the weblog of Alan Knox

A weak church or a strong church?

Posted by on Jul 11, 2008 in discipleship, edification, elders, gathering, office, service | 23 comments

I have read recently that those who hold to a more structured and organized understanding of the church have a “strong ecclesiology”, while those who hold to a less structured and organized understanding of the church have a “weak ecclesiology”. I am one of those who believe that the church is not defined by either structure or organization. I believe that less organization and structure is better. I also believe that organization and structure often hamper the church. Is this a “weak ecclesiology”?

In my ecclesiology, all believers are “ministers” – servants. All believers respond to God by serving others – both other believers and nonbelievers. Leaders (pastors/elders or deacons) are not more responsible that others. All believers teach, care for, and watch out for other believers. Leaders are not more responsible for teaching, shepherding, or overseeing. Believers do not serve because they hold a certain position, but because they are all gifted to serve.

In my ecclesiology, all believers are “missionaries” – sent out into the world. All believers respond to God by proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in word and in deed. All believers live in a way that demonstrates the love of God to “the least” of society. All believers speak in a way that proclaims the truth of God, including his grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Leaders (missionaries or evangelists) are not more responsible for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Since all believers have been reconciled to God, all believers are ambassadors, representing God in his ministry of reconciliation.

In my ecclesiology, all believers speak and serve one another during the meeting of the church. All believers are gifted by the Holy Spirit; and, when the church comes together, he alone decides who speaks and who serves in a way that best edifies all believers present. Even those who aren’t prophets can prophesy when enabled by the Spirit. Even those who aren’t teachers can teach when enabled by the Spirit. Leaders (teachers or preachers) are not more responsible for speaking during the meeting of the church. Since all believers are gifted by the Spirit, and since love and edification – not training or education – are the requirements for speaking during the meeting of the church, all believers share that responsibility.

In my ecclesiology, all believers make disciples. All believers work to see one another grow in maturity in both the knowledge and unity of Jesus Christ, with him being our only measure and goal. All believers consider how best to stir up one another toward love and good deeds. Leaders are not more responsible for discipleship than other believers. All believers help one another bear their burdens, correct one another in gentleness, and exhort one another daily to grow in character and obedience toward Jesus Christ.

In the traditional “strong” ecclesiology, a few leaders in the church are responsible for serving, evangelizing, speaking, and discipling. In my “weak” ecclesiology, the entire church – every believer – responds to God’s amazing work in their lives by serving, evangelizing, speaking, and discipling.

What’s the difference? In the traditional “strong” ecclesiology, leaders are given and take responsibility for things for which they (alone) are not responsible. Other believers, in turn, allow or expect leaders to carry these added responsibilities. Then, when things are not “accomplished”, the leaders are found to be at fault. This may be a “strong” ecclesiology, but I believe it creates a weak church.


23 Comments

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  1. 7-11-2008

    As you know, I agree with the heart of where you are going with this Alan. But I have two observations.

    1. All members cannot be equally responsible for everything because not all members are gifted by the Spirit in the same way. If we truly embrace diversity in the Body, then not every person can do everything.

    Let me know if I am misreading or misrepresenting your thoughts here?

    2. In regard to your statement, “Leaders are not more responsible for teaching, shepherding, or overseeing.” So God does not hold a teacher more accountable than one who is not gifted to teach? Really, is that statement a fair representation of the full scope of Scripture? So you would suggest that the Apostle Paul, for example, did not have a greater authority and responsibility than anyone else in the church?

  2. 7-11-2008

    Alan,
    I agree with you to a point, but I’d agree with J.R. Miller a bit on the point he’s making, and I think you would as well.

    You can’t get away from the fact that in Ephesians Christ gives apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers for the work of the ministry, to build God’s people up so that God’s people can do God’s work. So I think there’s a balance there that your good point in this post, left alone, would miss.

    A good pastor and good leadership has a special responsibility from God, but their goal must not be lost sight of: good leaders are good followers of Christ so that others may in turn follow them as they follow the Lord. This puts everyone in motion in God’s will and way in Jesus. High or low church is beside the point in this, I think.

  3. 7-11-2008

    Alan. Well spoken!

    I´d add that we don´t need another leader in the church but Jesus (Matthew 23:8-12). We need many gifts/roles/ministries of the Spirit (including in many occasions teachers, overseers, apostles, evangelists, healers, givers and others) but none of the people receiving those gifts should be called “leaders”. Leadership is something that happens (a verb) and that all can have a part in, although not in the same way or in every occasion to the same degree.

    I´d also add that I think there is just as much structure in your ecclesiology, although of another type. A body has a structure, but a structure that is internal and life-affirming, not external.
    /Jonas Lundström
    http://blog.bahnhof.se/wb938188

  4. 7-11-2008

    J.R.,

    1) Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems that Scripture tells us that all believers should respond to the Spirit as he leads them. It is not up to us to decide how the Spirit will use us, nor is it up to us to put a scale of importance on the Spirit’s work. My point is exactly what you said, “If we truly embrace diversity in the Body, then not every person can do everything.” Excactly… including and especiall leaders.

    2) Yes, when we teach we are held responsible for what we teach. James tells us this. Scripture also tells us that we are all responsible for teaching (i.e. Col 3:16 among others). Apostles, like Paul, did wield an authority. I have not found any indication in Scripture that that apostolic authority was passed on to others.

    I do believe that leaders have a role within the body of Christ: they provide an example of mature and consistent response to the Spirit. This does not make them more responsible for anything though. In fact, it would not be “leading” to take responsibility for things that are not that “leader’s” responsibility. Today, in general, “leaders” take and are given responsibility for almost everything, while others see themselves as having almost no responsibility to the body of Christ and the world.

    Ted,

    Actually, in Ephesians 4:11, Paul says that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds and teachers in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry (service). I think these are examples, because Paul begins in vs. 7 focusing on the giftedness of everyone and ends in vs. 16 focusing on the necessity of everyone working together. Thus, apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, those with gifts of mercy, helpers, administrators, and those with other gifts are all given to equip the saints to serve others and the world. This is the only list of spiritual gifts that people take to be exclusive and complete. There is not textual reason for that position.

    You said, “A good pastor and good leadership has a special responsibility from God…” Can you show me where Scripture tells pastors/elders that they have a special responsibility beyond the responsibility of other believers?

    By the way, I completely agree with the remainder of that paragraph!

    Jonas,

    Yes, you’re right. There is structure and organization in my ecclesiology. It is a structure and organization that is flexible and responds to the work of the Spirit in the lives of believers. The work of the church depends more on the people following the Spirit than on the proper functioning of the structure.

    -Alan

  5. 7-11-2008

    Hey Ted,

    I am bit with Alan on this one. I was reading a post by a good brother in the Lord where he highlighted a specific section that made me cringe. http://www.purechurch.blogspot.com Before I critque that quote I am going to read the book. But I can at least critique that quote and this is what it sounds like both you and Mr. Miller are saying.

    I am actually spending a great deal of time in Ephesians 4 and Alan hit it on the head. The focus is on the individual gifts given to each member that makes them RESPONSIBLE for building up the body of Christ. Paul gives us examples of those gifts but verse 16 gives us the meat of what Paul is saying.

    Hey Alan,

    I love this post brother absolutely love it. It is funny I think it should be better put that we have a “weak” clergy/layity distiction.

    BTW Mr. Miller, was Paul an overseer or shepherd? What specfic church did he shepherd? I have asked this question along with Timothy and Titus who are labeled pastors by most commentators. I believe him to be an apostle (which he calls himself) and the latter to be assistants or compaions used by Paul once there were many functioning churches and he couldn’t get to them all.

  6. 7-11-2008

    Hi Alan, we are all working with the same set of Scriptures here so I doubt anyone will post the “smoking gun” passage you are asking for. I think we are saying basically the same thing, it is simply that we are choosing to put emphasis on different aspects of these same passages.

    We agree, I am sure, that the what sets an Elders apart as under-Shepherd for the Flock, it is not a superior moral character, nor any unique gifting; it is the leadership role of Elder itself. Not all can be equally responsible for the life of the Body because not everyone is an Elder.

    Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

    Acts 20:28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.

    This last verse certainly puts a greater responsibility on those who are overseers to guard the flock.

  7. 7-11-2008

    Lionel, it seems I was writing my post to Alan while you were making your post. let me know if your question me was answered in my previous comment.

  8. 7-11-2008

    Alan and company,
    I agree with all you say- for the most part. Just was paraphrasing and it was too loose. I tend to go by memory or trying to get the gist of it across when blogging- unless I’m posting, of course.

    Epahpras is called “a minister of Christ on our behalf” through whom they came to Christ.

    Starting with the apostles and prophets on which the church is built (Ephesians)- apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers are there as gifts from Christ SO THAT all others in the Body of Christ can do the work of the ministry. Sure, they’re part of the Body as well. But they are uniquely set apart by Christ for that special ministry TO the Body.

    Paul told Titus to appoint elders in every city. Yes, they’re to be an example to the flock- they’re only to do what all the rest are called to do. But they are still appointed to so serve, and their position is one of leadership.

    In Philippi the letter was written to all the believers along with the overseers and deacons.

    So I take it that there are both constitutional gifts/gifitngs and callings, as well as situational gifts (1 Cor 14).

    I tend to want to side on the more charismatic, so called small church side. But that Christ continues to equip his people through certain men and women, I believe is a staple of the church in this present age. So that I’m learning the value of both. God does set aside some in gift and calling and continues to use leadership as well as all of God’s people, to recognize such, I believe. The leadership does have an important role in this, I take it, if the precedence set in the New Testament continues on, which I believe it does.

    I, who am of a “charismatic” bend, and a strong believer in 1 Corinthinas 14 as having application for today, and open to the “charismatic side”- a believer in that, as well to a lesser degree- as many of us are parts of groups who don’t do all of that- me included.

    There is a sort of ongoing (if Ephesians 4, as well as the example of the church, is ongoing)

    I’m not reticent to use words like “leader”. We’re all to be following Christ, and as Paul said we’re to mark such, and follow their example, and others in turn will do the same towards us, if we really are so following.

    Good discussion here, and glad you can mix it up with me, even if in the end we won’t agree on everything.

  9. 7-11-2008

    Hi Alan,

    You need a comparison when you say, “less organization and structure is better”. Less organization and structure than what? For example, I’m for the decentralization of ecclesiological authority in comparison to Roman Catholicism. But based on what I heard about Quaker ecclesiology, I might think more organization and structure is better.

    Anyway, I agree with you that the entire church needs to be involved with ministry. And if an entire church involved in ministry is weak ecclesiology, then weak ecclesiology is what makes a strong church, pun intented.

  10. 7-11-2008

    Good discussion, everyone!

    Lionel,

    I agree that the main distintion in my ecclesiology is the lack of a clergy/laity distinction.

    J.R.,

    I love the passages that you quoted! (Although I think Heb 13:17 is one of the worst translated passages in Scripture. The word translated “obey” is almost always translated “trust”.) I believe that we should follow or trust our leaders and I believe that they are accountable to how they teach or lead. That said, I also believe that we should trust and follow one another (submitting to one another), and I believe that we will all be held accountable to how we teach and lead one another. Leaders have responsilibities, but so do all other believers.

    Ted,

    There is only one point in your comment that I would disagree with. I do not think apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds and teachers are “uniquely set apart”. They are part of the body, and they are important to the proper working of the body… but according to 4:16 every part of the body is important to the proper working of the body.

    James,

    I’m comparing to the traditional church structures and organizations. I realize this is very general, but from what I’ve seen most churches in the US have a very similar structure, and operate in very similar ways.

    -Alan

  11. 7-11-2008

    Thanks, Alan.

    I don’t think my stance disagrees with that at all. Each part is important to the whole, and each part is unique in its contributions, as well.

  12. 7-11-2008

    I think we agree more than disagree Alan. Let me ask one question though. What I hear you saying is that the church is a completely egalitarian collection of people where everyone is the same in every way. Everyone teaches, everyone prophecies, everyone serves, everyone leads, etc…

    First, is that a fair summary? Second, if yes, then why does the NT talk of leaders at all? Why does not Paul say, “reject all leaders, you have no leader but Jesus.” Why does the NT ask the older men to instruct the younger and the older women to instruct the yonger? Why does Paul say we are a body instead of “each person is every member of the Body?”

    Again, just trying to understand you brother.

  13. 7-11-2008

    Ted,

    I’ve enjoyed the interaction. You’ve helped me think through some things.

    J.R.,

    Yes, I think our positions are very similar. I knew this from reading your blog posts and listening to your sermons before we started this discussion.

    You said, “What I hear you saying is that the church is a completely egalitarian collection of people where everyone is the same in every way. Everyone teaches, everyone prophecies, everyone serves, everyone leads, etc…” The church is equal in worth and necessity. Everyone has the responsibility to teach, serve, evengalize, etc. The Spirit works through some differently than others – i.e. gifts of teaching, prophesy, service, etc. All are responsible for serving as the Spirit gifts them.

    Some believers are more mature, better at recognizing how the Spirit desires to work through them, and better at understanding and knowing the people. We should follow their example – they are our leaders because they lead in serving, not because they have more responsibility.

    -Alan

  14. 7-12-2008

    Alan,

    We have driven south, more than 3000 kilometres round trip(at my age it feels like 10,000), in the last two weeks. It was cold (max.7deg.C some days)and it snowed on the way home.

    Arriving home and opening your blog is like warm fresh air.

    The family members we visited belong to a “sit and soak” church whose leadership is constantly more frantic than an ant hill,and holding to a “strong ecclesiology”, but more frigid than the weather.

    Give me the “weak” any day, where the living Christ is Lord of His congregation, where the Helper He promised (Jn.14:16)moves His people “so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter”(Rom.7:6).

    Paul tells the Corinthians “each (EVERY) one is given the manifestation of the Spirit FOR THE COMMON GOOD” (1Cor.12:7).

    Does Paul’s words to the Romans say something to us about this: “For all who are BEING LED by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”? (ROM.8:14)

  15. 7-12-2008

    Alan,

    In the context of my last comment on your “Responsibilities and Expectations of Elders” post, I think I’m going to come down on the side of James Goetz (and a few others) on this one. It seems to me there is a spectrum of options, from highly structured, and even hierarchical, on one side, to “spiritual anarchy” on the other side. I would favor balance, rather than an extreme on either side.

    I do agree with you that most churches in the US (and many other places) do tend toward the over-structured side of things. But, that doesn’t mean we should throw out all structure altogether.

    Examples: Someone has the key to open up the place where a meeting is going to take place. Someone else has the responsibility to set up the chairs, sound equipment, etc. Even in a “house church,” someone has the responsibility of keeping the house clean, receiving the people as they arrive, preparing snacks, deciding the time and place of the meetings, etc. It is best when these responsibilities can be spread out among all the different members.

    But, as I believe I have said here before (and in person to you), when “everyone” is equally responsible, then, in effect, many times, “no one” is responsible. “Leadership” in a local congregation, in this sense, is a servanthood function that helps others know when and how is the best time and way for them to exercise the gifts and responsibilities that God has given them.

  16. 7-12-2008

    Aussie John,

    I’m glad you made it back safely. Thank you for the encouraging words.

    David,

    You said, “when ‘everyone’ is equally responsible, then, in effect, many times, ‘no one’ is responsible.”

    I don’t buy it. First, I cannot obey for someone else. If I do everything that God has called everyone to do, then I am not more obedient than when I do only what God has called me to do. I am actually being less obedient.

    Second, we only think that way when it comes to the church. We would never say, “When everyone is responsible for trusting God, then in effect no one is responsible for trusting God.” Neither do we say, “When everyone is responsible for loving God and loving neighbors, then in effect no one is responsible for loving God and loving neighbors.” But, for some reason, we find it perfectly acceptable to say, “When everyone is responsible for building up the body of Christ, or speaking, exercising our gifts, or whatever, then in effect no one is responsible.” Again, I don’t buy it.

    -Alan

  17. 7-13-2008

    Alan,

    Maybe I should clarify. I am not saying for the “leaders” to do everything for everyone else that they should be doing themselves.

    I am saying, though, that in everyday real life situations, it is helpful for someone to organize and facilitate what everyone else does. That is why, for example, we have traffic cops at busy intersections. The traffic cop is not taking someone else’s job or responsibility away. He/she is just making it easier for everyone else to get to where they are trying to get, without everyone running into each other.

    The same is true with an orchestra and a conductor. All the individual musicians are responsible to play the part assigned to them. But, it will all turn out much better if there is a conductor who helps them all to do so in an organized way, coordinated together with everyone else. Also, if everyone thought they should take their turn at being the conductor, it would not be helpful.

    Maybe it would help if I said it this way: Everyone really is responsible to do what God has called them to do, whatever that may be. But good organization (structure) helps everyone to be more effective at what God calls them to do. Too much structure may well get in the way of everyone doing what God calls them to do, though.

  18. 7-13-2008

    I hear you David and agree. I pretty much feel we are all saying the same thing with differing degrees of “design”. But no matter the details, I think we can all agree that we need healthy, systems for a Viable Body.

  19. 7-13-2008

    David, I understand what you’re saying from a pragmatic standpoint, but the question I keep coming back to is this: Why isn’t the Holy Spirit the “traffic cop” or the “conductor”? It seems to me that is a major point that Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

    I’ve seen you make the comment several times before that “if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” It sounds catchy, but I’m just not convinced that it’s true. I don’t know where that concept comes from, but I just don’t see how it lines up with scripture.

  20. 7-13-2008

    J.R. and Steve,

    I should have prefaced my comments by saying I agree with 95% (or more) of “Alan’s ecclesiology” here. Alan knows that, but perhaps some others might not realize that when reading I am writing here.

    I very much believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a local congregation, and think most have significantly underemphasized that. However, when the Holy Spirit uniquely gifts individuals within the congregation to fulfill specific roles (like that of leadership), I believe this is one way He also guides the congregation.

    As several have already alluded to in this conversation, the fact that some in the congregation are designated as “supervisors,” while others are not, speaks for itself, as far as I am concerned. That doesn’t diminish the responsibility of other members to be and do everything God calls them to do. But, the truth is, in the Body, though the foot needs the hand, the ear needs the eye, and the “seemly” parts need the “unseemly” parts, the foot is not the hand, the ear is not the eye, and the “seemly” parts are not the “unseemly” parts. Each one of us has our own unique role to play.

  21. 7-13-2008

    May I step in a bit here?

    True, the Spirit is at work in 1 Corinthians 12-14. But it’s never only the Spirit in this co-working of ourselves and God. Paul has to give directions and specifications (like two or three prophets should speak, the rest judge what they say, when someone else has something to say, the one speaking should let them speak, etc.

    So the Spirit is the one who moves, but we must move with the Spirit’s moving, or else the work of the Lord is at a standstill.

    And I think this involves those who watch over others souls, who are especially set apart by God to do that (end of Hebrews). Not nullifying at all, the special work in the Lord by the Spirit that each one of us in the body has.

  22. 7-13-2008

    Also elders are designated or called to be shepherds and to shepherd the flock of God entrusted to their care in 1 Peter 5. This is a special work to fulfill an ongoing need in the church, surely.

  23. 7-13-2008

    If you go back and read my post again, you’ll see that I’m not suggesting that leaders have no responsibilities. Instead, I’m saying that all believers have responsibilities toward God, toward one another, and toward the world. Being more mature, I would expect that leaders would be more consistent in obeying God.

    If God desires a person to teach, they should teach. They are disobeying God is they allow other people to place other responsibilities on them (such as administration) because they will no longer be obeying God but obeying men. The same is true for those who God gifts with other gifts and other opportunities.

    Leaders should lead. I am not suggesting otherwise. I do not doubt that the ones commenting here hold very similar positions. Our positions (even given the slight variations and emphases) are not normal in the modern church where leaders are given and take responsibility for the work of the church.

    -Alan