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April 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 2 · pp. 19–25 

Leadership = Ministry + Authority

John Regehr

“He wouldn’t do as youth pastor because he is too slow,” said the church representative. The evaluation may have been accurate, but it was an indication again that when we look for leadership, we look for spark and dynamism—a touch of “pizzaz.” In doing so, that particular church turned down a strong Christian who has a warm, shepherding heart. Our culture has written the catalogue from which we order our leaders. And, of course, we want to remain free to re-order. Leadership is a commodity which is exchangeable, though perhaps not refundable.

The biblical pattern for leadership has two components: ministry and authority. Leaders look to the needs of people. They are ministers, sensitive to hurt and deficiency, alert to malfunction, perceptive to sighs and cries and complaints. Leaders also make decisions. They seek a way for the body to go, and they make choices which will move the body in that direction. Leaders need not be good performers who keep us from being embarrassed when we bring our friends to church. But they must be shepherds to whom we entrust ourselves and our children.

Nor is a local church required to entrust itself to one man. The New Testament model is that of team leadership. And yet, individuals loom large in the early church.


We have not recently looked seriously at the New Testament portraits of the superintending bishop. Perhaps we should. There is no doubt that Paul functioned in such a capacity. It is clear, too, that the instructions he gave to Timothy and Titus were designed to assist them in functioning in that way. And yet, the New Testament portraits of such a role are ambiguous. {20}

The impression which the Book of Acts gives about the role of Peter in the larger Christian community outside of Jerusalem is more that of an itinerant shepherd, advisor, teacher, than that of an authoritative administrator. At the same time, Peter functioned very much as a representative of the Jerusalem Church. In the earlier days of the Jerusalem Church, however, Peter seems to have taken on the role of superintending bishop, though not with the single-handed authority which apparently characterized the leadership of Paul. Though Paul is portrayed as an authoritative leader in the Book of Acts, and his letters confirm that he saw himself in that way, he was not universally regarded as “the great apostle” in the early church. His letters to the Galatians and to the Corinthians show that there were strong anti-Paul sentiments.

The role of James in the Jerusalem Church is not clearly defined. He is referred to as the central authority (Gal. 2:12), and in the council meeting in Acts 15 he articulated the consensus of the leadership group. No such central individual authority is indicated in other cities. In the account of the installation of elders in the newly-founded churches (in Acts 14:23) nothing is said of a leading elder among the elders. Nor are these mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 where Paul lists the gifts (ministers) which are given to the church. The bishop role is absent in the list of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12, although it may be included in Romans 12. The word in verse 8 of that register of gifts is translated as “giving aid” in the R.S.V., but it may mean “to be at the head, to be out in front, or to manage.”

What is true, then, of the New Testament treatment of other practical aspects of the church is true also of its treatment of the concept of the bishop; it describes its functioning from time to time and states personal requirements (1 Tim. 3) but does not lay out clearly the pattern of operation. This may well be one reason that we have felt free to dismiss the bishop from our own concept of church structure.

Another reason may have been our fear of a spiritual dictatorship. That fear moved our Mennonite Brethren fathers to discard the office of bishop. For us the fear has been heightened by our baptizing of the democratic principle. Having come into existence initially in a small group experience, we have understood brotherhood to be the full and very personal identification with the group. This group involvement included teaching and caring as well as decision-making (compare the current Tulpengasse experience in Vienna). When the local church lost its small group quality, we lost some of the intimacy in which each carries the burden of all and all of each, and we installed deacons. And we shifted the element of teaching from the house church model of 1 Corinthians 12:26-33, in which everyone is {21} free to instruct or exhort, to preachers. But we retained the concept of total group decision-making. Clearly, a membership of 500 cannot work through an issue as can a group of a dozen or so. But with the help of the democratic principle we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the voice of the majority has freed us from the power of individuals. We have retained the term “brotherhood” to describe this majority rule of the larger local church, and it effectively guards us against what might be legitimate individual authority.

I believe it is time that we re-consider the New Testament concept of the bishop, the more so because what we have done is not so much to discard as to transpose the office. Many local pastors are bishops, albeit with smaller and more clearly defined jurisdictions. Whatever we may yet do with the bishop concept, and whatever we may call it, it is mandatory that those who function in that role must combine ministry with authority. All Christian leadership combines authority and ministry. It is not manipulation but ministry to persons and their real needs. It is not control or power but authority rooted in the Word and the Scriptures and supported by a life of obedience.


Though the New Testament seems to highlight individuals, it is clear that ministry in the early church was a team ministry. There is an interesting correspondence between the multiple ministries in Ephesians 4:11 and the fact that four gospel accounts are included in the New Testament canon. No one gospel record is adequate to portray Jesus. No one minister has all the gifts to meet all the needs of even one person in the congregation, let alone one hundred or more. Itinerant ministers serve in part to provide a balance of ministry and are immeasurably valuable to the church. The early church practiced this mode of ministry extensively. But people need the close touch of persons and the durable relationship of caring shepherds. Members of a local “body” require the faithful and continuing ministry of others within touching range. At the same time they need to have their needs met in the context of spiritual authority so that they come out of a crisis moving firmly and unitedly.

The Apostles were already a recognizable team before Pentecost. Those who devoted themselves to prayer were the Twelve (eleven), the women and Mary, and Jesus’ brothers (Acts 1:13-14). The group in which Peter later presented the rationale for selecting a replacement for Judas Iscariot was considerably larger (see v. 15). It seems that the decision to have such an election was made in the smaller leadership group. That group also set the qualifications for the replacement (vv. 21-22). {22}

The situation was not different at Pentecost itself. Apparently the 120 were “all together” (2:1) on that day, and they all received the Holy Spirit. Yet it was the Twelve who were the authoritative voices, and of them one was the chief spokesman (2:14). The Apostles continued as a ministry team through the initial phenomenal growth of the church (see Acts 2:42; 4:33-35; 37; 5:12; 18; 29; 41-42). At the same time one or two among them seem to have had special responsibility, functioning as spokesmen for the rest (see Acts 2:14; 3:1f.; 4:8; 5:3, 29). The ministry team does not distrust the individual. The team is not designed to curb the work of the individual, but to guide and enhance it.

When the first serious trouble developed in the early church (Acts 6:1f) because the ministry team was no longer able to meet all the needs, it was the existing team of twelve who made the decisions about the solution to the problem. They decided what should be done, how the work was to be divided, how many should be chosen, and what their qualifications should be. These decisions were announced to the “body of the disciples,” and the larger group simply chose the persons, as the larger body had earlier chosen Matthias. The primary task of the expanded team was still that of ministry. The one group would minister through preaching and prayer, the other would be responsible for the personal and private needs of individuals and families. Clearly, this required a close inter-relationship between the two parts of the team lest the word and the human situation become detached from each other.

It is not surprising that the ministry team at Antioch begins smaller again, since ministry always accommodates itself to the needs (see Acts 11:22, 25, 30; 13:1-2). There seems to have been no division of ministry here. Nor is a division indicated in the first teams of elders selected for the Gentile churches in Acts 14:21-23.

The purpose of leadership is to enable the body to function as a body, that is, to aid each part in achieving its own potential. To do this, of course, each part must have its own needs met as well. These two dimensions are reciprocal dynamics of body life. The needs of all must be met so that they can serve the body; yet it is the body through which their needs are largely met. The task of leadership is not so much to meet all those personal needs but to see to it that the means are provided so that the members can help each other. Clearly, then, leadership includes both ministry and authority.


A complicating as well as comforting factor in all of this is that the leaders are also a part of the body. Happily we are being redeemed {23} from the error of thinking that leaders of a church cannot be intimate with members of that church but must have their own deeper needs met outside it.

No doubt some of our resistance to the New Testament understanding that the leadership of the church has been given authority as well as the task of ministry is our concept of brotherhood. We are no less afraid of the authority of a group of leaders in a church than we are of an individual autocrat. Consequently, we have made an unhappy hybrid of democracy and brotherhood. We have come to see membership in the church as the right to have a voice in the decision-making process. Voting is the badge of belonging. So when a minority group in the church feels neglected, it looks for clout, not for need-satisfaction. We seek to quiet the disgruntled (meanwhile reversing Acts 6) by letting their voices be heard rather than getting their needs met.

Some members actually resist any action in which they did not have a voice. People feel they have been taken seriously only if they were active in the decision-making. How much better is the New Testament method of being taken seriously in terms of our gifts and needs!

It may be useful here to look at the New Testament understanding of brotherhood. If it is not the exercise of power in decision-making, what is it? Brotherhood is a relationship which occurs when we gather round Jesus Christ, our elder Brother, in order to worship and build one another up (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16). That can happen in the small group, but it leaves room for the larger celebration which Israel cherished at special festivals and which early Mennonite Brethren practised in their “Vierteljahresfest” (a regional gathering each quarter).

Brotherhood is also the interchange that happens when a Christian body matches gifts with needs (cf. Rom. 12:5-8, 13-14; 14:1; 15:1 and similar passages). Some gifts are clearly designed for a more public ministry; some are better suited to a face-to-face interchange or ministry to a family. The task of leadership is, then, to assist a group of Christians to become such a brotherhood.


To be sure, no form of leadership is free from danger. Neither is democracy. Democracy has not even proved to be the answer in our national political structures. What was designed to be a way of guarding the rights of all has become a way of seeking selfish ends. And we got caught in that too. Church brothers oppose each other in the voting booths on the grounds of very personal short-range {24} interests. Having now taken this majority rule into the church has not sanctified it. What it has done is to turn our attention to power and to insistence on our “rights” and away from the gift/need pattern of body relationships.

The dangers do not lie so much in the leadership pattern as in the sinfulness of man. Any form of leadership can be distorted. Since the New Testament does not spell out one particular form of church government to cover all cases, scriptural guidance, spiritual sensitivity, and a healthy dose of common sense are necessary to keep the church functioning as the church.

It seems to me, however, that the multiple ministry leadership model which I have illustrated from the New Testament has built-in safeguards which both the single pastor system or the democratic model lack. To be sure, such a pattern will not function unless those chosen to serve in that capacity take their service very seriously. It is also certain that under such a system the church will have to choose its leaders much more carefully than many churches now elect the members of the church board. In our present pattern we do not have to be very careful about electing persons into church boards because any decisions they make are subject to church approval anyway. So we are even free to let persons “serve” (a misnomer) on the board not so much to lead as to gain experience. The message we give to this leadership body, then, is ambiguous: we want leadership, but we want to make the decisions.

Let me sketch the familiar process: An issue comes to the church board. They cannot come to agreement on what to recommend to the church membership; but, after all, that is not crucial, since the final choice is made by the membership anyway. So the matter is presented open-ended at a “business” meeting. But the members are even less informed than the board was. A long non-enlightening discussion ends in frustration and the somewhat angry request that the board take the matter back and come with a firm recommendation. They “hash” through the matter again, but can only get a majority agreement on the recommendation. That, of course, is acceptable, since it is the church membership that has the final power to decide. The board really does not have to speak with one voice. At the following membership meeting a brother of the board who opposed the recommendation in the board session times his comments superbly, couches them in appropriate sentiments, and the recommendation is defeated.

If an authentic leadership team had taken the issue on in the first place, they would have known that the responsibility was fully theirs, that they could not shrug it off, and that they would have to stay with {25} it until they could make some decision. If a brother of the team gets stuck on an issue, the team may have to deal first with the personal dimensions of the concern before they can get back to the decision-making process, but they can come to a one-voice choice. Because each member is carefully chosen and is endorsed only after a time of testing, each member is secure enough to avoid being railroaded by a more powerful brother. If one brother seeks to carry unwarranted weight, the group has the means of checking his power hunger. And, of course, the question of tenure would have to be settled lest churches get stuck with men who want to serve past their point of competence.

No doubt most of our churches would find it hard to make such a drastic shift. But once we have done so, and have come to understand again what the New Testament means when it admonishes us to obey our leaders so they can do their work joyfully (Heb. 13:17), then we will discover that the “business” of the church is not the decision-making about who varnishes the pews and what pattern to select in dinner dishes but rather worship and the fitting of grace-gifts to personal needs. This is what it means to be the church. I would like to see church business meetings come to deal with such personal ministry and bonding. That is the task of leadership (Eph. 4:11-16). To accomplish this, leadership will need to be exercised as sensitive ministry to the hurts and the hallelujahs of people, and it will have to be carried out with authority which can be both humble and gracious.

Another basic safeguard in this approach is that the members have a voice, not in the decision-making, but in the expression of their needs. Perhaps that is the more effective way of raising one’s voice. Those in the Jerusalem Church who felt neglected raised their voices and were heard. The leaders moved to meet the need (Acts 6). When the early believers in Antioch became frustrated because they felt like pawns being bandied about by divergent leadership, they raised their voices and insisted that the leaders get their act together. The Jerusalem council (Acts 15) was the result. The confused members were heard, and the leaders acted to remedy the situation. What came out of that was certainly much better than anything that could have happened if they had insisted on having a voice in the straightening out of the theological differences.

John Regehr is on the faculty and Director of Christian Service at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and is a contributing editor for Direction.

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