My blog on Monday about women preaching has generated quite a firestorm of activity. This forum is not really the place to hash our scriptural arguments, you will need to wait for my book for that. I made the claim that for some folks, this issue was not even open to discussion. I did this without evidence, but some of the comments received have confirmed this.
I want to make a modest proposal today about the nature of church leadership, borrowing a principle from the architectural world. Architects are taught that “form follows function.” A successful building will be constructed when the developers understand what its necessary functions will be, and architects draw plans for accommodating those functions. This principle is often extended into many other areas, including organizations. Successful organizations are built to facilitate necessary functions and must adapt to the changing functional needs of the organization. Form should be dynamic based on actual, vital activities of the organization. If there is rigid structure that resists change, functionality will suffer.
I have thought that this principle should be applicable to the church in several ways. First, I think this is what was going on in the first century. The earliest leaders in the church after the ascension of Jesus were the twelve apostles. In Acts 6, the evolving functions of the church necessitated engaging a different set of leaders, those who would do food distribution duty. Why? Because the apostles could not keep up with this function and still perform their vital function of prayer and ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). So the organizational form of the church adapted. In Acts 15, the leaders of the Jerusalem church met to consider the necessity of circumcision for Gentiles, and we see another modification of the church’s leadership structure. Now we have “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:6), and the leader of the church is James. He is not an apostle. We assume this is the brother of Jesus and that he would be considered an elder. A little after this, we get one of the earliest descriptions of the leaders of a church in 1 Corinthians 12:28: apostles, prophets, and teachers. No preachers or ruling elders in sight!
The Pastoral Letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus are often cited as authoritative for church form, the definitive structure for all time. But we may observe that Paul commanded Titus to “appoint elders” in every church (Titus 1:5). Who is the Titus who does this for us now?
All of this is to say that perhaps we get this backwards. We think we need elders in our churches, but I have been involved in more than one church where a newly elected elder asked, “What am I supposed to do?” We think we need deacons in our churches, but often there is confusion over the division of labor between elders and deacons. We think we need a church board (a concept completely absent from the early church), but we are not sure who should be on it, and how it divides responsibilities with the “Preacher.” Does the Preacher work for the board, does the board serve the Preacher, or do they serve together?
It seems to me that the church needs folks to oversee operations. If we need to give them a title, they can be called “Overseers.” We need mature, wise people to teach sound doctrine and refute heresy. Maybe we could call these folks “Older, Mature Leaders.” We need caring people to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of the congregations. Maybe we could call these folks “Shepherds.” We need people to see to physical needs of the church and minister to the community. Maybe we could call these folks “Ministers.” We need people who are well grounded in the word and have the time to develop helpful, scriptural sermons. Maybe we could call these folks “Preachers.” If we want to sound more traditional, maybe we could use the titles Bishops, Elders, Deacons, and Preachers, but when we do this we potentially lose a lot of the functionality aspect of the role. But maybe if we approached it this way, the gender issue would not seem so important.
Nebraska Christian College