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Is Plurality Leadership Biblical? (Part 3)

This is our third and final post examining the biblical evidence for plurality leadership in the local church. The first post surveyed the numerous descriptions of team-led churches in the New Testament. In the second installment, we traced the model to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Today we turn away from specific passages about leadership, in order to consider how plurality leadership fits with the broader scriptural contours of Christian life and ministry. As it turns out, the very essence of our faith in the God of the Bible virtually demands a team approach to pastoral ministry.

What follows has been excerpted (and slightly edited) from Joseph H. Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the  Early Church and Why It Matters Today (Kregel, 2007).

The Heart Of The Faith 

Ministry is no easier for me today than it was nearly forty years ago, when I accepted my first paid position in a church. It is, however, a lot less complicated. It would likely have become simpler much earlier in my pilgrimage as a pastor, if I had just listened to Jesus. Jesus boiled the whole Old Testament down to two basic commandments:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands (Matt. 22:37–40)   

There it is. A simple, twofold job description for the ministry of a local church pastor. I am to encourage my flock to love God. And I am to encourage my flock to love others. Simple on paper. But what does this actually look like in practice?

Let’s take the first commandment. How will I know when the people of Oceanside Christian Fellowship are loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, and mind?

Their time alone with God?

The way they spend their money?

The movies they choose to watch?

The kinds of beverages they consume?

Love for God certainly manifests itself in the relative vitality of our devotional lives. And I would not want to minimize the importance of sound financial habits or moral purity, as evidence of a living faith. Yet the Bible does not identify a Christian’s devotional life as the primary indication of love for God. Nor do personal morality or financial generosity make the cut.

Instead, Scripture turns repeatedly to the quality of our relationships—particularly with our fellow Christians—as the foremost evidence of genuine love for God. Jesus put it like this: “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The New Testament unequivocally maintains that healthy human relationships are to be the natural and indispensable response to God’s great work on our behalf in salvation history. Here are just a few of the familiar “one anothers” from the Bible:

Love one another (John 13:34)

Show family affection to one another (Romans 12:10)

Be in agreement with one another (Romans 12:16)

Let us no longer criticize one another (Romans 14:13)

Accept one another (Romans 15:7)

Instruct one another (Romans 15:14)

Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)

Be kind and compassionate to one another (Ephesians 4:32)

Forgiving one another (Ephesians 4:32)

Submitting to one another (Ephesians 5:21)

Encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

Be hospitable to one another (1 Peter 4:9)

Since our love for God is evidenced primarily in our love for others, there is a sense in which the first great commandment (“Love the Lord your God”) cashes out, in practical terms, primarily in the way we relate to our fellow human beings (“Love your neighbor as yourself”).

Paul apparently saw this quite clearly: The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14). The apostle elaborates in Romans 13:8–10:

[T]he one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and whatever other commandment—all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.

It is the second of Jesus’ two great commandments (Matthew 22:37–40), then, that becomes the mark of the Christian, the primary tangible evidence of the reality of our relationship with God.

Suddenly my twofold job description as a pastor has become even simpler. I am called as a pastor to encourage and equip my people to engage in healthy, sacrificial, mutually edifying relationships with their fellow human beings, in response to what God has done for us in Christ, that is, to love one another. Pretty straightforward, at least in theory.

You Cannot Lead Where You Will Not Go

But here’s the rub. Just where do I get the credibility, Sunday after Sunday, to tell my people to love one another, if I am a CEO senior pastor who answers to no one during the week? If I answer to no one in the church office, how can I credibly tell others that they need to answer to one another in the pews?

I can’t. Not with any real integrity, at any rate. The seriousness of the problem cannot be overstated, yet I suspect that few church leaders give it much thought.

What we have in the corporate model of ministry is a pastor who relates intimately to no one in the church, but who nevertheless exhorts his people to engage relationally with each other. The glaring disconnect that inevitably results threatens to undermine the most basic virtue of the Christian life: our love for one another in the family of God. Maybe this is why so many pastors and boards remain content to take the corporate approach and evaluate the success of their ministries by (1) Sunday attendance and (2) financial viability. Neither criterion requires anyone in the church—leaders or followers—to engage in healthy, mutually edifying interpersonal relationships.

Community is at the very heart of the Christian faith. And community in our churches must begin at the top. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch write unequivocally about the need for church leaders to model the kind of community that we so often extol in our Sunday messages:

[W]e need to recognize that an authentic community can only be founded on changed relations between people; and these changed relations can only follow the inner change and preparation of the people who lead, work, and sacrifice for the community. In other words, it must begin with leadership. (Frost and Hirsch, The Shape of Things to Come, 156).

This is hardly rocket science. A pastor who has no genuine brothers in his congregation will lack the prophetic platform necessary to challenge others in the church humbly to engage in the kind of surrogate sibling relationships that God intends for His people. This disconnect proves particularly problematic in a culture where people are cynical about their leaders, and where church-goers are highly attuned to any perceived disparity between a pastor’s “Sunday talk” and his “weekly walk.” Frost and Hirsch elaborate:

We simply don’t believe that people in our ‘crap-detector’ generation, savvy people who understand what it means to be constantly targeted by hundreds of thousands of clever sales messages, are going to follow other people who don’t live out their messages. If leadership fails to embody the message, no one is going to follow. Leaders, you cannot lead where you will not go; you cannot teach what you do not know. (The Shape of Things to Come, 342)

Strong words, to be sure. Yet as we all know, the principle is inviolable: “you cannot lead where you will not go.” And this will be particularly the case where risky, vulnerable interpersonal relationships are concerned.

Consider, in contrast, the credibility inherent in a community of leaders (a) who share their lives together as brothers in Christ, (b) who share the public ministry of their church, and (c) whose people see their pastor-elders sticking it out and making peer relationships work at the top, in the real world of day-to-day pastoral ministry. Here brotherly love—that central Christian virtue—is modeled by church leadership. And a preaching pastor suddenly possesses all the credibility he needs to challenge his people to join him in enthusiastically embracing Jesus’ primary charge to His followers: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).       


Is Plurality Leadership Biblical?

A brief summary of our three blog posts leads us to reply to this question with a resounding YES!:

1. The churches in the New Testament were each led by a team of pastors.

2. Jesus’ teachings about divine Fatherhood and natural fatherhood most naturally support the plurality approach.

3. Team leadership best reflects (and models to the congregation) the relational heart of the Christian faith.

Next week we’ll switch gears a bit to consider the practical benefits—for both leaders and members of OCF—of the plurality model of pastoral ministry.

Posted by Joe Hellerman with

Plurality Leadership In The Teachings Of Jesus?

I ended the previous post with a question: What led the apostles to adopt plurality leadership as the preferred option for church structure?

The model is radically counter-cultural, given the universal preference for one-man leadership across the empire. So, where did it come from? Did Jesus instruct his disciples to organize the early Christian congregations like this?

We really don’t know for sure. But we can tease some hints out of the Gospels, where we see Jesus preparing his disciples for their future role as church planters.

Jesus had a whole lot to say about the character of leadership (leaders as servants). But there are some intriguing hints that he may have given instructions concerning the number of leaders he anticipated in a local congregation, as well.

Leadership characterand numberare not unrelated. We’ll see in future posts that the team approach (number) provides precisely the kind of community and accountability that encourages servant leadership (character). But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to our topic for the day. Can we find any evidence that Jesus may have instructed his disciples to establish churches with a plurality of pastors?

We’ll begin by considering Jesus’ take on fatherhood.

Jesus & Fatherhood

Sole male authority was the norm everywhere in the ancient world. The concept was rooted primarily in the culture’s patriarchal family structures. Every natural family had an earthly daddy who exercised absolute authority over everyone in the extended household.

The role of the father was so culturally defining for people in the ancient world that paternal imagery proved serviceable far beyond the boundaries of the natural family. The Roman Senate gave to the emperor Augustus the title “Father of the Fatherland” (Pater Patriae). Religious groups, like the worshippers of the god Mithras, appointed a pater, a single “father” figure, to oversee the community. A father-figure of some sort headed up nearly every social institution in the New Testament world.

This background makes Jesus’ command in Matthew 23:9 radically counter-cultural: “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).

Jesus has two fathers in view in this command: a natural father (“on earth”) and a divine Father (“in heaven”). The distinction is instructive, because as we read the Gospels we discover:

(1) Jesus emphasized the fatherhood of God more than anyone had before in Israel’s history.

(2) Jesus had some rather scandalous and disruptive things to say about natural fatherhood.

The evidence for (1) God as Father in the teaching of Jesus hardly needs mentioning, since it is on page-after-page of the Gospels. We are less familiar with the fact that (2) Jesus undermined paternal authority in a way that would have made a profound impression on his disciples and others who heard his teaching. Here are just three of Jesus’ striking statements related to natural fatherhood:

Mark 1:19–20 — He saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.

Matthew 8:21-22 — Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Luke 14:26 — “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus (1) emphasized the Fatherhood of God in his teaching and actions. But he (2) intentionally destabilized natural fatherhood, both in passages like those cited above, and in his insistence that natural descent from Abraham (the ultimate Jewish “father”) counted for little in God’s relational economy (see John 8:34–59). Our key text (again) summarizes Jesus’ viewpoint on divine and human fatherhood:

Matthew 23:9 — “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”

Jesus & Leadership

Does Jesus’ take on fatherhood/Fatherhood have anything to do with leadership structure in the family of God? There is a piece of evidence that suggests that it does:

Mark 10:28-30 — 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Peter and Jesus here discuss the sacrifices made by some of Jesus’ disciples who had to leave their natural families (who likely disowned them) in order to become part of Jesus’ new family of faith (v. 29). Jesus assures Peter that these natural family relationships will be replaced by relationships in the church family (“in this time” [v 30]). A comparison of the two lists is quite revealing:

Five Relationships Sacrificed:

“brothers or sisters or mother or father or children” (v. 29)

Four Relationships Gained:

“brothers and sisters and mothers and children” (v 30).

Don’t miss what’s missing. Sometimes what the Bible does not say is as important as what it does say. Among the Four Relationships Gained, “father” is conspicuously absent.

Did Jesus just forget to include “father”? A simple oversight? Hardly! Jesus left “father” off the second list because he anticipated that there would be no human father in the church family. That role is reserved for God alone.


The blog title asks, Plurality Leadership In The Teachings Of Jesus?

I included the question mark, because most of us assume that Jesus had virtually nothing to say about church structure. The passages cited above suggest otherwise.

Jesus gave his disciples a lot of instruction that did not make it into our four Gospels. Luke tells us, for example, that after the resurrection Jesus spent forty days with his disciples, “speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). It is only reasonable to assume that Jesus instructed his disciples about church leadership and organization.

In the Gospels, we encounter some residual hints of such teaching. In the Epistles, we see Jesus’ instruction bearing its intended fruit, in the form of team-led churches throughout the Roman Empire.

As a historian trained to look for cause-and-effect, I am convinced that what we see in Acts and the Epistles finds its origin in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus intended for God—not a human senior pastor figure—to function as the sole father of the early Christian congregations. Jesus’ disciples “got it,” and they organized their churches accordingly.

By way of conclusion, let’s expand our horizons and place what we have learned about God and fatherhood alongside two other key images of the church in the New Testament. The agreement is rather striking:

The Church As The Flock Of God — Jesus alone is called “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4), which translates a Greek word (archi-poimen) that can equally be rendered “lead pastor” (“shepherd” = “pastor” in the Bible).

The Church As The Body Of Christ — Jesus alone is the head of the body (Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18).

The Church As The Family Of God — God alone is the Father of the church (Matthew 23:9)

The idea that one person—lead-pastor or senior-pastor—should teach, shepherd, and make decisions for a whole local church community flies in the face of every Bible passage we have examined here and in the previous post. And we have yet to touch upon what is perhaps the most important reason that plurality leadership is biblical. We will do so next week, as we conclude our survey of the biblical evidence for shared pastoral leadership at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.

Posted by Joe Hellerman with