When we study the idea of leadership in Scripture, we find that leadership in the church is not decision-making, and decision-making is not leadership. When we study the idea of leadership in today’s church, we find that leadership is primarily about decision-making.
Ready almost any book on ecclesiology or church leadership, and you’ll read about various forms of “church government” or “church polity”. You’ll read about the episcopal form, in which a bishop (or senior pastor) makes decisions for the church. You’ll also read about the presbyterian form, in which a group of people (elders, pastors, staff, or deacons) make decisions for the church. Finally, you’ll read about the congregational form, in which the church itself makes the decisions.
But, when we search Scripture to determine who should make decisions for the church, we come up short. Scripture does not deal with the concept of making decisions for the church. Yes, we find church leadership in the church: elders, bishops, pastors, deacons, teachers, etc. But, these are not mentioned in the context of making decisions. However, we do find that decisions are made in Scripture.
In Acts 6, the people come to the apostles with a problem. Some of the widows are not receiving food, while others are receiving food. The apostles did not make decisions for the people. Instead, the apostles tell the people to take care of the situation. The apostles lead by suggesting characteristics of those who should serve these widows, but they do not make the decision for the people.
In Acts 15, a major question is brought before the apostles: should Gentile Christians become Jews – i.e. should they be circumcised and required to keep the law. The decision that would be made at this time would affect the church for all ages. Who made the decisions? The apostles? Yes, they were part of the decision-making process. The elders? Yes, they were part of the decision-making process. Others? Yes, even Barnabas and Paul were allowed to take part even though they were part of the church in Antioch. In fact, it seems that the entire church took part in the decision-making process. But, certainly the entire church would not have been considered leaders.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul writes to the church in Corinth about a “brother” who was living an immoral life. The church was doing nothing about this situation, and Paul admonished them for it. Paul told them what he thought they should do about this situation, but who was responsible for making the decision to actually do it? Apparently, Paul left that up to the church.
In each case, the “leaders” involved guided and taught and admonished and exhorted, but they did not make decisions for other people. In fact, in 3 John, we see an example of a “leader” who does make decisions for people, and John speaks of him (Diotrephes) negatively.
So, if leadership is not about decision-making in Scripture, then what is leadership? Leadership is service – serving people. Service should be the start of the discussion about church leadership, and service should be the end of the discussion about church leadership. Teaching is about service. Sherpherding is about service. Overseeing (watching out for) is about service. Leadership is about service. Those who do not serve are not leaders in the scriptural sense.
When we see discussions about church government (polity) and its different forms, we should recognize that these questions and forms and structures arose after the New Testament was written. For example, it is from Ignatius that we learn that the bishop should make decisions for the church and that the church should do nothing without the approval of the bishop.
Now, this does not mean that scriptural leaders (servants) do not have influence concerning decisions. They do and they should. Assuming that we have recognized leaders because of their spiritual maturity and their service to others (and this is a HUGE assumption that is often not true), then we should ask for their opinions, and we should often follow what they say (Heb. 13:17). Leaders, on the other hand, must recognize that we can selfishly use our influence to get our own way – even when the outcome doesn’t really matter.
Since they are more spiritually mature (we’re assuming, remember), then leaders should be the first to give up their rights for the rights of others. Leaders should be the first to consider others as more important than themselves and, therefore, to consider the opinion of others as more important than their own opinion. When leaders are concerned about a decision, then they influence that decision through service, teaching, admonishment, exhortation, but not by attempting to exercising authority – that authority belongs only to the one head of the church. Leaders must be willing to serve all, and allow Christ to control the decision-making.
But, that’s not what we find today. Instead, when people talk about leadership in the church, they talk about decision-making. Perhaps, we need to stop trying to make decisions, and start serving. If a decision has to be made (and make sure that it actually HAS to be made), then offer your opinion, teach, admonish, exhort, etc. Then, allow the ones affected by the decision to make that decision.
To do that, of course, we’ll have to find leaders who are willing to serve only.