A Word of Caution about Singular Leadership

J. P. Moreland in his book Love Your God with All Your Mind makes a case against the North American Senior Pastor model of leadership.  He argues that it is more in line with the corporate model of a CEO and a board of directors than it is with models of leadership found in the Bible.  Of course, the Bible does have great men of singular vision and singular leadership like Moses, King David, and especially Jesus.  However, does this mean it is how our churches should be run?

There are certainly great figures who stand out in the New Testament apart from Jesus.  Peter, Paul, Jesus’ brother James, Titus and Timothy were all church leaders in some sense.  Peter, Catholics claim, was the rock upon which Jesus built the church.  He was the first Pope and subsequent popes lead because of apostolic succession originating with him.  Paul wrote authoritative letters directing churches how to act.  James was head of the church in Jerusalem.  He seems to have presided over important decision-making moments in the early church.  Titus was the overseer of the churches in Crete.  Timothy oversaw the church in Ephesus.  So, surely we should have singular leaders just like them at the top of a pyramidal structure of hierarchy.

Image result for pyramidal structure of hierarchy

In the biblical accounts, though, it gets a bit messy.  Peter was appointed, some say, as the head of the church, but the Bible gives account of how he was held in check by Paul (gal 2:11-13).  Paul and Barnabas parted ways over John Mark.  Neither of them seemed to have the definitive authority to dictate what course of action had to be taken (Acts 15:36-41).   James organised meetings and managed decision making, but councils were held in Jerusalem to make decisions for the church (Acts 6).  In other words, James did not make the policies of the early church by himself.  Neither were the early apostles merely consulted on their opinions.  The early church in Jerusalem made hard decisions through the hard debate of equals (Acts 15).  Titus helped to organise the churches of Crete, but it was a purely temporary role.  He was called by Paul to Nicopolis (Titus 3:12).  He then went on to Dalmatia.  Timothy, similarly, was sent to a church for a task rather than a position (I & II Timothy).  With Timothy in particular, it is clear that he advised a group of elders who really had the running of the church.

Within the teams of the New Testament, there are visionaries, prophets and teachers.  They hold great influence, but they are not the heads of organisations in the same way we tend to establish head positions.  The success of the early church was that the vision for the church was embodied in the DNA of the membership – the laity.  People could run church without a bishop, vicar, senior pastor, or an apostle present.  This is why it could survive the martyrdom of its great ‘leaders.’  The missionary work they did was so effective it made them non-essential.  They motivated and equipped the early church so thoroughly that it hardly missed a beat when the leaders were removed or traveled elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the same can not be said of the church today.  Church membership rises and falls based on the charisma of the senior pastor.  The most successful senior pastors become celebrities.  The senior pastor is often a professional minister who is expected to maintain a spirituality superior to the membership.  He or she is often judged by his or her capacity to preach, maintain the church, feed the homeless, and visit the sick.  The church may assist the minister in his or her many tasks, but the early church had the responsibility the other way around.  The apostles primarily existed to mobilize and equip the church for its own ministry.

The local churches of the New Testament did have leadership, but the evidence we have is more in line with a plurality of leaders consisting of overseers, deacons, ministers, pastors, or elders.  Some of these terms are used interchangeably, but two tiers existed.  The deacons (and probably deaconesses (Romans 16)) took care of the administrative tasks and the custodial work.  The elders preached and taught the apostles’ teachings when the apostles were absent..  The church made more decisions as a body than many churches do today.  They sought God’s guidance on issues and looked for agreement.  They believed the Holy Spirit would lead into unity and truth.  A person could prophesy about God’s will for the people, but someone with the gift of discernment would verify whether the word was truly from God.  There were multiple layers of accountability.  There  were checks and balances.

The body of Christ is comprised of many interdependent people who use gifts to support each other.  In the early church each member would prepare themselves for the worship services.  When they met together daily, one would bring a song, another a word of prophecy, another a hymn.  Something was expected of everyone.  People did not come as passive consumers of a weekly service but active contributors of an interconnected way of life.  In this way the Holy Spirit coordinated mutual service.  In the New Testament, the singular head of the body is not identified as a particular apostle, elder or deacon – the singular head is Christ.

In summary, as people sought God through prayer and worship, an interconnected, shared leadership emerged.  Those who were more mature in the faith had responsibility to guide and develop those who were less spiritual.  Jesus’ hand-picked Apostles had an initial role, never to be repeated.  Later generations of disciples and apostles lacked a singular head who could easily be decapitated and cause a church to end.

This model of leadership is being rediscovered in the corporate world.  Collective Genius, Team of Teams, and The Starfish and the Spider all advocate more nimble and agile leaderless organisations.  They seem to have found the structure that the church might have lost.

Image result for team of teams structure


1 Thessalonians is a joint letter from Paul, Silas and Timothy.  In response to the first verse, Michael W. Holmes writes:

Team Leadership. If the Pauline pattern of team leadership is indeed worth repeating today (even though it may not be normative), how might one go about applying it?  For one perspective, the matter of team leadership can be seen as a matter of church structure.  This is probably not a fruitful line of approach, however, because most of is already have substantial commitments, both as individuals and as denominations, to one or another of the different forms of church structure that have developed over the centuries for a variety of reasons (historical, theological, sociological).  Moreover, even if we were somehow to slip free from these commitments and agree to start from scratch, there is in the New Testament no definitive model for church structure to guide us.  There may be a principle that should guide our thinking about church structure (specifically, the structure should serve the needs of the congregation, not the reverse), but there is no definitive model as such.  So approaching this matter as a question of church structure is not the most practical way to proceed.

Instead, we might begin by thinking about the Pauline model in terms of how it contrasts with a common feature of many churches today regardless of their particular structure.  Whatever their formal structure (congregational, presbyterian, episcopal, or monepiscopal), many individual churches are hierarchically structured in a way that typically concentrates power and authority in the hands of one person.  In this respect, they are more like a pyramid-shaped, hierarchically organized corporate structure or military command model than the models of the New Testament, whose dominant images with respect to leadership are those of the family or servanthood.  Consider, for example, the many churches today in which the senior pastor functions  essentially as a CEO, with staff and church board subservient to him, or how often (and how quickly!) the latest fads in business organization filter their way down into the church, or the extent to which the jargon of business infiltrates our thinking (e.g. , a “business manager” of a church who boasted of turning his day care ministry into a “profit center”).

There are not insubstantial dangers associated with this pattern of leadership.  As Gordon Fee observes, “leadership, especially of the more visible kind, can be heady business … The great problem with single leadership is its threefold tendency to pride of place, love of authority, and lack of accountability.”  The last point, accountability, is particularly critical in view of significant temptation and moral failure (sexual or financial, in particular), temptation to which a distressing number of pastors and Christian leaders have succumbed in recent years.

Team leadership, which can be instituted informally within the constraints of any number of different formal structures, offers  important advantages in this respect.  Accountability to other members of a leadership team works to reduce the chances of a leader falling into sin.  Moreover, even in instances where there is significant moral failure of a leader, the presence of a team rather than a single individual leadership reduces the odds that the failure will devastate the congregation.  

The advantages of team leadership, however, are not merely practical.  Team leadership reminds us that in the New Testament the critical matter is not office or formal structure but giftedness.  In this respect it better models the New Testament idea of what church is.  As Klyne Snodgrass observes, “the body of Christ does not have two classes of members – clergy and laity- or two sets of expectations.  Everyone has the same task of building up the body, even though responsibilities vary.”  Team leadership is one concrete way of modeling this point for the rest of the congregation.  (NIV Application Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians p. 42-43)

The verse Holmes is commentating on is:

1 Thessalonians 1:1

Paul, Silas and Timothy,  To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:  Grace and peace to you.


About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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