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Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 252–271 

Preacher, Teacher, Pastor, and Elder: Mennonite Brethren and McClendon’s Portrayal of Church Authorities

Doug Heidebrecht

The nature of leaders’ authority in the church continues to be a relevant issue for many churches, denominational bodies, and ecumenical conversations. 1 My particular interest is the experience of the Mennonite Brethren in Canada, an Evangelical Anabaptist denomination, which began initially as a renewal movement in 1860 among the Mennonite colonies of south Russia and traces its roots to the sixteenth-century Dutch Anabaptists. 2 Through migration and mission efforts Mennonite Brethren now comprise twenty-one national conferences in nineteen countries. 3

Any individualistic emphasis on the autonomy of leaders fails to understand the nature of the church as Christ’s body.

My specific focus will be the Canadian Mennonite Brethren, whose journey reflects the adoption of three different yet overlapping polity models of church governance: a historic multiple lay leadership model, the transition to a single pastor and representative council model during the 1950s, and then again another shift to an elder leadership model during the 1980s. During each phase, a specific depiction of congregational leadership using biblical terminology was used to designate the primary “authorities in” the church: preacher/teacher, pastor, and elder. 4 {253}

Despite the differences in leadership language, Mennonite Brethren historically shared several core convictions about leadership in the church. They hold that the biblical pattern of leadership is a “shared function of a group of persons,” who, having been appointed primarily because of their spiritual maturity and giftedness, seek to serve as sacrificial servants in teaching, equipping, and shepherding activities. 5 In response, “the church freely entrusts [them] with the necessary authority and power to exercise their role (not office) of ministry.” 6

James Wm. McClendon, Jr. provides a helpful perspective for Mennonite Brethren because he shares with them several core convictions about leadership in the church. For example, McClendon maintains that the distinction between clergy and laity has no New Testament roots; rather the church represents a “company of equals” where all are gifted by God’s Spirit and “every member is a minister.” 7 He asserts that hierarchy is not essential to leadership since every member of the church is called to discipleship and “equally responsible for the community-building.” 8 McClendon also contends that leaders in the church must “reflect the servanthood of the Lord Jesus” in order to represent a legitimate authority in the church. 9 While these shared convictions point in a similar direction, McClendon’s own goal of exploring how the church’s “proximate authorities are related to God’s ultimate authority, [and] to one another” offers Mennonite Brethren a much more nuanced theological framework that can contribute to clarifying the nature of leaders’ authority in the church. 10

McClendon concludes his second volume, Doctrine: Systematic Theology, with “An Essay on Authority,” in which he seeks to offer a fresh perspective regarding the nature of God’s authority. 11 While McClendon readily affirms that “God is the authority,” he recognises that concerns about the nature of God’s authority for Christians often emerge when they try to understand how God’s authority is enacted in the world. 12 In other words, how is God’s ultimate authority related to the delegated authorities recognised by Christians? Or more specifically, what is the nature of leaders’ authority in the church? 13 In response, McClendon distinguishes three kinds of legitimate authority within the church: (1) “authorities on”—theologians, historians, and experts who exercise power through knowledge and expertise on a particular subject or area; (2) “authorities in”—pastors, deacons, teachers and any others who are the designated leaders in the church; and (3) the “criterial authority” of the Christian community, which is possessed by members of the church “just because they are members.” 14 In this paper I will explore how “authorities in” the church might represent God’s ultimate authority within Mennonite Brethren congregations. {254}


Leader as Preacher/Teacher

While the circumstances of the Mennonite Brethren secession from the established Mennonite colonies in south Russia in 1860 initially produced a reaction to what was perceived as “arbitrary and oppressive leadership,” this fledging movement eventually established a multiple lay ministry polity model, which, though hierarchical, was tempered by shared authority and “strong congregational involvement in deliberations and decision-making.” 15 Leadership in the local church consisted of all ordained ministers and deacons, who were “chosen from among the membership on the basis of giftedness and service within the congregation . . . after a time of testing the gifts and the consistency of life according to the scriptural standards for leadership ministries.” 16 Corporate responsibility for preaching and teaching in the church was reflected in the practice of all congregational leaders sharing in the pulpit ministry, however, “these ministers and teachers were not the head of the congregation; they had authority only to preach the Word and administer discipline.” 17 J. B. Toews notes, this “exercise of authority was implicit, guided by the motto, ‘Thus says the Scripture.’ ” 18

Leader as Pastor

When Mennonite Brethren immigrated to Canada during the 1920s, they intentionally “sought to preserve the familiar forms and structures” of church governance they had established earlier in Russia. 19 “Until 1945, Mennonite Brethren were a homogeneous group, basically held together by their ethnicities, religious beliefs, cultural distinctives, and historic traditions.” However, this insularity and cohesion quickly dissipated in the face of increasing urbanisation, industrialisation, and education, resulting in rapid acculturation and the ensuing transition from the use of German to English. 20 As the sense of collective identity diminished, leadership within the church shifted from a recognised group of ministers within a community to a single salaried pastor, often hired from outside the church membership, and a church council representing various program areas of the church, such as Christian education, youth, or music. 21 The functional character of this representative church council model, coupled with the brevity of leadership tenures, resulted both in a more democratic decision-making process and a practical shift of authority to the paid pastor who was responsible for the church’s programs. 22

Mennonite Brethren conference leadership, however, became increasingly alarmed with the swift adoption of the professional pastor model and the loss of a more “organic spiritual process of {255} leadership development within local churches.” 23 They warned that the uncritical embrace of the pastoral system reflected a “great lack of understanding as to what the brotherhood actually is and what its collective responsibilities are.” 24 Cautions about calling “teachers of the Word” from outside the Mennonite Brethren conference and attempts to regulate the appointment and ordination of ministers more carefully by ensuring that leaders first prove “themselves for a period of several years as true and faithful to the doctrine and practice of the Mennonite Brethren Church,” passed, J. B. Toews notes, “as a mere echo in the whirlwind of change.” 25

Leader as Elder

During the 1980s another transition in governance swept through Mennonite Brethren congregations—this time churches embraced an elder leadership model, which, although it harkened back to the earlier multiple lay ministry model, looked very different in practice. Several factors contributed to this development: a renewed sensitivity to the biblical pattern of multiple leadership, greater awareness of the spiritual giftedness of all believers, caution about reliance upon individual pastors as the primary spiritual leaders in the church, and the promotion of strong centralised leadership by the Church Growth movement at that time. 26 This shift essentially relegated authority in the church to a small group of “lay elders” chosen from within the congregation, who, along with the employed pastoral staff, provided vision and oversight for the church. The equation of leadership authority with the “ruling office” of eldership meant that this polity shift displaced congregational consultation, thus effectively eliminating both congregations and often even women from actively participating in the decision-making processes of the church. 27

Again, conference leaders raised concerns about the uncritical emergence of this governance shift among Mennonite Brethren churches. The resulting leadership crisis, they claimed, was a “crisis of authority and submission,” which not only defined church leadership as an office, not a function, but also disconnected leaders from the covenant community within which they served. 28 Conference leaders expressed a sense of urgency about the need to redefine an “understanding of the nature of the church” because they claimed that Mennonite Brethren were “no longer clear what the church, and particularly the Mennonite Brethren Church, is all about.” 29

This brief survey of how Mennonite Brethren perceived the authority of leaders in the church highlights several critical issues. First, Mennonite Brethren’s profound biblicism, while shaping an implicit theology, was unable to provide a theological framework to assess pragmatic shifts in {256} church practice. 30 The transitions in governance models within Canadian Mennonite Brethren churches, which had significant ecclesiological implications, took place without any prior theological justification. 31 John A. Toews observed:

From available church and conference records it appears that the question of the “one pastor system” was never discussed in principle within the context of New Testament teaching nor in the light of the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage. The arguments for and against the new system are virtually all of a pragmatic nature. 32

It was only in response to changes already taking place within local congregations that conference leaders began to address how these polity transitions challenged historic Mennonite Brethren ecclesiology, thus highlighting the gap between Mennonite Brethren practice of leadership and their theology of the church as well as their vulnerability to the influx of external theological and cultural influences. 33

Second, attempts by Mennonite Brethren conference leaders to articulate the nature of the church as a “brotherhood” in the 1950s and as a “covenant community” in the 1980s sought to counter a pervasive yet ambiguous individualism, which was blamed for promoting congregational autonomy and theological diversity. 34 During the 1950s leaders feared that “the spirit of individualism and the emphasis on local autonomy,” hierarchical leadership, and pragmatic solutions would threaten the “relationship of interdependence and unity in the brotherhood.” 35 Thirty years later, Mennonite Brethren leaders continued to be concerned about the “tendency towards congregational autonomy and independence, . . . a lack of mutually submissive solidarity, . . . [and] an entrenched attitude of independence.” 36 However, these attempts to define the nature of the church, which assumed the vitality of interdependent relationships and a set of shared practices, were increasingly perceived as irrelevant for defining the nature of authority within local congregations that were already functioning autonomously. 37

Finally, the historic Mennonite Brethren concept of “brotherhood” has significant implications for understanding how authority might function within the church. “Brotherhood” not only highlights the importance of defining the church by mutual familial relationships, but also assumes there is no inherent distinction between clergy and laity. 38 This underlies the assertion that the ministry of leadership is “a function within the church, not an office” because leadership emerges from “the theology of the church, not the reverse.” 39 A Mennonite Brethren theology of the church asserts that the “authority to lead in the church is primarily corporate rather than individual,” the call to leadership is {257} legitimated by the church, the “test of genuine authority to lead in the church is service to others,” and the “style of authoritative leadership is mutual subordination.” 40 Yet Mennonite Brethren have struggled with maintaining a congruent relationship between their stated convictions about the church and the pragmatic realities of their experience.


Trinitarian Lens

McClendon appeals to the Trinitarian benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14 as the framework for understanding God’s authority: the love of God is God’s interactive authority at work in human experience; the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is “God’s redemptive authority revealed in the written Scripture; and the fellowship of the Spirit is God’s unitive authority reflected in the community of faith. 41 McClendon’s use of a Trinitarian lens to depict God’s authority may at first glance appear to be somewhat strained, particularly his appeal to 2 Corinthians 13:14, which shows little exegetical interest in how the contextual concerns about authority in the epistle itself (for example 2 Cor 13:10) may possibly inform the benediction. 42 Nevertheless, the organisation of McClendon’s volume, Doctrine, around the rule of God, the identity of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit, highlights the significance he places on a Trinitarian framework for the understanding authority in the church. 43

McClendon’s appeal to a Trinitarian depiction of the ultimate authority of God, while resonating with the Trinitarian lens Mennonite Brethren use to frame their Confession of Faith and their theology of mission, also offers a way of describing the church. 44 The rule of God “implies a disciple church,” where all members consent to live subject to God’s reign. 45 The centrality of Jesus Christ means leadership is characterised both by his example of servanthood and his “crucified and risen presence” within the church. 46 The fellowship of the Spirit entails a common life, where the church’s gifts and “practices suit, not this present age, but the age to come.” 47 McClendon’s use of these three themes—God’s rule, Christ’s leadership, and the fellowship of the Spirit—to portray the church community, provides both an integral link to his Trinitarian depiction of God’s authority. 48 It is this intersection between God’s authority and the context of the church community that holds possibilities for clarifying the nature of leaders’ authority in the church.

The Authority of Preachers and Teachers

McClendon’s discussion of the practices of preaching and teaching has implications for understanding how the authority of preachers and teachers can represent God’s ultimate authority. 49 McClendon identifies {258} preaching, along with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as one of the remembering signs, which, by looking both backward and forward, calls for “remembrance of the great story of salvation” and declares “the presence of Christ with his people.” 50 With the sign of preaching “it is not the preacher’s word that matters; what matters is that here God speaks.” 51 For McClendon, preaching is inextricably linked with the proclamation of the Scriptures because this “Bible is for us the word of God written; it is that text in which the One who lays claim to our lives by the act of his life makes the claim afresh in acts of speech; it is for us God speaking; it is the word of God.” 52 The “preacher’s authority to preach” emerges because this “is the book of Jesus Christ, a book that is about him, a book that finds its interpretive key in him, a book that points as witness” to his living presence and through which Jesus’s own authority addresses both the preacher and the people. 53 Because McClendon identifies the proximate authority of the Scriptures as a mediation of the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ, he is able to declare, “the preacher who preaches the book with authority preaches with the authority of Jesus Christ. This means that the preacher’s appeal to his or her hearers is no other than the appeal that Christ makes.” 54

Yet, McClendon readily acknowledges that not all preaching is a prophetic sign that points to Christ’s authority, since there are times when, “in ‘preaching the Bible,’ some sermons become mere Ancient Near East lectures; in ‘preaching the gospel,’ mere theologizing; in ‘preaching Christ,’ mere sentiment.” 55 However, when the life story and character of the preacher, “his or her individual experience with God,” reflects participation in Jesus Christ, then it is Christ who is able to speak his Word. 56 McClendon recognises that authority in preaching is not identical with homiletical skill, or the ability to preach as an “authority on” the Bible, or whether one is even an “authority in” the church, but rather preaching authority reflects an experience and personal relationship with Christ himself. 57

Furthermore, McClendon insists that the preacher and the sermon are also “dependent upon the authority of the Holy Spirit to make inward application of the preached word to hearers’ lives.” 58 It is only when listeners under the authority of the Spirit are able to “recognize God’s authentic voice”—through hearing, discernment, and application—that the sign of preaching becomes an “effectual sign.” 59 McClendon’s emphasis on the need for discernment of the gift of prophetic speech alludes to Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14:29 and the practice Anabaptists called the “Rule of Paul,” where the Spirit’s presence is discernible when during a “meeting everyone would have the authority to take the floor and everyone would listen.” 60 There is no hierarchy of {259} the preacher over listeners because it is the Spirit who must authorise both the spoken word and the application of that word to hearers’ lives. 61

McClendon’s discussion of teaching in the church complements his reflections regarding preaching. In a broad sense, McClendon asserts that the church itself is a teacher because it “teaches by what it is and by what it does . . . all its practices interact with its teaching.” 62 However, even though each member is a teacher (Col 3:16), the church still recognises the Spirit’s gift of teaching and the need to affirm “a smaller number of formally designated teachers” within its midst. 63 Like preaching, McClendon affirms that teaching is a “response to God’s own authority in Christ Jesus,” and because human teaching is unable to express that authority adequately, there is a crucial role for the church community in the practice of teaching. 64

McClendon’s depiction of teaching as a regular practice of the church adds another dimension to understanding the nature of the authority of preachers and teachers. McClendon acknowledges that while teachers and those being taught must both reflect the learning stance of disciples, the means of teaching in the church requires a level of qualification and preparation, including skill in biblical studies and a spiritual sensitivity that reflects a deep commitment to following Jesus. 65 Rules for the practice of teaching are also intertwined with the practice of Scripture reading by the church, and so teachers need to be able to follow the accepted rules for reading the Bible. These include, most importantly, what McClendon calls upper-level rules, which “are coherent with the deep and widely shared convictions of the reading community,” such as seeking the plain sense of Scripture, reading from a Christocentric perspective, and affirming the unity and congruence of the Bible. 66 The authority of teachers in the church is also related to how they are able to engage effectively in the practice of teaching—to offer sound teaching—for just as in other practices, “to know the rules is necessary, but to play the game is something more.” 67

Finally, McClendon insists that “the practice of teaching and the community that practices it” are inseparable, because the church engages in reading Scripture as a community of disciples “who face the interpretive task from a shared context of witness in a particular place.” 68 Teaching in the church must “be in continual and intimate contact with the lived experience” of those who hold Christian convictions, since these convictions “give shape to actual lives and actual communities.” 69 Therefore, teaching is also intertwined with the practice of communal discernment because both experience and Scripture “require assessment, interpretation, and judgment.” 70

When the church gathers as “a company of equals, equally gifted by God’s Spirit,” the presence of the Spirit in the community reflects {260} a criterial “authority for faith and life that is possessed by members of the Christian body just because they are members.” 71 The practice of communal discernment necessarily involves a “never-ending congregational conversation,” 72 in which teachers, both as church leaders (“authorities in” the congregation) and theologians (“authorities on” the Bible), are called to participate as members and disciples in the community’s conversation. McClendon recognises that the practices of teaching and reading Scripture contribute to the church’s ability to discern the voice of the Spirit, who at times “challenges, corrects, and sometimes flatly defeats the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves.” 73

The above survey of McClendon’s discussion of preaching and teaching highlights several key characteristics of the nature of preachers’ and teachers’ authority in the church. First, their own authority in the church is directly linked to their faithful proclamation and explanation of the Scriptures. The faithfulness of their reading and interpretation of the Bible is to be tested and discerned within the community as well as attested to by their own character and experience with God. The many cautions in the New Testament about the danger of false teaching within the church along with the corresponding concern for sound teaching highlight how the authority of teachers can dissipate when they are no longer true to the Word. 74

Second, the faithful proclamation of the Bible by preachers and teachers is one of the means by which God speaks, and by doing so, they are witnesses to the authoritative living presence of Christ within the church. Because the Word of God to the church is comprised of the spoken word undivided from the Spirit’s interpretation, discernment, and application within the community (1 Cor 14:29), the authority of preachers and teachers does not exist apart from the community in which they serve. This recognition highlights the integral nature of God’s ultimate authority reflected through a Trinitarian lens.

Finally, the New Testament recognition of broad participation in preaching and teaching (all are able to prophesy—1 Cor 14:31; all are called to teach one another—1 Cor 14:26; Col 3:16) and the identification of prophets and teachers as Christ’s gift for equipping the church (Eph 4:7, 11-12), suggest their authority is functionally related to the practices of preaching and teaching. 75 While authority cannot simply be equated with adequate qualification and preparation, homiletical and interpretive skills, or faithful discipleship, these factors all contribute to how someone’s participation in the practices of preaching and teaching are received as a faithful mediation of God’s authority by the church community. {261}

The Authority of Pastors and Elders

Since McClendon only makes fleeting references to pastors and elders, my exploration of the nature of their authority in the church will begin by first asking how the New Testament portrayal of these roles relates to McClendon’s depiction of God’s ultimate authority. 76 This approach resonates with McClendon’s hermeneutical lens, the baptist vision, which seeks to understand how the church today participates in the ongoing biblical story. 77

In contrast to the extensive contemporary use of “pastor” (or “shepherd”) to refer to church leaders, the term is used only once in the New Testament to refer to human leaders who are part of Christ’s five-fold set of equipping gifts for the church (Eph 4:11). 78 Rather, it is Christ himself, the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), who is clearly identified as the “Pastor” of the church (Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:27), which carries forward the Old Testament’s portrayal of God as Israel’s Shepherd. 79 Just as Israel’s leaders were depicted as shepherds over the nation on behalf of God, so too, church leaders are called to shepherd the church on behalf of Jesus. 80 As the Great Shepherd, Jesus responds with compassion (Mark 6:34; 9:36), seeks after lost sheep (Matt 18:10-14; Luke 15:3-7), protects the flock (John 10:12), and lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). It is predominately this function of shepherding—feeding, watching over, protecting, nurturing, and being an example— that is used to describe the service of leaders in the New Testament (John 21:26; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2-3).

This brief description of the role of pastors in the early church highlights several threads found in McClendon, which he never explicitly weaves together, yet when wound together begin to present a picture of how to understand pastors’ authority in the church. Since Christ is identified as the Shepherd of the church, and human leaders are called to shepherd the church on his behalf, Christ’s presence among his people is mediated through his gift of pastors within the church. McClendon’s reference to Christ as the Shepherd-King, while also alluding to the shepherding role of Israel’s leaders (particularly David), highlights God’s present rule and the call for the church to live under his reign. 81 McClendon explicitly links the character of God’s rule with the love of God at work in human experience, where God’s interactive authority is discernible through “God’s love to people, and people’s love one to another.” 82 So as pastors actively watch over, nurture, protect, and care for people along life’s journey, both in their sufferings and celebrations, they are able to demonstrate the interactive love of God for each person and point to God’s presence within people’s varied experiences. These interwoven threads suggest that pastors’ authority within the church {262} is expressed as they reflect or mediate God’s love—his interactive authority—for people.

McClendon’s reflections regarding the practices of preaching and teaching also suggest several parallels that can further illustrate the nature of pastors’ authority in the church. First, pastors’ authority in the church is directly linked to their faithful demonstration of God’s love and their witness to the character of his rule as his servants. Second, as pastors reveal the presence of the Good Shepherd within the community they equip the church to imitate God by living a life of self-giving love (Eph 5:1-2) demonstrated through compassion, forbearance, and forgiveness toward one another (Col 3:12-14). In this way the authority of pastors is integrally connected to the community in which they serve because their pastoral practice facilitates the unity of the Spirit experienced by the church (Eph 4:1-3).

The authority of elders is the final depiction of church leaders used by Mennonite Brethren, which I wish to explore in relation to McClendon’s discussion of God’s authority. Critical to an attempt to characterise the nature of elders’ authority in the church is an understanding of their role within the New Testament church, which is a matter of current debate. 83 R. Alistair Campbell argues convincingly that “in the ancient world the elders are those who bear a title of honour, not of office, a title that is imprecise, collective and representative, and rooted in the ancient family or household.” 84 As such, the authority of elders is “derived from their seniority relative to those they represented” and is “based in relationships that already exist” within the community (see 1 Tim 5:1-2; 1 Pet 5:1-5). 85

While it is impossible to impose a first-century household structure onto a contemporary gathering of believers, the recognition that elders within the church are acknowledged as such because of their seniority in relation to others in the community points toward the nature of their authority. Elders do not reflect an authority separate from the community, but rather their role emerges on the basis of existing relationships because they are integrated members of the community. At one level, their authority is not simply a characteristic of age, but rather reflects how their spiritual maturity and godly character function as models for others within the church (1 Pet 5:3). When elders encourage mutual trust, the diversity of gifts, openness to others, and obedience to the Spirit, they contribute to the fellowship of the Spirit. 86 At another level, elders’ experience in life and their walk with God offer wisdom, instruction, and sound counsel to the community as its members seek to understand their varied experiences and discern how to read Scripture. 87 McClendon notes, to the extent that these judgments are “recognized to {263} be discerning, authority is exercised.” 88 Their relationship with others in the community also provides natural opportunities for them to teach and shepherd the church.

In the New Testament, the reference to “leading” elders (1 Tim 5:17) uses the common language of “patron,” or literally “the one who stands before,” to describe their role in the church. 89 To act as a patron in the church does not denote a legal or hierarchical relationship but an informal and relational role (1 Thess 12-13; 1 Cor 16:15-18), which Paul describes as the gift of leadership for the church (Rom 12:8). 90 Interestingly, women are also recognised as “patrons” in the early church (Rom 16:1-2) and not excluded from the implications this designation carries. It seems that the relational seniority of elders to others in the community represents a different manner of authority than that of teachers and pastors, who are Christ’s equipping gifts to the church through their engagement in specific practices. While there may be functional overlap, elders are inherently part of the community—“a company of equals, equally gifted by God’s Spirit, equally responsible for the community-building” in which “every member is a minister.” 91 However, the recognition of elders in the local congregation cannot be narrowly equated with an authoritative office, which unnecessarily creates a “clergy-laity” distinction where none existed within the New Testament church. 92

It is here where the relationship of elder and overseer needs to be examined further. The term “overseer” refers to a domestic steward (Titus 1:7; cf. 1 Cor 4:1) who typically supervised a team of workers on behalf of the household owner, and its application to church leaders reflects the practical extension of the metaphor comparing the church with the household of God (1 Tim 3:15). 93 At one level, Jesus is identified as the Overseer (along with Shepherd) of the church (1 Pet 2:25), and at another level, the function of oversight also reflects the general responsibility of all members of the community toward each other (Heb 12:15). References to elders and overseers in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 3:1-2; 5:17-18; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Pet 5:1-2) have often been appealed to as a basis for equating these two roles; however, the terms are neither interchangeable nor synonymous. 94

As house churches grew to incorporate multiple households, leadership shifted from a single household leader to a clearly defined office of an overseer, who was assisted by deacons (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-13). 95 Within these churches there would also likely be an identifiable group of elders who were honored on the basis of their age and thereby exercised an authority within the community that reflected their character, experience, and wisdom (1 Tim 5:1-2, 17-18), as noted {264} above. 96 As churches multiplied within a city, select overseers were then appointed to form a city-wide representative council or federation, whose participants together were given the honorary title of elders (Acts 15:22; 20:28; Titus 1:5). 97 Here is where the overlap in the language of overseer and elder occurs—individually these leaders served as overseers in their local churches and some of them were collectively identified as members of a city-wide council of elders. 98 While at first glance it may be confusing for contemporary readers to understand how the language of “elder” might refer to two different groups—a collection of honored seniors within a local church community and a city-wide representative council of appointed overseers; however, this confusion dissipates in the face of evidence from both the New Testament and early church documents.


The nature of leaders’ authority within the context of Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada raises questions regarding how “authorities in” local congregations—preachers and teachers, pastors, and elders—represent or mediate God’s ultimate authority. McClendon’s reflections in Doctrine offer Mennonite Brethren a helpful theological framework in response to these questions through the connection of his Trinitarian portrayal of the church—as God’s rule, Christ’s leadership, and the fellowship of the Spirit—with his portrayal of the “authorities in the church.” 99

McClendon’s depiction of authority presents Mennonite Brethren with several helpful directions for further reflection. First, his emphasis on the delegated nature of leaders’ authority in the church as representative of God’s ultimate authority highlights the importance of intentionally engaging the New Testament portrayal of leadership and authority rather than uncritically and perhaps even unconsciously adopting cultural leadership models in the church.

Second, McClendon makes the case that the nature of authority in the church is often functional, that is, reflected in its practices, rather than located in positions or offices. The challenge facing local congregations is how to understand the relationship between the structures and positions they create in order to facilitate the organisation and ministry of the church, and the authority reflected in the gifts of the Spirit, which are given by God to build up the church.

Third, McClendon contends that the authority of leaders in the church cannot be understood apart from the community in which they serve. Any individualistic emphasis on the independence or autonomy of leaders fails to understand the nature of the church as Christ’s body, which includes both the criterial authority of members and the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ as the Head of the church. {265}


  1. This article is adapted with permission from an earlier version published in Baptistic Theologies: Doug Heidebrecht, “Preacher, Teacher, Pastor and Elder as Authorities in the Church: McClendon’s Portrayal of God’s Authority and Canadian Mennonite Brethren,” Baptistic Theologies 6, no. 2 (Autumn 2014): 24–42. An example of the interest in questions of authority in the church is the recent publication by the World Council of Churches, Contemporary Churches, vol. 2 of Sources of Authority, ed. Tamara Grdzelidze (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2014).
  2. For further discussion regarding the Evangelical Anabaptist identity of Mennonite Brethren, see Bruce L. Guenther, “Reflections on Mennonite Brethren Evangelical Anabaptist Identity,” in Renewing Identity and Mission: Mennonite Brethren Reflections after 150 Years, ed. Abe J. Dueck, Bruce L. Guenther, and Doug Heidebrecht (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2011), 47–82.
  3. “ICOMB: An Introduction,”, accessed September 3, 2014. See also Abe J. Dueck, ed., The Mennonite Brethren Church Around the World: Celebrating 150 Years (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2010).
  4. There are several significant designations for leaders in the church, such as apostle, prophet, evangelist, deacon, and overseer, which I will not be discussing in this paper due to space limitations. For a discussion of various polity options see, Peter Toon et al., Who Runs the Church? Four Views on Church Government (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004); and Daniel Akin et al., Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2004).
  5. Gerald Ediger, “A Ministering People,” Direction 15 (Fall 1986): 46. While Mennonite Brethren have been willing to identify evangelists, pastors, deacons, and teachers in their midst, they have been reticent to use the labels of “apostles” and “prophets.”
  6. Ediger, “Ministering People,” 47.
  7. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Doctrine, vol. 2 of Systematic Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 368, 369, 370.
  8. McClendon, Doctrine, 369; see also 371.
  9. McClendon, 479.
  10. McClendon, 458.
  11. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Witness, vol. 3 of Systematic Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 387. See McClendon, Doctrine, 454–88. For a previously published version of this essay, see James Wm. McClendon, Jr., “The Concept of Authority: A Baptist View,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 16, no. 2 (1989): 101–7.
  12. McClendon, Doctrine, 458 (emphasis is McClendon’s).
  13. McClendon, 458, 464.
  14. McClendon, 479 and 480 (emphasis is McClendon’s).
  15. John A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference {266} of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1975), 54; J. B. Toews, “The Church Growth Theory and Mennonite Brethren Polity,” Direction 20 (Fall 1991): 106; Ediger, “Ministering People,” 52. As B. J. Braun notes, “there seems to be no evidence that they were aware of the existence of well-defined church polities. Their governing principles were taken from the Bible and applied rather literally in all simplicity,” in Braun’s “The Scriptural Teaching on Organization and Government of the Local Church” (paper presented at the M.B. Study Conference, Denver, July 1958), Papers and Essays, Box 5, Fld. 1, No. 3, CMBS, Winnipeg, 6.
  16. J. B. Toews, A Pilgrimage of Faith: The Mennonite Brethren Church 1860–1990 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1993), 220.
  17. John B. Toews, “The Teaching Ministry of the Mennonite Brethren Church,” in Called to Teach: A Symposium by the Faculty of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, ed. David Ewert (Fresno, CA: Center of Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1980), 180; Richard Kyle, “North American Mennonite Brethren at Mid Century: Ecclesiological Developments,” in Bridging Troubled Waters: Mennonite Brethren at Mid-Century, ed. Paul Toews (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1995), 204.
  18. J. B. Toews, Pilgrimage of Faith, 221.
  19. Allan Labun, “Leadership Style in the Mennonite Brethren Church on the Canadian Scene (1925–1945)” (November 1983), Papers and Essays, Box 12, Fld. F, No. 6, CMBS, Winnipeg, 3.
  20. Henry J. Schmidt, “Continuity and Change in an Ethical Tradition: A Case Study of North American Mennonite Brethren Church-State Rhetoric and Practice 1917–1979” (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1981), 33, 98. See also Kyle, “North American Mennonite Brethren,” 193–212; J. B. Toews, Pilgrimage of Faith, 213; and Peter M. Hamm, Continuity and Change among Canadian Mennonite Brethren (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987), 230–33. Hamm describes three stages: accommodation (1925–1945), acculturation (1945–1965), and assimilation (1965–1975). Canadian Mennonite Brethren went through a language transition from German to English at the same time they were adopting a representative council polity model in their churches. See Gerald C. Ediger, Crossing the Divide: Language Transition Among Canadian Mennonite Brethren 1940–1970 (Winnipeg, MB: Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 2001).
  21. J. B. Toews, Pilgrimage of Faith, 222.
  22. J. B. Toews, 222.
  23. J. B. Toews, “Church Growth Theory,” 107.
  24. Waldo D. Hiebert, “The Scriptural Definition of the Nature of the Church” (paper presented at “Doctrinal Issues,” General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel study conference, Denver, July 12–16, 1958), Papers and Essays, Box 5, Fld. C, No. 4, CMBS, Winnipeg, 8.
  25. Year Book of the 44th General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America (Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1948), 106–107; and J. B. Toews, Pilgrimage of Faith, 237.
  26. Bruce Guenther and Doug Heidebrecht, “The Elusive Biblical Model {267} of Leadership,” Direction 28 (Fall 1999): 161–62; J. B. Toews, “Church Growth Theory,” 106; and J. B. Toews, Pilgrimage of Faith, 225–26. See also Herbert Neufeld, “The Theology and Practical Model of Eldership in Church Governance” (paper presented to the General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel, December 1, 1988), Vol. 3, Fld. 8, CMBS, Winnipeg; and John E. Toews, “A Response to Herb Neufeld Paper on Eldership” (paper presented to the General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel, November 27, 1989), Vol. 3, Fld. 10, CMBS, Winnipeg.
  27. Ediger, “Ministering People,” 49; and Ed Boschman, “Women’s Role in Ministry in the Church,” Direction 18 (Fall 1989): 49, 52. See also John Regehr, “Leadership = Ministry + Authority,” Direction 8, no. 2 (April 1979): 19–25.
  28. John E. Toews, “Leadership Styles for Mennonite Brethren Churches” (paper presented at “Current Issues in Church Leadership,” General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel study conference, Clearbrook, May 8–10, 1980), Papers and Essays, Box 6, Fld. N, No. 3, CMBS, Winnipeg, 14, 17; and Ediger, “Ministering People,” 47–49. See also Henry Regehr, “A Crisis of Leadership: Which Style Will We Choose?” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 27 January 1984, 2–4.
  29. Herb Brandt, “A Call to Reason Together,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 16 May 1986, 7 (emphasis is Brandt’s).
  30. See Doug Heidebrecht, “People of the Book: The Significance of Mennonite Brethren Biblicism and Hermeneutics,” Direction 40 (Fall 2011): 219–31.
  31. See Kyle, “North American Mennonite Brethren,” 203.
  32. John A. Toews, History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, 306.
  33. See J. B. Toews, “The Influence of Fundamentalism on Mennonite Brethren Theology,” Direction 10, no. 3 (July 1981): 20–29; John A. Toews, “In Search of Identity,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 10 March 1972, 2–4, 25; Paul Toews, “Differing Historical Imaginations and the Changing Identity of the Mennonite Brethren,” in Anabaptism Revisited: Essays on Anabaptist/Mennonite Studies in Honor of C. J. Dyck, ed. Walter Klaassen (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992),155–69; and Harry Loewen, “Ambivalence in Mennonite Brethren Self-Understanding: An 1860 Continuum?” Direction 23 (Fall 1994): 5–17.
  34. For example, see Waldo Hiebert, “The Scriptural Definition of the Nature of the Church” (paper presented at “Doctrinal Issues,” General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel study conference, Denver, July 12–16, 1958), Papers and Essays, Box 5, Fld. C, No. 4, CMBS, Winnipeg, 5; Edmund Janzen, “A Covenanting People,” Direction 15 (Fall 1986): 32–33; and Gerry Ediger, “Questions of Brotherhood among Mennonite Brethren in the 1980s” (paper presented to the Ontario Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns, April, 1984, revised February 1990), Papers and Essays, Box 19, Fld. F, No. 1, CMBS, Winnipeg, 2.
  35. John A. Toews, History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, 311.
  36. Gerry Ediger, “The Leading Ministry in a Covenant Brotherhood Community” (paper presented at “Church as a Covenant Community,” General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel study conference, {268} Fresno, October 15–17, 1986), Papers and Essays, Box 15, Fld. D, No. 15, CMBS, Winnipeg, 48–49.
  37. See Ediger, “Questions of Brotherhood.” These practices included church membership, church discipline, the promotion of church unity, and engagement with community hermeneutics. See Hiebert, “Scriptural Definition of the Nature of the Church,” 2–8; and Janzen, “Covenanting People,” 32–42.
  38. See John A. Toews, “The Anabaptist Concept of the Church” (BD thesis, United College, 1950), 121; Jacob H. Quiring, “The Scriptural Concept of the Church and its Implications for the Organizational and Structural Functions for the Mennonite Brethren” (paper presented at “Doctrinal Issues,” General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel study conference, Winnipeg, December 12–15, 1956), Papers and Essays, Box 5, Fld. B, No. 7, CMBS, Winnipeg, 1; John A. Toews, History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, 371; Ediger, “Questions of Brotherhood,” 8–9 (see also 1); and Herb Kopp, “A Serving People,” Direction 15 (Fall 1986): 62. See also P. R. Toews, “Mennonite Brethren—A Brotherhood or a Search for Brotherhood” (paper presented to the Canadian Conference Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns), 3–5.
  39. John E. Toews, “Response to Herb Neufeld Paper,” 1; J. B. Toews, Pilgrimage of Faith, 224; Ediger, “Ministering People,” 46; John E. Toews, “Leadership Styles,” 6, 15.
  40. John E. Toews, “Leadership Styles,” 14–16.
  41. McClendon, Doctrine, 458 (emphasis is McClendon’s).
  42. Jeff Peters raised this question in our conversation regarding my early ideas about this paper. Jeffrey W. Cary also notes the awkward connection McClendon makes between the modes of authority and the Trinity. See Free Churches and the Body of Christ: Authority, Unity, and Truthfulness (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 184.
  43. McClendon states that “the trinitarian doctrine, understood as an encoding of the biblical narrative of God, identifies God provided it is recognized as just that—an encoding meant to return us to its source” (Doctrine, 321).
  44. For example, see Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2000), 7–22; Ray Harms Wiebe, “The Global Mennonite Brethren Mission Movement: Some Reflections and Projections,” in Dueck, Renewing Identity and Mission, 223–25; and Doug Heidebrecht, “Mennonite Brethren and the Gospel: A Theology of Mission on the Way,” Direction 42 (Fall 2013): 211–12.
  45. McClendon, Doctrine, 366; see also 367. For a more extensive discussion of the rule of God, see McClendon, Doctrine, 64–68.
  46. McClendon, Doctrine, 367; see also 366.
  47. McClendon, Doctrine, 367.
  48. McClendon suggests that these themes “dominate the summary portrait of Christian community in the last two chapters of Hebrews” (Doctrine, 366).
  49. For McClendon’s discussion of preaching and teaching, see Doctrine, 23–46, 397–400.
  50. McClendon, Doctrine, 386; see also 187, 328. On page 381 of Doctrine, {269} McClendon identifies “signs” generally as “God’s distinctive, self-disclosing . . . acts that make God’s presence and power evident for redemptive purposes.” He highlights three main groups of signs: historic signs (the crucial events in redemption history); remembering signs (repeatable monuments set in local assemblies); and providential signs (“instances of the distinctive guidance God gives to individual lives”). See also Doctrine, 186–88, 381–83.
  51. McClendon, Doctrine, 398.
  52. McClendon, 464.
  53. McClendon, 463; see also 398.
  54. McClendon, 399.
  55. McClendon, 399; see also 400.
  56. McClendon, 399.
  57. McClendon, 399. McClendon notes that “the preacher’s own life must be a providential sign if the sermon is to become a remembering sign of the gospel of God” (McClendon, Doctrine, 400 [emphasis is McClendon’s]).
  58. McClendon, 400.
  59. McClendon, 381 and 400. Francis Watson contends that “the prophetic word is not complete in itself but subject to dialogical reception by the community, and appropriate reception is as much the gift of the Spirit as is the apodictic speech that initiates the dialogue,” in Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 121.
  60. John Howard Yoder, “Catholicity in Search of Location,” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 316–17. See also John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992/2001), 61–70; and John Howard Yoder, “The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (1967): 300–304.
  61. McClendon, Doctrine, 400.
  62. McClendon, 34; see also 29.
  63. McClendon, 29.
  64. McClendon, 27; see also 28.
  65. McClendon, 29.
  66. McClendon, 38; see also 36–37. A second class of rules, called lower-level rules, are “reading guides . . . based on such matters as vocabulary, grammar, and historical-critical reading” (38), which if not followed, simply indicate that the reader is not engaged in reading appropriately.
  67. McClendon, 32.
  68. McClendon, 41.
  69. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 22 and 149.
  70. McClendon, Doctrine, 477. See page 479 where McClendon defines communal discernment as “a communal undertaking in which God’s people in a certain place meet and consider their next steps in the common life, bringing their shared journey under mutual study in the light of all the {270} Scripture and all experience, committing it to ultimate authority in earnest prayer, and shaping the common judgment of all concerned.” See also Doug Heidebrecht, “James Wm. McClendon Jr.’s Practice of Communal Discernment and Conflicting Convictions among Mennonite Brethren,” Baptistic Theologies 7, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 45–68.
  71. McClendon, Doctrine, 480 (emphasis is McClendon’s); see also 478, 369.
  72. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics, vol. 1 of Systematic Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), 223 (emphasis is McClendon’s). McClendon distinguishes between two kinds of tasks in the practice of doctrine: the first-order task, or primary theology, occurs as the church engages in Scripture reading, discernment, and teaching; and the second-order task, or secondary theology, involves theologians “critically monitoring, examining, and revising that teaching.” See McClendon, Doctrine, 33, see also 24; and McClendon, Witness, 328, 339. See also Parush R. Parushev, “Doing Theology in a Baptist Way” (Centre for Evangelical and Reformation Theology en Baptisten Seminarium, Jubileum Symposium 400 jaar Baptisme, April 16, 2009), 20 (1–33), republished as “Theologie op een baptistenmanier,” in Zo zijn onze manieren! In Gesprek over gemeentetheologie, red. Teun van der Leer, Baptistica Reeks (series) 1 (Barneveld, Nederland: Unie van Baptisten Gemeenten in Nederland, September 2009, in Dutch), 15 (7–22 and 66–75).
  73. McClendon, Doctrine, 41.
  74. References to cautions about false teaching include: Rom 16:17; 2 Cor 11:2–6; Eph 4:14; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 4:3; Titus 1:11; Heb 13:9; 2 John 9–10; and Rev 2:14–15; 2:20. References highlighting the need for sound teaching include: 1 Tim 1:10; 4:13; 6:3; and Titus 1:9; 2:1.
  75. Kevin Giles argues that “the early church did not encourage the development of a separate and distinct class of teachers” because everyone was expected to teach: apostles taught, prophets taught, overseers taught, deacons taught, elders taught, women taught, and church members taught. See his Patterns of Ministry among the First Christians (Melbourne: Collins Dove, 1989), 113–18.
  76. Passing references to “pastors” can be found in McClendon’s Doctrine, pages 29, 48, 175, 340, 369, 478, and 480; references to “elders” can be found on pages 176, 368, 369, and 433.
  77. McClendon, Doctrine, 462, 466. See also James Wm. McClendon, Jr., “The Mennonite and Baptist Vision,” in Mennonites and Baptists: A Continuing Conversation, ed. Paul Toews (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1993), 211–24; and James Wm. McClendon, Jr., “Primitive, Present, Future: A Vision for the Church in the Modern World,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 98–105.
  78. It should be noted that in the list of equipping gifts, pastors are closely connected with teachers.
  79. For example, God is identified as Israel’s Shepherd in Ps 23:1; 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:12, 15; and Zech 10:3.
  80. Israel’s leaders are referred to as shepherds in Num 27:17; 2 Sam 5:2; 7:7; Ps 78:71; Jer 3:15; 22:22; 23:1–2, 4; 25:34–36; 50:6; and Ezek 34:2, 23–24; {271} 37:24.
  81. See McClendon, Doctrine, 65, 79.
  82. McClendon, 458 (emphasis is McClendon’s) and 67.
  83. For example, see R. Alastair Campbell, The Elders: Seniority in Earliest Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994); and Benjamin L. Merkle, The Elder and the Overseer: One Office in the Early Church (New York: Peter Lang, 2003). Cf. R. Alistair Campbell, review of The Elder and the Overseer: One Office in the Early Church, by Benjamin L. Merkle, Evangelical Quarterly 77 (July 2005): 281–83.
  84. Campbell, Elders, 246. See also Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 78.
  85. R. Alastair Campbell, “The Elders: Seniority in Earliest Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (May 1993): 184.
  86. McClendon, Doctrine, 477 and 479.
  87. McClendon, 477.
  88. McClendon, 478.
  89. Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 35.
  90. Giles, 33.
  91. McClendon, Doctrine, 369 and 370.
  92. McClendon, 368.
  93. John K. Goodrich, “Overseers as Stewards and the Qualifications for Leadership in the Pastoral Epistles,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der Älteren Kirche 104 (2013): 81, 86, 87. See also Alistair C. Stewart, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 165, 317.
  94. See Campbell, review of The Elder and the Overseer, 281; and Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 95. Stewart demonstrates that “there is no evidence to support the oft-repeated assertion that presbyters are found within the synagogue, and so none to support the position that Christian churches were managed by presbyters along a synagogal model” (Original Bishops, 143).
  95. Stewart, Original Bishops, 100, 300. Stewart recognized that the nature of the overseer office “changed from being principally focused on economic provision to being a teaching office” (351–52).
  96. Stewart claims “there are Christian communities under the leadership of episkopoi, but no evidence has been found of any Christian church under the leadership of presbyteroi without any officers” (Original Bishops, 164).
  97. Stewart, 303.
  98. Stewart, 303. For example, Paul’s instructions to Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (1:5) was to create a citywide representative council rather than identifying local church leaders.
  99. McClendon, Doctrine, 366, 458.
Doug Heidebrecht (PhD, Wales) serves as the Director of Global Training and Associate Professor of Mission and Theology at MB Seminary and also works in an international setting.

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