I have noticed a subtle shift in Christian vocabulary over the years. When I began my ministry in Hull in 1985 I received an invitation to the local ‘Evangelical ministers’ fraternal’. On arriving in Thirsk seventeen years later, I was invited to the local ‘Church leaders’ meeting’.
These days, it seems, leaders is a more common term in the broader Evangelical scene than ministers. Leadership training courses are in vogue.
This shift has taken place gradually over the past couple of decades. Does it matter? Is it significant? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
My first observation is that the change in vocabulary reflects a change in patterns of church organisation. Whereas twenty years ago the ‘one-man ministry’ still dominated the Evangelical world, today the emphasis is far more on team ministry, shared involvement, and wider participation in worship and pastoral work.
Activities which used to be regarded as the province of the minister are now shared around a team of elders, pastoral workers, deacons and others. This modified pattern is, in my opinion, to be welcomed. It seems to me to be far more in line with the New Testament pattern.
In the Bible, references to a church’s oversight are almost always (if not invariably) in plural terms, and one of the main images of church life is that of the body. In any case, the old idea of the ‘one-man ministry’ was a fiction. No solo pastor could ever do everything.
If the term leaders helps to scotch the idea that a church can function without wide involvement on the part of the members, then it serves a useful purpose. It is a good thing if the new vocabulary makes the point that the full-time minister is not the only one who is active in the work of God.
New Testament model
However, I am concerned about the use of the word leaders – and for this reason: it seems to me to distort the New Testament model of ministry.
My suspicion is that the term leaders has come into vogue as a result of pressure from the charismatic wing of Evangelicalism, where eldership has sometimes been seen in managerial terms.
Sometimes the elders of a fellowship in such circles have had more training in business studies than in biblical studies. They seem to believe that running a church is not much different from running any other organisation – at least, that is the impression I have gained.
In some charismatic networks much is made of the ‘authority’ of the leaders. At its more extreme fringe this can result in what has been dubbed ‘heavy shepherding’, where manipulative leadership claims an almost blind, unquestioning allegiance.
This is somewhat removed from the New Testament norm. The biblical words used to portray the work of oversight paint a rather different picture.
Certainly, there are some New Testament passages which seem to present a high view of the authority of the ministry. Romans 12:8 addresses the one who leads. 1 Thessalonians 5:12 calls on the church to recognise those who are ‘over you in the Lord’. 1 Timothy 5:17 speaks of elders who rule.
In all three cases, the same Greek word is used. In Hebrews 13 a different word is used of those who rule over the church. It comes three times (verses 7,17, and 24). However, a closer look at these two words makes it clear that the picture is not really one of leadership.
The first word is used also in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 of a man ruling his own household. Verse 5 throws a lot of light on what it means: ‘If a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?’ To rule is to take care. The only other place where this word for taking care occurs is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who took care of the victim of the mugging.
So the sort of leadership we need in the church is that which leads people into the care they need for their bruised souls. Ministers are not to be standing over others as dictators, but bending over them as sympathetic helpers.
Not lords but brothers
Again, the word used in Hebrews 13 is really defined within that passage. Verse 17 makes it clear that to rule is to watch out for the souls of the church members. Twice in 2 Corinthians (6:5 and 11:27), the apostle uses a related word when he mentions sleeplessness in his catalogue of sufferings endured for the gospel.
To rule in the church is to be so concerned for the people that you spend sleepless nights worrying and praying about them. It is not telling everyone what to do.
Jesus insists that leadership amongst his people does not involve lording it over them or exercising authority. It involves being a servant (Matthew 20:25-26). The true minister is humble and does not insist on being addressed with pretentious titles. He is to be a brother (Matthew 23:8-12).
Two terms are mainly used in Acts and the epistles to describe the position of those in ministry. One is ‘elder’. Its literal meaning, in Greek as in English, is someone older – implying spiritual maturity. Taking up Jesus’ words just mentioned, I like to think of eldership as the role of an older brother. It denotes affection and the urge to protect.
The second term is ‘overseer’ or ‘bishop’ (both terms translate the same Greek word). It speaks of someone who keeps an eye open to make sure that all is well with those in his charge.
My anxiety today is that the prevalence of the term leaders betrays a model of ministry which departs from the humble, caring, serving style which the Lord and the apostles describe.
I like the word minister because it means ‘servant’. True, it’s sadly possible, even where the better term is used, for the minister to get too big for his boots, and to want to become a leader of the worst variety. But calling himself a leader is likely only to institutionalise that failing.
So please, let us revive the ministers’ fraternal and do away with leaders’ meetings. I am sure we can do so without slipping back into a professionalised distortion of ministry which assumes that ministry (service) is the prerogative of the chosen few.
So are there any Christian leaders? Well, yes, there is one. His name is Jesus. He is the Captain of salvation (Hebrews 2:10). But the rest of us would do well to call ourselves humble servants.
Perhaps if we use the right vocabulary, we will find it easier to behave in the right way!