Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Biblical Models of Church

I once heard a minister of the Gospel say that TV ministry is wrong - because it allows a preacher to minister to the members of another pastor's flock without their pastor's permission.

Another pastor told an evangelist that he has nothing to say until he's proved it in the local church. The same pastor also said that no person should ever act on his own initiative (as far as ministry goes) but that he should only ever act on initiatives of his church elders.

Some evangelists, teachers and prophets have responded by attempting to pastor their own churches.

Others have come up with new models of 'church', claiming that an apostolic revolution is now taking place in which God is finished with the traditional pastor-based model and is instead restoring a new way of doing church. Some of them present a model that empowers the individual; others that empower the 'apostles'.

What is the Biblical relationship between pastors and other ministries - and their congregations?

28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

The word "first" in I Corinthians 12:28 can mean first in prominence, first in importance - and also first in process as a local church matures and new abilities develop and become recognized.

Either way, it is
interesting to notice where the role of pastor is placed in the list. The office of pastor is probably represented by the word governments - because that's what pastors do - they govern, or rule. (The New Testament terms pastor, elder, bishop and presbytery each probably describe the same office). Notice that the office of pastor is listed seventh only, following a list of six other ministries which are primordial - primordial either in process, prominence or importance - to the office of pastor.

The ministries which are listed ahead of the ministry of governments (pastors) are: the ministry of helps (which is probably the same as the office of deacon), the gifts of healings, miracles, teachers, prophets and apostles.

It may come as a surprise that the ministry of helps (deacons) can figure more prominently than pastors - yet, when you think about it, that's how it was in the Book of Acts. Philip and Stephen are two examples of 'deacons' whose public roles featured more prominently than any church elders.
No church elder is ever named nor his ministry ever singled-out and given special mention, anywhere in the Book of Acts. But these two 'deacons' - Philip and Stephen - are given a prominence which, for part of the Book of Acts, is almost on a par with the Apostles.

Since even the deacons featured more prominently in public ministry in those days than the pastors, how much more prominent were the evangelists, teachers, prophets and apostles!

Can you say that the ministries of apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists and helps are currently featuring more prominently in your city, than the pastors are? and are they functioning more authoritatively, more autonomously, and at least as freely?

That portrays a very different picture to what is common today, and yet that's how it was during the early church.

I enjoy imagining what it would be like to live in a city where each of the primordial ministries (apostles, prophets, teachers and evangelists) are free to publicly function to full capacity. Wouldn't it be wonderful to witness that type of a move of God! Then I try to imagine what the role of pastors (elders) might be in such a scenario.

Sourcing the New Testament for precedents, the first thing I observe is that it was the primordial ministries (apostles, prophets, teachers and evangelists) that did the bulk of all the ministry that's recorded in the Book of Acts, more so than the pastors.

Plus, these ministries usually acted on their own initiative, rather than being made to feel it would be somehow illegitimate of them to make any move at all other than what their elders (pastors) told them they were allowed to do.

I see evangelists acting on their own initiative. I see apostolic teams largely directing their own movements. I see apostles, at the end of the day, making all the big decisions themselves (although sometimes they made their decisions in conference with elders).

Someone said that the above pattern of church government only describes a church in infancy - such as the early church - before elders (pastors) were appointed. They claim that once elders have been appointed, the office of pastor replaces the apostle as being first in prominence.

Others, on the other hand, claim that
the need for elders is only relevant during the absence of an apostle.

Admittedly, in most places where the Bible-apostles and evangelists went, there were no existing churches and therefore there were no elders. It would have taken some years before their converts matured enough in their faith to qualify for eldership (two of the qualifications for a bishop were that he must not be a novice and he must be apt to teach). Therefore, prior to the appointment of elders in the Gentile churches, it was only natural that the predominant ministries were that of the founding apostles, plus prophets, teachers and evangelists. But as we shall see, Biblical apostles continued to have a role in churches even after elders had been appointed.

Admittedly it also seems clear that by the time John saw his vision on the isle of Patmos, there was a recognized individual whom the Lord held accountable as the angel (messenger) of each local church. However, it is clear that John's authority as an apostle continued to be held in high regard by those messengers of the churches - or else it would have been pointless him writing letters to them. And besides, they each may have been either an elder or even somewhat apostolic in their own right, in their roles over their respective churches. So the ongoing role of apostles and pastors is not undermined by this fact.

And as for Paul, he didn't say that apostles were first only during a church's infancy. Nor did he say anything about the role of elders only being relevant during an apostle's absence. And he didn't say anything about governments ever moving to the top of the list in prominence.

On the contrary, we see a different, ongoing, inter-relationship between apostles and elders in the Bible - in churches where elders (pastors) had already been appointed.

The office of elder continued to exist, even when Paul made a return visit, such as at Ephesus. Even after a long absence, the elders were happy to act as advised by Paul. Whenever Paul was back in town they gladly facilitated his ministry. After all, the elders had been appointed by the apostles in the first place, not by themselves (appointed either by Timothy or Silas, acting on Paul's advice.)
Only the deacons were elected democratically - but elders of a local church were chosen by a founding apostle. In one place Paul mentioned the word "rule" when referring to the geographic scope of his authority as an apostle.

The same ongoing relationship between apostles and elders is evidenced in the church at Jerusalem. The elders were not the prime-movers of public ministry. That role was fulfilled by the apostles - and by various prophets, teachers, evangelists and even by the ministry of helps (deacons - e.g., Philip and Steven). The elders certainly never stifled the proper expression in the city of the primordial ministries. The reverse was true: the purpose of the eldership's existence was to facilitate those other ministries in their more prominent public role in the city.

In the church at Jerusalem there was a recognized role for elders even many years after the church's founding. They continued to function even with the presence of Apostles. They continued to be designated separately from the Twelve Apostles who remained in a class of their own - and they worked together, in support of the Apostles.

In John's vision on the isle of Patmos, he saw the 70 elders in heaven, and then he saw the names of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb written into the very foundation! So the two roles - of elders and apostles - are eternally functioning and inscribed - distinctly from each other - in heaven. If so in heaven, how much more upon the earth.

So in most modern cities around the world where churches already have an appointed pastor, the role of the pastors (or elders, bishops, presbyters) ought to be to foster, facilitate, and further - to promote, preserve and provide - for the work of the other more prominent ministries, in their city.

We ought to be seeing ministries like community work (helps - deacons), city-wide miracle-healing rallies (evangelists), Bible seminars (teachers), prophets and apostles ministering big-time in our cities - along with the cooperation of local pastors (governments). That creates an exciting picture!

Keep in mind though that although the role of apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists and helps may be ahead of pastors in prominence, this does not do away with the distinct role of pastors as governors.

The relationship between apostles and elders is one of mutual dependence. This is because while elders depended on apostles for their initial appointment to office, so did the apostles depend on elders (or their home church, at least) to commend them to ministry and send them out in the first place. It's a bit like, Man is the head of the woman, and yet, the Man was born of a woman.

This mutually dependent relationship is kept in correct balance when there is:

  • a recognition of the governing role of the elders;
  • a recognition of the premordial status of the other ministry functions ahead of the function of the eldership;
  • and a recognition of the fact that while all apostles are probably co-elders, not all elders are necessarily apostles, or even laborers in the word, for that matter.

Here's how the mutually dependent relationship works. The apostles were first of all recognized and sent-out by a church that presumably had an eldership of sorts. Then the apostles went out and founded new churches where they eventually appointed elders of their own. Thereafter, the new elders became responsible for governing, feeding and protecting their local flock. They reminded everyone of the doctrine of the apostles while they were away. And they were happy to facilitate the apostle's ministry whenever he visited again. The elders wisely discerned the validity or otherwise of any other ministry that came to town. The elders were responsible for both receiving or not receiving traveling ministries. Technically therefore, they could have chosen not to act on advice from Paul during a return visit. That's why we read of Paul, as the founder of the Corinthian church, imploring them to receive him. A true apostle would never lord it over a church, but it's amazing how welcoming pastors will be to an apostle who fulfills his calling with exemplary character, when the pastors also have exemplary character.

In the New Testament, there was usually a spontaneous recognition on the part of pastors of their founding-apostle's authority. And sometimes an apostle's authority was recognized even when the apostle had had no previous role in the church. But usually a person's apostleship had geographical spheres. Paul was determined not to build upon another man's foundation.

For example, Paul's apostleship was to the Gentiles, whereas Peter's was to the Jews. So there was a different dynamic in Paul's relationship with the elders whom Timothy and Silus had appointed, to Paul's relationship to the Apostles and elders when he briefly visited Jerusalem.

There are certain character qualities which enhance the relationship between local pastors and apostles - or between pastors and any of the other public ministries such as helps, teachers, evangelists and apostles. One of those qualities is humility. Another is service. Another is the principle of spontaneous recognition. That means, an apostle's authority is especially spontaneous over a group which he founded (although apostolic authority is not necessarily limited to having been a particular church's founder). Another principle is mutual recognition and submission. The public role of some of those other ministries in the city may be ahead of the role of the eldership in prominence or perhaps in importance, however that doesn't take anything away from the role for the elders as governors, overseers.

There are two aspects to submission. One is mutual submission:

"Submitting yourselves one to another [mutually] in the fear of God" (Ephesians 5:21).

Another aspect is that the office of elders is particularly implied where we are told:

"Obey them which have the rule over you and esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake".

This means that if we recognize the variety of grace that has been given to one another, in the fear of God, while acknowledging the governing role given to elders (and apostles would be included as co-elders) - we'll get on okay.

For example (on the side of apostles, first of all). When
apostles submit to elders (pastors) in the fear of God - they'll never expect cooperation from pastors simply on the basis of their calling. They'll appreciate that the pastors have a responsibility before God to know that the so-called apostle's character befits his higher calling. Usually (if the pastor also has a mature attitude towards God's work), once he knows the apostle's heart - he may open the door voluntarily, not because of any hierarchy. It takes many years of experience and character-building in order to qualify for apostleship - plus an apostle is usually a person who has himself had the responsibility of leadership over a church. Therefore he is sympathetic towards the role of pastors, and he comes to serve, not to lord it over them, and not just to receive offerings, even though he may legitimately have God-given authority, in the Gospel not in hierarchy.

And on the side of pastors. When pastors submit in the fear of the Lord (to apostles and evangelists, for example) - we can avoid scenarios where gifted evangelists try pastoring churches, just so they can have somewhere to function when they're back in their home city. And we'll avoid seeing valuable teaching ministries effecting but a small segment of the Body of Christ when they could be ministering to whole churches. Maybe we could even avoid promoting models of 'church' that either give exclusive authority to elders or else diminish their role more than is meat.

In conclusion, let's be mindful to always acknowledge the ongoing relevance and role of pastors as governors in the local church; and also, to allow our apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists and helps ministries to feel free to fulfill their more prominent public ministries in the city - whether it's through a community service, city-wide miracle-healing rally, a teaching seminar, or through media such as TV.

That sounds like an exciting church to belong to!

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