Who is in charge in your church?

(A message delivered at our fellowship on March 10, 2019)

Through all the centuries since the first, groups that self-identify as “Christian” have developed many and varied ways of expressing  that identity.  For some, this has resulted in complex, multi-layered hierarchical systems to which all must submit.  For others, assent to detailed “statements of doctrine” or “confessions of faith” are required of adherents.  Some require a highly defined and strictly enforced code of conduct, life-style, or appearance.  And still others pride themselves on “not having rules”.  They do – often very rigid ones:  it’s just harder for an outsider to figure them out!  Virtually all of these are enforced by one or more individuals who are designated by various titles as being “in charge.”

What a contrast with the clear and simple instructions of the Lord whom they claim to represent, recorded in Mt.23:8-10:  “You all are not to be called “rabbi”, for you all have one Teacher and you are all brothers.  And don’t call anyone on earth “Father”, for your one Father is in heaven.  And don’t be called “leaders”, because your one Leader is the Christ!”  Kathegetes, “professor, guide, teacher”, is used only here, in the entire New Testament.  The King James translators called it “master” – which is usually their choice for 7 other, different Greek words, usually referring to a teacher, a supervisor, or the owner of a slave.

This instruction can be confusing to people who are used to competing for positions of power and influence.  We were once privileged to be part of a small group of followers of Jesus who took that admonition of his, very seriously.  It could be quite comical when each of us took a turn at the widely shared task of answering the phone.  More than once a caller would demand, “Please connect me with your minister (or pastor, or whatever his choice of “boss” titles happened to be)”.  It was necessary to ask, “Which one?”, because everyone had a different function!  The caller usually replied irritably, “I want to talk to the man who is in charge!”   “Well, that depends on your concern:  we all share different responsibilities!”  Sadly, the caller would occasionally slam down the phone, rather than make his request known to a person he perceived as “ONLY” the secretary!  He might have been talking to the very person he needed!
This sort of “organization” (loosely defined), was, however, completely in harmony with the history of that group, although we never saw it observed anywhere else.  In the mid 1700’s, when the Brethren came to “Penn’s Colony” as refugees, Ben Franklin asked them for a list of their officials, and a statement of their “doctrine”, in order to register them officially as a “church”.  Politely, but adamantly, they refused, with the statement, “We subscribe to no creed but the New Testament, and acknowledge no superior but our Lord, Jesus Christ!”  I will sign that statement any day – but no other!

Is this not exactly the sort of “organization” that Paul describes in Eph.4:7-16?  As is frequently the case, most English translators have ignored the very clear fact that there are two different words in v.7 and v.8, both of which they have rendered as “gifts”.  In v.7, Paul uses the word “ charis “  — more frequently (and accurately) translated “grace”, singular in form, which is indeed given individually “to each one”.  But for the specific, plural enablements or responsibilities in the brotherhood, he uses the more specific, plural word, “domata”, “gifts”. These are given TO the brotherhood, THROUGH each person!  From that point on in the passage, everything is expressed in the plural. Particular “gifts” are assigned by Jesus, and mediated through each person, to the entire group, in order “to make everyone complete”, to “grow up”, in order that the Body may function properly!  YOU DO NOT “HAVE” A GIFT.  YOU ARE a gift, to the brotherhood to which you are committed!  And you may have to serve different functions at different times, as need arises.

It would be an excellent exercise for any/every group of the Lord’s people to work together to discern from the New Testament the proper function of each of these folks who are God’s gifts to the Body.   It would be an easy project to do as a group, simply to identify the “jobs” called for, here and elsewhere in the New Testament, and the people and the qualifications needed, by examining together each use of each word or function, in the New Testament. We would be happy to facilitate such an effort.
Here is a brief, but very incomplete summary of the functions that are needed, in any – really every – congregation – including ours!  It should be fleshed-out by careful congregational study.

  1. Apostles.
    Some of the references to apostles appear to be to the original (remaining) eleven disciples who had traveled with Jesus, but that is not an exclusive label. The literal meaning of the word refers to anyone, or anything, sent anywhere, for any reason! The verb form is used for everything from the “sending” of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to Jesus promising to “send back” the donkey he borrowed for Palm Sunday! (Not exactly a symbol of elevated status!)  In Acts, and the epistles, the noun (personal) reference is frequently to the individuals who had initially introduced the message of Jesus to a particular group, so the fact  that they are  listed first is clearly chronological, not a matter of status.  Some of them shared a mediator role with “elders” at the Jerusalem Conference (Ac.15); others furnished support to new congregations by occasional visits, correcting errors or mediating disagreements. Apostles were usually itinerant, not identified with a single group or location, unlike the elders, with whom they frequently shared responsibility.
  2. Elders
    Elders are not mentioned in the Ephesians list, but the missionary apostles (like Timothy and Titus) were repeatedly encouraged to appoint trustworthy “elders” (always plural) in each congregation. The word “elder” (presbuter) appears in both genders. “Elders” are both male and female. Although traditional translators have often substituted “wives” for the feminine form of the word, there is no such distinction in the text. Translators have distorted the picture. The word simply means “old people”.  Elders were assigned advisory duties in each congregation, sometimes called upon to act as overseers, “shepherds” (the word that some translators changed to an “office” of “pastors,”), and teachers.
  3. Prophets
    These are also nearly always plural, although they may also “label” an individual who frequently and faithfully exercised that function, like Philip’s daughters (Ac.21:9), and Agabus (Ac.11:28 and 21:10). Their “job”, according to I Cor.14, is to “speak to people for edification, admonition, and encouragement.” They were entrusted to deliver a direct message from God for a particular situation: the relief of famine victims, warning of dangers, instructions for action, etc.
    This passage is often avoided because some people have problems with its secondary reference to the use of “tongues” – which, although worthy of serious attention, is beyond the scope of this study.  But ignoring the whole chapter because one aspect is occasionally abused, has robbed the church of a desperately needed resource.  After trying to correct what were probably genuine abuses among that particular group, Paul asserts plainly, (I Cor.14:31), “You can ALL prophesy in turn, in order that ALL may learn, and ALL may be encouraged!”   Are there any among us so mature, that we no longer need to learn and to be encouraged?
    Also overlooked is the admonition that when a prophet speaks, the rest are instructed to JUDGE whether the message is indeed from the Lord!  “Judging” is NOT a “nasty wordor a bad attitude, but a necessary safety precaution, entrusted to the whole Body of the faithful!  Prophecy is NOT a free-for-all, and judging it is NOT the job of someone designated as a “superior” or a “credentialed leader”.  Both are tasks assigned to the whole congregation of committed people.
  4. Evangelists
    You may be as surprised as I was to see that this word appears in the New Testament only three times! It is used here, and also of Timothy and Philip once each. It is a function, not a title, and refers to a “bearer of GOOD NEWS”. In the secular culture, it was used of a herald bringing news of a victory in a battle! There is absolutely NO New Testament connection to the “fire and brimstone” that carries that label in modern times.  Look it up!  Better yet, look at ALL the references to the word “gospel”!
  5. Shepherds and teachers
    These are primarily local. ALL ARE PLURAL, and all are functions of the elders.Notice that there are no “priests” on the list.  That designation belonged to the Old Covenant, not the New.  Priests, with a few exceptions, were antagonistic to Jesus and his message!  The proclamation of the Kingdom was – and IS– the responsibility of EVERY citizen!  In fact, Peter (I Pet.2:5 and 9) asserts that ALL of us who belong to Jesus comprise a “holy” and “royal” priesthood!
    The so-called “Great Commission”, Jesus’ parting instructions in Mt.28, although originally addressed to the eleven remaining disciples, have been subsequently expanded by his followers to include all the faithful – but they have been followed only PARTLY.   Jesus assigned them (us?) three tasks: to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach! Have you ever seen that fully in practice?  Check it out!  Jesus prescribed NO OFFICIAL POSITIONS as a prerequisite for ANY of his instructions! !  Why, then, do we assume that some things require “clergy” – a word that NEVER appears in the New Testament?
  6. Servants/deacons
    This word, diakonos, -e  , from which the English word “deacon” is derived, also occurs in both genders, and refers to ANY people rendering ANY kind of service to ANYONE, from preparing and serving a meal, to carrying a relief-offering to famine-stricken brethren.  New Testament references include Peter’s mother-in-law, the women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples “ministering to their needs”, the 7 appointees in Ac.6 looking out for the widows, as well as those mentioned in epistles: Timothy, Erastus, Epaphras, Steven’s household, Phoebe, Onesimus, Mary and Martha, and many others.

Every one of these categories includes far more (of both responsibilities and people!) than time allows in one session.  I would strongly encourage that we undertake a  very careful study in order to be sure that ALL OF THESE are sought, welcomed, included, and heeded in our fellowship – remembering the responsibility of the WHOLE BODY to “JUDGE”/evaluate each one’s work, to assure that we are led in faithfulness.

Please notice also that NONE OF THESE WERE “HIRED” for a job, from either inside or outside of any local group.

So who is – or ought to be – “in charge” here?
Hopefully, Jesus – through his Holy Spirit, speaking TO and THROUGH ALL OF US who are committed to carefully discerning and following his instructions!

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