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Leadership (i): A Servant of Servants

Posted by George Crowder, 24 Jun 2020

George Crowder begins a new mini-series on the New Testament model for church leadership.

Harmonious partnership between churches plays out sweet symphonies of fruitfulness and faithfulness, but just as an orchestra requires a conductor, partnership requires leadership.  For healthy church partnerships, the question is not whether leadership, but what kind.

‘Partnership’ does not capture the whole meaning of the Greek word, koinonia.  As I have shown from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, koinonia works at three levels.  It is, firstly, the spiritual unity between the individual believer and Christ.  United with him in his death, our sins are expunged (3:10).  United with him in his resurrection, our resurrection hope is secure (3:11). 

Secondly, that unity with Christ forges a bond between believers in the local church, which is expressed in gathered worship, mutual care and communal testimony to outsiders (2:1-4).  Servant-hearted leadership is vital to keep this fellowship of believers rooted in God’s word and growing in faith and godliness.  Hence the appointment of pastor-teachers is actively promoted, and their qualifications carefully prescribed, in several places in the New Testament.

Thirdly, koinonia is used to describe partnership between churches (1:5).  Inter-church partnerships promote and sustain shared faith, shared mission, mutual encouragement and accountability, mutual support and contending together.  Just as leadership is necessary within the local church, it follows that leadership is necessary in a partnership of local churches. 

Leadership of church partnerships is much in evidence in the New Testament.  Much is undertaken by the apostles, who were given special dispensation by Christ himself and had a unique role confined to a specific period of time.  It might thus appear that inter-church leadership is part of the exclusive authority of the apostles.  Yet, even though the most significant contributions of the apostles are part of salvation history, much of their church ministry provides a necessary paradigm for the church age.

We can discern and preclude three actions unique to the apostles’ calling:
1. Jesus instructed them to pass on his teaching as eyewitnesses in John 15:26-27.  John testifies to this in 1 John 1:1-3, and both Paul and Peter open their letters with reference to their apostolic calling.  Our faith is ‘apostolic’ because we receive apostolic teaching about Jesus, as given in the canon of the New Testament.  No-one after the apostles is given the authority of Jesus or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to convey new revelation.
2. As pioneers of the church, the apostles were empowered by the Spirit to perform authenticating miracles to connect them to Jesus (e.g. Acts 3:1-16; 9:32-42) or discredit pagans (e.g. Acts 14:8-18; 16:16-29; 28:1-10, 2 Corinthians 12:12).
3. Paul leaned on his personal calling and authority as an apostle to encourage believers and challenge false teachers (e.g. Romans 11:3, 1 Corinthians 9:1-2, 15:9, Galatians 2:8, 1 Timothy 2:7)

We can now draw out the leadership practice which the apostles established as a pattern for the church age.  Some ministries are very obviously paradigmatic like preaching, evangelism and leading prayer meetings.  The following activities are obviously paradigmatic, but also characteristically and necessarily inter-ecclesial:
1. Church planting
2. Appointing elders
3. Church discipline
4. Procuring financial support to needy churches
5. Visiting and strengthening churches and leaders
6. Upholding doctrinal solidarity

These all required partnership between churches.  Wider leadership of such was principally by the apostles, though Timothy and Titus are pressed into service in some aspects in the Pastoral Epistles.  Their example provides the paradigm for leading churches in partnership. While we might well take on board the content of this list, we have a natural tendency to import a leadership style or leadership pattern from the world around us, from politics, business or even the military.

In the New Testament, these actions are undergirded by active koinonia.  As we analyse and reflect on the way the apostles operated, we can draw out an archetype for the ministry of a partnership leader.  A relational investor (Philippians 1:7), a sustainer of key relationships (Romans 16:3-16), a convener of a fellowship of leaders (Acts 15:1-21), an enabler and mobiliser of ministries and ministers (Ephesians 5:21-22, Titus 1:5), a motivator for evangelism (2 Timothy 1:8, 4:5), a broker of financial support to needy churches (2 Corinthians 8:13-15), a director of collaborative action (Acts 15:22-35), a negotiator in a crisis (2 Corinthians 2:5-10), a peacemaker in a conflict (Philemon), an arbiter for discipline (Titus 3:10), a champion for holiness (1 Tim 4:12-16), a custodian of doctrinal integrity (1 Corinthians 11:2, 1 Tim 1:3, Titus 2:1), a visitor of churches (Acts 14:21), a strengthener of ministry (Acts 14:22), an encourager of leaders (Titus 2:15), a focus of unity (2 Thessalonians 1:4), and a pastor of pastors (2 Timothy 2:15).

A leader of a partnership of churches is a servant of servants.  It is interesting that Paul denotes himself a servant when he writes to the partnership savvy Macedonian churches, Philippi and Thessaloniki.  Just as local church koinonia is mirrored in church partnership, servant leadership in the local church is the model for servant leadership in church partnership.  United with Christ the servant who saved us, our leadership, like our fellowship and partnership, must testify to his humility and self-giving love.

A church partnership leader is a collaborative servant leader - a curator of inter-ecclesial koinonia.  This is the pastoral pattern and biblical mandate for the ministry of a bishop.

George Crowder is Regional Director of Church Society for the North and Midlands, and vicar of St John's Church, Over.

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