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.