One of the things I appreciate about Rick Mercer is that he does not discriminate. No matter what your political stripe, you will be mocked and what you do will be held under a microscope. Yet, I also get a sense that even though he mocks political leaders, he also respects them. I think it is very unusual that a comedian can get political leaders to be on his program. He talks to them and teases them and laughs with them and in so doing seems to respect them.
Leaders need to be held accountable, but there is a significant gap between holding a leader accountable and disrespecting and mistrusting a leader. This is true whether we are talking about political leaders or church leaders. I have to admit that my reason for choosing this topic today is the fear that we sometimes cross the line from holding leaders accountable to disrespecting and mistrusting leaders. My reason for this fear comes from things I have heard over the years and particularly in the last half year. Therefore, I thought it was important for us to be reminded about what the Bible has to say about how the church functions and about how to relate to leadership in a way that has God’s approval.
Although I will refer to many texts, Hebrews 13:17 is our focus text. There we read, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Carla’s brother is one of the pastors at Skyline Church in San Diego California. They have 20 people on staff at that church. One time when I was telling him about how we make decisions in our church he just couldn’t understand it. He told me that they have one membership meeting a year to approve the budget and that the meeting lasts about 10 minutes. Obviously they have a very different style of church government.
Historically there are three dominant models of church government. One is where one person is the head of the church and has the power to give direction to the church. The Catholic Church, with the pope at its head is probably the best known example of this kind of a church. When we read in the Bible about kind of authority that Peter and Paul had, we see a reason why that kind of church government has developed. A second style is what is known as an elder model. In this form of church government, it is a body of elders that leads the church. The Presbyterian Church is one example of this kind of church government. When we realize that Paul appointed elders in every church we can understand where the precedence for this kind of church leadership comes from. The third style is the congregational model and our church has such a model. The Jerusalem council, in Acts 15, where the whole church engaged in resolving a conflict is a demonstration of this model.
Right from the beginning of the church there were systems of organization of the church. The church was never simply a loose collection of individuals who got together occasionally for worship. There is strong precedence in Scripture for a deliberate community of people who do the work of God together. However, the brief summary of different models of church government tells us that there is not only one model of church government which is clearly Biblical.
Our history and our study of Scripture have brought us to have a congregational form of government. What does that mean in terms of how we function as a church and how we do the work of God well?
Matthew 18:16-18 says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Admittedly, this is not the easiest passage in the Bible to interpret, but I have become increasingly convinced that it speaks to the way the church functions. As a body, we pray and we come together in order to do the work of God. As we pray and recognize that God is in our midst and as we work at agreeing, the things we agree on are the things which God wants for us because He is in our midst. That is what it means to function as a church in a congregational form of government.
How do we do that well? In order to do that well we must pray and participate. If we don’t pray about the work of the church and seek God together, then we won’t have the mind of Christ on the decisions we make. If we sit back and don’t attend meetings and if we don’t speak when we do have meetings, then we have not been a part of agreeing. So the first step of being a congregational church is that we must participate in the process.
The second step is that when we as a congregation decide on something, then we need to submit to that decision. Ephesians 5:21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” There is a story in my family history that has had an impact on my life. Many years ago the church which my great grandparents attended was making a decision about purchasing another building. There was a church available and they were deciding whether or not this was the way to accommodate the growth. I believe that my great grandfather was the church treasurer, so he had a leadership position. He did not agree with the decision to purchase and spoke against it. The day for the vote came and the congregation decided that they would purchase the building. When the decision of the church became clear, the family story goes that my great grandfather said, “If the church has decided, then I will support it.” That is what it means to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
With such a strong model of congregational government, one might well ask “what is the place of leadership in the church?”
With a passage such as Matthew 23:8-10 we might wonder if we should even have leaders. There we read, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.”
Yet leadership is clearly prescribed in the Bible. It is founded on the concept of giftedness and the recognition that every person in the church has a gift. I Corinthians 12:28 teaches us that God has appointed different people to do the different tasks in the church and there is no question that leadership is among those tasks. That verse says, “And in the church God has appointed…” and goes on to list leaders such as apostles, teachers and those able to administrate.
A similar message is found in Ephesians 4:11-16. This is a key passage which demonstrates the role of leaders. It says, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” This passage tells us that the work of the church is to be done by the people of the church and the function of leadership is to prepare God’s people to do that work. In other words, all of us work, and those who are leaders have a role to play in facilitating the work.
Another place we can look to see that there is a role for leadership is in Timothy and Titus. Both of these books give lists of the leaders the church has and the qualifications for those leaders.
So if no one is to be called “rabbi” or “father” or “teacher” and yet people are called to be, how do we bring these two concepts together? Matthew 23:8-10 is written in a very particular context. It does not imply that there should not be leaders, nor that they should not function as leaders, but it is intended to describe the nature of leadership in the Christian church. One of the pitfalls of leadership is to strive for power or to function with power. The message of this passage is that the leadership style of those who are in Christ is to be a servant leadership. Jesus describes Christian leadership in Luke 22:27 by pointing to his own leadership when he says, “I am among you as one who serves.”
So what we learn about the position of leaders is that they are servants - servants of Christ and servants of the church.
What is the responsibility of these servant leaders? Of course that depends on the gifts they have and the role they have in the church. In Acts 6, a group of people were called by the church in Jerusalem to serve food to those who were poor. This particular job was identified because the apostles wanted to continue to concentrate on their primary job which was preaching the Word and praying. Ephesians 4 has an interesting list of leaders – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. We can see significantly different roles in each. One to lead the church forward into kingdom building, another to hear and communicate a Word from God, another to spread the gospel, another to care for the flock and another to teach God’s word. So we need to recognize that there are different kinds of leaders in the church.
But the Bible has some important things to say about the responsibility of all of these leaders.
In Acts 20:28-29 Paul speaks to the overseers of the church of Ephesus and says to them, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Here the responsibility of leaders is to keep watch and the particular concern is the watch care over truth. There is the recognition that there will be false teachers and that there is danger and the role of leaders is to teach God’s truth and help the people of the church follow that truth.
1 Corinthians 4:1-2 says, “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” This passage shows us that leaders are keepers of the truth of God and it is their responsibility to be faithful to this trust.
I mentioned earlier that Hebrews 13:17 was kind of a key verse in the back of my mind as we think about this topic. This passage also tells us some important things about the responsibility of leaders. Take particular note of the phrase, “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” Once again we have this phrase, “keep watch.” Leaders are responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the people in their charge. This is a high responsibility and one that weighs heavily on all leaders. The pressure of this role is great because there is accountability. Leaders are accountable to the church, but they hold a much higher accountability and that is to God. If they do not keep their charge, they will need to answer for it in the presence of God. Hughes says about this passage, “…the leaders carried a weighty responsibility; they were accountable for the spiritual well-being of those placed in their care.”
Another passage which speaks about the responsibility of leaders is 1 Peter 5:2, 3 where we read, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” There are a number of important messages here including once again the spiritual watch care which is the responsibility of leaders who are to function as shepherds. The methodology of leadership is also addressed once again when it talks about the fact that leaders are not to use power, but rather to be examples.
The imagery of shepherding has a long history. Various leaders in the Old Testament were described as shepherds and Jesus also describes himself as the good shepherd in John 10. A shepherd is a good picture of spiritual care because it describes a leader who knows the sheep individually, who cares for their welfare, provides protection, gives direction, restores those who stray and shows the way to an eternal and good destiny.
These are important words to say to leaders. Why mention them in a message which is heard by the whole congregation? I believe it is important for all of us to understand the great responsibility we place on leaders. When we choose ministers, deacons, committee leaders, we are putting a great responsibility on them. We need to know that they have been given this responsibility, take it seriously and do so with the recognition that they are not only accountable to the congregation, but also to God.
We also need to know how we as people of the congregation should relate to those who are in leadership. The Bible also speaks to this.
One of the things that is sadly true is that not all leaders fulfill their role well. The Bible recognizes, as we have already seen, that there are leaders who seek to destroy the flock and lead it astray. In his warnings to the elders of Ephesus, Paul warned them in Acts 20:30, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” Paul also indicates in Galatians 1:8 that there is a standard which all leaders must follow. He says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!”
We have already noted that leaders are accountable to God, as we read in Hebrews 13:17. We have also noted that there are some pretty high standards that leaders are to uphold. In I Peter 5:2, 3 we read that they are not to serve under compulsion, but willingly, they are not to serve just to make money and that they are not to use power in their service.
We know that in our own history leaders have not always followed these instructions. We have heard stories from other churches of leaders who have failed to fulfill their responsibilities. Both reality and Scripture teach us that leaders must be held accountable. I Timothy 5:19, 20 says, “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” This passage teaches us that leaders must be held accountable when it says, “those who sin are to be rebuked publicly…” But we need to be careful to note the way in which that accountability is to take place. It is possible for people to disagree with a leader and not appreciate their work or be hurt by them. Sometimes leaders are accused or mistrusted simply because of a difference of opinion. But this passage teaches us that it is only when sin has taken place and when two or three witnesses see it that the leader is to be confronted. Kelly says, “…church leaders should not be at the mercy of frivolous or ill-natured complaints.”
So even though we need to hold our leaders accountable, we need to be careful how we do it. If our complaint arises out of our anger or mistrust, that is not right. If there is a sin that has taken place, then the church needs to follow the proper procedures to hold the leader accountable.
The last thing I would like to say is to recognize the many passages of Scripture which call us to honor those who are leaders in our midst. I do so at this point in the message with the background of all that I have said about how our church functions and that leaders need to be held accountable. There are many passages which call us to honor our leaders.
Philippians 2:30 talks about Epaphroditus and says, “Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him…” This is a specific example, but also has a more universal application when it says “honor men like him…”
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 is another passage which has a similar message. It says, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This is a clear reference to various church leaders who have a threefold role – they work hard, they are over you in the Lord and they admonish you.” The text says that such leaders should be respected and held in highest regard. This is an interesting verse. From a leaders perspective, they are to see themselves as servants who when they have done their work humbly say, “I have just done what I was supposed to do.” From the perspective of the people, however, they are to be honored.
There is a similar message in I Timothy 5:17 where it says, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor…”
The verse which I have suggested as a key verse has some important things to say about this. There we read, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
What is particularly interesting is the reason why they are to be obeyed. What does it mean when it says “Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” What is the disadvantage to the congregation if leaders are not trusted, honored and followed? If it is a chore to lead because people are always complaining, how effectively will those leaders lead? In our congregational form of government, how long will leaders be willing to serve when people don’t show up at planned meetings or complain about the details or criticize their decisions? If leaders are not trusted or respected, what will happen the next time we ask someone to take a leadership position? It is to the advantage of the whole congregation to follow the leadership of the church in such a way that it is a joy to serve. Paul had such an experience of leadership when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica. He said, “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”
Hughes says, “…successful leadership is to a considerable degree dependent on the willing response of obedience and submission on the part of those who are under authority.”
I am fully aware that this could appear to be a self serving message, since I am a leader in this church. I have chosen to preach it and to point to these passages in the Bible in spite of that awareness. I have done it because I am not the only leader in this church and as I have presented these things it is all the other leaders in our church that I am thinking of. We have ministers, deacons, church council representatives, committee heads and program leaders in our church, including teachers in various classes and my hope is that we will honor them.
I have spent time listening to the leaders of our church and have worked together with them and I want to assure you of something. The leaders in our church care deeply about the church, they care deeply about the spiritual welfare of those they are responsible for, they take their responsibilities seriously and they work hard.
To all of those who are leaders in this church, I appeal to you to recognize the spiritual care you have over those you lead and to remember that you are accountable to God. To the church I would appeal that we honor, trust and respect our leaders. I would also appeal that when it is necessary to hold a leader accountable, we do so not with gossip or slander or unsubstantiated accusations, but with the appropriate, respectful and gracious steps outlined in the passages we have looked at. Let us do these things well so that we can all rejoice to serve God in our church and in our world.