Sunday, April 6, 2008

What Makes Someone a Christian Leader

In the New Testament God used human leaders to bring blessing and feeding to the church. From the day of Pentecost, the apostles acted as de facto leaders. They preached, taught, (Acts 2:42) and ruled on issues that came up for debate (Acts 6:1,2). They were able to delegate leadership to others (Acts 6:3,4).

After the period of the Jerusalem church, attention shifts to Paul's missionary journeys. Paul, too, was an apostle, and an obvious leader. He served in Antioch with a group of men who were said to be "prophets and teachers." (Acts 13:1) These were probably the elders in Antioch, though never says that. It does record that "they" [probably the same men] laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off on the first journey." The reason they chose Paul and Barnabas was divine election (see below). On that first journey we see them appointing elders in the new churches they planted. (Acts 14:23) The fasting and prayer that preceded these appointments suggests they were seeking God's choice for leaders. These appointments ware made during their return trip through these cities, indicating that some time had passed (probably only weeks) since their original visit.

During the second journey, Paul added Timothy to his band, likely leading to Timothy's eventual recognition as an apostle. Although this is never actually stated, Timothy acts in the role of an apostle in appointing elders and overseeing elders according to 1 Timothy. (Ch. 3; 5:17ff) The only criteria given in Acts for why Paul chose Timothy is that "The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him." (Acts 16:2) However, in 2 Tim. 1:6 Paul refers to bestowing gifts on Timothy by the laying on of his own hands (most likely the gift of apostleship). This is also referred to in 1 Tim. 4:14 where Paul reminds him of his gift, "which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery." Thus, if a prophetic utterance was the occasion of Timothy's choosing, we again have a case of divine election.

Both Timothy and Titus are given the job of appointing elders. Of interest is the fact that Paul has left them behind to do this work, implying that it was not possible to select elders when he was there. This suggests that they wanted to see these men actually living out leadership roles before making the choice to recognize them as elders. Likewise, Paul cautions Timothy about deacons: "They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons." (1 Tim. 3:10)

Overarching these observations about leadership in the early church, we see evidence of divine election in the selection of leaders. This should be clear for the following reasons.

The Apostles were chosen by Christ. The correct context of John 15:16 (You did not chose me, but I chose you) is not unconditional election or irresistible grace, but election to the role of apostle. Likewise, God's choice is evident in the story of Paul's conversion (where God refers to his future ministry) and in the story of the Spirit speaking to the leaders at Antioch in Acts 13 (saying, "Set apart for me Paul and Barnabas..."). Timothy was apparently named an apostle by a prophetic message from God. (1 Tim. 4:14) We find, therefore, that when it comes to the role of leadership in the New Testament, the key is whether or not God has chosen the person.
Paul comments on his own credentials for leadership in the book of 2 Corinthians 3:1-3: "Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts..." Here, Paul contrasts human credentials (letters of commendation) to his own credentials, which are nothing less than the marks of divine election. Instead of humans writing his letter, he says the Spirit of God wrote it on human hearts.
Notice Paul's reference in 2 Cor. 10:12 to "the field God has assigned to us." God apparently assigns fields of ministry, and Paul's proof that he was assigned the field in question is that he had done the work there, as the context makes clear.
According to Rom. 12:8, there is a gift of leadership. Likewise, Eph. 4:11,12 says, "It was he [God] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up." This is in harmony with the notion that God "has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be." (1 Cor. 12:18) In other words, these passages seem to say that God chooses who should lead his church. We believe leaders can serve even without a gift of leadership, although we should seek out and include those with such a gift if they have good character.
We see in the waiting period between the planting of churches and the selection of elders an apparent effort to discern who God wants to serve as leaders. This is also the best explanation for why deacons are tested before they are ordained. The existing leadership seems to assume that God has certain people whom he wants to lead, and their mission is to discern who those people are. Paul warns Timothy not to be too hasty to lay on hands [i.e. to chose leaders 1 Tim. 5:22 context].

Election was evident with Old Testament leaders as well. God often made a personal appearance to choose leaders, as with Abraham and Moses. To David God says, "I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be leader over My people Israel." (1Chron. 17:7) Indeed, all the legitimate kings of Israel were anointed by prophets as chosen of God.

Mature Christian character is a prerequisite for leadership in all cases. Even highly gifted leaders who lack the needed character qualities may not be named as leaders. This is implied in the requirements for elders and deacons, which focus on character qualities.

We conclude that God, not humans, makes a person a spiritual leader. As existing church leaders, our mission is not to create leaders out of non-leaders by naming them or ordaining them. On the contrary, our mission is to discern whom God has chosen to be a leader, and to ratify, or recognize that choice. In naming leaders we are indicating that we believe God has shown this person is already chosen to be a leader because he or she is already doing the work of a leader and has the character of a leader.

Read about raising up leadership in the church in Organic Disciplemaking.

What are the implications if God chooses leaders?

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