders of the church and are responsible for all things. God is so rich that He does not want to lead any churches only through a single person, but He gives more leaders (elders who are really pastors) to every church. These pastors should not dominate over each other; rather they are partners in the ministry.
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The whole book can download in PDF form here: