LEADERLESS CHURCHES: COULD THEY EVER WORK?

Some Now Say that Churches Don't Need Leaders, That They Can Function as Democracies, But Can They?




Fact is: Teaching Cannot Be Avoided, Teaching and Learning are Part of Life; Are We Simply Going to Retreat From This Very Clear Area of Christian Responsibility?


P erhaps it is because, when a theology student, I spent several years preaching in places of worship which had often been without a pastor for anything from 2-7 years, that I know how essential good leadership is within local congregations of Christians.


I often saw horrendous problems which, one assumes, any resident pastor would have quickly sorted out. To any visiting preacher these problems were far from invisible yet deacons - all too often - took a, "yes, it's really bad but it's not my responsibility to be concerned with that," attitude. That did not wash with me and I occasionally felt that some of these people had a most appalling attitude. Yes, I truly learned a lot from those years!

All of that being the case, I am always surprised when I hear yet another advocacy for the scheme of the democratic, leaderless, congregation of Christians. In fairness, in most cases these voices speak of small house churches, yet sometimes they do not. These sincere people usually 'major' on those New Testament texts (such as 1 Corinthians 14) which show more congregational involvement than is sometimes the case today. Now it is right and correct that we should consult such Scriptures and, indeed, consider whether we can learn from them, but we must not ignore the wealth of Scriptures which make plain the importance of order, discipline, leadership, and certainly sound doctrinal teaching.

I feel that one of the problems is in the attempting to make the biblical revelation 'behave itself' in accordance with 21st century western, politically-correct liberal sensibilities, but it is usually an error to cut the New Testament loose from it's cultural foundations in the Israel of the Judges and Prophets, as outlined in the Old Testament.

Do We Need 'Elders'?

A few voices now say that the church could - and should - function without any elders, no pastors, not even any sermons. Yep - some writers would get rid of the lot - let the church be a true democracy! Yet, however well-meaning, these people are being highly neglectful of the fact that God always performs works with men and women upon this earth through organised human leadership. In the New Testament period, He plainly raised up twelve apostles to form a supreme first century level of leadership. No, it's not that these leaders expected others to 'bow and scrape' before them but sound organisation and leadership is obviously a point of paramount importance to our Maker. This should be no surprise: Just consider how, in the Old Testament, any work of God upon this earth was always facilitated through the raising up of outstanding leaders from Noah, through Moses, to the Judges and on to the time of Elijah and Elishah and the other prophets.


An Experience...

A number of years ago my wife and I agreed to test a small charismatic church which met in a school on Sunday mornings. This was about a year before I completed my theology degree and, during this period, Tina and I often liked to attend various Christian meeting places just to see how various Christians organised their Lord's Day meetings. In this particular case we quickly discovered that this small charismatic church operated as a sort of democracy with no central leader although - in effect - leadership appeared to be spread between four people, but there were no titles, just Christian names. There was a loose format of the Sunday Service, but that's all - other than that, people waited to be 'moved by the Spirit.' Somebody was assigned the main message but could be interrupted at any time by a prayer or a 'revelation.'

I noted that there was confusion in the theological approach, one guy was 'hot' on making the approach dispensationalist where he could, another was Calvinist. One Sunday, one 'main message' speaker became confused because he attempted to explain a tricky Scripture with no use of notes whatsoever (speaker's notes were somewhat frowned upon if not actually banned), the next Sunday was incredibly noisy because the Sunday School was cancelled and small children were allowed to simply run around the large hall with no supervision or correction whatsoever. On another Sunday morning another 'main message' attempted to explain a difficult Scripture but this led to an interruption followed by an argument between two people. Thankfully, it was soon time to sing the closing hymn and a knowing little glance between Tina and myself managed to convey to each of us the very same thought: Never again! Sure enough, we had had enough and never went back.

This naive, somewhat emotional, anti-doctrinal and anti-intellectual approach fed absolutely none of those who were present; indeed, people seemed to leave the hall feeling, and expressing, frustration.

Why, it might be asked, did the church ever need a system of apostles (witnesses of the ministry of Christ), evangelists, pastors and deacons? Why 'ordain elders in every city'? (See Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5). It is because God is not the author of confusion (1 Corithians 14:33), moreover, not a single Scripture anywhere in the Bible suggests that God supports the creed of democracy! The office of elder is clearly based upon the elders of Israel and it was for these people to take firm and resolute leadership. So it was necessary for these church elders to organise, to drive out any false teachings, to love, to serve, to encourage, to teach and to warn where necessary. The Scriptures are quite abundant which outline these responsibilities.

1 Timothy 5:17 states:

'The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.'

So some of the elders were preaching elders (rather than simply being the head of a home in which a Christian congregation met). Preaching and teaching were obviously regarded as paramount responsibiities in the first century church. Now it is true that others within a congregation could offer prayers or give a 'prophecy' and several of the congregation could be involved, yet the preaching of the Word by the leaders was of great importance. It is also true that women probably had a greater involvement in all of this than established Christianity has usually granted them, yet, as in Israel, an elder could obviously only be a man. Timothy was obviously quite young but he was exceptional, but, in general terms, an ideal elder would be a mature, intelligent man of perhaps middle to older age, the parent of some fine children, certainly of good general reputation and well-seasoned in the Faith. It is an aside, but I have often been amazed that while such people exist in almost all congregations, they are usually ignored for the pastorate and attempts are usually made to recruit a young pastor straight out of university or Bible college without any of the necessary experience. It is no surprise to me how often this practice goes disastrously wrong.

Do We Need Sermons?

Some are now saying that modern churches should discard the whole idea of the sermon. But wait! How will the people of God ever be trained in the rudiments of the Christian Faith without them? Indeed, one of today's major problems is the countless liberal, politically-correct 'sermons' which actually say nothing and impart nothing. Sound, biblical teaching and exposition has never been more needed than right now early in this 21st century!

Not content to suggest that we no longer need sermons, a few insist that 'sermons' don't even occur in the New Testament. But in Acts 20:7, Paul preached until midnight. If this was not a sermon, what was it? Let us look at that:

'On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.' (Acts 20:7, NIV throughout).

The setting on the First Day of the week accompanied by the 'breaking of bread' leave one in no doubt that this was a Christian worship service. It seems that Paul preached rather a long time. The word 'sermon,' which a few have now decided that they don't like, simply means, 'a religious discourse given by a religious leader for teaching, training and/or encouragement.' This is all about communication. For us, it is about communicating the great truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by a speaker specifically trained to be able to accomplish that. Where - I might ask - is the problem in that??

We should always note Paul's concern that correct doctrine should always be taught in order to avoid/correct heresy, as expressed by Paul to Timothy in his letters to the young man. See, for example, 1 Tim. 1:3-11; 4:1-16: 6:3-5. 2 Tim. 4:3-5. but there are many other warnings too, involving not only Paul, but Peter and John: Titus 1:5-9; 2:1; 2 Peter 3:16; 1 John 2:18-27; 1 John 3:7; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 7-11; 3 John 9-11; Jude 3-4.

All of the above (there are more such Scriptures, I just pulled out the ones which sprang into my mind) show the urgent concern that correct doctrinal teaching should be preserved in the church. How can that be done? Only by sound and regular preaching!
Let us take a closer look at one of those Scriptures (the reader is advised to go through them all). These are the words of Paul to Timothy whom Paul obviously felt some responsibility to train:

3. As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer
4. nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God's work—which is by faith.
5. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
6. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.
7. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.
8. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.
9. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,
10. for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine
11. that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:3-11).

Notice the great importance which Paul the Apostle placed on sound doctrinal understanding of the Christian message.
In teaching the need for strong Christian doctrine and for being ever-vigilant against the entrance of heresy, is it seriously suggested that Timothy would be able to accomplish this without a great deal of teaching and preaching? Can we seriously imagine Paul writing to Timothy,

'You don't need to worry too much about false teachings, just get a nice emotional atmosphere going in your meetings and wait for the Spirit to move where He wills!'

I don't think so!

Now let us note Paul's words to Titus on the great importance of sound teaching in the church, and on the behaviour of elders. After making comments about the high standards of behaviour required of an elder, let us clearly note Paul's strong words on the preaching and teaching responsibilies of an elder :

He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. (Titus 1:9).

So the elders were to take the lead in teaching sound Christian doctrine. Again, a major fault of the modern church is that so many leaders have not correctly taught and trained their people even in the basic rudiments of the gospel. Frequently even people attending what one would consider 'evangelical churches' cannot define the gospel of Jesus Christ by using perhaps 4-5 Scriptures. The lack of teaching of the disciples of Christ is most appalling here in the UK, for example, the average evangelical, Bible-believing church has absolutely no policy on where it stands on evolution. The sad irony here is that it's members may freely watch British television almost any night of the week and catch people like Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough glorifying their atheism and evolutionism. When the Christian sits and watches such things he or she is allowing himself/herself to be taught, yet too many churches offer their people nothing to counteract such atheistic teaching - neither does it stop there! The average violent movie playing at the cinema tends to assume a background of atheism and almost always assumes an immoral lifestyle by it's main characters. Where such screenplays portray Christian characters, a huge tendency has developed to depict these people either as mentally-unbalanced, weak, scheming or evil. What am I saying? I am saying that we are all constantly surrounded by teaching whether we recognize it as such or not. Moreover, all of us probably open our minds to malevolent and God-denying influences far more than we should. Do we seriously think that there is no teaching occurring in any such influence? Fact is:

TEACHING CANNOT BE AVOIDED, TEACHING AND LEARNING ARE PART OF LIFE; ARE WE SIMPLY GOING TO RETREAT FROM THIS CLEAR AREA OF CHRISTIAN RESPONSIBILITY?

The writer of the Book of Hebrews would apparently have a very clear viewpoint on the failure of so many churches to teach and train their people in the very rudiments of the Christian Faith:

11. We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn.
12. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!
13. Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. (Hebrews 5:11-13).

We can safely say that the writer of Hebrews would not be too impressed with the modern phenomenon of "evangelical Christians" attending a Christian place of worship week-in week-out for perhaps 5-25 years but being completely stumped when asked to write down just a brief summary of what they believe with, perhaps 4-6 key Scriptures reasonably accurately quoted. A pastor friend whom I cannot name, tells me of the occasion when he asked his congregation to write down just a brief summary of why they believed God created the world despite the claims of people like arch-atheist and rabid evolutionist Richard Dawkins. An amazing 60-70% of the congregation apparently refused to do so. Of the rest, only 12 people wrote something which was coherent and reasonably 'useable' and viable as Christian Apologetics. I may say that this pastor had warned his congregation a week earlier what he would ask them to do, so it isn't that this was a sudden and surprising request.

The Apostle Peter had no doubt that the disciple of Christ needed to be au fait with, for instance, the epistles of Paul:

15. Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.
16. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Again, if it is possible to pervert the words of Paul (and it clearly is) then it is essential that the brethren are carefully instructed. The New Testament writers share such concerns, and seem to assume ongoing spiritual instruction within congregations. Paul himself said:

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. (1 Corinthians 2:13).

and,

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2).

A 'bottom line' on all of this is probably the following comment of Paul to the church at Ephesus:

11. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,
12. to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
13. until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13).

So all of this builds one's case that correct understanding should never be assumed among members of the Body of Christ, but rather, good, solid scriptural instruction would always be needed to keep out false doctrines.

Would anybody seriously suggest that the early church might have needed that, but we don't need it today?

Fact is, we don't have the apostles around to directly appeal to today so this matter becames much more important especially in the light of warnings such as this:

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:3).

And a final word from Jude:

3. Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.
4. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 3-4).

None of the above, nor our own common sense, suggests that a time would come when Christians would no longer need continual teaching and instruction in the Faith. This being so, careful instruction from men who are able to fulfil that role will always be needed.

Our conclusion must be that the vague, leaderless 'democratic' church which has abandoned all in-depth teaching and instruction from the medium of the Christian sermon, cannot be pleasing to our Lord.
Robin A. Brace, January 16th, 2010.

UK APOLOGETICS