Session 10: If Not ‘Leadership,’ Then What?

The church is led not by leaders but by Christ. The head of the church is Christ. Everyone else is a follower. Leadership has led us to the place where everybody is trying to get everybody else to do something, and no one ends up doing anything. Leonard Sweet, I Am a Follower.

To Lead or Not To Lead? Nine blog sessions thus far.

All geared toward uncovering the scandal behind the ever-so-popular church-wide action word: ‘leadership’. A quick search for Christian leadership books on results in a mere 15,493 titles. Overkill? One might think so, but when we add in the 20,394 secular titles with ‘leading’ in their titles, 47,990 with ‘lead’, 53,972 with ‘leader’ and a whopping 71,745 with ‘leadership’, we’ve got a lot of reading to do when it comes to becoming a great ‘leader’ for Jesus!

Interesting, isn’t it? Our culture is consumed with the subject of leadership, but from what I’ve found in my research, the New Testament writers thought very little of the word. And, to be honest, the other words associated with the concept of ‘leadership’, (like ‘lead(s)’, ‘leader(s)’, ‘leading’ or ‘led’) don’t get very much attention in the New Testament either!

Think of it. There are only 7 times in the New Testament (NIV) when an author records a positive thought about one of us human beings serving as a ‘leader’ leading a group of assembled people called the church. Now as I said in an earlier blog, there are 20 times that the New Testament records God, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit as being our ‘leader’, but alas, only a scant seven times anyone in the New Testament chooses a Greek word that alludes to any of us ‘leading’ the church of Jesus Christ.

So if the New Testament doesn’t use these ‘leadership’ words, what words and concepts are used? Certainly the New Testament does talk a lot about those who are called by God to ‘oversee’ the flock. But what language is used?

As we discussed in blog session #8, there are 4 key passages from the New Testament that the church has called upon for two thousand years to address explicitly the qualifications and titles associated with church ‘leadership’. These passages are 1 Timothy 3: 1-13, Titus 1: 5-9, 1 Peter 5: 1-4, and Ephesians 4:11-13. Here we find nine interesting words that certainly can give us a great start in re-defining the role and job descriptions for those who sense a call to ‘lead’ the church of Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin here. Nine biblically-based words, taken from four key NT passages. Words we just might consider for increased use as we attempt to re-define ‘doing leadership’ in our American churches:

  1. Overseer. Quite honestly, the word means exactly what it says. An overseer ‘over-sees’ those activities going on in and around the assembled people of God. As I see it, rather than a ‘leader’, whose primary job is to initiate or put into place some original, new activity or program, an overseer simply takes those things that God is already doing and watches over that activity. The biblical word, ‘steward’ comes to mind, here. A steward doesn’t create or envision new things, but simply watches over those things he or she has been asked to watch over. How wonderful it might be if we stopped ‘leading’ by insisting we be the ‘visionary’ agent for the church. How about if we let God be the ‘vision caster’ again and we simply ‘oversee’ those activities God is already doing in His people? Certainly Jesus, Himself, modeled this ‘overseer’ role in His earthly ministry. He alludes to this role when He clearly states that He can do nothing outside of what He sees the Father already doing. (See John 5: 19-20)
  2. Deacon. While this word has been adopted by many churches to mean those who simply watch over money or buildings, the original Greek word only meant ‘waiting on tables’ or ‘waiting on men’. The Greek word conjures up the picture of a table host or hostess at a dinner party. A waitress or waiter at a restaurant is quite simply the picture any New Testament writer would understand in our culture as being a deacon. Here’s an idea. How about if ‘leaders’ who tend to drive the dinner party for Jesus take off our planning hats, stop striving to create an event, and simply become ‘deacons’ who serve those attending the Jesus-party?
  3. Elder. Here’s another word used by New Testament writers that’s been over-spiritualized and mis-used in many churches over the years. The word does not mean ‘leader’ but simply identifies a person who is more mature or older in age or experience. To be crass, the word simply means ‘old fart’! In a society where age and experience was much more respected than it is in our day, a man or woman who was older would be perceived as being wiser or more mature because of that age or experience they have had with God or in life. How about if we fire many of our current elder boards in churches across America (i.e. boards that are quite commonly made up of movers & shakers and tellers & sellers) and replace them with men and women of deep character who’ve been around the block a few times and have a humble, simple approach to God and life? I’m just sayin’.
  4. Shepherd. This term, of course, comes right off the land. A shepherd is one who tends a flock of sheep, watching over that flock, caring for the immediate needs of that flock. With King David being a shepherd-king, the concept of an earthly shepherd watching over God’s flock while following the Good Shepherd was the New Testament marching orders for a godly overseer. With Jesus serving as our Great Shepherd, leader of the pack, how wonderful might it be if more American churches were ‘fed’ by shepherds and not ‘led’ by CEO’s, business managers, or cattle ranchers? Pastor Andy Stanley, in a 2006 article in Leadership Magazine, says he “believes we should abandon the metaphor ‘shepherd’ from our ministry vocabulary altogether. That word needs to go away. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus, but it’s not culturally relevant anymore.” Yikes. Remove the word ‘shepherd’ from our ministry vocabulary? Does Stanley believe then that we should re-write the 23rd Psalm so it reads, “The Lord is my CEO, I will never want for business leads?”
  5. Apostle. This word has been mis-used to such a degree; there are basically only two approaches to the word today. Some believe that only the original disciples were ‘apostles’ and that the title has died out since then. Others use the word liberally, capitalizing it and giving it to individuals who talk big, think big and carry a big stick. But as I see it, the New Testament writers perceived the word simply as one who had been set aside to be ‘sent out’, or a person on missional assignment from God. Many, over the years, of course, fit that much broader description and it might be wise for us today to remove the capital ‘A’ from the word and simply recognize and re-establish the unique call on so many lives of those ‘sent out’ for the Kingdom cause of Christ.
  6. Prophet. Again, this word carries a great deal of baggage with it. So much has been done in the name of the prophetic; it’s truly hard for many to perceive the word as the first century writers of the New Testament did. Prophetic ministry simply meant that a person had the unique ability at times to see and perceive earthly circumstances from God’s perspective. The prophetic ‘see-er’ or ‘sage’ in the New Testament operated simply in a manner of Holy Spirit-led direction, where God released more information about a matter; more than our earthly limitations could ever achieve. As I see it, this ministry would be very helpful to our generation as we seek God for His wisdom as compared to leaning upon our own understandings.
  7. Evangelist. As I see it, this New Testament term simply refers to a unique gift of the Holy Spirit which allows men and women to bring the good news of Jesus and His advancing Kingdom to others in such ways that it operates beyond our earthly abilities to persuade or convince others. The Greek word equates the evangelist with a ‘bringer of good news’. In other words, an unction from God to pronounce good news was the focus here in the New Testament, not an earthly gift of fleshly ambition, human drive, or persuasive speech.
  8. Pastor. This word most often can be translated ‘shepherd’. Throughout church history the words ‘priest’ or ‘bishop’ are used interchangeably, but our English word ‘pastor’ actually comes from the Latin word for ‘shepherd.’ As we talked earlier, the Old Testament is filled with 139 scriptures that speak of the role of the shepherd and it was a very familiar term to New Testament writers as well. Keep in mind that the prophet Jeremiah (3:15) foresees a time when, “I (God) will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding.” (NAS) May that word be fulfilled in our generation, for His Name’s sake!
  9. Teacher. When Paul writes in Ephesians about the multiple ministry titles of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher, some wonder if Paul was actually combining the role of pastor/teacher instead of distinguishing two jobs in the early church. This idea of one common job of a shepherd both feeding the sheep and teaching the flock is a very common Old Testament theme and fits well with the interchangeable Greek words for teacher/shepherd.

So there you have it. Nine New Testament words that, I believe, would go far in re-defining the role of ‘leader’ in the American church. For those of you who are still keeping score, let’s compare on a chart (see below) the 7 positive NT ‘leadership’ references with the 160 positive occurrences our 9 words we just discussed appear in the New Testament.

Just think how different American church might become if all the ‘leaders’ resigned and we allowed God to re-define our roles based on these nine rich words taken from the New Testament. I feel a breeze of fresh wind even as I say it.

But I’ve saved the best word for last. Come back next time and we’ll explore that one New Testament word that stands high above all the others when used to best describe the qualifications of a man or woman who desires to serve God and His church.


(For those of you who are wanting to look under the hood on the “word” statistics I’m presenting in this blog series, click here for all of the biblical references we refer to in this post)

My prayer: Father God, there are nine unique words found in the New Testament that describe the work of leadership: overseer, deacon, elder, shepherd, apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. These words seem to best describe the role of leaders in the first century. Holy Spirit, blow new life into these ancient words, making them fruitful, once again, in our generation. For Your name’s sake. Amen.

My questions to ponder: So, what might it look like for us to put away the modernized concepts of successful leadership and replace them with the biblical definitions of overseer, deacon, elder, shepherd, apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher? What needs to change in my thinking and actions to align myself more with these ancient words?

So, what is God speaking to you today as we ask the question, To Lead Or Not To Lead?

As I see it, something needs to change in the way we define ‘successful’ Christian leadership. And the question today should not be, ‘Do we need leadership?’ but rather, ‘What kind of leaders is God asking men and women to be? Over a four-week period, you and I will take a deeper look at this question. In order to keep all the blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our To Lead Or Not To Lead? home page for ease of use. ENJOY!

Click here to go on to the next session…

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