Irish Biblical Reformation Conference
The 2008 annual Irish Biblical Reformation Conference met on 1 November at Edenmore Golf Club. The guest speaker was Dr Jim Renihan from the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, Westminster Seminary (West), Escondido, California. The topic was, ‘The mandate for and method of biblical church leadership’.
Dr Renihan began by emphasising four key words – ‘mandate’, ‘biblical’, ‘church’ and ‘leadership’.
‘Mandate’ means that we operate under a specific authority, namely, ‘biblical’ authority. The Scriptures of truth provide the mandate. God’s Word has something to say and what it says is authoritative.
The ‘church’ is the purchased bride of Jesus Christ. These issues do not apply to society in general but to a distinct group – the body of Christ, his church. Finally, ‘leadership’ implies direction, guidance, and the governance and care of the church.
A crisis of authority
Why do we need to study this issue now? Because, Dr Renihan insisted, we face problems and novel ideas in this very area. Those in authority can abuse leadership, as did Diotrophes in the New Testament. But also those under authority can reject its lawful use, as Paul makes clear in his Corinthian letters.
Dereliction of duty occurs among leaders for various reasons – fear of men, for example, and the neglect of biblical patterns and injunctions. Some think that Scripture has no settled doctrine of leadership and see the church as free to pursue its own ideas.
Sometimes, too, churches think sloppily of leadership. Some blindly follow traditions while others pursue innovation for pragmatic reasons. The result is often policy and practice that openly contradict the Bible.
Where to begin?
We must begin, said Dr Renihan, with Jesus Christ because he is Lord of the church. Any authority we have is derivative. Jesus’ final words were, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Matthew 28:18).
The speaker is the risen Christ – the sum and centre of all that Matthew wrote. His audience is the eleven apostles – the ‘authority figures’ of the early church. Christ’s sacrificial death and victorious resurrection provide the context of the church’s mission and the apostles will exercise authority in his name.
The risen Christ has been granted dominion in heaven and on earth and he in turn commissions the apostles to bring the good news of his glorious victory to the world. Obedience to his command produces a community subject to him. The mandate for leadership begins with Jesus Christ.
Christ’s authority in practice
The authority of Jesus Christ encompasses all subordinate offices. He is, for example, our apostle transcending all other apostles (Hebrews 3:1). Peter calls him the ‘shepherd and overseer of our souls’ (1 Peter 2:25). Romans 15:8 describes Christ literally as ‘a deacon’ – a servant to the circumcision. All offices belong first and foremost to him.
Just as Christ epitomises these offices, so also he is present and proactive in their exercise. His present activity involves building his church and administering it as its head. He is a present, not a distant, Lord.
Finally, Ephesians 4 tells us he gives gifts to his church. If we divorce our authority and leadership from Christ’s, we put the church and our ministry in danger.
Dr Renihan reminded us that apostolic authority is real. Ephesians 2:19 ff describes apostles and prophets as foundational along with Christ as the chief cornerstone. These were Christ’s picked companions and witnesses. The apostles’ ‘task was to be commissioned representatives of the risen Christ’.
The apostles functioned both personally and by letter, and their writings had the same authority as their spoken words. No others will ever hold the office of apostle but apostolic authority endures in the apostolic writings (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
New Testament church leadership
In the New Testament several terms are used to describe church leaders. The word elder (presbuteros) literally means ‘older man’ and was used both in Jewish and Greek society to denote leaders or respected persons.
The term bishop or overseer (episkopos) means one who ‘watches over’ and can also signify a position of religious authority. The Septuagint and Josephus use it in this way. The terms ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ are synonymous and refer to an office in the local church.
The term ‘pastor’ derives from a verb that means ‘heal, tend or shepherd’. It occurs only once in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11) though as a verb it is used in connection with office. Acts 20 uses all three terms. Bringing the terms together we get a picture of a mature man who shepherds a flock by guarding it.
The New Testament is replete with beautiful pictures that express the duties and privileges of leadership. Sometimes the picture is of shepherds feeding and guarding sheep. Sometimes the picture is of parenting. Elsewhere it is the watchman responsible for the security of the city; a governor under a king; a teacher over pupils.
In character the leader must be a meek servant as was Christ. He must be approachable, compassionate and empathetic. It is a major problem if elders act as detached professionals! Christ loved the church. So too must his under-shepherds.
Deacons; leading by serving
In Philippians 1:1 Paul writes to the church ‘with its overseers and deacons’. Dr Renihan reminded us that both Scripture and experience teach that great good can come to the cause of Christ as deacons show love in office.
In the New Testament their focus is on leading in good works. As they take the initiative in leading the church in acts of benevolence, they provide role models of practical love.
In the second session, Dr Renihan showed us scriptural methods in the exercise of leadership from 1 Peter 5:1-4. The theme of Peter’s letter is grace in the midst of difficulties and he writes to elders in this context. He reminds them that he had witnessed the suffering of Christ. Now they were facing difficulty for his name’s sake.
Following the exhortation, ‘Shepherd the Lord’s flock’ he adds three antitheses that help us recognise and avoid the perils of the ministry. Firstly, they are to shepherd the flock ‘not by compulsion but willingly’. The motivation is vital.
They are not to serve out of a sense of obligation alone. Motivation in ministry affects how it is done and how it is perceived. If the heart is not in the task it opens the door to temptation.
The remedy? Lead willingly; focus on God and his people! When Isaiah saw Christ enthroned, he willingly offered himself in God’s service – a service that would be utterly thankless from a human perspective. We serve in a hostile world. We serve weak believers. Our dreams fail to materialise. We are disappointed but continue. Peter says the remedy is willingness.
But we cannot ‘manufacture willingness’. What then are we to do? There are two helpful biblical perspectives on this point.
Firstly, the work is his not ours. In chapter 4:19 Peter describes God as a ‘faithful Creator’. He is the source of encouragement in difficulty. In his providence some become Spurgeons and Whitefields, but not many! To measure our ministry by perceived success lays us open to all kinds of temptation.
Secondly, God’s servants in Scripture are our role-models. Isaiah was sent to those of whom God said, ‘The heart of this people is dull’. They were unresponsive and hard-hearted. But Isaiah went about God’s business nonetheless.
Likewise, in prison Paul could sing and write because his focus was on God not on his ministry. These men understood the nature of willing service – it’s not about me, it’s about Christ.
‘Not for dishonest gain’
Covetousness is linked to idolatry and this second exhortation reminds leaders that access to church funds can bring temptations. In our own day, said Dr Renihan, financial impropriety is rampant in the professing church – ‘a root of all kinds of evil’.
How then can this pitfall be avoided? By focusing on the contrasting grace – leaders are to serve with ‘eagerness, with enthusiasm!’ The phrase is as powerfully positive as ‘not for dishonest gain’ is negative. Beholding Christ’s suffering and glory is the source of enthusiasm for service.
Examples not lords
Finally, leaders are to serve ‘not as lords … but as examples’. The temptation to parade authority and rule by force must be resisted. We need honestly to acknowledge that the ministry lends itself to abuse of authority.
We can assume unlawful power by simply imposing our own views, representing the opinions of others as challenges to ‘our authority’. Diotrophes ‘loved the pre-eminence’. He is not alone.
Authoritarianism is sin. We need rather to be examples. The Lord’s flock needs to be shown how to deal graciously with difficulties. They need to see a model of a God-centred, gospel orientated life.
That is the method of biblical church leadership and verse 4 provides our sublime motive – the appearance of the Chief Shepherd and the bestowal of a crown of glory.
The conference enjoyed a record attendance. Appreciation was recorded for Dr Renihan’s ministry, not only at the conference but in many venues throughout Ireland during his visit.