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Ancient Backgrounds

  1. Old Testament Elders
  2. Influence from other Cultures:

Jesus and Leadership

  1. Jesus does not establish offices or ranks of power and authority.
  2. He redefines what power and authority in the community of disciples is all about.
  3. The mark of leadership is service. This would apply to the “titles” and “offices” already current in the culture.
  4. Jesus does set apart apostles. An apostle is not an office as much as it is a designation of function (a messenger). Apostles become important leaders in the early church because of their eyewitness testimony to the work of God in Jesus Christ. (Acts 1).

First-Century Eldership

  1. The participation of the whole church in the church’s ministries. (Little emphasis on offices).
    1. 1 Corinthians does not list the offices of elders and deacons, but list a variety of ministries within the body, the church with the focus on the participation of the whole church.
      1. Note the description in 1 Corinthians: “to each is the Spirit given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7); i.e., each is involved in the vital ministry.
      2. Among the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:28 are “forms of assistance, forms of leadership” (NRSV; cf. NIV “those able to help others, those with gifts of administration”). Leadership is merely one of the many gifts exercised in the New Testament.
      3. In the body of Christ, every member is indispensable (1 Corinthians 12:22).
    2. Compare the list in Romans 12:1-8 as another indication that the whole community is involved in ministry.
    3. Note the many obligations incumbent on all. One of the most important words (but seldom noticed) is the word “one another,” which indicates the mutuality of all ministries (cf. Romans 12:10, 16; 15:7, 14; 1 Thessalonians 4:18, 5:11).
      1. “Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
      2. “Be servants of one another” (Galatians 5:13).
      3. “Comfort one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
    4. Discussion: How does the focus on the body and the “one another” passages provide the framework for our understanding of leadership? What is the place of leadership in such an egalitarian setting?

  2. We now see how leadership developed in this setting: function preceded title. [Like surnames – they used to refer to profession].
    1. In 1 Corinthians 16:15-16, Paul mentions the household of Stephanas, the first fruits of Achaia, and he instructs the church to “be subject to them because of their work.”
      1. Their role is associated with seniority.
      2. Although Paul does not mention their office, he mentions their “ministry,” and he asks the church to be submissive to them.
      3. Leadership apparently involves a task performed and the recognition by the church.
    2. In Paul’s earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, he assumes that the whole church has responsibility for building up the congregation ...
    3. but he mentions a specific group with special responsibilities in 5:12-13. In a letter written to the whole church, he instructs members, “Respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”
      1. We note the verbs indicating the role of the congregation: “respect” (v. 12) and “esteem” (v. 13 NRSV) the leaders. One cannot have leadership without the community’s acknowledgment of those who lead. Discussion: We might ask what the group thinks those verbs mean in actual practice. We probably know instances where communities refuse to accept leadership of any kind. We may know of communities were “respect” and “esteem” were made difficult because of the quality of leadership.
        • “Those who labor among you” is likely a word for evangelistic labor (Paul commonly uses “labor” for his evangelistic work).
        • “Those who are over you” refers to a role in leadership. Cf. Romans 12:8, where the word involves both leadership and charitable work. [A form of this word is used to describe Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2.]. The word was also commonly used for the functions of a head of household. It can also have the meaning “preside.”
        • “Those who admonish you” indicates that this group takes the lead in admonishing wayward Christians.
      2. Discussion: What does it mean that function precedes office? How would this principle be used in our own situation?
      3. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 indicates that, although the church is in some respects egalitarian, leadership is always necessary.
      4. Discussion: Describe the challenges of this new kind of (dialectical) leadership where leaders emerge to do what others are also doing. What are the pitfalls? What are the benefits? What is the definition of an office? What is the relationship between function and office? I suggest: An office is a function that one does regularly and is acknowledged in that role by others. Try other definitions.

  3. In Philippians, Paul writes “to the saints in Christ Jesus with the bishops and deacons.”
    1. Here he speaks with titles/nouns: function has become an office.
    2. One might ask about the implications of the fact that he writes specifically to the whole church, including bishops and deacons; i.e., he does not write only to the leaders.
Note on Resources: The material above is adapted from a six-part series written by Dr. James W. Thompson. [Part Two: A New Kind of Leadership.] The material is available through the Church Relations Department of Abilene Christian University.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 7 January 2007

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