The Bible is full of great heroes, but those heroes were rarely on their own. Moses had Aaron and Joshua, David had Jonathan and later Joab and his mighty men, Paul had Timothy and Luke among many others. Even Jesus had his twelve disciples.
It seems that God intended this to be a model that should be followed by the leaders of God’s people in every generation. The pattern seems to be that God would raise up a leader, and he would also raise up a team around that leader to support them in the work. A lone leader was usually a sign that something serious had gone wrong (think of Elijah’s forlorn cry that he alone was left, or King Saul’s lostness at the end of his reign after Samuel the prophet died).
I say this because over recent decades there has been something of a debate that casts ‘one-man ministry’ against ‘team ministry’ within the church.
‘One-man ministry’ often brings the best out of a gifted individual, which can be a real benefit to the church. But the dangers are significant. Churches built around a superstar minister rarely last for the next generation. Worse, absolute power can corrupt absolutely, and ministers that aren’t fully accountable to fellow-elders are prone to fall into temptation. And whilst the minister himself is using all of his gifts, there’s a real danger that other gifted individuals will be prevented from serving God and the congregation in the best possible ways. Not only that, but ordinary ministers like me can easily become overwhelmed and swamped if we try and emulate superstar pastors, without having their gifts.
‘Team ministry’ avoids many of those pitfalls. Yet churches built around a team can often lack direction and vision. Conflict can arise when team members see the needs of a church differently from one another, and sometimes important decisions can be put off indefinitely. If things go badly, you can end up in the situation Corinth found itself in, where some followed Paul, some Apollos, and some Peter.
A biblical model
But this binary distinction between ‘one-man ministry’ and ‘team ministry’ is unhelpful. A careful reading of Scripture seems to suggest that the ideal is somewhere between the two – a strong leader who is ably assisted by a strong team, one of whom will eventually take over his mantle.
Moses is a great example. He was undoubtedly the leader of Israel. Deuteronomy 34 tells us that there was no-one like him. During the Exodus no-one ever had to ask, ‘Who’s in charge around here?’, and whilst others occasionally thought they could usurp him, it never ended well for them (Numbers 12, 16). But at the same time, Moses had a strong team around him. There was Aaron, of course, who led the priests. There was Joshua who would become his successor. And there were the 70 elders who assisted Moses in various ways (e.g. Exod. 24:9, Num. 11:25), and there was the great crowd of leaders that he appointed to serve under him (see Exod. 18:18).
Moses is such a good example because he was such a godly man (Deut. 34:10-12), and served the Lord at a high-point of leadership in Israel’s history. Leaders before Moses tended to be heads of households, rather than leaders of God’s people in a wider sense. With only one or two exceptions, the judges that followed him tended to be weak or ungodly (they let the people do what was right in their own eyes), and the presence of kings was a sign that God’s people had rejected God as their leader (1 Samuel 8).
Elders and deacons
So what leadership look like in the church today? If I was writing a Christian bestseller, this is the point where I would lay out an exciting new model for leadership that will transform your church. But what’s new and exciting today is gathering dust tomorrow, and that’s not how God works. You don’t need what’s new and exciting, you need what God has given. In a magazine article that will be read by people from many different church backgrounds, I don’t want to be too dogmatic about the way churches should be structured. Yet at the same time, the New Testament does have some clear principles that we can’t ignore.
It’s very clear from 1 Timothy 3 that there is to be a distinction between deacons and overseers. Judging by the normal meaning of the Greek words used, and the relatively small differences in the qualities required of each, it seems that the key distinction between deacons and overseers is that the overseers have responsibility for oversight and teaching (see also 1 Tim. 5:17), whereas the deacons have more of a serving role. (The similarity with the two roles in Acts 6 is unlikely to be coincidental.)
Where churches sometimes disagree is what the role of ‘overseer’ involves. Some churches see the overseer as a bishop, some as a sole pastor, and others as a group of elders. For myself, it seems that the terms ‘elders’ and ‘overseers’ are synonymous (see Acts 20:17, 28 and Titus 1:5-7).
What about pastors?
‘Overseer’ also seems synonymous with pastors (aka ‘shepherds’) from Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 2:25, and unsurprisingly that seems to make ‘pastors’/’shepherds’ synonymous with ‘elders’ (1 Peter 5:1-2). That said, not all elders have responsibility for preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17), and some leaders in the church seem to have greater responsibility than other elders. The obvious example is Timothy, who is given specific responsibility by Paul, despite there being other elders in the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:3, cf Acts 20:17).
Their greater responsibility is in preaching and teaching, which would also give them a greater authority, because authority is rightly tied to the Word of God. Those who teach most from the Bible necessarily have greatest responsibility within the church. There also seems to be a link between greater teaching responsibility and the right to earn a wage from that ministry (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
All this suggests that whilst not all elders have exactly the same role or teaching responsibility, the role of a pastor/teacher ought not to be separate from that of the elders. That’s important, because the assumption in the New Testament is that there will be more than one elder in a church (Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2f, 20:17-18, 21:18, 1 Tim. 4:14, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1). This rules out the notion of a ‘one-man ministry’ that puts responsibility for leading the church in the hands of one man.
Lessons for today
This leaves us with four lessons:
- Churches suffer great harm when pastors try to lead the church single-handedly.
- Pastor/teachers suffer great harm when churches expect them to lead without support.
- Churches tend to stagnate or decline when they don’t have at least one elder who takes particular responsibility for preaching and teaching.
- Pastor/teachers tend to sink when the other elders expect them to take the primary burden for preaching, but don’t allow them to take greater responsibility for leadership within the church.
Sadly, many of our churches fall into one of these four traps at one time or another. Getting the balance is never easy, but it’s vital that we learn from past mistakes, see through the latest fads, and model our churches on the New Testament pattern.