How Jesus Leads His Church
“History follows the leader.” That’s a statement I read in a commercial for the Stanley cup playoffs several years ago. And it just arrested me, not because of any connection to hockey, but because of how true that statement is.
History really does follow the leader. You probably learned this in school as you learned about history. The big steps forward in history were steps made by leaders—courageous individuals who influenced others to follow them in new directions.
Biblical history is much the same. The storyline of the Bible, in many ways, is a storyline carried forward by leaders. Men like Moses and David and the judges and kings who led God’s people into the future God had for them. And in the New Testament we have the twelve Apostles whom Jesus chose to teach and lead His people in they fulfilled the Great Commission.
The letters to Timothy and Titus reinforce the importance of leadership. As the gospel spread and the church became established in numerous new locations, one of the Apostles’ priorities was to establish leadership within each of the new churches. In fact, when we get to Titus, we’ll see that his main job was to appoint leaders in each town there on Crete (Titus 1:5).
And when we think about Timothy in Ephesus, with this group of mavericks who were threatening to lead the church away form the truth, it’s not hard to see that the health of the church depended on strong, godly leadership. And that becomes clear as we arrive today at 1 Timothy chapter 3, and see how Timothy is given instruction on what kind of people should be selected and appointed to lead the Ephesian church.
Now our plan this morning is to get a big-picture view of this whole topic of church leadership. We’re going to talk about authority in the church and how these two offices of overseer and deacon work together. And that’s going to take most of our time this morning.
Next week, we’re going to go back to verses 1-7 and explore the qualifications for overseers in more depth. And then the following week we’re going to do the same with verses 8-13 and the requirements for deacons. And if you’re thinking, “Wow, that sounds detailed,” trust me: we’re barely going to scratch the surface here. There’s a lot here, and it’s all so good, and I’m really happy we get to explore it together.
Our Ultimate Leader
So today, like we said, we’re going to start by stepping back and thinking about leadership in the church in a big-picture way. And that requires us to think about who our ultimate leader is. Who is the person in charge around this place? Who leads us? And the answer should be, “the Lord Jesus.” “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” (Matthew 28:18). “And he is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). “The church submits to Christ” (Ephesians 5:24).
Jesus is the one we obey (Ephesians 6:5) and follow (John 10:2-4), and this truth is expressed anytime we speak about Him as “Lord.” We are acknowledging that He is in charge. We bow our knees to Him and submit to His leadership unconditionally. That’s a significant part of what it means to be a Christian and therefore what it means to be the church.
The Authority of the Congregation
Now the next question we want to ask is, “How does Jesus exercise His authority in the church? If He is our Lord, but He is in heaven, then how do we actually follow His leadership and submit to His authority?”
One answer is that Jesus exercises His authority over His people through His word. Whether it’s the law and the prophets that point to Jesus, or the gospels that tell of Jesus and His teaching, or the Apostles’ writings which unpack and explain and person and work and teaching of Jesus, the Bible is His book and He leads us through it. And like we talked about last week, submitting to Jesus means submitting to the Bible.
However, this is not the only way that Jesus leads us. It’s not just “me and my Bible.” We read, in Scripture, that Jesus exercises authority over His church through the church itself. The church is the representative of Jesus on earth. And Jesus has given a measure of His authority to His gathered people.
There is a well-known passage in Matthew chapter 18 that describes what you’re supposed to do if your brother sins against you. You’re supposed to go talk to him on your own, and if he doesn’t listen, then you go with one or two others. And now just hear these words from Matthew 18:17 onwards: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:17–20).
These verses deserve a lot of careful thought, but let’s just think of the broad strokes of what is being said here. First, Christians are expected to listen to the church. Second, without getting in to too much detail, this language of binding and loosing speaks to an exercise of authority. And so as the gathered church makes decisions in cases like this, they are acting with Heavenly authority. And third, the reason for this is that when the church assembles for the reasons described in this passage, and acts in accordance with Jesus’s revealed character, Jesus is there among them.
This passage is Matthew 18 is one of the foundational passages in what we call “congregational church government.” This is something that is really important to us as Baptists. We believe that Jesus has invested His authority not in one person like a Pope or even a pastor, nor to a big organization like a denomination, but rather directly to the gathered church itself. Local churches are the ones who have been given the final responsibility and authority in these matters of membership and discipline.1See also 1 Corinthians 5:4-5.
The local assembled church also has final responsibility on matters of doctrine. In Galatians 1:8 Paul writes to the churches in Galatian and says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). If Paul himself, as an Apostle, began to teach different doctrine, who was ultimately responsible to reject that and hold fast to the truth that had first been taught? The church. They are the final court of appeal.
And as we put this together we see the weighty truth that one of the ways the Lord Jesus Christ exercises His authority over His church is through His church itself.
The Authority of the Leadership
Now notice that I just said “one of the ways that Jesus exercises His authority.” Because the congregation is not the only expression of authority and leadership within the local church. As we’ve seen this morning, the New Testament also describes the important role of leadership within the churches.
We saw mention of these leaders last week in chapter 2 verse 12, which said, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). It doesn’t say, “I don’t permit anybody to exercise authority over anybody else.” And so the implication is that there are some men, the appointed leaders, who do exercise authority in the church.
Hebrews 13:17 is another Scripture which points us in this direction. It says this: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
And it’s this group of leaders who is introduced to us and described for us in 1 Timothy chapter 3:1 “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). These overseers were the ones who taught the church. We see that at the end of verse 2—that to be an overseer, you had to be able to teach.
And these overseers were the leaders who had authority in the church. We glimpse this in verses 4 & 5 where the overseers’ role is compared to a father’s role in the family, and if you can’t do the one, then you’re not able to do the other. And then you just consider the word “overseer”—someone who oversees—and it’s plain that these were real leaders with real responsibility for the church.
Overseer, Pastor, Elder
And this point becomes even more clear when we realize that “overseer” is not the only word used to describe this group of leaders in the church. The New Testament also uses the word “elder” to describe this group of leaders.
We can see this in Titus 1. In verses 5-6, Paul writes, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:5–7).
Did you catch there how the word “elder” and “overseer” were used interchangeably? “Appoint elders who are like this, because an overseer has to be like this.”
We see the same thing in Acts chapter 20. Verse 17 tells us that “…from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17–18). And then down in verse 28 he says to these elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
The elders are the overseers. Two words for one group of leaders. And verse 28 also brings up a third word that’s used in reference to these leaders. Did you notice the reference there to “the flock”? That’s talking about sheep. Paul thinks about these guys as shepherds. And in fact the word “care for” in the original Greek is simply the word shepherd.
That’s why the New King James Version translates this verse, “Shepherd the church of God.” That’s really what it’s saying.
And do you know what another word for shepherd is? Pastor. Pastor is just the Latin word for shepherd. And it’s these elders or overseers who were tasked with pastoring the church.
So we see that “overseer” and “elder” and “pastor” are three words that apply to one group of leaders.
One final Scripture pulls this all together for us, and that’s 1 Peter chapter 5. Listen to these first two verses: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:1–2).
Did you catch all three words? Elder, shepherd, and oversight. Three words for one group of leaders.
So why use three words? Why not just one word? The reason is that each word captures an important aspect of this leadership role. “Overseer” points to the leadership and direction that they provide. “Shepherd” also speaks of leadership, because shepherds lead the sheep, but the word “shepherd” or “pastor” also brings in the ideas of protecting and feeding and nurturing the flock.
Finally, the word “elder” describes who this person must be: someone who is spiritually mature. That’s what this word is pointing to. It’s too bad that this word is so close to the English word “elderly,” because in the Greek language this is a totally different word than the word for “old man.” And this word “elder” was used by the Greeks for men as young as 30.2https://www.mcgill.ca/classics/files/classics/2014-15-09.pdf You don’t need to know Greek to see that—you just need to look at verse 4 and see that this guy still has young children at home. So he’s not elderly the way we think about it.
It’s also important to note that there is no age requirement here in chapter 3 or in the similar list in Titus chapter 1. Age isn’t what mattered. What mattered, and what this word points to, is spiritual maturity. Like verse 6 says, “he must not be a recent convert” (1 Timothy 3:6). You needed spiritual maturity to lead the church.
And so taken all together, these three words describe this one position of church leadership reserved for tested men who exhibit maturity in their faith and who work together in a group to provide spiritual care and leadership for their congregation. And next week we’re going to come back and look at these qualifications for overseers in more detail.
The week after that we’ll look at this second position spoken about in this passage, which is the office of deacon. The word “deacon” really just means “servant.” Deacons really make their first appearance in Acts chapter 6. They were the ones who took care of distributing food so that the apostles could focus on prayer and teaching the word (Acts 6:1-4). And this division of labour became a pattern which was practiced by the early churches: the pastors/elders/overseers provided spiritual leadership to the church, and the deacons freed them up to do that by taking care of the physical needs and practical administration in the church.
And that’s one of the reason why churches have allowed for female deacons, or deaconesses. Because being a deacon does not require teaching or having authority over other people. And we’ll talk more about these things in the following weeks.
Question 1: Two Authorities?
But there’s two big questions we’re going to ask this morning as we reflect on what we’ve seen already. The first question is this: how can the congregation have authority and the overseers or elders have authority? Who is in charge? Who follows whom?
This is a really important question, and a lot of churches trip up on this. It’s not uncommon to see power struggles between the congregation and the leadership.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. Let’s start by remembering that it’s not a strange idea for one organization to have two sources of authority that balance each other out. Here in Canada we have the Parliament and the Supreme Court, both of which work together to run our country. Most democracies have this, and it’s called the balance of power, because it makes sure that there’s not one group with all the authority.
And there’s some similarities between that idea and what we see in the church. According to those Scriptures we read this morning, the congregation is like the final court of appeal. If there’s a struggle between two Christians, it doesn’t go to the church right away, but eventually, if nothing else fixes it, the church—not just the church’s leaders--are the final authority.
And at any point the church can and must say “no,” even to their own leaders, if their leaders are leading them away from God’s truth. So we can say that the congregation is the authority in matters of membership and discipline and doctrine.
Now most Baptist churches, including this one, also believe that the congregation should be the ones who appoint their own leaders and vote on their own budget and decide on their own bylaws. Those are all areas which should fall under the authority of the congregation.3See an excellent break-down of these responsibilities at https://www.9marks.org/article/i-move-we-dont-vote-so-much
But in many other matters, such as the day-to-day operation of the church, the normal pattern is for the congregation to follow the leadership of their overseers. I’ve heard it put that the congregation has the emergency brake, but they trust their leaders with the steering wheel.
And that’s not a bad analogy, but I don’t like the suggestion that the congregation basically does nothing except press on the brake every once and a while. Because let’s not forget that the main job of the pastors, according to Ephesians 4:12, is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. So the church isn’t just sitting there. The whole reason the pastors are leading them is so that they can all link arms and be moving forward in vital ministry together.
Question 2: What About Us?
Now there’s a second question for us this morning. If the New Testament routinely describes a team of elders or overseers or pastors, always in a group, then why do we only have one pastor here at EBC? Why is our board referred to as the “Board of Deacons,” not “Board of Elders” or “Overseers?” And beyond that, we have all kinds of people working and serving to care for the physical needs of our church and yet they aren’t called deacons. Why aren’t we doing what we read about here?
First of all, let me give a historical perspective to this. If we look back 150 years ago or so, we see that it was once very common for Baptist churches to be led by a team of pastors or elders or overseers. It was common for one of those men to be paid by the church so that he could do this work on a full-time basis, and usually he’d be the guy to preach every week, but they understood that he was just an elder or overseer like the rest of the team.
Just listen to these words from the Swedish Baptist Confession of 1861. This is one of the foundational documents for the Baptist movement that we are a part of. And here’s what it says about the church:
“We believe that a true Christian church is a union of believing and baptized Christians, who have covenanted to strive to keep all that Christ has commanded, to sustain public worship, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to choose among themselves shepherds or overseers, and deacons…”4“The Confession Faith the Swedish Baptists, adopted at their general Conference, June 28, 1861;” quoted in William J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1911), 367.
Did you notice that shepherds and overseers were two words used to to speak about the same office? And did you notice that these words were used in the plural? “Shepherds or overseers.” This used to be the norm.
But over time a shift happened. The paid staff began to be more and more important, and eventually churches began to have only one pastor who worked with a group of deacons. By the time we got to the 20th Century, this had become the dominant leadership model for Baptist churches.
And sometimes this worked, and sometimes it didn’t. One man could easily hold way too much power and rule his church like a king. Or, one man could easily be pushed around by a congregation and not end up leading them at all.
And it’s really been in the last 30 years or so that a growing number of Baptist churches have been going back to the Scriptures and rediscovering the Bible’s teaching on these matters and moving back to this pattern of what we might call a “plurality of elders.” A group of pastors/elders/overseers, one or more of whom may happen to be paid to do this full-time, but they’re still just a part of the team that works together to shepherd the church.
Now maybe you’ve heard this all before. But maybe not. This might be the first you’ve ever heard of this. And maybe it all sounds kind of strange to you. You might need some time to think about this. But I hope you’ll agree with me that if this is how the Bible says we should be structured, then it would be good for us here at EBC to think very carefully about these things. And if we agree together that this is what the Bible teaches, then we want to move in this direction.
Now here’s the great thing. In so many ways, we already are doing this. Our board is called Deacons, but from the first day I came here I was so impressed at how they functioned like elders. A team working to lead and shepherd this church. And in many ways, all I’ve done is join that team. The name might not accurate, but so much of what’s important already is.
The same goes for the so many of you who work to serve this church by caring for practical needs and administration and so on. You’re not called deacons, but you’re already doing that kind of work.
So we are already a lot closer to what the Bible describes than you might think. We are already reaping the benefits of this beautiful leadership structure that Jesus has given to his church.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean we should be comfortable where we are. If we need to align ourselves more closely with Scripture, then wouldn’t we want to do that?
But what would this mean? What exactly will that look like? And I’m not going to tell you that I have all of the answers this morning. My job today and in the next two weeks is simply to teach these passages of Scripture for what they mean.
But as the board and I have thought about these things, we realized that the November 17 congregational meeting is coming up, and we’ve decided to set aside some time at that meeting to have a discussion about this. We’d love to take some more time to talk about this idea of elders and deacons in some more practical detail, and to hear your thoughts and your feedback, and to dream together of what it might look for us to align ourselves more closely with Scripture on this matter.
So as you go home today or in the next two weeks, and questions come to mind, I’d encourage you to write them down and bring them to that November meeting. In fact, it would be great if you sent them to Dennis or myself before the meeting. And I’m looking forward to a fruitful discussion that evening.
But again, I just want to remind us that in so many ways we are here already. I get to work with an amazing team. We are blessed by so many selfless servants. And as we end this morning, let’s not forget what this is all about. This is about the Lord Jesus, who died for His church and who nourishes and cherishes His church and who has given leaders to His church to bless and equip it (Ephesians 4:12). And He is our ultimate leader, the one we follow without question.
And that’s something we can take with us into our week. We can think about the future, but today and tomorrow and every day this week we’ll have fresh opportunities to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ—in His word, and in His church.
Where is that going to be a struggle for you? Where will you find this difficult? As we close here today, would you ask Him for His help to bow your knee to Him and submit to His loving leadership anew in this next hours and days?