6 Principles of “Those Who Turned the World Upside Down” Part 1

24 05 2010

New Testament Principles on Leadership Structure 

Because of the numerous questions I receive from pastors as well as members of Mountain Spring about our leadership structure I wrote a “white paper” for our website that reflects hundreds of hours of Bible study, discussion with our board, and consultation related to the structure of leadership in the local church.  Over the next couple of months I will be sharing parts of this research here.  Following is part one of six:

Why discuss Leadership Structure?

Many church planters and pastors have asked me over the years about church government structure and what I believe to be the most biblical approach.  Due to the growth of Mountain Springs Church (MSC), it has also become apparent that there is a need for a more thoroughly understood biblical approach to leadership and governing structure.  As our leadership needs at MSC have increased, so has our need to understand what the New Testament says about leadership structure.   

Thus, in order to discover a workable, pliable, and dynamic model for leadership/eldership in the local church, I have endeavored to dig into what the scriptures have to say on this subject.  This in no way means that my conclusions will be air tight or sufficient for some people, but it is my hope to cite what the New Testament has to say and set up the most biblical and practical leadership structure possible for Mountain Springs Church.

Though there are many books on church leadership structure, I believe that the scriptures themselves are our best guide.  As we seek to develop a more biblical model for leadership government at MSC, a thorough study of the scriptures must be our highest endeavor. 

Two Exciting Discoveries

Through study of leadership structure in the New Testament, we quickly discover two exciting things:  First, the ministry of Jesus and the churches planted in the book of Acts were all governed by a very functional and dynamic leadership team.  There are many examples of how Jesus and the early church were governed, and the principles of structure found in the gospels, Acts, and the epistles are anecdotal and prescriptive.  Secondly, the leadership structure in the New Testament worked!  The ministry of Jesus and the early church, and the structure utilized, were very effective in reaching thousands of people like no other religious or political movement in the history of the world.  In light of these two insights, it is apparent that if we desire to be faithful to not only the scriptural model, but also the spirit of the New Testament church, we must seriously learn all we can about how leadership functioned in the ministry of Jesus and the early church. 

Let us admit from the outset that we do not believe that a leadership structure is the primary cause of any great move of God.   However, the government of the churches was part of the conduit God used for the Holy Spirit to ignite a powerful move of the Holy Spirit, which resulted in “the word of the Lord being spread throughout all the region” (Acts 13:49).  But government structure is important.  Jesus explained the importance of structure when He said, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Luke 5:37-38).  Thus, Jesus uses a metaphor that anyone in the ancient Middle East would have understood—the value of a physical structure for containing an important product.  Jesus purpose not being the containment of wine, but the importance and uniqueness of physical structure for containing spiritual power and truth.  

Structure matters.  Leadership structure can either severely hinder the development and release of what God is doing, or it can be fluid and dynamic and result in the release of all that God desires in and through a Spirit filled and Word filled church.  It is apparent that the New Testament model of leadership structure enabled the flow of the new wine of the Spirit that was so powerful that the rulers in the first century described the church as, “these who have turned the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6).  At MSC we want the wine (the gospel of Jesus Christ) and the wineskins (structure) that together will enable us to turn the world right side up.

Principles of Structure

I believe a study of the New Testament provides us with “principles” of structure we can learn from. A “principle,” as defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary, is “a comprehensive and fundamental law; with respect to fundamentals.”  What we find in the New Testament are not exact rules, but rather fundamentals that point to a Biblical model for church government and leadership structure.  Principles of structural leadership found in the ministry of Jesus and the early church testify of a “wineskin” that is flexible enough to contain the “new wine” of the Holy Spirit in the people of God.

In the major features of description and design, eldership/leadership is plainly and amply set forth by the New Testament authors.  Yet, from the outset we must admit that the exact organizational structure of how such leadership was represented within churches is not spelled out.  George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), author of A Theology of the New Testament, and a former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary writes, “It appears likely that there was no normative pattern of church government in the apostolic age, and that the organizational structure of the church is no essential element in the theology of the church” (p. 534).  But a thorough study of the books of the New Testament attest to enough information from which we can learn much for our churches today.  There is enough description given for the development of a leadership structure that is faithful to scripture, flexible enough to expand with new changes, and dynamic for a fast growing church.  Following are New Testament principles that I believe are the irreducible minimum for the development of leadership structure for any church.

Principle #1:  Jesus is Head of the Church

In speaking of Christ and His headship over the church, the scriptures are clear: “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22, emphasis added).   In speaking of the role of a husband toward his wife, Paul uses Christ as the best example of headship.  He writes, “For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body (Ephesians 5:23, emphasis added).  In the imagery of the body of Christ, the scriptures clearly define Christ as the head over all men.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul expresses this conviction, “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ…” (1 Corinthians 11:3).  The headship of Christ is one of the most important doctrines of the New Testament.

The first and foremost understanding to church polity must begin with Christ as the head and chief shepherd of the church (see also Acts 20:28; Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18; 2:10; 2:19; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4).  It is Christ who rules over the church.  It is Christ who is building His church.  Jesus said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  Jesus will build that which is His.

All other structural principles are subordinate to the first and primary characteristic of a New Testament church—Jesus Christ is Lord and Chief shepherd over all.  It is the work of His Spirit that births new life into our spirit when we are born again (see John 3).  It is His Holy Spirit’s presence that brings joy and life to a fellowship of believers (see John 10:10). It is His love and power that builds the church (see 1 Corinthians 3).  It is His anointing that enables the gifts and ministries of the church to function (see Ephesians 2).  It is His strength and guidance that brings unity and purpose to the church (see Ephesians 4). The headship of Jesus Christ must be evident both in the life of the individual believer as well as the corporate gathering of a local church. 

Christ as head of the church insures that His purposes and plans for the church will be fulfilled through those whom He has called and commissioned to lead His church.  This is the first and most important starting principle for all discussion of church polity.  All other forms of church government are subordinate to the lordship and preeminence of Christ.  When the church gathers together, Christ’s spiritual presence  as Ruler, Overseer, Head, and Lord is the insurer of His glory in the church.  All other discussion related to the leadership in the local church is subservient to this central principle.

Benefits of Christ as Head of the Church:

  • When the church is surrendered to Christ, the Lord’s power and presence is free to move and touch the fellowship
  • When the leadership of the church is under the lordship of Christ, there is assurance of the fear and leading of God in all decision making
  • When Christ is ruling over all decisions made through the leadership, God gets more glory and honor
  • When Christ is worshipped as King through the leadership, there is assurance of godly character and holiness needed among the elders
  • When Christ is Lord over a fellowship, He builds His church and the gates of hell cannot prevail

In Practicum:

The MSC Vision Statement is “Experience the adventure of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ”.  At Mountain Springs Church we believe that Jesus is truly the Head of the catholic (universal) Church and our particular local expression of His lordship.  Paul, in his introduction to the church in Colossae, sums it up best:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.  18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence (Colossians 1:15-18).

Thus, at MSC, we passionately desire to honor and glorify Christ in all that we do.  Worship and the teaching of God’s Word permeate all activities at MSC.  We desire to build up a body of believers that reflect His glory, through being equipped to love God and people.