By Jon Weatherly
Human beings are social animals. We don’t simply enjoy being together. We need to be together to survive, let alone thrive. For as long as we’ve existed, we’ve lived together—working, serving, sharing, and trading.
We have divided our labors for efficiency and followed leaders for effectiveness. Family, neighborhood, school, business, city, nation—all are humans in community, getting things done. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
Christ’s church is no less a human community. It is deliberately interactive and communal. It has always divided labor and followed leaders. It has surely succeeded and failed.
Yet the church confesses it is not just another human community. It is the people of God, divinely appointed, empowered, and directed by Christ its king.
As such, it must be distinct from other communities, in ways that reflect the nature and purpose of the Christ to whom it belongs. To be authentic, the church must always evaluate how it lives together, constantly revising its habits to glorify more faithfully the Christ who is its head.
This matter is more than a theological fine point. It manifests itself in the daily life of local churches, perhaps no more than among churches of the Restoration Movement who self-consciously strive to restore the church of the New Testament.
We recognize the biblical teaching that all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:9) and gifted for service (1 Corinthians 12–14; Romans 12:4-8; Ephesians 4:7-15). We affirm the biblical pattern of a church led by a plurality of elders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Titus 1:5; James 5:4; 1 Peter 5:1). But how do we put these realities into practice?
Complicating matters further, we pay some people for their ministries, sometimes citing their “calling.” How should we understand their roles and responsibilities?
This essay seeks to answer questions like these in a way that will help all of us see our place in God’s work on earth.
I believe our best answers will come from our biblically directed application of the gospel’s core truths.
The Christ who calls the church into existence, who mandates its mission, who empowers its members, who is head of its shared, diversified work as his body and the object of its ministry as his priests—that Christ accomplished his divine work with his self-sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, which are the supreme focus of God’s eternal purpose revealed in Scripture.
God promised he would restore rebellious humanity to be the community he intended. Christ fulfills that promise as he calls his followers to a faithful, transformed life together.
Israel: God’s People Called to Godly Community
Typically a discussion of gifts and leadership in the church’s ministry begins in the New Testament. But starting in the Old offers a helpful perspective. Israel’s experience reflects the wider issues of human failure that confront the church that lives by the Spirit in the fulfillment of Israel’s promises.
God grants Israel the means for living life together as his people. These include the land, the law, the temple, and leadership through prophets, judges, and kings. These all provided Israel what it needed to live in the justice and harmony that befit their calling to be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44, 45; 19:2).
But Israel was simultaneously surrounded by other forms of community life among neighboring empires and tribes, all of whom pursued what their gods and worldview honored: power at the expense of others.
Mighty military rulers led these peoples in conquest, enslavement, and oppression. Among the objects of their brutality was lowly Israel. Over the centuries, Israel was enslaved in Egypt, invaded in its homeland, and exiled in Assyria and Babylon.
Faced with such crises, Israel coveted the kind of power its neighbors and enemies had. Specifically, Israel sought a king, a military tyrant like those who led their pagan oppressors (1 Samuel 8). In crisis, Israel regarded God as an insufficient king (1 Samuel 8:7).
God warned Israel that appointing a king would effectively be capitulating to oppression (1 Samuel 8:10-18). Only a king who avoided the pursuit of power and wealth could rule as God’s king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). But the story of Israel’s kings was largely one of failure, as generation by generation they adopted the ways of the pagans.
The true expression of godly leadership in Israel was not power but weakness. Moses was a prophet, not military leader, and a stammering prophet at that (Exodus 4:10).
The exodus and conquest were accomplished not with conventional might, but by God fighting for Israel (Exodus 14:14; Joshua 10:14).
The judges led Israel to peace not by their ability, but in their deep flaws, as God fought for Israel again (Judges 2:16-19).
The prophets were mighty in word but perpetually harassed by the political elites (2 Chronicles 36:15, 16).
The model of the true king was not Saul, tall and strong, but David, the youngest brother who faced the giant pagan champion with a sling and stones directed by God to their target.
What was true of Israel’s king was also true of Israel the nation. Dissatisfied with God’s provision and its perpetual lowliness, Israel flaunted its covenant and pursued other gods. As God’s people, Israel occasionally shone but mostly flopped. Its exile was the fruit of its refusal to trust God and his provision (2 Chronicles 36:17-21).
But God’s purpose was always to bring to all nations his blessing, his true life, through Israel’s lowliness and even its failure. God promised to send a true king to build his true temple (2 Samuel 7:12-16). He promised to restore Israel from exile in a divine act of power like the Exodus (Isaiah 40:3-5). By his Spirit he promised to empower his people to obey him as they have failed to do before, granting them a new covenant that is written on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Then the pagan empires will be defeated, God will rule, and the nations will be truly blessed (Daniel 7).
Christ: God’s King of Lowly Service
This summary of the familiar Old Testament story leads inexorably to Jesus. Of lowly birth (Luke 2:1-7), he was designated by God as his kingly Son (Mark 1:11), with power to do what only God could do (Mark 4:41), calling Israel to experience the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises (Luke 4:16-21), and bringing those promises to fulfillment by willingly giving his life as the payment for his people’s freedom (Matthew 20:28; 26:26-29).
This king did not seek power for himself, but surrendered himself to torture and death to give others life. Unlike Israel’s unfaithful shepherds (Ezekiel 34), he is the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep (John 10:1-18). Raised by the Father to life again, he reigns as king over his people until he returns to reclaim his world (Acts 2:32-36).
To belong to the true community of God’s people, Jesus’ church, one must confess him as God’s true king (Matthew 16:13-20). But that is not merely verbal. The true confession is made with the life that follows Jesus on the way to his death, the life that serves as he served (Matthew 16:21-28). He sends his followers out to do even greater works than he has done, for in their unified life they will bring the world to know what God has done in Jesus (John 14:12; 17:21-26). These comprise the calling that Christ gives not to some of his people, but to all (Matthew 28:18-20).
How can ordinary, flawed people—people like Israel in ages past—do such a thing? How can weak, rebellious people contribute to God’s mission in the world? Jesus promises his followers power through the Holy Spirit whom he will send to them (Acts 1:8). By the Spirit’s power they become the people who can fulfill the mission to realize God’s promised all-nations blessing.
The Holy Spirit: Empowering the Church’s Common Life
This sacred history of Israel that culminates in Jesus is crucial for understanding the familiar teaching of Paul’s letters about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit’s gifts, the church’s unity is realized, its mission accomplished, and Christ’s reign is fulfilled.
As Paul instructs the Corinthian, Roman, and Ephesian churches, Christ gives his Spirit to his people to empower each of them for different kinds of lowly, self-
giving service for others (1 Corinthians 12:4-10; Romans 12:4-8; Ephesians 4:7-12). The Spirit’s gifts are to be exercised in Christlike love that builds up instead of puffing up (1 Corinthians 8:1; 13:1-13).
A body with many kinds of parts and ruled by Christ as its head, the church realizes God’s purpose by being unified in service through its exceptional diversity (Ephesians 4:13-16). The members’ self-sacrifice of service is the only reasonable response to what the body’s head has done for his people (Romans 12:1, 2). Empowered together, the church is able to accomplish its mission, boldly proclaiming its king in deed and word.
In its diversity, the church has leaders, whose appointment to leadership is the Spirit’s gift (Ephesians 4:11). Leaders do not do the church’s work for nonleaders. They do not seek honor for themselves, though fellow members of the body often give honor, including financial support, with the grace and sacrifice that befits their Lord (1 Timothy 5:17).
Rather, they are charged to equip the body for its service, by which it is unified to become a mission-accomplishing community (Ephesians 4:12-17). The church thus led expresses Christlike humility and love—equal, unified and diverse—honored for lowliness (1 Corinthians 12:21-26), not for power as defined by the ungodly empires.
In fact, the church stands in a divinely enlightened contrast to the ungodly empires (Matthew 5:13-16). It replaces pride with lowliness, hierarchy with humility, selfishness with self-sacrifice, even strength with weakness that befits the cross (2 Corinthians 12:9). It honors the least as reflections of its head, as true expressions of godly greatness.
Today: Being Christ’s Spirit-Gifted Church
In every place and period, the church has struggled to overcome ancient Israel’s problem: the lure of making its life as God’s people like the life of the powerful entities that surround it. Whether we speak of the early Greco-Roman church imitating the organization of the Roman Empire, churches among tribal peoples imitating headman order, or North American churches imitating corporate governance or the United States Constitution, we speak of churches that at least superficially seem to want kings like the other nations. We organize and lead according to the patterns to which we are acculturated and habituated.
But history suggests the church proves most faithful when it infuses whatever forms of organization it follows with the salt and light of the gospel. We are not misguided in attempting to discern patterns of church governance in the New Testament. But those patterns are seldom as specific as we would like. We must look to our sacred texts not just for organizational arrangements but for the gospel values that direct them.
We have long observed that the New Testament speaks of a plurality of elders in church leadership. Shared leadership is clearly a necessary consequence of a cross-shaped worldview that affirms the Spirit’s empowerment of the many, not the few, in their human weakness. We abandon such principles at the peril of our faithfulness to the Christ who died for sinners.
But when we recognize the Spirit’s various gifts, including many different kinds of leadership gifts, we can affirm a near-universal practice of churches worldwide in history: that some leaders become more visible in the body than others, effectively first among equals.
Shared leadership among plural elders is not inconsistent with recognizing strong gifts in important, public tasks. Paying such individuals a salary need not transform them into cynical “hirelings” or overworked “hired hands.” Neither does it disqualify the unpaid from their own service. Rather, it frees those paid to use more time to serve with their gifts. Their salaries are not so much remuneration for services rendered as a stewardship that enables greater service. They are missionaries, not mercenaries.
Few human societies can resist the attraction of celebrity. We look for the talented leader who can transform mediocrity into greatness. The church too often uses terms like “calling” or “anointing” exclusively for talented, magnetic leaders, demanding that individually they “cast vision” for the church’s ministry.
But does the humble, shared life of the cruciform church cohere with such a model? Leaders of exceptional talent and vision do appear in the church, but they are no less subject to frailty than others. Christ followers must acknowledge strong leadership gifts, but always exercise them in community with other leaders, sharing wisdom and responsibility humbly.
Leaders’ relationship may resemble that of CEO and governing board, but only superficially. They must function as fellow servants—the meaning of the New Testament word translated “ministers”—who love and serve one another as Christ loved and served.
For all parts of the body, cross-shaped service is a calling. The church is not divided between servants and spectators. Our forms of organization may unintentionally reinforce that false impression, but a healthy dose of biblical reflection can set us on another path.
I have known many Christ followers who quietly and sadly believe they are the only Christians not gifted by the Holy Spirit. I suspect they do so for several reasons.
One is that we have often treated biblical lists of the Spirit’s gifts as if they were exhaustive, describing every gift that the Spirit can give. Comparison to other lists in Paul’s letters, however, shows that the apostle typically used lists to suggest a much wider range of specifics than just those directly named. Lists of gifts appear not so we can find ourselves on the list but so that we can glimpse the infinite variety of gifted individuals.
Another reason for feeling giftless is our focus on filling roles in church programming. A culture of volunteerism, in which ministry is packaged into short-term performance of simple tasks, contributes to this problem, as well.
Here our concept of the church’s ministry needs revision. Yes, the church organizes and meets for worship, instruction, outreach, and service. But its vision for ministry must include everything its members do in lives empowered by his Spirit as Christ’s ambassadors.
Two generations ago, Richard Halverson, minister of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and chaplain of the U.S. Senate, reflected on this point as answers to the common questions he was asked in social settings:
1. “Where is your church?”
Answer: “All over metropolitan Washington, in about three hundred homes and apartments, in schools and clubs, in markets and offices, in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill—even in the White House.”
2. “What does your church do?”
Answer: “Many things. She keeps house, teaches school; sells groceries and hardware, clothing and cars, insurance and appliances. She practices law and medicine and dentistry. She makes laws and serves in the military—constructs highways and buildings—serves our government overseas in embassies, in Peace Corps, and in foreign aid programs. Our church is everywhere, in everything, doing everything that needs to be done for the sake of Christ and for the glory of God.”1
Our common life, the life of Christ and his Spirit, is at work when we are gathered in unity that serves one another. But the same Spirit empowers, the same Christ rules, when we are scattered to serve others in love and humility in everyday interaction. This is the church of the cross, the community of God’s Spirit-empowered people, getting done the mission to which we were called, expressing the true life for which we were created.
1Richard Halverson, Relevance: The Role of Christianity in the Twentieth Century (Waco: Word, 1968), 78.
Jon Weatherly serves as professor of New Testament and dean of the school of Bible and Theology at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee.