I preached a sermon at dia•spora last Sunday night. It’s a reflection of a lot of what I’ve been thinking about church leadership and Ephesians 4:11-16. You can find it at the top of the sermon player on the right side.
I’d like to take a brief break from my study of Ephesians 4 and look at a different text for a different reason. I recently blogged about my disbelief in the Rapture, and I also tried to exegete two important Rapture passages: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 24:36-41. A friend of mine, who is having his own journey of faith with the Rapture, asked me about John 14:2-3, which is another famous Rapture passage.
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
These words of Jesus are a small but crucial portion of the tender and bittersweet Last Supper scene in the Gospel of John. Jesus is trying to comfort the disciples by painting a vision of what life will be like after The End. These words are, indeed, very comforting in that they assure us that Jesus will return for us someday.
The Rapture adherent sees in this text the basic structure of the Rapture event: Jesus comes back after an indeterminate period of time and takes us back with him where he came from. Whatever else happens can’t be determined from this text, but it is a very important piece of the puzzle.
But, rather than being an explanation of the timeline of the end times, this is marital language. In those days, before the wedding day, the bridegroom would build a house next to (or, more likely, an addition on) his parents’ house for he and his bride to live in. This could take any amount of time, which heightened the suspense of his return. He would come for his bride only after he had finished building their house. Jesus is saying, essentially, “I am the bridegroom and you, and all who believe because of your testimony, are the bride. I’m going away now to get everything ready so that, when I come back, we can have a wedding.”
This language might be a bit odd to us, and it may have been odd to the disciples, too. But they knew their Bibles, and the knew the stories of Sinai and Hosea and Isaiah. They knew what Jesus was getting at here: This is God consummating the covenant promise of Sinai (and redeeming the wrecked love story of Hosea) through Jesus and the reconstituted Israel, represented by these twelve disciples. (Twelve disciples = Twelve tribes.) God is saying, “What I have always intended to do—betroth humanity to myself—I am now doing through my Son, and all who believe in him are the beneficiaries. They will become my bride.” Jesus is using contemporary, marital customs to describe cosmic redemption. He is saying, this is a marriage—a marriage for which the marriage between a man and a woman is but a shadow—and I will come again some day to claim my bride.
Now here’s the really amazing part: What is “my Father’s house”? That’s the temple. But Jesus isn’t going back to the temple in Jerusalem, he’s going back to the temple in Heaven, of which the Jerusalem temple is a crumbling replica hastily built in miniature. But we also find out, from Paul, that the new temple is not a building at all—it’s us. We are the temple of God. And when you pick up the subtle hints in the book of Revelation (think marital language, building on this very passage) you see that the New Jerusalem is not really a huge golden city hurtling through space until it finally lands on planet earth—no, it’s us. We are the New Jerusalem. And as the Jerusalem temple is to Heaven’s temple, so the Church is to the New Jerusalem. In other words, the place that Jesus is going to prepare for us…is us—the fully redeemed, renewed, recreated, resurrected people of God. That is what Jesus is at work preparing even now.
Jesus has gone to his “Father’s house”, not to make us mansions in heaven, but to make us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a Bride fit for himself. If there is rapture it is because there will be everlasting joy when Jesus presents us—fully and completely ourselves as we were always meant to be—to himself in the fullness of eternal communion and glory. So yes, there will be rapture. But not the rapture of escape from trial and tribulation. Rather, there will be the rapture of the fullness of joy at our becoming a bride worthy, because he has made us so, of the King of kings and Lord of lords.
I meant to come back to the issue of biblical leadership structures last week but I got a last minute preaching assignment and my brother-in-law got married, so the blog had to go on hold. But I want to begin to provide an answer to the question: Is there a biblical mandate for church leadership structures?
In a previous post I said that I did not think there was a biblical mandate, but I should modify that. My understanding now, after studying and preaching on Ephesians 4:11-16, is that the church is most healthy when [at least] five people are operating as an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. Each brings a unique and necessary perspective to the task of equipping the church to do the work of the ministry, and there is tremendous value in hearing five voices speaking harmoniously on the deep things of God.
These five people must be at least five people–they can’t be just one person! In that instance, the church is bound to become either imbalanced (because the one person will inevitably emphasize one perspective) or idolatrous. The danger of the senior leader, pyramid structure of church leadership is that the congregation can, quite easily, make that man into an idol. This is, of course, a horrible perversion of the gospel and the calling of God on that man’s life. I just don’t see the biblical, New Testament church operating with this structure–and where it did, men like Paul and John seemed intent on correcting it.
I believe the biblical model of church leadership is best represented by the image of, not a pyramid, but, the human body. Christ is the head and we are the body, and every individual plays a significant role in the growth of the body. This means that the one at the top is Jesus and no one else is any more important than anybody else. This is the crucial point: Nobody is more important than anybody else. And these five people that we find in Eph. 4:11 are not the leaders of the church, they are its lowliest servants. They serve the servants of God.
The Church is not a meeting. The Church is not an organization. The Church is not an institution. The Church is a person. The Church is a person made up of people who make the person grow and become what Jesus always intended for her to become. That’s the calling we all share, and the task for which our apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are supposed to equip us. We don’t pass our responsibility off to paid professionals. This is our task. We are the body of Christ on earth and it’s our responsibility to see it grow up to full maturity.
Last month our church took an offering for an organization called Pregnancy Decision Health Center that helps women navigate the difficult waters of choosing not to have an abortion. I signed up to volunteer with them, but since I’m a dude there’s not much I can do for them on site. So I pray and I get their newsletter, which I think comes monthly because I got my first one today. The anonymous testimony included moved me so much I wanted to pass it along to those of you who read this blog.
Recently a young woman called the Hotline as she was preparing a party for her son’s first birthday. She tearfully told the Hotline worker that when she had become pregnant with him she had been planning to have an abortion. In fact, she was headed to an abortion clinic when someone told her about Pregnancy Decision and the services that we offer. She decided to walk-in to our office. She said that when she went in she was greeted with love, kindness, and respect. After talking with our consultant and hearing more information about her options and the support that was available she said she knew she would parent. When she called the Hotline, a year and a half later, she told the consultant that it was the BEST decision she has ever made! She has been so incredibly happy this past year and wanted to call and thank all the people at the office for everything. She is truly grateful to the Pregnancy Decision for the help she received and the blessing of her son.
Best. Choice. Ever.
Wolfgang Simson lays out an ecclesiology (a theology of the Church) in his book The House Church Book. At the core of his ecclesiology is the fivefold ministry—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers—found in Ephesians 4:11-13. He asserts that this leadership model has been ordained by God and, therefore, the pyramid-structure of the senior leader models of many American evangelical churches is fundamentally unbiblical. But we don’t get to see his exegetical work. He seems to take it for granted that Ephesians 4 is the paradigm of church leadership. And while I want to obey Scripture with a clear conscience, I’ve come to realize that it’s not always so simple as pulling out one passage and applying that to Christians across all time and space. So I want to take a brief look at some of the key church leadership passages in the NT and see if I can’t come to some conclusions. (As I write this, I’m not convinced either way on this issue.)
This is the defining text for Simson, and it’s as good a place as any to start. The first thing that I see is that God gave five types of people to the Church for the purpose of preparing them for works of service. When we look at this passage in the light of 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12:4-8 many similarities become evident—enough that we can conclude that this is, like those, a spiritual gifts text. These five roles are really five gifts of the Spirit, and the gifts are Spirit-enabled people who are, for the Church, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
But does this mean that every church in every place must have at least one person operating in each of these gifts? Has the Holy Spirit given every local congregation an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher? But before we can begin to answer these questions, we have to look at, at least, two more texts.
When I come to this passage with Ephesians 4 in the back of my mind, I immediately notice that Paul makes no mention of apostles, prophets, or the rest. Instead, he uses the rather generic term overseer. And rather than describing the task of the overseer, he talks about the character required for the office.
The relevant question for this discussion is, “What is the relationship between overseers and the five roles mentioned in Ephesians 4?” The fashion seems to be, in Evangelicalism anyhow, that the senior pastor is the overseer operating in all five of the Eph. 4 gifts. (And if not all five, then the gifts left out are not present in that congregation.) The fivefold ministry is accomplished, then, by this one man.
But does this make sense of the biblical record? Let me ask some probing questions. Are apostles overseers? Are prophets overseers? What about evangelists? And pastors? And are teachers overseers? Perhaps, in the letter to Timothy, Paul is talking about an office, and in the letter to the Ephesians, he is talking about the spiritual manifestations of that office. In other words, some people are overseers through the gift of apostleship and others through the gift of prophecy—and so it goes. 1 Timothy 3 is about the character of the people who lead the church, and Ephesians 4 is about the gifts and mission of those leaders.
But we still don’t have a clear sense of a biblical structure of Church leadership. Let’s look at one more passage and see if we can come to some conclusions.
This is, I believe, the genesis of the ministry of deacons. The twelve disciples chose seven men to administer the needs of the Church, while they themselves kept at their task of “prayer and the ministry of the word”. One of the interesting things about this passage is that Luke’s purpose in writing it is to introduce Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His point was not to lay a foundation for Church governance that would endure through all time and in every place.
Rather than finding a biblical Church leadership model in Acts 6, what we have is a really good idea. The Spirit guided the twelve disciples to not get bogged down in the details of food distribution, but to keep at their primary work of prayer and the word. This delegation of responsibility also empowered other men to step into leadership roles, which, in that instance at least, greatly improved the overall health of the congregation.
The conclusions of this very brief exercise are:
- The fivefold ministry is a function of the gifting of the Holy Spirit.
- Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are the gifts of the Spirit to the Church.
- Overseer is an office that has specific character qualifications that must be met.
- Overseer is the general term for church leader.
- Anyone operating within the fivefold ministry who meets the character qualifications can be an overseer.
- Wise delegation of leadership responsibility leads to healthy Church environments.
But have we found a biblical mandate for Church leadership structures? I don’t think so, but I’ll have to give it some more thought and, hopefully, come back to the issue tomorrow.