Warren Holyoak wrote as a Churches of Christ minister in Queensland working with a team of leaders in The Point Church at Wellington Point, Brisbane. This article was presented as a paper given at the Contemporary Issues in Ministry Conference, 2002, at Christian Heritage College, Brisbane, Australia.
Institutions are the product of the human drive to organise cooperative activity. I want to emphasise their human nature. This is not to say that God does not approve of institutions. Prior to Jesus’ coming God instituted the temple worship and sacrificial system of Israel. Jesus came to build his church. God has sought to order and regulate joint activities of his people. But even joint activities initiated by God have historically taken on, and to some extent been transformed by, the distinctly human qualities of institutionalisation. Traditions, hierarchies, even buildings and a sense of place in society are human marks of an institution. So are ambition, power, control, pride and tendencies toward self-promotion and survival. It is these human qualities of institutions that have historically subverted God’s purposes and, in my view, generally make them incompatible with pure Christianity.
The detailed regulation of institutions that God promoted under the Old Covenant were not provided to help them operate effectively, but to serve a prophetic or typological function as they pointed forward to the coming of Christ. The church that Jesus came to build was far less defined in human institutional terms. Whereas, for example, the religious institutions of the Jews and Samaritans argued over the correct place of worship, Jesus told the Samaritan woman who raised the issue that, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:20-24). This expressed a shift in emphasis from externals to the hearts of worshippers. Consequently, we learn far more about the early church from their behaviour than by instruction. Even when Paul sought more orderly meetings of the church in Corinth, his directions were more than anything else practical, and his intent was that their meetings be spiritually beneficial (refer to 1 Corinthians 10:23-34; 14:6-40). Anthony and others have interpreted the lack of direction to mean that we are free to devise whatever church organisational structure we feel will best facilitate its ministry and outreach. My view, however, is that not only does God seem to be far more interested in the organic functioning of the church than its institutional trappings, but that any institutional trappings we bring to the church are more likely to hinder than help.
The organisational feature of the church given most attention in the New Testament is that of individual roles. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul likens the contribution made by each member to the complementary functioning of body parts in a growing, healthy human being (Eph. 4:15-16). In context, the two necessary things that are identified are unity and leadership (Eph. 4:1-14). These are recurring themes throughout the New Testament. For each individual to function as they should in the church they need mature leadership and a spirit of unity. The text in Ephesians shows how leadership contributes to unity by promoting growth in every member toward a Christ-like maturity. It is therefore no surprise that leadership is the organisational feature given the next most attention in the New Testament.
John C. Maxwell has been the most published of many recent authors who have focussed on church leadership. They have offered many useful insights, but in my view too often their ideal church leader looks very similar to the ideal corporate or institutional leader. The most apparent difference is reference to servant leadership in the church, but its practical impact seems to be more on the attitude of the leader than on the nature of the role. If the church functions much like any other institution, this would be appropriate. My point is, however, that the role of church leaders is very different to that of institutional leaders because the church is unlike any human institution.
Christ is the leader of the church. The organisational function of the church is to help each member be like its leader. According to Paul, that involves preparation for works of service, unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and maturation (Eph. 4:12-13). Human leaders, therefore, are essentially facilitators of the growth process. They are also participants in this process – but just further down the road. This is most evident in the qualities Paul nominates as “musts” for church overseers and deacons to Timothy and Titus (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9). I have more to say about this, but will do so as I consider what I believe are some of the problems associated with the institutionalisation of church ministry.
There are three problems I believe institutionalisation has brought to the church:
Inappropriate distinctions; and
Notwithstanding all the recent efforts to “flatten” the organisational structures of secular institutions, they remain essentially hierarchical. Titles are carefully crafted to reflect rank as well as role, and salary differentials are greater than they have ever been. There seems no other way to manage human institutions, particularly large ones. If we want things done properly in the church, then we are naturally inclined to apply the best cultural model we know. We might even be encouraged by its apparent success in better organising churches that are generally notorious for inertia, inefficient decision-making and a lack of what our culture calls “professionalism”.
But the New Testament emphasis is that churches be orderly rather than professional; effective rather than efficient; and led by the Spirit rather than by human agendas. Spiritual maturation is an uneven individual process that defies planning or timetables. Certainly, management is necessary, but the New Testament designation of management roles is more descriptive than titular. Initially, leadership was in the hands of the “apostles”, a general word used to describe “one set forth” (as used of Jesus (Heb. 3:10; Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14); Andronicus and Junias (Rom. 16:7); Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25); Silas and Timothy (1 Thess. 2:6), but which also seems to have been used to specifically refer to the twelve (Acts 1:24-26) and Paul (1 Cor. 9:1-2; Gal. 1:1) because they had seen the Lord and been specially commissioned by Him). New churches were established by “evangelists” (bringers of good news), who were typically itinerant preachers of the gospel. Once churches became established, local leadership seems to have passed to “bishops” (or “overseers”) and “deacons” (or “ministers” or “servants”). Once again these designations were descriptive rather than titular.
It did not take long, however, for Christians to start thinking about these role descriptors in a titular sense. Steinbron blames Constantine’s Romanisation of the church in the fourth century, but as early as the second century, Ignatius describes a distinction between “bishop” and “elder” in the church in Antioch and elsewhere. “Elder” (or “presbyter”) was initially just another descriptive noun emphasising the maturity of overseers – the terms are used interchangeably in passages such as Titus 1:5-9. But each church had a plurality of elders and it is evident that cultural influences soon promoted a more titular usage to distinguish between the presiding “bishop” and the other “elders”. When bishops from a number of churches subsequently met, the title of “archbishop” for the presiding bishop was the logical next step.
The same role is also referred to in the New Testament as that of “pastor” or ‘shepherd”. This describes the style of this leadership role. Its usage in a more titular way came much later, probably because the secular role of a shepherd was well known and had little status. More recently the preferred form “pastor” has come into vogue, but is typically used in a distinctive way that distinguishes the role from that of “elder” or “overseer”. In many evangelical churches, “pastor” is a title reserved for professional leaders whereas “elder” refers to the lay leadership. For example, in many Baptist churches, the eldership consists of mature local members who exercise oversight, but who also appoint a trained “pastor” to shepherd the flock. This parallels the institutional model of a board of directors who appoint managers to run the operation.
So from the one role that was variously described in the New Testament, we now have each descriptor used in a titular way to define and distinguish a variety of roles. This has accompanied (both aided and abetted) the institutionalisation of the church and its ministry.
A similar thing has happened to the role of servant. All Christians should serve one another and this is the descriptive meaning of the word “deacon”, or “minister”. The qualifications set out by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 also use this descriptor for a position of authority. The role seems to have been one of coordination to ensure that the physical needs of the church were met. Much like the seven appointed to administer the daily distribution of food to needy widows (Acts 6) and free the apostles to concentrate on the spiritual needs of the church, the function of “deacons” complements the spiritual leadership of shepherds. But once again institutionalisation has adapted and made distinctions between the various renderings of the same word. “Servant” has not suited the status we attach to a title, but “deacon” and “minister” are widely used. Most typically, “deacon” is used of lay workers whereas “minister” is used of professional workers.
The larger the institution, the more hierarchical distinctions we want to make of roles within it, and so the more titles we will need. Inevitably, it has been necessary to go beyond Biblical descriptors. “Reverend”, “Canon”, “Primate”, “Pope”, and other variants have evolved. Each has developed a cultural status because culture recognises and respects the status of institutional hierarchies. But what has this done to the church?
Hierarchical distinctions are not compatible with the mutual interdependency intended for church function as illustrated by the body model of Ephesians 4. Titles themselves discriminate in inappropriate ways. Not only can they be used to praise or flatter (cf. John 12:43; Job 32:21-22), but they call too much attention to our status at the expense of God’s, as Jesus warned:
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’, for you have one Teacher, the Christ (Matthew 23:8-10).
Ministry in the New Testament churches was an expectation of each and every Christian (Eph. 4:16; 1 Cor. 12:12-31). While “the worker deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18), the same context generally encourages Christians to avoid burdening the church by working for a living and providing for their family (1 Tim. 5:3-16). Giving was primarily directed at needy Christians. Financial support for ministry seems to have been largely occasional and circumstantial. This was certainly the case for Paul who sometimes received financial support from churches and sometimes worked as a tentmaker to support himself. The “workers” in view in 1 Timothy 5 were elders, “especially those who work is preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17), who are said to be “worthy of double honour”.
Institutionalisation of churches has led to more formal employment structures. The clergy – laity distinction is one broad outcome. Even where this distinction is actively minimised, more subtle issues can be identified, some with profound implications for the life and functioning of the church.
The most obvious of these is for the burden of church work to be placed upon the paid worker(s). They, after all, have the time and the institutional mindset wants to make them responsible and measure their performance by results. This is a far cry from Paul’s model outlined in Ephesians 4, as Colson points out, “Contrary to popular impressions today, the pastor is not paid to do our work (service) for us … [They] are to equip the saints – that’s us – to serve”. “This is why the church’s primary focus must always be on developing the character of its people.”
Furthermore, churches become organisationally, if not clerically, dependent, even though such a structure is incapable or really meeting there needs. In other words, without the institutional structure in place, including roles filled by paid workers, the church cannot function. Towns believes that this is the unavoidable end of what has been described as the sociological cycle of church growth. “Most denominations become cold, from making the organization the goal of existence, rather than fulfilling a biblical purpose.” The role of members becomes akin to supporting their local football team. They help finance it, they cheer it on, but they only participate vicariously through the ministry team.
Biblical leaders were natural leaders by virtue of their personal character and God-given abilities, not because of their qualifications. Institutionalisation of the church has brought with it a demand for professionalism that gives greater weight to appropriate academic qualifications than to personal qualities. There is nothing wrong with academic training in theology or ministry, indeed there is much to commend it. Teaching is an important part of leadership, and it should be well informed. Hosea lamented, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). But it forms only one aspect of good leadership. Although it is not the most important one, it tends to be the main pre-requisite for paid workers these days. This can inadvertently create an implied authority based on qualifications that leads to an ungodly respect for persons (because of their qualifications rather than their personal qualities) and a tendency to follow the man (much like the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1-3)) rather than God.
So the development of a “hireling” mentality in church ministry can seriously undermine the intended functioning of churches. John records Jesus’ comparison between the good shepherd and the hired hand in John 10:7-18. Similarly, church leadership needs to be exercised by those who know and are known by the members, those who will remain when the professional worker has long gone. How often do we hear of professional workers who have effectively adopted a ‘hit and run’ approach, devastating the congregation they hardly got to know, and then blaming their lack of spirituality or zeal?
Worst of all, institutionalisation promotes centralised organisational structures. While they promise organisational efficiency, they inevitably lose touch with their membership. The Biblical model of more autonomous local structures can, however, better monitor and adapt to the needs and progress of the group they are a part of. It is interesting that this has recently been recognised by many denominations that have transformed their centralised structures from exercising control, to providing support services for more autonomous congregations.
I have already described how institutionalisation has tended to concentrate ministry in the hands of paid workers – the “clergy”. These church leaders end up doing most of the work themselves rather than enabling all members to participate. Consequently there is no mutual ministry and no one ends up functioning in their proper role.
Church leadership is more like the role of a parent than of an institutional executive. Its function is to look out for and develop its people. Oversight of the spiritual welfare and development of each member is the primary leadership role. In an established church this should be undertaken by a plurality of overseers, call them elders, pastors, shepherds, presbyters or bishops – “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account” (Heb. 13:17). They should be men known to the local church because they have been a part of it and are committed to it. It is simply not a role that can be effectively delegated to a hired professional. Similarly, the secondary leadership role relating to the coordination of activities that meet the physical needs of the congregation, should also be undertaken by people known to the congregation and who know their needs, call them deacons, deaconesses, ministers or servants.
Church members whose spiritual and physical needs have been met and who have been prepared for works of service suited to their giftedness are then free and ready to do their work – the work of the church. The leaders may also participate in this work, but alongside rather than over everyone else.
Another area of concern is that of congregational decision-making. Church leaders are not to lord it over the congregation (1 Peter 5:3), but simply lead the process of decision-making. This is evident, for example, in the decision-making process of the council at Jerusalem, despite the presence of the apostles as well as the elders of the Jerusalem church. After leaders had discussed the issues at hand, the text records, “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided …” (Acts 15:22). Leadership of the decision-making process demands humility to recognise the role is no more than one of servant-hood and facilitation, combining a knowledge of God’s will and sensitivity to the needs and thinking of the members. Its not that the church is a democratic institution, but it is a participative body.
I have sought to identify just a few contemporary issues that I believe can be traced to the institutionalisation of church ministry with a view to challenging those in paid ministry to reconsider and/or clarify their role.
Institutionalisation tends to discriminate and isolate, whereas the biblical model for the church is inclusive and intimate. Ministry is the role of every member, and depends on giftedness and preparation. Leadership is a ministry of spiritual oversight and preparation. It is a honourable ministry, but it should never lose sight of the fact that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22).
When leadership is close to the membership and sensitive to their needs, it is most likely to be seen as relevant and is most likely to promote vitality among them. Church leaders should never lose sight of God’s purpose for the organisational expression of the church – that of encouragement and preparation for works of service. The organisation itself is only the means to these ends. When the organisation becomes an end in itself, the inevitable product is institutionalisation and denominationalisation. Ministry then becomes bureaucratic, isolated, and ultimately ineffective. And the church ceases to function as it was intended.
Anthony, Michael J. The Effective Church Board. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House. 1993.
Barna, George. Leaders on Leadership. Ventura, California: Regal Books. 1997.
Colson, Charles. The Body. Dallas, Texas: Word Publications. 1992.
Conner, Kevin J. The Church in the New Testament. Blackburn South, Victoria: K.J.C. Publications. 1989.
Ferguson, Everett. Early Christians Speak. Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing Company. 1971.
Maxwell, John C. Developing the Leader Within You. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson. 1993.
Maxwell, John C. Developing the Leaders Around You. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson. 1995.
Steinbron, M.J. The Lay Driven Church. Ventura, California: Regal Books. 1997.
Towns, Elmer L. America’s Fastest Growing Churches. Nashville: Impact Books. 1972.
Vine, W.E. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company. 1940.
NB. All Biblical quotations are cited from the NIV.
 M.J. Anthony, The Effective Church Board. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1993), pp.101-102.
 His books include “Developing the Leader Within You” and “Developing the Leaders Around You” published by Thomas Nelson (Nashville, Tennessee) in 1993 and 1995.
 In fact, most of the ‘flattening’ has practically had more to do with cutting costs by reducing middle management than any fundamental reform of hierarchical management structures.
 W.E. Vine, An expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H Revel Company, 1940), Vol.II, p.44.
 Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak. (Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing Company, 1971), p. 171.
 M.J. Steinbron, The Lay Driven Church. (Ventura, California: Regal Books, 1997), p.49.
 Quoted in Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak. (Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing Company, 1971), pp. 168-9.
 Kevin J. Conner, The Church in the New Testament. (Blackburn South, Victoria: K.J.C. Publications, 1989), p.200.
 Note the interchangeability of descriptive terms in 1 Peter 5:1-4.
 Vine, op. cit., Vol.1, pp.272-3.
 Charles Colson, The Body. (Dallas, Texas: Word Publications, 1992), p.389.
 Ibid. p.408.
 Elmer L. Towns, America’s Fastest Growing Churches. (Nashville: Impact Books, 1972), p.181.
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