In Matthew 20:25-28, we can read:
25But Jesus called them to Himself and said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great
exercise authority over them.
26Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you,
let him be your servant.
27And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—
28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life
a ransom for many.”
This laid down Christ’s pattern for servant-leadership after His own pattern of servant-leadership for His beloved called-out church to follow and fit, as being taken out from the darkness of the oppressive world’s systems. He emphasized humble leadership devoid of ambitions that usually characterize leadership in the world’s systems. In context, He said these very important words to rebuke the myopic selfish ambitions of some of His disciples that made His other disciples indignant. He taught His disciples to be unlike the unbelievers who can be so ambitious to lord over others, and they were supposed to not do so similarly. Greatness in His kingdom should not come from rulership over others, usually over the weaker, nor exercising autocratic nor authoritarian authority to assert dominance over others, but through humble, willing, and loving service to others. Selfless service, not rulership, should be the goal of those wanting to lead in His church. Highly esteemed leadership in His kingdom is through humble service, not dominating and subjugating rulership.
In connection, in church polity, there is some kind of confusion or conflict between the principle versus the practice regarding the role of the pastor (or bishop or elder), that whether he should be an overseer or overlord in the church. By definition, the church in the New Testament as used by the Greek-speaking peoples before Christ, refers to an assembly of people, regardless of the nature of the assembly. Israel is considered as His Church in the Old Testament setting. But as Christianity evolved through the centuries, people added their own cultural modifications, as well as introduced their own traditions, which may or may not be sanctioned by the Scriptures, particularly, the New Testament, the guide and constitutional template for His Church consisting of the saved Israelites and Gentiles who put faith in Him now supposedly unified in love to Him and each other.
Assuming the disciples were indeed true believers in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who sent the Holy Spirit to inspire the writing and canonization of the New Testament to be the final and authoritative guide for Christian beliefs and behaviors, deeds and doctrines, principles and practice, let us take note of what Peter said in:
1 Peter 5 (KJV)
1The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:
2Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;
3Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.
4And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.
and to compare with
1 Peter 5 (NIV)
1To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:
2Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;
3not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
4And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
Hence, theoretically, the elders (or pastors or bishops) should be overseers, not overlords, over God’s church! However, practically, this may not always be the case, especially if the undivine or traditional modifications so change the correct roles of the pastors. Church history can testify to the corruptive devolution when the church married with the state during the time of Emperor Constantine, corrupting both the church and the state with the authority and powers they exercised over the people. As one British parliamentarian lamented:
“Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely”
both the state and the church corrupted each other with the love of power of the overlords, when the power of love of the overseers devolved with the historical departures from the original simplicity and purity of the faith of true believers who lived by the words of God.
To clarify further what Peter said, let us have some exegesis of what he said:
With reference to what God said in:
Ezekiel 34 (KJV)
1And the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?
3You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock.
4The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them.
5So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered.
6My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.”
Peter had this background context regarding the false shepherds for him to give his exhortation in his epistle. Based on his own experience, he addressed the elders (presbyteros, in Greek) while also identifying himself as fellow-elder (sympresbyteros, in Greek), indicating similar office in egalitarian collegiality, with his authority based on his being an apostle charged by Christ to shepherd His flock when He ascended to heaven, as well as his being a witness (martys, in Greek) of the sufferings of Christ. Referring himself as one who will share in the glory to be revealed, he emphasized that those who share in the sufferings of Christ (as he did) will also share in His glory at His coming. He identified with the sufferings of his readers to his own sufferings for Christ’s sake (Acts 5:40). So, he was basically saying he and his fellow-elders should not be like those false shepherds that the Lord so condemned in Ezekiel’s prophecies.
So, with this background, he exhorted his fellow-elders (not as one who had higher authority over them, but one on the same collegial, egalitarian fellowship), to be shepherds, as what Jesus told him in
John 21 (KJV)
16He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”
He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”
He said to him, “Tend My sheep.”
17He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”
Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?”
And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.
18Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked
where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another
will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.”
19This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this,
He said to him, “Follow Me.”
I.e., as a disciple of Christ who was in turn also discipling other disciples, he gave this exhortation which was also the exhortation he received from the Lord, who restored him after his denials of Him as his Discipler. As he followed Him, he is now also exhorting his fellow-elders to follow Him, their Great Shepherd. The emphasized exhortation is to tend (poimanate, in Greek) His sheep (or His church). This means, like him, his fellow-elders are to feed (with God’s words), care, lead, guide, and protect, but not to lord over them. Since the church is His sheepfold, they are to be lead like sheep who hear their Lord’s voice, not to be driven like goats who do not hear their Lord’s voice. Sheep follow the shepherd, as its nature, especially if the shepherd himself follows his Great Shepherd. Goats do not follow their goatherder, because it is in the nature of goats not to follow its overseer.
In his exhortation to his fellow overseers (episkopountes, in Greek), synonymous with elders or bishops, he contrastingly exhorted them that they should not be like false shepherds condemned in Ezekiel, who are only wrongly motivated by the love of money and profits. Willingness, not external compulsion, based on love as Christ exhorted Peter in that reference in John 21, should be their main ministry motivation, not money. Also, aside from financial concerns, social pressures should not corrupt the purity of motives for their ministering to do God’s will, but should only serve eagerly and freely, not greedy for monetary profits. As exposed in Ezekiel, falsely motivated shepherds only selfishly care for their own selves and devouring the sheep in their greediness.
So, on the negative exhortation, the shepherds should not lord over (katakyrieuontes, in Greek) by domineering, dominating, dictating, usually tyrannically as strong lord over those who are weak, which the sheep represents, because sheep can not defend their own weak selves. Psalm 23 gives the best meditational representation of the intimate relationship between the weak sheep with its loving, caring, protective, and strong shepherd. Ezekiel so indicted the false shepherds as ruling harshly and brutally, even devouring the sheep, which were then scattered out of fear of their predatorial false shepherd. Rather than tyrannizing like false shepherds, they are to be examples (typoi, in Greek, as types, or patterns) to model on how to follow their Great Shepherd, as being disciples following their Divine Discipler. As sheep, God’s people should not be driven like goats, but lead by the proper modeling or mentoring by the examples of the more mature elders with mature characters.
Christ, their Chief Shepherd, (archipoimenos, in Greek), is their True Shepherd (see Ezek. 34:11-16), their Good Shepherd (see John 10:11, 14), and their Great Shepherd (see Heb.13:20), will return for them, with His faithful undershepherders (i.e., the overseers) to share in His glory and receive unfading crowns.
Even in the Old Testament, there has been a pattern of historical devolution of the Church of God. It was during the time of the prophet Samuel that Israel wanted to become like their pagan neighbors so as for them to demand from God a king to rule over them. God saw it as their rejecting His lordship over them in their supposed theocratic society and culture, with the judges, priests, and prophets as God’s spokespersons and overseers to His chosen people. God warned that like their pagan neighbors, a human king, as opposed to His Divine Kingship over His people, would start oppressing them as in requiring forced labor and taxations to support their king’s projects and caprices. So, it was a devolution from God as lording over His people to human kings as lording over them.
In relation to earlier articles by this author, entitled: Developing Disciple’s Deep Divine Devotion and Martha and Ephesian Sindrome, we can trace the historical devolution of the phenomenon of overseeing degenerating to overlording in the church of God, even in the New Testament settings.
The principle of properly overseeing the flock of God as Ezekiel indicted the false shepherds was echoed by Christ to Peter when He ascended to heaven, and was re-echoed by Peter to his fellow-elders in his epistle. However, church history shows otherwise the devolution of this principle in the practices and evolving traditions of the church with their pagan compromises.
In the first three hundred years, the church was considered underground organization. Persecution of believers, though not continuous, was always dangerous uncertainty, and oftentimes, intense reality. In that period, the church evolved into a loosely hierarchical structure, being an organizational structure with authority entrusted to a few special individuals for the good of the group, usually, locally. During early second century, many of the episcopoi (bishops, or church overseers) in larger cities, like Rome, started exercising authority over the smaller churches in outlying areas. These overseers were often asked to establish what true apostolic doctrine and practice were, usually in church councils, sometimes with other churches in the vicinity. These overseers were regarded as the apostles’ authoritative successors, but not authoritarian, thus, as the only certain guardians of the true teachings of Christ. So, some kind of territorialism among contiguous local churches emerged from such arrangements.
In connection, after putative conversion to Christianity in 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine decreed Christianity as the official state religion of the empire over other competing religious systems, including paganism, the old religion of the non-believers. For succeeding three hundred years, as Roman governmental structures deteriorated by the seeds of corruptions in the system (e.g.,, by absolutely abusive autocratic deified emperors) , the church assimilated
many obligations and privileges of the state, when Constantine married church and state, with him self-proclaiming with the titular Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest, with absolute political and religious authority, equivalent to the Supreme Bishop as the emperor-head of the politically unified church. It was his political ploy to save the disintegrating Roman Empire by using Christianity as the unifying factor, since Christianity still progressed and increased in influence, despite the deadly persecutions of the believers.
In the Donatist controversy of the fourth century, Augustine (354-430) defended the deteriorating purity of the church by definining the invisible church as consisting of those believers in all places at all times who are truly Christians, introducing the idea of catholicity or universalism of the church. Thus, Augustine admitted the egregious errors in the visible church which were so apparent to the Donatists. In this period, a series of influential and charismatic bishops of the church at Rome (culminating in Gregory the Great in 540-604) started claiming the exclusive right to the title “papa” or “pope” which was formerly used of all bishops in collegial contexts. The pope proclaimed himself as the Vicar of Christ, or Christ on earth, to assert authoritative supremacy over all bishops and believers in Christendom, even over kings and other sovereigns, a source of corruption during the Inquisition with the abuses of power and privilege. The developed hierarchy itself increasingly became claimed and identified as the institution which Christ had left on this earth to mediate His salvation to people through seven sacraments that they defined and imposed on the believers.
This model of the church system was radically challenged by the Reformation in the early sixteenth century. Starting the Protestant movement, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others preached that salvation came solely through God’s gracious gift of faith, rather than through good works defined by the sacraments of the church. From this, the church came to be perceived differently, as some kind of reviving the original simplicity and purity of the church at the apostolic times. However, Lutheran tradition emphasized worship through the sacraments and the preaching of the Word. Reformed traditions of Zwingli and Calvin taught that the church was defined by the administration of the sacraments, the preaching of the Word, and the exercise of church discipline. Unlike the magisterial Reformers, on the other hand, the
Anabaptists, emphasizing separation of the church from the world, held that the biblical model for the church consists only of true believers to be members, denying the efficacy of pedobaptism as valid for church membership. These developments effectively ended the parish system—the assignment of a certain geographical area to a specific local church.
The development of denominations as we know them today is fairly a more modern phenomenon. As reforming the Constantinian legacy, the idea of separation of church and state slowly took hold in the American colonies from 1630 to 1790, where and when the believers migrated from Europe to escape persecution by the institutionalized state churches there after the Reformation. Most colonies lifted restrictions on religious groups and stopped using local taxes to support one designated church as some kind of state church dominating other churches, consequently, allowing various denominations—Baptist, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Presbyterian—to co-exist peacefully within the same area without competing for local dominance. Eventually, the nineteenth century saw the rise of extreme denominationalism at the American frontier. Much cooperation among evangelical denominations so common in the early part of the nineteenth century terminated due to movements such as Landmarkism, which rabidly denied the existence and concept of a universal church, saying that the only biblical usage of the word “church” as refering to a local body. The Landmarkist overemphasized localism or territorialism as opposed to universalism or globalism. C. I. Scofield proclaimed another innovation concerning ecclesiology around the turn of that century by and other dispensationalists, who taught that church was simply a parenthesis in history, interrupting God’s dealings with His primary concern—the Chosen nation of Israel. The twentieth century saw the birth of many parachurch movements that work alongside the church.
If we really closely study the New Testament, the church is simply defined as the body of those people who have been called out of the fallen world by God’s grace, and who have been called together to glorify Him by serving Him in His world. Despite all of the church’s egregious errors locally and globally, through its historical life, the New Testament prophesied that, ultimately, the church is to be a radiant church, “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:27).
Actually, the root cause or influence of the devolution of the overseeing function to overlording obsession of the bishops in the devolved church was already identified by the book of Revelations regarding the Nicolaitans, whose bad deeds that started in Ephesus devolved further in accepted and adopted doctrines in Pergamos, if we follow the historical developments of the church in context with the book of Revelations.
Nicolaitanism represented a movement present in the churches at Ephesus and at Pergamos to subjugate the people of God to one or more powerful leaders. Derived from nikao (Gk.), “to conquer,” and laos (Gk.), “people,” Nicolaitan means “people conquerors.” Very plausibly, Nicolaitanism marked the start of a form of priesthood in the church that later fully developed in the Roman Catholic system. Probably, this was a group that suppressed the laity in favor of the developing clergy. However, this definition is determined more by modern concepts of clergy and laity than by any first-century information, for such terminology was unknown this early. Etymology can be notoriously dangerous to discover the real meaning of a term.
On the other hand, Nicolaitans represented those compromisers with the world system through the practices of immorality and idolatry, if we study the context of the chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation. Though some tradition identified them, but not extensively evidenced, they were known as followers of the Nicolas of Acts 6:5. That is, earliest identification of Nicolaitans, found in the writings of church fathers, was as followers of Nicolas of Antioch, a proselyte to Judaism, who was one of the Seven (Acts 6:5) deacons in the early church at Jerusalem . However, none of the writers seems to know much about the heresy, with one argued that Nicolas himself was orthodox but misunderstood. Possibly, some of this information may be accurate (as there have been Spirit-filled church leaders who have lapsed into heresy), this looks like an attempt to find some name in Scripture to use to identify this sect. Nicolas may have simply had the misfortune of bearing the wrong name. Even if the Nicolas of Acts had nothing to do with the movement, probably some Nicolas (a reasonably common name) was the leader of the group.
John in Revelation used many strange symbols and images to represent the prophecies inspired to him by the Lord, but there are also unusual names. In Rev.2:6, 15, the Lord rebuked the Ephesus and Pergamos churches with His:
6But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
15So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
In these two verses, the Nicolaitans were identified by their Lord. Presumably, John believed that readers of his letter would know who they were. What were their practices, and why would God hate them?
Some hint to the real meaning of the term is found in the identifying the Nicolaitans with “the teaching of Balaam” in Revelation 2:14-15:
14But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
15So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
“Nikolaitan” is not only possibly a Greek form of “Balaam” (as understood by the rabbis), but more importantly, this interpretation fits both the contexts of the text and first-century settings. John identified the teaching of Balaam with two problems: “eating food sacrificed to idols” and “sexual immorality.” The early church continuously
struggled with compromises with pagan idolatry and immorality, as can be seen in Paul’s long exhortation in 1 Corinthians 8–10, as well as in conclusions reached in Acts 15:20, 29:
20But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
29That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
Both references center on food offered to idols, Paul’s concluding that one
could eat such food if bought from the marketplace, but one should not go to
meals in pagan temples. However, following this Pauline admonition, would cut one off
from membership in trade guilds, patriotic celebrations (including ceremonies
honoring the emperor, considered essential to good citizenship, although not
taken seriously by the upper classes as religious events) and many family
celebrations. Easily, we can see the pressure to rationalize, and thereby develop
compromises with paganism.
The Nicolaitan controversy, though so little directly mentioned made in the New Testament, was really most important regarding the whole relation of Christianity to paganism. Nicolaitans disobeyed the command issued to the Gentile churches, by the apostolic council held at Jerusalem in 49-50 AD, to refrain from the eating of “things sacrificed to idols” (Acts 15:29). Such prohibition, though seemingly difficult for those with pagan backgrounds, to prevent Christian communities from joining in public pagan festivals, and so brought upon them suspicion and dislike, was yet necessary to prevent a return to a pagan laxness of morals. To this egregious error, the Nicolaitans were themselves glaring bad witnesses, and therefore John was justified in condemning them. In his epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gave grave warnings against the same evil practices, basing his arguments on consideration for the weaker brethren (see 1 Cor 8).
As mentioned in
Revelation 2:20, 22
20Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
22Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.
sexual immorality is a more difficult issue as in the case of Jezebel (an Old Testament code word for a New Testament woman leader of the church in Thyatira, indicating her spirit and God’s diagnosis of the sickness of the church, rather than the woman’s actual name). Because of pagan backgrounds especially of Gentiles with its sexualized idolatries, sexual immorality was a problem in the early church, as Paul discussed in 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:12-20 (compare Heb 13:4). In the middle of a pagan society and culture that accepted the sexual services of prostitutes (although wives were expected to remain faithful), it was difficult to remain obedient on this point and relatively easy to compromise. On the other hand, as used in the Old Testament, sexual immorality was involvement with pagan deities, especially with their concept of sacred prostitution of temple prostitutes. Probably, the Old Testament Jezebel might not be to our knowledge physically immoral—she was likely faithful to Ahab all her life—but she led Israel into Baal worship with its sexual rituals and orgies. Israel, as God’s “bride,” committed “spiritual adultery” equivalent to “sexual immorality” with the idolatrous involvement with other gods of the pagans.
In addition, the line between the two meanings of “immorality” was
difficult to draw. Sexual immorality was involved in the Peor incident (connected
to Balaam, Num 25:1-18), but the biggest issue was that the women were
Moabites or Midianites, being pagan women, who led the men to eat feasts
associated with their gods and then to worship the gods themselves. In other
words, the sexual immorality was wrong, because it was associated with the
worship of other gods, a common worship practice in the pagan world in which many
temples had prostitutes in them through whom a man could become “joined” to
the god as their act of worship or communing with their false gods.
If John took the Old Testament examples as the basis for his revelation, the sexual immorality is figurative for spiritual adultery, as standing for their worship of other deities, as implied in their attending feasts in idol temples. On the other hand, if he used the Old Testament examples loosely, he may suggest two related problems, viz. attending feasts in idol temples and engaging in extramarital sexual intercourse, probably with temple prostitutes. The difference
between the two explanations is narrow. Both types of problems are condemned in the New Testament, however one may interpret this particular passage.
In connection, Nicolaitans appeared to be a group which corrupted God’s people by seducing them to compromise with the immoral and idolatrous culture of the day. Rather than wholely worship God and Him alone, they suggested that it was appropriate to engage in patriotic ceremonies (such as feasts associated with the worship of the emperor), and other
cultural institutions (such as trade guilds, something like our modern unions or professional associations, and their rituals and worship). Possibly, either as part of these ceremonies or as a separate area of compromise, they also permitted the use of prostitutes (perhaps as an accepted part of the “business ethic” of their day). Jesus (speaking through John) was not impressed with their compromises. In fact, He threatened judgment on the church.
While the exact issues are different, similar compromises face the church nowdays. Each society and culture have its own “idols”, visible or invisible, so as to expect all its citizens to worship or pay obeisance or kowtow to, whether those idols be the government itself (as in totalitarian communist countries like North Korea and Cuba) or some cultural values or practices of the society. These “idols” are the places at which the values of the society conflict
with total allegiance to Christ, the real Supreme Sovereign of the true believers. Furthermore, the Nicolaitans are symbolically still with us under a variety of guises, for there are always people who in the name of being “realistic” or “relevant” to cultural conditions or under any number of other theological justifications counsel compromise with the dominanting culture, as in peer pressure of adolescents for them to conform and fit to the culture’s Procrustean squeezing molds. As what John wrote, he warned us that Jesus will not “buy” their justifications. He demands nothing less than total allegiance to His own person and directions, as their Sovereign Lord and Owner of their lives. Anything less than this will put those who compromise in danger of his judgment.
CHURCH LEADERSHIP IN BIBLICAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXTS
Proper background to understand the nature and role of church leaders is the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, as Peter said in
1 Peter 2: 9-11
9But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:
10Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
11Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul;
Both Old and New Testaments teach that the God’s corporate church are to serve Him as His priests. God commissioned Israel in Exodus 19:6 to be a kingdom of priests. Peter taught that this priestly position has been transferred to Christians through faith in Christ, as Abraham’s descendants as his children of faith. John indicated in Revelation 5:10 that this responsibility of serving as God’s priests has been given once and for all. To help the church accomplish this mandate, God has always called out leaders from among the royal priesthood to perform various functions, not to rule over them, but also serve God and His church. This servant-leadership has assumed different forms throughout Christian history.
As found in church leadership structures, Judaism heavily influenced early Christianity. In local
synagogues, a councils of elders governed the assembly. From among this group, a presiding
officer was chosen for teaching responsibilities, particularly if no trained rabbi was available.
The early church adopted this pattern, with the apostles serving as the elders of
the first Jerusalem church. Paul’s correspondence indicated that the first mission
churches also followed this pattern.
In thirty years of church history recorded in Acts, some changes began. The earlier simpler organizational structure developed into a wider range of leaders. Pastors and bishops (overseers), elders, teachers, and deacons exercised servant-leadership in local churches, while apostles, evangelists, missionaries, and others moved about from congregation to congregation performing their ministries. Leadership in the early church was based on giftedness as chosen and guided by the Holy Spirit who was sent by Christ to be their Helper and Comforter. Congregations recognized the diverse gifts given by the Holy Spirit, as He willed them. The leaders’ authority came from the ratification by the local congregation of the individual’s gifts, ability, spiritual maturity, and doctrinal integrity to protect and preserve the simplicity and purity of the faith delivered to the original apostles. The practice of ordination grew out of the simple laying on of hands signaling public setting aside of leadership from the church to fulfill certain tasks.
In the third century, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, taught an important development of leadership divisions in the church. He identified the Eucharist as the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord and gave the bishop power to offer this sacrament. By elevating the Lord’s Supper
to the level of a bloodless sacrifice, de-emphasizing the symbolic meaning of the liturgy, and placing its performance in the hands of a special group, he inaugurated a process that eclipsed the concept of the universal priesthood of all Christians, and initiated the rise of the sacerdotalism (priests as mediators) characterizing the church structure for a thousand years. From then onwards, the priesthood came to be identified with a certain class of clerical officers
who were regarded increasingly as mediators between God and the believer, thus further departing from the basic doctrine of the priesthood of all believers serving before God and each other.
Actually, Martin Luther was not the first to protest against the state of the Catholic Church with its sacerdotal system, which ignored the voices of many people raised throughout Church history. However, he seemingly supplied the requisite dynamics, as part of his teaching about the priesthood of all believers that helped to birth the Reformation. He drew a fundamental distinction between one’s calling (or vocation) and office (or ministry). All Christians receive the same calling as a result of their experience with Christ: to live a life in obedience to God’s purposes, regardless of office or service. The office one fulfills in the church rests on the gifts given by the Spirit’s will, not by human will. That is, whatever ministry one performs, the calling remains the same.
Fundamentally, the distinction between Roman Catholics and Protestants regarding derivation of the ordained ministry is status or privilege versus function or service. However, Protestant Reformation did not end the clergy-laity separation, nor devalue the importance of ministerial leadership in the church. Rather, the Reformers more clearly defined that ministry belonged to the whole called church of God, with the clergy being responsible for the organization and functioning of that ministry. Thus, they sought to restore the original notion of universal priesthood. Successful performance of the church’s mission in the world comes as members of Christ’s church recognize their leadership functions as priests and as they fulfill that responsibility.
From 1 Timothy 5:17-25, we have
17Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. 18For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward. 19Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. 20Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. 21I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality. 22Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure. 23Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities. 24Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. 25Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid.
Our Lord Jesus Christ founded only one organization: His church, the only institution He specifically promised to bless (Matt. 16:18), as designed and chosen by the Father in eternity past, redeemed by the work of the Son on the cross, and begotten by the power of the Spirit. To temporarily replaced Israel in that capacity, because of the her apostasy (cf. Rom. 11:1–24), the church is the chosen channel through which God’s saving truth flows to the world. As His bride, she is to maintain a purity and power to penetrate the kingdom of darkness with the glorious light of the gospel, so as to rescue men and women from Satan’s control and draw them into the kingdom of light. As the body of Christ, the church is visible form of Christ in the world, with the purpose to reveal His glory and thus draw men savingly to Himself. She is also to model godly virtue in an ungodly world by living according to God’s commands.
Peter summed all that up when he wrote in 1 Peter 2:9:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
The church’s ability to fulfill its calling is humanly dependent on one crucial factor: the quality of its leadership. Hosea’s statement, “like people, like priest” (Hos. 4:9) applies today. Churches do not rise higher than the level of their leadership. Our Lord’s plan to assure the church would be all He desired her to be was the same one He used when Israel was His witness people. God called Israel to proclaim His character and commands, and to be led by His chosen kings, priests, prophets, and elders, whose task was to model godliness and virtue as they gave their lives to serve their sovereign Jehovah. By so doing, they would lead Israel toward the holiness that would enable her to effectively reach the world with the truth of forgiveness of sin by God’s mercy.
Tragically, Israel’s history is largely one of the great failure of its leadership, because Israel’s leaders is one of decline, apostasy, and defection, which led to the defection of the people. Thus, the failure of the whole nation to witness their God’s glories caused God to temporarily set them aside and cut a new channel for His truth—the New Testament church born at Pentecost. Similarly, the history of the church has often paralleled that of Israel with the same pattern of defection from biblical truth that marred Israel’s leadership also too often marked the church’s leadership. Paul’s call in this text for a restoration of a biblical eldership is one the contemporary church desperately needs to heed since many, if not most, of the problems facing the church can be traced to the failures of its leadership.
A shared leadership is advocated in the Bible, where a plurality of godly men are to share in the leadership responsibility, though they may differ in their specific functions and giftedness. The Bible knows nothing of monarchial one-man rule by pastor-kings, nor envisions any higher authority beyond it to which the leadership of a local congregation must submit. God’s plan for choosing leaders in His church is very simple: From within each congregation, the Holy Spirit gives gifts and identifies through their faithfulness a plurality of godly men. After being confirmed by the people, they share the burden of leadership responsibilities together.
The Ephesian church in Timothy’s day of pastoring could trace most of its troubles back to ineffective leadership. In Paul’s epistle, he admonishes Timothy, the Ephesians, and now us on how to restore a truly biblical eldership. Not repeating the qualifications he has given in chapter 3, he is not concerned here with the character and qualification of the overseer, but how the church views him. In setting his thoughts on these features, Paul opens to us the obligation of the church to its pastors. In so doing, he notes four principles defining a biblical eldership: honoring elders, protecting elders, rebuking elders, and selecting elders. Where a biblical eldership has been abandoned, following the teaching of this crucial text can help restore it.
Christ set the pattern of servant-leadership by overseers when He rebuked His ambitious disciples who wanted rulership over humble service. He further re-affirmed this pattern to Peter before He ascended to heaven. And Peter re-echoed this pattern in his epistle where he admonished the elders about humble servant-leadership in the church.
Because of historical devolution due to compromises with the dominant pagan society and culture, particularly, the bad influence of the Nicolaitan deeds and doctrines that got entrenched in the church, the pattern of proper overseeing degenerated to hierarchical overlording of the weaker and immature believers by a special class of sacerdotal clergy.
A way to check and balance of the tendency to overlord and maintain the biblical mandate to oversee, the church just have to consider what Paul said in
21Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
“To submit” is a complex concept needing clear contextual definition by which it is used. Here, there is no question of power play or possession of position of overlording, as what we may find in Rom. 13. Here, Paul called all believers to develop an attitude of submission, a willingness to be responsive and to yield to one another out of love and fear of God. It is wrong to read an authoritative hierarchy into this verse or into the passage which follows. Rather, we see the development of a loving and caring sensitivity to others in the church to free us from overpowering pride and to enable us to act at all times in loving and caring ways, just as Christ love and care for His own sheep. With deep personal and passionate devotion to the LORD over all, and being born again into the kingdom in which Christ lives and reigns supreme, in the believers’ hearts individually and corporately, there is only the idea that He is our pattern of servant-leadership, as what Paul exalted in
1If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies,
2Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. 3Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
4Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
5Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
9Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: 10That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
11And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
13For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
14Do all things without murmurings and disputings:
15That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world;
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is the Savior and Sovereign Lord long before He is the pattern for the church to follow. Today, He is usually portrayed as the figurehead of a religion—a mere example. He is that, but He is infinitely more, as salvation itself, as the gospel of God!
Thus, only by looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, can the disciples pattern their principles to balance with their practices, their beliefs to balance with their behaviors, and their doctrines with their deeds! And the problem of devolution from the ideal command of properly overseeing God’s church into improper overlording will be arrested when the true believers will follow God’s admonition in
2 Chronicles 7:14
14If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.