Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Church Leadership and the NT

In recent days a couple Facebook groups have arisen among Wesleyans and a number of hot bed issues have been discussed.  It's a painful place because quite different and strongly held perspectives are bantered about, but so far we're all playing nice. Some of the topics have been practical ministry questions. Others have ranged over more sensitive issues like women in ministry, inerrancy, and evolution.

I see one cross section of controversy arising because the Wesleyan church has attracted a number of former Baptists and reconstructionists whose orientation is to "get things back" to how the New Testament church did things. Occasionally, this gets us into conflict with some of the residual Methodist elements of Wesleyan Church structure.  Why don't we have deacons, for example?

I thought I'd post a couple comments I made there, since the question of how we should structure local churches occasionally has come up here.

1. Those who know me will know what I'll always say with these sorts of questions. Leadership will certainly not look the same in 21st century America when it comes to many specifics. There are instead general principles and values that have to be contextualized. Doing what they did might not do what it did then today. In fact, at times in might be downright counterproductive and have exactly the opposite effect. We don't read the Bible to do exactly what they did (greet the brothers with a holy kiss), but to see how God walked with his people at particular times and places in the past to bring forward the wisdom of those relationships and interactions (let's shake hands instead).

2. I like a deaconate system too and I think an effective church of any size will have to have individuals who perform this sort of roll. My pet peeve is that we have to do it a certain way or call these people a certain thing because of the NT. After all, Acts 6 doesn't call them deacons. Acts never uses the word. It appears in a small number of Pauline passages, and 1 Timothy is hardly the center of Paul's thinking.

I don't think we can say there was one structure to the NT church. James 2 talks of someone walking into their "synagogue," implying that many Christian Jews pretty much co-opted the existing synagogue structure. A church like Corinth seems to have had a strong charismatic element and prophets seem to have played a prominent role in NT church leadership. 3 John may reflect tensions between an older itinerant leadership and an incipient local authority structure.

So I would say we can easily justify from the NT 1) leadership that goes beyond the local congregation (e.g., Paul), 2) collective leadership of the wise in a congregation (e.g., elders), 3) focal leadership in a congregation (e.g., Timothy, Epaphroditus), 4) prophetic voices that must always be tested, and 5) individuals to whom more detailed ministry is delegated (deacons).

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