Church Leadership According to Philippians 1:1
Paul said, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). The word “all” is very important. Theologians call this “verbal-plenary inspiration.” Perhaps we could just say, “Every word, everywhere, is inspired by God.” In fact, we can take it a step further. Not only is every word inspired by God, so is every tense, voice, mood, person, number, gender, case, part of speech, word order, phrase order, clause order, structure, etc. Moreover, not only is the Bible inspired, Paul says in the very same passage that it is also “profitable” or “useful.” In other words, the Bible was not given for our information but for our transformation, every word, everywhere!
As we turn to Philippians 1:1, we note that Paul greets “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, along with the overseers and deacons” (so most translations). In the New Testament there are two Greek words that are used interchangeably to describe church leaders. The word presbuteros is usually rendered “elder,” while the word episkopos is usually rendered “bishop” or “overseer.” The uniform practice of the early church in the New Testament was to have a plurality of elders or overseers. This is because leadership by one person always tends to exalt one man over others, while the Bible clearly teaches that only Christ is to be exalted, for He alone is the head of the church (Col 1:15-20; Matt 23:8-12). Thus, Paul does not greet the “pastor” (singular) or the “overseer” (singular) of the church in Philippi, but the “overseers” (plural). Though the churches we attend may have a “pastor,” this is not the teaching of the New Testament.
It is instructive that Paul describes these believers in Philippi, not as being “under” their leaders (in which case the Greek preposition would have been hupo), but rather “along with” (Greek sun) the overseers and deacons. This is not accidental. In terms of biblical teaching, every Christian is a minister. There is no separate class of those who minister while others stand by and watch. Though some ministers may devote more of their time and energy to the ministry, and some may even be paid for their ministry, all Christians are “in the ministry.” As Alec Motyer of Christ Church, England, writes: “Within the local church there was fellowship (all the saints) and leadership (the bishops and deacons). The leadership, however, was not an imposition upon the fellowship but an expansion of it. For the saints are not ‘under’ but with (‘in company with’) the bishops” (The Message of Philippians, p. 33). Motyer adds, “As is always the case in the Bible, the existence and activity of such ministries arise out of the needs of the church, and they can be exercised only in ways that are suited to what the church is. Thus, for example, the New Testament never speaks of any ministry as mediating between God and the church” (p. 35). Motyer is referring to the great New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which is an essential part of the biblical idea of the church.
It is also important to note that neither “overseers” nor “deacons” is used with the Greek definite article. This is highly significant. In Greek, the use of the definite article generally points out particular identity, whereas the absence of the article generally emphasizes qualities or characteristics. Apparently Paul uses this construction to emphasize the work these individuals do, and not their titles. Evidence for this functional meaning of the terms comes from other Pauline epistles as well (see 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Cor 12:28-31; Rom 12:6-8). The clear impression we receive is that of local churches under apostolic authority, with each church managing its own affairs under the leadership of men who oversee and serve the congregation.
The implications of this are tremendous. If you were to go into practically any Protestant church today, you would likely encounter a hard and fast clergy-laity distinction, and very often a church ruled by one man with an iron fist. Or you may find the leadership divided into pastors, elders, and deacons, or into ruling elders and teaching elders, with the ruling elders functioning more like administrators who are involved in very little pastoral ministry. None of these models is truly biblical. While some passages suggest the presence of an elder who became the spokesman for the leadership, there is no suggestion anywhere of one man who was viewed as the pastor. Such a person was always accountable to the other elders and never led in a hierarchical manner, as was the case with Diotrephes (3 John 9-11). Thus the church is never viewed as a one-man team with the “pastor” doing all the work while the “laypeople” watched. Because of the limited capacity of one man to lead the church, New Testament leadership was plural and equal, with no system of hierarchy. Of course, certain people will generally function as leaders among the leaders because of their wisdom and experience, but all are equal and accountable to each other.
Moreover, in the worship of the church the leaders are never seen as dominating. Instead, a pattern of multiple participation by the congregation seems to have been the mark of all apostolic churches (see Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 14:26; Eph 4:11-16; 5:19; Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25; 1 Pet 4:10-11), regardless of their geographical location (see 1 Cor 4:16-17; 11:16; 14:33). The New Testament teaches that the congregational meeting is to be a place where all Christians exercise their spiritual gifts and stimulate one another to love and good deeds. There is no division into two classes of people: clergy and laity. In addition, the leaders in the congregation did not take upon themselves honorific titles that might set them apart from the rest of the “saints.” Alexander Strauch, author of Biblical Eldership, correctly notes (p. 259):
There were prophets, teachers, apostles, pastors, evangelists, leaders, elders, and deacons within the early church, but these terms were not used as formal titles. For example, all Christians are saints, but there is no “Saint John.” All are priests, but there is no “Priest Philip.” Some are elders, but there is no “Elder Paul.” Some are pastors, but there is no “Pastor James.” Some are deacons, but there is no “Deacon Peter.” Some are apostles, but is no “Apostle Andrew.” Rather than gaining honor though titles and position, New Testament believers received honor primarily for their service and work (Acts 15:26; Romans 16:1, 2, 4, 12; 1 Corinthians 8:18; 2 Corinthians 8:18; Philippians 2:29, 30; Colossians 1:7; 4:12, 13; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:1). The early Christians referred to each other by personal names—Timothy, Paul, Titus, etc.—or referred to an individual’s spiritual character and work: “…Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 6:5); Barnabas, “…a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith…” (Acts 11:24); “…Philip the evangelist…” (Acts 21:8); “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3); “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (Romans 16:6); etc. The array of ecclesiastical titles accompanying the names of Christian leaders today is completely missing from the New Testament, and would have appalled the apostles and early believers.
In light of what we have said above, there is a great need for reformation within local churches in the way we view leadership. Traditional pastoral ministry promotes an unbiblical one-man model of leadership under the self-styled “pastor.” In contrast, the New Testament teaches oversight by a plurality of men called elders. Some elders might be gifted differently and may even excel in specific pastoral tasks, but there is no biblical warrant for dividing church leaders into separate “offices” with honorific titles.
Traditional concepts of “pastor” are clearly unscriptural. The New Testament does not speak of two classes of Christians, as we do today. According to the Bible, all Christians are the people of God who through the exercise of spiritual gifts do the work of the ministry. Such is the teaching of Paul in Philippians 1:1. Once again, Alec Motyer summarizes it well (p. 40):
How is leadership to be exercised? What is the relationship between leaders and led? The one word with provides the answer: ‘…the saints’, writes Paul, ‘…with the bishops and deacons.’ The strong natural leader chooses the easy path of being out front, taking it for granted that all will follow; the low-profile leader ‘plays it cool’, submerges his own identify and takes the risk that the tail will soon wag the dog. The more demanding exercise, the sterner discipline and the more rewarding way are found in companionate leadership, the saints with the overseers and deacons.
This kind of leadership has many facets. It involves realizing that leader and led share the same Christian experience: both are sinners saved by the same precious blood, always and without distinction wholly dependent on the same patient mercy of God. It involves putting first whatever creates and maintains the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It means that leaders see themselves first as members of the body, and only then as ministers. In this way they face every situation from within the local body of Christ and not as people dropped in from the outside (or even from above!). It involves patiently waiting for the Holy Spirit to grant unanimity to the church in making and executing plans. It involves open relationships in which the leaders do not scheme to get their own way or play off one against another, but act with transparent integrity. It involves willingness to be overruled, to jettison role-playing and status-seeking, to be ready to cast a single vote with everyone else. It involves putting the welfare of the body of Christ before all personal advantage, success or reputation and it involves co-equal sacrifice for the Lord and his gospel. It is the leadership of those who are content to stand among the saints as those who serve.
December 11, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.