“WHAT IS A LEADER?”
An open letter on selecting officers
There are many places where leadership is easy to see and identify. For instance, in battle every choice could result in life or death. Stress is immeasurable. Emotions, threats, and decisions easily blend into confusion. In a business, dollars and jobs are at stake and everyone you meet is not always happy to see you. The pressures can be overwhelming, and yet in either setting the presence of a leader is undeniable. A sense of direction and priority, an ability to filter through mountains of detail, and an ability to communicate will all belong to a leader.
What then does a leader look like in a church? Some in our congregation have never been in a congregation before. This is their first time! As we consider the selection of our leaders – called elders and deacons – what should we be looking for? This article is an attempt to answer this simply, biblically, and relevantly.
What I hope to do in the following few pages is: 1) look at terms that the Bible uses to describe leaders. 2) Consider the character qualities that God says are important. 3) Think about how leaders in the church are called; and 4) walk through the process of how we can identify whom God is calling to be the leaders of our congregation.
Key words used in the Bible to describe elders
The reason God equips leaders with gifts and defines their character is so that His church will be loved and nurtured with a love that reflects His own.
Looking at the various terms that the Bible uses to describe leaders, we get a basic (and profound) grasp of what to look for in a church officer, especially their attitude. First, a leader is called a slave. This was the term used in Roman culture to describe the lowest order of slave – someone who was regarded as the absolute property of his master. In Romans 1:1, Paul describes himself as a bondslave of Christ. In Mark 10:44, Jesus said that whoever wishes to be first shall be slave of all. Second, and not to be confusing with subtle differences in terms, a leader is called a servant. This was another similar term used to describe any of several different classes of slaves whose role was to serve. In Luke 22, 26-27, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let those who lead serve for I am among you as one who serves.”
Our Book of Church Order (B.C.O.) says that elders should “watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge” so that they are not corrupted either in their doctrine or morals. “They must exercise government and discipline, and… oversight.” Elders not only should instruct the ignorant and nourish and guard the children of the church, but they should “set a worthy example to the flock entrusted to their care… They should pray with and for the people, being careful and diligent in seeking the fruit of the preached Word among the [congregation].” B.C.O. 8-3.
Describing the function of church leaders, scripture calls them ministers. To us this term usually means professional, employed church workers. Instead the way the Bible uses this term, minister, to describe servant-leaders. In Matthew 20:28, Jesus said that the Son of Man (Christ) came to minister. In 1 Peter 4:10-11, the apostle wrote that we should employ our gifts to serve or minister to one another. In Colossians 1:23, Paul was made a minister. It’s no small thing that the three most influential leaders of the New Testament church (our Lord Jesus, Peter, and Paul) all emphasized this point.
Another frequent term describing a leader is disciple (one who learns). This constantly reminds us that leaders still are always under the authority of Christ. They always remain students under Christ and students of Christ. As He said in Matthew 10:24, “A disciple is not above his teacher.”
Now, ask yourself, “Why does leading begin with humility, servant-heartedness, and a teachable heart?” This disposition is so basic to true biblical leadership because it is an outworking of the gospel. First, we are not God. Only the LORD owns the earth, and all who dwell in it; the church, and all its members who were made to love Him. Thus, leading is not possessive but rather a gift and a sacred trust. Also, even the most talented leader in the church is a reclaimed, forgiven rebel, adopted as a son only through trusting Christ as God and Savior. No one can fruitfully influence the church without utter reliance upon Jesus’ Holy Spirit for a loving heart and strength. From 2 Corinthians 4:7 we see that everything we have has been given to us, and it is foolishness to act otherwise. Humility is living out this reality – an elder’s abilities are gifts, a gracious work of God and not the work of our hands.
Another quality elders should possess is the ability to equip, to be a trainer. Pastors and teachers, in Ephesians 4:12, are called to equip the saints, just as elders in 1 and 2 Timothy are called to train believers to maturity. A leader in the church needs to be able to help the body grow to mature fitness.
Lastly, leaders are called stewards or household managers. In Titus 1:9, elders are called to be whole (above reproach) in their character “because they are stewards of God’s household.” In Ephesians 4:12 again, and 1 Corinthians 4:2, leaders are called to be trustworthy. Remember these things were written in the first century where a steward was most likely a slave. This servant was so trusted in the family that they were given oversight of the household purse, purchasing all supplies, and paying all employees and bills. Can you imagine how much trustworthiness would matter in a role like that? And God’s Word applies this very terminology to church leaders. Again they are servants, but they are trusted immeasurably – they hold the very life of our church body.
Notice that leading, equipping, and managing a household assumes a goal. That is significant because it means that the church is not something static, sitting still, and lifeless, but rather a living body that is growing to maturity, and a movement that has an end goal and destiny. The task and holy responsibility of church leaders is to discern where their body is in relation to where they need to go, and then lead them there. We want to see our city reached for Christ. Who can lead us?
Key words used in the Bible to describe deacons
Deacons are described (in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3) as being faithful or holding to the faith with a clear conscience. They also are seen as servant-leaders who are “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” Acts 6:3. Our Book of Church Order says that the duty of deacons is to “minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress. It is their duty also to develop the [gift of generosity] in the members of the church. B.C.O. 9-2.
In both the book of Acts and in 1 Timothy, Scripture teaches that deacons should be men who are tested or approved by the body. Our B.C.O. recommends that “to the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.” B.C.O. 9-3.
Qualities God says are important for any leader
1 Timothy 3:2-7 teaches us, “Now an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” Titus 1:6-9 gives almost the same list of qualifications that distinguish a man as blameless in his task.
These two passages are roughly synonymous, describing integrity. They are the clearest descriptions in the New Testament of what an elder is called to be, and the terms I emphasized are summaries – they encapsulate all of the grocery lists of qualities that follow them in each list. A simple way to summarize an officer’s qualifications, is wholeness. Does a man’s life reflect repentance? Is he secure in the gospel? Does it penetrate every sphere of his life, from his home and family life to his work ethics and thought life? Is he so clear in his confession of his sin that his worst critics bring no new information in their indictments? This is blamelessness.
In a textbook definition of biological life, no matter what creature, the element that sets living cells apart is the ability to reproduce. No matter how much activity may be apparent among cells, if they have lost their ability to give rise to more cells, then they are dying. In the same sense, the church is regarded more as a living organism than a corporate organization. It is right for us to ask whether corporately a church and individually elders and deacons are reproducing themselves. It is a sign of life.
One of the ways the Bible demonstrates this emphasis upon reproduction is seen in 2 Timothy 2:2, where the Apostle Paul urged his own disciple, Timothy, to convey the gospel to still other leaders who would in turn teach others. Elders in the church know the gospel (what Paul entrusted to Timothy before many witnesses), and can entrust it to faithful men who will in turn teach others.
A vital ability in leading and reproducing the gospel in the lives of others is discernment. Those who equip other believers need to be able to discern the gap between where someone is and where they could or should be, and then they come alongside to encourage them toward that goal. Where this will matter most is in a leader’s ability to come alongside those who follow to spur them on. Leaders in the church need to not only diagnose where someone is through spiritual inquiry, but they also will encourage and support the progress of even the most spiritually immature.
How God calls a leader
Whatever God has done in history has involved people that He has called. Since this has been widely abused we should be very careful in defining what we mean by God calling someone. Also, though the means have widely varied, externally, outside of the person’s conscience God has called people to ministry. We see it in the pages of scripture in God calling Abraham directly, Person to person. We see this in God speaking through his prophet, Samuel, to call David as king of Israel. And we see many other examples that range from the extraordinary (for example, angelic visits) to the very ordinary (for instance, the gospel writer, Luke, was surely led by God but he expressed his motive as “it seemed good to me,” see Luke 1:1-4).
In history we can see many other good, and varied, examples. St. Augustine heard a child singing a song, which prompted his conversion and eventual ministry. John Calvin was on his way through Geneva when another reformer, Farel, swore down a curse on Calvin if he did not stop in compassion on the citizens of Geneva and bring to them the gospel. Whether it is through the voice of the church, or someone prophetic, or an agency, session or board of elders, we believe God always uses an external call to raise up his people.
The first way this is important is as a safeguard. A calling from someone other than yourself helps to prevent someone pursuing ministry in Christ's church in a willful, selfish, or autonomous manner. The second way an external call is important is that it gives confirmation of real, objective qualifications. Someone duly gifted and qualified is confirmed and reassured in their role.
Another way of saying this is that examining our leaders (through this process of elder training) over their sense of call helps to prevent arrogance, and it helps guarantee confidence. When so many churches have suffered from weak leaders on the one hand or manipulative leadership on the other, having leaders with a sense of conviction is a priceless asset, one we believe God gives to us freely.
Now, just as God works externally to lead his people to ministry, He has also worked that they would sense within their own soul that God is calling them. This is God’s internal call. No matter how God has called his people to ministry, He has also always worked in their hearts to make them willing. What God does in converting us He also does in calling us to ministry. On our own, no one wants to follow Christ and surrender their rebellious seizure of God’s rule over our lives. But once He begins His work of conversion, those who are unwilling are changed by the Holy Spirit to willingly and even joyfully trust and follow Christ as God and Savior. The same applies to leaders in that those who do not want to serve are changed by the Holy Spirit to gladly do so. In fact, the Bible teaches that it is necessary that an elder will serve willingly (see 1 Peter 5).
What does this look like? Whether through prayer, conscience, or simple desire, God moves his people in their heart to lead. This also provides a vital safeguard. It prevents someone from being passionless or cold in ministry, and it helps assure gladness in a leader’s heart. We are asking every elder candidate, “Do you want to do this? If not, that’s okay. Wait until you do want to serve.”
Churches today are desperate for men that the Bible calls leaders. Rather than letting desperation move us be hasty and careless, let it drive us back to our Lord Jesus, and His gospel. As we see in the gospel that God gladly provides what we lack, our need for leaders is yet another opportunity for us to see God work. As we repent – turning away from trusting in our own power to solve our need – and as we believe – trusting Christ to work on our behalf – we will have every reason to rejoice because our God is the Faithful Provider.