I have my tri-fold assumptions in place: (1) the church is made up of people; (2) that the church could only come into being after certain historical requirements were in place; and (3) that the church’s leadership is divine—God is the church’s true leader. The goal of the church is found in glorifying God via glorifying Christ by the use of a specific work which is tied to the work of the Holy Spirit. As such, I made a point of setting up markers that define what a local manifestation of the church looks like while eventually showing that even if all those markers are not in place, the local assembly of believers is still an expression of the universal Church.
Now one of the markers that I didn’t address, which is a combination of Marker-4 (discipline of the assembly) and Marker-6 (purity in moral practices), is the Eight Marker: leadership in community with other leaders. A past guest blogger mentioned the oversight and I wanted to address that.
The New Testament, while showing churches comprised of a city (Acts 8:1; 13:1) or house churches (1 Cor 16:19, Col 4:15) or multiple churches in an area (Gal 1:2), and sometimes showing single leaders (like John the elder (2 John 1, 3 John 1) or Diotrophes (3 John 9-11) and even how it is James and the elders (Acts 21:18—which admittedly could be a statement of apostle and elders); or even Timothy and Titus) makes a point of establishing a multiplicity of leaders. Barnabas and Paul meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) who then send them on their way with mandates for the churches (Acts 16:4); Paul meets with the elders (plural) of the church in Ephesus (Eph 20:17); Paul meets with James and all the elders (Acts 21:18); Paul writes to the believers in Philippi and all their overseers and elders (Phi 1:1); Titus is to appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5).
Not only are these leaders to shepherd their respective flocks as a community, they also work in conjunction to speak on behalf of other churches. For example, in Acts 15 and 16, the apostles and elders in Jerusalem are questioned by the churches outside of Jerusalem and conversely send out a letter with their decision to the other churches. Of course, the immediate reason for this sort of hierarchy is the fact that the Jerusalem church consisted of elders with the apostles—these people had worked with Jesus for years, went through Pentecost, and were functioning as a community. It would be expected for them to have that sort of pull. Paul makes a point of going to Jerusalem, not to approve his ministry but to allow examination (Gal 2)
And yet, we see other times when it’s just a matter of all the elders getting together, quite apart from Jerusalem, and making decisions that affect the entire body. Like the church at Antioch sending Paul and Barnabas to establish and strengthen other churches (Acts 13:1-4), greetings coming from all the churches of Christ to Rome (Rom 14:16) and the Churches of Asia to Corinth (1 Cor 16:19). These times don’t seem to happen that often, but they are important: so much so that Paul can use the practice of all the churches to weigh in on the practice of one church (1 Cor 11:16; 1 Cor 14:33).
What’s important in all this is that the churches worked as communities. The individual church would function as a community—a flock. That flock would be overseen by part of the community—the elders. Those elders functioned as a community that also oversaw themselves. Those elders would be interconnected with elders outside of their assembly who watched over one another. Those areas met together as a group and they would have interaction with the group elders of other areas. In all cases, the principles of Matthew 18 still hold: the church holds the ultimate say (with the elders as part of the church).
Of course, this wound up changing later on—churches ruled by elders, then by individuals, Bishops ruling over areas who would meet together in councils, many (many) years later, a single individual over the whole lot. But even as they moved towards that extra-Biblical model, they still maintained the practice of plurality when they would meet at those early councils.
So what am I saying? Although we have local manifestations of the universal church, we’ve seriously injured local manifestation of the church that was established from the beginning (Christ over those who are leaders functioning as a group who washes one another’s feet and who shift in primary leaders as the need arises—sometimes it’s Peter, sometimes it’s John, sometimes it’s James—first among equals) and in all cases, when it is working right, the elders submit to the congregation (and vice-versa).
Nowadays, if discipline occurs in one assembly, an individual can merely leave and go to another assembly where the elders are not accountable to the elders in the primary assembly. Now, if one assembly goes down a heretical path there are no other elders outside the assembly that can aid in the situation as a community. Now, if a heretical preacher makes his round in a group of assemblies, no other assembly has any right to say anything—they speak their dissent by refusing to invite the person while the flock of God suffers. Now, if an assembly’s leadership is non-existent or suffering, there is no outside-yet-local-help that can come in, work with the assembly and identify who is doing the work of shepherding the flock without bruising egos.
We need to go back to a model where there is real plurality of leadership, real autonomy of the local body, yet a real interdependence with other assemblies in the town, then in the city, then in the area and then across the national level. If I were to point my finger somewhere, I would say a combination of the Plymouth Brethren eldership and assembly (of course, I’m putting weight on that side) and a bit of the Presbyterian model.