Applying biblical wisdom to today’s context.
Here are a few things to think about when we read the verses about shepherds or elders or overseers in the New Testament, and how to apply to today.
ASSUMPTIONS AND PRESUPPOSITIONS
The Bible is God’s Word for today. We must obey it.
The teachings of the Bible can be obeyed in all cultures and situations.
Jesus Christ is the head of the church.
There are three and only three general categories of “offices” or positions of service in the church as described in the New Testament: pastor/overseer/elder, deacon, and believer/member-minister. All three are here today. There is room for differences of opinion and even strong conviction about how those categories are functioning today, with a call for mutual respect and honor when there is a difference.
Facing reality while holding to Bible teachings, we must have an application for doing church organization that fits all sizes of churches.
DIFFERENCES IN TODAY’S CHURCH
Today we have many different sizes of churches. In larger ones over 100, one or more shepherds must give vocational time to the church—full-time, most would say. We also have many pastor-elders who are trained and educated for leading and ministering as servants of Christ and people in the local church. That does not make them better than others called to give oversight to the church, but it compels a difference in responsibilities.
Those who help in the pastoring or eldering or overseeing of the local church while maintaining other vocations (callings indeed, in line with the priesthood of all believers) cannot possibly give the same amount of time or carry the same burden of those who choose the church ministry as their vocation.
Good writers and believers like Alex Strauch argue that this can be done by self-sacrifice, and he quotes R. Paul Stevens to say they “must be willing to forego a measure of career achievement and private leisure for the privilege of getting the prize (Phil. 3:14)”—almost as if that prize is for the faithful elders and not for all faithful Christians.
Surely the issue is faithfulness and there can be a division of labor that still obeys the principles and requirements of the New Testament teaching and implications about oversight of the local church.
Most churches today have many more activities and responsibilities than the early house churches founded by the apostles and early Christians. There could be another debate about whether every scheduled activity is good or necessary, but that is for another day. They also have a much more complicated financial system and obligations and buildings.
WHAT CAN WORK WHILE FULFILLING BIBLICAL TEACHINGS?
The “soccer field model” seeks to take all the commands or principles of the New Testament about pastors/elders/overseers and give them to the full-time pastors and staff and the lay elders in a way that promotes the plurality and responsibilities of both in a workable and protected way.
The board members or elders or presbyters or non-clerical shepherds give oversight to the church by defining and guarding the four “boundaries” of the ministries and church. These are the four sides of the soccer field.
The pastor and team of staff shepherd the many ministries and people “on the field” and stay inbounds. Because of the nature of leadership, the senior pastor (the only pastor in some churches) is responsible for the team of staff or member-ministers who carry out the many ministries of the church. These include care for each other and witness words and actions to reach the unbelieving or unchurched.
Thus the commands or responsibilities of leading (Acts 20:28), ruling/managing (1 Tim. 3:4–5), shepherding (1 Peter 5:1–4), teaching (2 Tim. 2:15), equipping (Eph. 4:12) and being examples (1 Peter 5:3) are overseen by the board (elders, overseers, lay pastors). They do not seek to do it all themselves just as “younger women” in Titus 2:5 to be “keepers at home” does not imply they cannot assign responsibilities at home to others in the family.
This can work well in a church of 50 and a church of 10,000.
What about a renegade pastor?
Release him. Fire him. The board has oversight and guards the boundaries that way.
Does this model not give the pastor too much authority?
It gives the pastor the same authority for ministries as he has for Sunday or weekend services. The board does not check every hymn or every word in the sermon beforehand, but they could tag him out if he began teaching things that were not within bounds or doing things in the pulpit that did not show their values.
Can’t these lay elders of board members use their spiritual gifts in other ways?
Absolutely. But they serve as senior high teachers or directors of groups or leaders of worship or parking attendants not because they are on the board but because they are willing to do that and want to be active servants and ministers in the church.
In what sense then do these overseers shepherd the people?
By instituting a system that works—normally through the groups of the church where care can happen. In any church over 150, if board members feel they must personally shepherd all the people, they either spend all their time doing that or simply pray for their list as a group. That is not shepherding.
Should members of the pastoral staff be a part of the board also?
This does not rule that out. But in a practical way, it may caution against that. The agenda of the pastoral staff and the agenda of the oversight board are two different agendas, not redundant as in some models. The pastor and staff lead the ministries of Sunday and the week, with the lead pastor as captain. The lead pastor then joins the oversight board as an equal to make and guard the policies and goals and lead the finances and financial projects of the church.
Can there be other boards of the church?
No. This is a one-board-of-oversight system. In many churches there should be a finance team or a building projects team or a missions team, but they all report to the oversight board to avoid the confusion that results from multiple equal boards.
How does this relate to the “congregational rule” preference that some churches have?
The congregation leads or rules by selecting their pastor and the members of the oversight board. In most systems they also must approve any building projects and the annual budget.
And there is no biblical mandate for the congregation to decide everything, as used to be true in some churches.
Where do the deacons or deaconesses fit in?
Obviously churches handle this in many different ways. The title simply means serving, and probably many of us would like to recognize all who teach or serve or help in various ways under the general heading of servant or minister or deacon. Rather than electing people to serve in these ways, many churches appoint them to teach or take care of shut-ins or count the offerings or visit in the hospital or lead the youth or serve in various ways.
If the original deacons took care of widows or tables for eating, many ministries in the church would be parallel.