Here is part 9 of an essay from Gary Deddo on the nature of the church and its ministry. For other parts of the essay, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. We encourage you to add your thoughts and questions in the “comments” box at the end of each post to get a discussion going. To read the full essay in booklet form, click here. To read the related essay, “Clarifying Our Theological Vision,” click here.
Gary delivered two lectures related to this essay at the New Pastors Orientation Conference in Glendora, CA, in February. Videos of these lectures are posted on YouTube:
- Click here to watch Reading and Interpreting Scripture with Trinitarian Eyes.
- Click here to watch GCI Doctrines and How to Teach Them.
A Brief Theology of the Church
(with a view to equipping the saints for the work of ministry)
by Dr. Gary Deddo
Part 9: Order and Structure in the Life of the Church
Last time we looked at the unity and diversity of gifts and ministry in the body of Christ. As the Holy Spirit gifts the church for ministry as he desires, an order or structure arises so that there is harmony in the exercise of those gifts. This order and structure must alway be subordinated to Jesus, the living Lord and head of the church, meaning that it will exhibit Christ’s own purposes and his kind of love and care for all. It will also echo or mirror something of Christ’s own ministry as Prophet, Priest, King and Apostle. Therefore, the order and structure of the church, which is the focus of this part of the essay on the church and its ministry, will not strictly be a hierarchy of power or privilege, but neither will it be individualistically free-form.
Patterns and principles
In the New Testament we find patterns of order and structure in the church, reflecting the giftings of the Holy Spirit. Though a single form of church governance is not specified, we find descriptive lists of those who serve in certain ways and descriptions of their responsibilities and practices. These lists and descriptions show that there is to be a certain order and structure of relationship within the body of Christ. Though more than one pattern may emerge in various churches or denominations as they apply these Scriptural examples and instructions, the underlying principles will be roughly the same. Any uniformity that may be required of any given church and its members beyond these principles will be of a pragmatic sort for the sake of fellowship and cooperation within a given church or denomination (such as our own, Grace Communion International).
A ministry of all members
In the New Testament we learn that the Spirit has given every member of the church a part and place in the ministry (service) of Jesus in and through the church. In that sense, all are ministers—all are called to serve. The New Testament uses two key words to indicate this service: diakonos (deacon) and doulos (servant). In one sense, every member is a deacon (servant) called to minister to God in and through worship. This worship is a dynamic relationship with God, through Christ, in the Spirit—a life of worship that is one of union and communion with God.
Thus we understand that the whole body of Christ is a priesthood—a people who worship and enable others to know and worship God through Christ and thereby come to fulfill their humanity. No one person, or even one group of persons, are properly priests (in that sense). The church as a whole (all its members) is called to participate in Christ’s ongoing mediatorial ministry by the Spirit, with the primary service of the members in this ministry being that of worship. Through worship, the members serve the Lord and one another and then reach out to invite others to join in that worship. In these ministries of worship there must be coordination and cooperation of the members, and so the need for a certain organizational structure.
Foundational ministry offices
Though all members of the body are called to ministry (service) in a general sense, some are placed by the Spirit in the church in such a way that they can be said to have “foundational ministries”—ones contributing to the order and structure of the body. Those who are gifted for foundational ministries are given several designations in the New Testament, though no final, exactly repeated list of such designations is found, nor is there a prescription as to how these ministry offices are to be ordered. Nevertheless, there is an order, as seen in these passages of Scripture:
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:27-28)
Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. (Eph. 4:11-14)
The responsibility of those serving in these foundational ministry offices is to attend to the health and upbuilding in love of Christ’s body to bring about unity of the faith and maturity, and to guard against false and misleading doctrine. Note how these offices are related directly to the Word of God: apostles provide the normative word of the gospel of Jesus Christ, prophets deal more with the current application of the gospel for a particular situation, teachers help new believers grow in their understanding of the apostolic teaching, and evangelists are sent out to announce the gospel to people who have not yet heard or embraced it, and are not near a local congregation. Pastors-teachers (shepherds) are then called to guide and care for the members of the church, perhaps in more individualized ways, but still according to the word of God (the gospel). That, by the way, is why biblical knowledge and theological understanding and communication ability are central to the gifting and training of effective pastor-teachers.
These foundational ministries, provided by the Spirit to the church, align with and serve the nature and design of the church, which is born of the Word of God, both Living (Jesus Christ) and written (Holy Scripture). The apostles and prophets are part of the foundation of the church, with Christ being the foundation’s “chief cornerstone,” setting its alignment and providing its strength. We thus find in the New Testament an ordering (structure) of what might be called foundational leadership offices within the body of Christ.
For the sake of the church and its multiple ministries
The foundational ministries and their leaders exist for the sake of the other ministries of the church. We might think of the relationship between these types of ministry as an upside-down pyramid with the fewer foundational ministries located at the base with the other “super-structural” ministries resting on that foundation. Or perhaps we might think of the relationship as a circular orbit with the fewer foundational ministries at the center serving the other ministries that orbit around that center.
In addition to there being no definitive listing of the foundational ministries in the New Testament, the pattern or order and structure we find related to those ministries is rather sketchy, though we do have in Luke and Paul’s writings limited instruction concerning elders-presbyters, overseers-bishops and deacons. Because this instruction does not prescribe one system of governance, a range of church polities developed over time. However, these instructions include principles and patterns that can and should inform the governance of all churches.
Leitourgia (a dual, representative ministry)
In addressing the various roles of service (ministry) within the church, in addition to the words diakonos and doulos, the New Testament uses the word leitourgia and its cognates (Rom. 15:27; 2 Cor. 9:12; Phil. 2:17, 25, 30; Heb. 1:7, 14; 8:2, 6; 9:21; 10:11). Leitourgia is translated as service or ministry, with the noun (leitourgos) translated as “minister of worship.” This provides the basis for our English word liturgy (meaning “order of worship”). Leitourgia seems to most directly bring out the aspects of Christ’s ministry of leadership within the church—what we refer to in this essay at the “foundational ministries.”
Leitourgia came into the vocabulary of the church because it originally meant someone who, at their own expense (and thus freely), served or benefitted people on behalf of another person they represented. As you will recall, Christ’s ministry is a dual representational one—he ministers the things of God to us (representing God) and ministers our responses to God (representing humankind). This is why Jesus is called the one mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5). He also is called the one true Worship Leader (Leitourgos), the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 8:2, 6). Thus it is not surprising that ministry given freely in Christ’s name would be called leitourgia.
The word leitourgia, which speaks generally of the representational nature of all ministry, directly connects ministry to worship—leading others to minister to or serve God through Jesus Christ in worship. Note that worship is first a ministry to God—a service in which, by the grace of God, those ministering have first turned to God, the Object and Subject of our worship, to receive the gifts of revelation and of reconciliation from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. Then, moved by the reception of those gifts of grace, these worshippers offer their responses of faith, hope, love and repentance in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. This is our preparation for participation in Christ’s ministry, as we assist others to participate in what we have received and responded to as forgiven sinners who stand in the same need of God’s manifold grace, just as do all those to whom we minister.
Being prepared by grace, the leitourgos turns toward the people to participate in Christ’s own ministry by the Spirit, sharing with others what God is giving to all—what they have first received. This is the pattern we see in Paul’s epistles regarding the Lord’s Supper (Communion): “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered unto you…” (1 Cor. 11:23 ESV). The ministers serving Communion minister to the congregation the gifts of God, proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Son of God and offering his word of forgiveness and the declaration of our reconciliation, justification, sanctification, and hope for glorification, all complete in Christ (Col. 2:9-10). Such proclamation is made, of course, according to Christ’s Word and saving work. This is the first movement of ministry as a service of worship to God, faithfully ministering the gifts of God to the people of God as one of Christ’s witnesses or representatives.
Having received from God through Christ and by the Spirit his gifts of grace (revelation and reconciliation), standing among the congregation, as one of them, the leitourgos then turns toward God, as it were, assisting or leading others in their corporate response to God. By making those responses, they share in Christ’s response made for them. Such responses take the forms of praise, adoration, confession of faith, confession of sin, thanksgiving, testimony, song and prayer. These responses are made as they are graciously moved by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. As worship leader, the leitourgos thereby participates in Christ’s dual representational ministry, but now in a movement of response from the people to God, as one of them (Heb. 2:11-13). They do no ministry in their own name, but in the name of our one true worship leader, Jesus Christ, who ministers in our place, on our behalf, as one of us.
All Christian ministry has this same basic form—all who minister serve others not in their own name, but in the name of the one whom they represent. Those who minister always serve others as a representative of Jesus Christ, on his behalf and according to his will. By word and deed, we serve to make God in Christ known and to assist others in making their response to God, their Lord and Savior as they come to know him in the proclamation of his gospel. In prayer, we may represent others to God by making intercessions on their behalf. In both cases, we do not represent ourselves, but we freely represent Christ in his dual ministry from God to us and from ourselves in response to him. That is the core of Christian ministry as a participation and fellowship with Christ in his continuing ministry as our great worship leader.
Those who serve in the church, especially in foundational ministries, are first of all engaged in the ministry of leitourgia—leading or taking initiative to direct attention to the revelation and reconciliation of Jesus Christ according to his Word and assisting others in making a response to him. This dual representational ministry is first about loving God for who he is (with all we are and have), then enabling others to join in, just as did the first apostles.
Some members, who first are servants (deacons), are called to serve in the foundational ministries in certain ways and with certain qualifications. In the New Testament these servants are designated as presbyters (presbuteroi in Greek). These are formally what we call elders (another translation of the same Greek word) and also leaders. Note that these elders-leaders serve most fundamentally as deacons—servants of Christ, who first serves them. Elders-leaders are, then, first followers of Christ and his apostles, just like the apostle Paul, who wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). There is no leadership in the church except by those who first are followers.
Being an elder is not a way to secure importance or identity, nor a way to make up for a deficient past or to prove one’s importance. It is not a position where the person gets to run their own “business” and so to things there own way. No one has a right to leadership of that sort. Serving as an elder is a gift and calling from God—one recognized and confirmed by others in the church. No elder can ever be self-appointed. Not even Jesus appointed himself, but was appointed, elected and anointed by God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Representational ministry intrinsically cannot arise by self-appointment—it is a gift of grace to be received. Being an elder is a matter of being an unworthy servant who first serves Jesus Christ and who receives his/her identity from belonging to Christ, receiving it from Christ as an undeserved gift of grace. Leadership is not a place to justify one’s self. In Christ, all self-justification has been put to death on the cross.
An elder-leader has no authority except that given through being commissioned to represent Christ and by sharing in Christ’s authority. The exercise of that authority ought to look, smell, taste, sound and feel like Christ’s authority. The one serving others in his name will always be aware that they never have or possess that authority. Eldership is a representative office. Being an elder who serves Jesus Christ rules out any form of lording it over others (Mark 10:42-44). Not even Jesus lorded it over his disciples! This is why it is wise for there to be a group of elders in each congregation who help each other avoid domination and any other form of abuse. A group of elders then organizes the ;ocal congregation around the Word of God for worship and witness (mission). In doint so, they coordinate the efforts and gifts of all the members and are charged with equipping those members for their work of ministry. They also are to discern, encourage and guide other potential elders and eventually confirm God’s calling some to join them as fellow elders.
Among the elders (presbyters) in a local church, one was called to lead the elders as the episkopos (meaning overseer). Drawn from the group of elders, the overseer was most often appointed by other shepherds. Early on, overseers were sometimes called bishops (a term later used to refer to the overseer of multiple congregations). In Ephesians 4:11, Paul seems to be referring to the office of episkopos in his use of the term “pastors and teachers” (pastors translating the Greek word poimenos, which is literally “shepherd”). In GCI, we refer to overseers as “lead pastors” (or sometimes “senior pastors”).
Given earlier patterns of synagogue life, and based on what is described in the New Testament and in other early church writings, it seems that overseers typically worked with and through a group (council) of elders (presbyters). Together, these elders were responsible for organizing the worship of the church (including baptism and the Lord’s Supper), appointing other elders, pastors, teachers and evangelists. All this work was centered on and in the service of Jesus Christ, the one Apostle and High Priest, Lord, Prophet, Priest and King and Shepherd of the Sheep (John 10:11; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25).
The calling of elders and lead pastors
In GCI, with affirmation of other elders, the denomination approves the ordination of all elders, and then appoints one elder within each congregation to serve as its lead pastor to exercise oversight primarily through the teaching of the apostolic message (the gospel). The lead pastor (overseer) thus feeds and protects the flock with the Word of God, with Christ the living cornerstone and on the foundation of apostolic teaching.
In the New Testament, the office of elder-leader was discerned and passed on to others in the church in an ordered or structured way. We see this in Paul’s relationship with Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila, Silas and Titus and others. In Acts it is mentioned that Paul appointed elders to serve within the congregations he started. We see here a hierarchy of spiritual authority and maturity. None of these elders were self-appointed, or elected by popular vote. There was a faithful handing on of authority as the Holy Spirit coordinated the various “parts” of the body of Christ, with other elders/pastors confirming the Spirit’s working and leading.
Appointment as elder was not made solely on the basis of an individual’s own sense of calling, but by an apostle or a council of elders who had discerned in certain individuals a living and vital relationship with Jesus Christ and a ready submission to the apostolic teaching learned directly from them or, later on, preserved in Scripture. Such devotion to the Living and written Word of God had, by the Holy Spirit, developed in them a spiritual maturity and wisdom that was discernable. An individual’s sense of call was always confirmed by other leaders in the church, often involving prayer and worship. Even the apostle Paul’s unusual call to ministry was eventually confirmed by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9).
Appointment as an elder (which in GCI we refer to as “ordination”), was not the result of a popularity contest or a democratic process. Rather, the ordination of an elder assumed fervent devotion to Jesus and incorporation into his body, the church, normally signified by baptism and regular participation in worship and the Lord’s Supper as well as demonstrating familiarity and receptivity to the apostolic witness to Jesus and his way. Paul’s letters to Timothy clearly bear out this pattern. We also find in the New Testament descriptions of elder qualifications that involve a growing Christ-like character and spiritual maturity—fruit of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ and according to Scripture. These qualifications served as essential markers indicating the Spirit’s provision of persons prepared to serve in the church’s foundational ministries for the welfare of the whole congregation.
In the New Testament (and still today), the purpose or aim of persons serving as elders and as lead pastors (overseers) is to “equip the saints” and “build up” the body (Eph. 4:12 ESV; Eph. 4:16 ESV) so as to “strengthen and encourage” faith, hope and love for God among the members. This aim involves benefitting the common good (1 Cor. 12:7) and edifying and building-up (oikodome) the body (see Rom. 14:19; 15:2; 1 Cor. 14:3, 5, 12, 26; 2 Cor. 10:8; Eph. 4:16, 29). Those being called to serve the body in this way are moved by the Spirit to join Jesus in bringing about these aims. God’s redemptive work starts with individuals responding to and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The ministry of elders and lead pastors must also be moved and committed to this pattern and priority. If such focused motivation and aims are not demonstrated, then that is a sign that those individuals are not being called to serve as elders or lead pastors, but are likely being called to serve in other ways.
In the New Testament, the core of such pastoral ministry involved leading in simple forms of worship that included reading Scripture, discussion and expounding its meaning (the sermon or meditation on Scripture), prayers and song. Sometimes a collection was taken and included a meal, the agapē feast. Such worship involved baptism (on the occasion of those wanting and prepared to be incorporated into the body of Christ) and the celebration of Lord’s Supper (Communion, also called the Eucharist).
This service of worship often led to caring for the practical needs of the members and then the needs of others. This can be seen in the development of an organized effort to take care of widows in the church by a specially appointed sub-group of deacons (Acts 6). This development marks the start of the practice of having a formal office of deacon in the church (though, in one sense, as noted above, all members are deacons-servants). Thus the service of worship led to the practical service being given to other members of the body of Christ.
A key element, then, of pastoral ministry along with the elders is to discern needs and giftings and then equip, release and help coordinate all the ministries of all the members of the body of Christ. As Paul writes of those serving in foundational ministry, they do so in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12 ESV). In GCI, those who lead these practical ministries of service are appointed to serve as “ministry leaders” (sometimes, in accordance with local custom and preference, referred to as “deacons”).
A ministry of guidance
Pastoral ministry includes both teaching patterned after Jesus and his apostles, and serving as an example rather than the exercise of law or power. Those who serve were not to “lord it over” those they were serving. However, such servant ministry does include (in consultation and coordination with others), providing guidance—exercising authority as representatives of Jesus Christ and his apostles.
As seen in Paul’s appointment of elders in churches, pastoral leadership includes a continuing followership, demonstrated by being willing to receive from others who are themselves God’s appointed servants in his body, especially those recognized faithful servants who have gone before. This is especially clear in the relationship Timothy had with Paul. This is one of the reasons that beyond knowing Scripture, the study of the teachings of others who also stand in the stream of apostolic biblical historical orthodoxy is helpful and even desirable for all involved in pastoral ministry.
Benefitting from and passing on the best of what one has received from others in the body of Christ, contemporary and ancient, demonstrates a cooperative spirit and humility, a teachability, that will foster the same in all the members and bear witness to the faithfulness of God to his church throughout the ages.
Qualifications for elders and lead pastors
The New Testament sets out certain motivational and maturational qualifications for those who serve in these leadership office within the church. A principal qualification for being an elder is maturity (1 Tim. 3:1-7)—the fruit of participation in the sanctification of Christ and his Spirit, by grace and over time. That is why Paul warned Timothy not to appoint a “recent convert” to the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:6). Spiritual maturity evidenced, over time, by the fruit of the Spirit is essential to all positions of leadership within the body of Christ.
Serving as an elder is not a reward for loyalty or longevity of service, nor is it proof of one’s acceptance by God. Full acceptance, forgiveness and new life, which is received at the Lord’s Table, is available to all who come to receive it by faith in its Lord. It is the grace of God’s calling that places persons in particular roles of service within the body of Christ. Serving as a leader (elder, pastor, etc.) is simply a matter of the right ordering of ministry according to maturity and gifting of members in the body under Jesus Christ.
Pastoral leadership is referred to in Scripture as shepherding and even nursing (1 Thess. 2:7; Ezek. 34). Such ministry can include both exhortation and gentle correction. There is a discipline, an order, to pastoral ministry under the living Word. Members of the body should be following those who are following a greater One whom they know and whom they trust. Those leading foundational ministries should thus be trust-worthy. Those following should be able to trust these leaders as ones who are trusting in the One they worship. In extending this trust, the members are following Paul’s admonition: “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Leadership involves directing people to the Source of spiritual water, not attempting to make them drink.
Pastoral leaders must focus on the church’s deepest needs and thus stay focused on their primary calling, which is to minister through worship and witness in such a way that people are drawn and directed to Jesus Christ and into a worship relationship with him—a relationship of repentance and faith, hope and love for him and through him for the Father and the Holy Spirit. As Christ’s representative that love reaches out so others may also receive grace and forgiveness and so be reconciled to God who is already reconciled to them. As Paul says, we are his “ambassadors”—God making his appeal through us. Since God has reconciled the world to himself, we are to call others to be reconciled to him by the power of the gospel and the ministry of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 5:18-20).
There is one more ministry office that Paul indicates as being foundational for the church—the office of evangelist. Like pastors, evangelists are gifted by the Spirit to serve as ministers of the Word, but in their case the focus is outward-looking and outward-going. The ministry of an evangelist extends outward, sometimes far beyond the walls of the local congregation, crossing socio-cultural, economic and geographical boundaries.
The evangelist is equipped and motivated to carry the Word to those who have not yet heard or embraced the gospel of Christ, his grace, and coming kingdom. Such people typically do not have a nearby church that can reach them in the course of daily interactions. An evangelist’s ministry, in the mind of Paul and after the model and commission of Christ to go into all the world (Matt. 28:16-20), is just as foundational as those who serve as elders and pastors/teachers. They too are to be called and appointed, supported and sent by the corporate body. They too should have essentially the same qualifications as those who serve locally in the other foundational ministries. They too, serve as representatives of Jesus Christ and have a dual and mediatorial ministry in his name and under the authority of his Word, Scripture.
The full, complete vocation of the church involves both serving as a local witness and contributing to Christ’s larger, even cosmic, witness or mission. As we see in the book of Acts and throughout the Epistles, such a vision included giving financial contributions to other churches and equipping, sending out and supporting traveling evangelists.
The church’s vocation includes exercising its corporate priesthood on behalf of all the world. What God did at Pentecost was not forgotten, nor was Jesus’ repetition of his commission before he ascended when he declared: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Behind this commission was the promise of God to Abraham:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)
The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a sending God. Jesus Christ is God’s missionary—the Apostle (meaning “sent one”—Heb. 3:1). The first 12 apostles were designated that because they were called, appointed and sent out by Jesus with his authority to share in his outgoing, ongoing ministry. The twelve went out before there were any congregations that worshipped God through Christ. As these first apostles passed away, those who were sent out in a similar way were designated evangelists (euangelistēs, meaning proclaimers of the good news, the evangel). Like some of the first apostles, the evangelists were presumably prepared, appointed and supported by local congregations and sent to carry out Christ’s continuing ministry. The resurrected and ascended Lord had been given all authority in heaven and on earth and had promised to be with them, wherever they would go, to the ends of the earth, and until the end of this age (Matt. 28:18, 20).
Thus we learn from Scripture that elders and pastors (shepherds/overseers) focused on the care of the flock—one their spiritual well-being, including their growing worship relationship with God in Christ. Through their leadership, the atoning, reconciling work of Christ (which led to the proclamation of forgiveness in his name) was being received by repentance or confession of sin to God in the name of Jesus. The aim of their leadership (as directly and emphatically declared by Paul) was to bring all to maturity—a maturity expressed as “the obedience that comes from [or ‘belongs to’] faith” in Jesus Christ (Rom 1:5; 16:26; Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:28). Such maturity would also be displayed by their demonstrating a new mind and heart that left behind much of their former ways and resulted in some non-conformity to societal expectations and demands around them (Rom. 12:1-3).
This maturity in Christ yields the fruit of an overflowing witness in the local context and involvement in God’s global, even cosmic mission. This missional impetus had two primary forms: either through sending evangelists, or being sent out as an evangelist, as what today we refer to as a missionary. Such an expansive witness is essential to the being and vocation of the church.
The church corporate gathers together, sends and is sent out. The two vectors of its life and ministry (inward and outward) should not be put in tension or competition. While the focus of ministry within the local congregation is appropriately on the health, welfare and spiritual growth of the members, it exercises this ministry with the aim of fulfilling its out-reaching, missional vocation. A farmer not only plants seed—he also weeds and waters, always with a view toward a bountiful harvest. God’s love reaches down and out and then overflows. So does the ministry of his church, the body of Christ.
Note: GCI’s system of governance within the United States, including its ordering of leadership offices, is set out in the Church Administration Manual. To view the current edition of the Manual online, click here.