Because the church is the body of Christ in the world, those providing ministerial leadership in the church must possess both Christ-like character and competency for their task in order to effectively represent Jesus Christ. It should be noted that the focus of this article is on principles intended for those in church leadership, although much of what is said below is applicable to all believers.
The Church: The Body of Christ
The body of Christ is the image used most often in the New Testament as a descriptor for the church. Millard Erickson states that “perhaps the most extended image of the church is its representation as the body of Christ.” Erickson further argues that the body of Christ image is important because it demonstrates the connection of the group of believers to Christ; the role of individual believers in drawing their life from Christ; and the interconnectedness of believers with each other. Although Louis Berkhof does not regard the body of Christ imagery to be a complete definition of the church, he does acknowledge its proper designation for both the universal as well as local church, and its stress on unity.
There are at least two ways to think about the body of Christ imagery that will be helpful when thinking about leadership principles for ministry. The first is to consider the union between Christ and the church. That is, the connection between Christ and his church is so close that what happens to one can be said to happen to the other. The second way to think about the connection between Christ and the church is with respect to function. That is, the church is responsible to carry forward the mission of Christ in the world.
Union with Christ.
In Acts 9, Saul of Tarsus is on the road to Damascus seeking to persecute followers of Jesus Christ. He has been a leader in the persecution of Christ-followers, even giving approval to the stoning of a deacon named Stephen (Acts 8:1). While on the road to Damascus, Saul and his party are stopped by a blinding light. In Acts 9:4-5 we read: “And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.””
This exchange reveals the close connection there is between Christ and the church. This union is so close that it can be said that when the church is persecuted, Christ is persecuted. Additional passages could be cited that demonstrate the union of believers with Christ. If nothing else, the close connection between Christ and the church indicates that our behavior is representative of the Lord Jesus.
Mission of Christ
Clearly expressed in the New Testament is the idea that the mission of Christ is moved forward by the church, his body. The image of the body of Christ is used in a number of places in the New Testament, but in the context of engaging in ministry, First Corinthians 12:12-27, Romans 12:4-8, and Ephesians 4:11-16 are three of the more significant passages. In each of these passages, the church is described as the body of Christ with respect to function. That is, Paul uses the image of the body to describe the nature of different gifts possessed by individuals within the church. The salient point for the purposes of this paper is that the Scripture teaches in these passages that God has gifted the body in order to carry on the work of Christ in the world.
The concepts above provide a foundation for any principles for ministry that are proposed. The church needs to be understood as united with Christ for the carrying on of his work in the world, in order to provide a context for articulating principles of ministry for church development. Because the church is the body of Christ carrying out his mission in the world, those providing ministry leadership must demonstrate Christ-like character and competency to accomplish the task he has set before them.
Leadership Principles Related to Character
As representatives of Jesus Christ, those ministering in his name must demonstrate his character. There are two aspects of this character that will be examined below: the source of character and the signs of character.
Source of Character
Dependence on Christ. In John 15:1-8, Jesus calls his followers to dependence upon him when he says:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
The key concept in this passage is that of abiding in Christ. The imagery of the vine is particularly important for those in ministry, as those serving Christ (the branches) draw strength and nourishment from the vine (Christ). Just as the vine produces branches of the same kind, so Christ produces followers who are “like” him. A grape vine does not, after all, produce apples.
John 15:1-8 is vital as it reminds us that the spiritual life of the ministry leader is to find its regular source and nourishment in Christ. Ministry, then, becomes the result of a growing spiritual life that is dependent upon Christ. Such dependence will manifest itself at least in prayer and humility as ministers recognize their inability apart from him.
The Holy Spirit. Another source of character is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not to be understood as separate from our dependence upon Christ, but in conjunction with that dependence. In John 14:26 Jesus prepared his disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit when he said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to remembrance all that I have said to you.” Paul helps us further understand the role of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:16-17, 22-23 which reads:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do….But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
One role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life is to apply the teachings of Christ in such a way that godly behavior is the result. The fruit of the Spirit is a description of the development of godly character. The Spirit does his work in such a way that Paul was confident that his work would be brought to completion as believers are progressively sanctified (Phil 1:6; 2 Thess 2:13). John Stott seems to echo these sentiments when he writes, “Fundamental to all Christian leadership and ministry is a humble personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, devotion to him expressed in daily prayer and love for him expressed in daily obedience.”
Signs of Character
The sources of character for a minister include a dependence upon God experienced through prayer and humility, as well as the application of the word of God by the Spirit of God. How does that character manifest itself in the life of a ministry leader? Fortunately, there are several key passages that specifically address the identification of godly character in the life of a ministry leader.
Servanthood. One sign of character development is servanthood. In Matthew 20:20-28, the Scripture records an encounter between Jesus and the mother of two of his disciples. As Jesus explained the impossibility of his guaranteeing who would hold positions of power in his coming kingdom, he told his disciples,
But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Later, as Jesus is washing the disciple’s feet prior to the Last Supper, John 13:14-17 records him exhorting them,
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
It seems clear that Jesus is emphasizing to his disciples that they are to imitate his servant mindset as they serve others. In Philippians 2:5, in the context of calling believers to selflessly serve, Paul tells them to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Thus, Paul calls believers to adopt the mind of Christ with respect to their service of others. There is no place in ministry for individuals who believe they are to be served. Rather, ministers of the gospel are, literally, servants of Christ, who must adopt a mindset of looking to the interests of others before ourselves. Thus, a general disposition of servanthood is essential.
Personal and Family Values. It is interesting that in the biblical texts regarding the selection of a ministry leader, personal and family-related character issues predominate. In other words, it is not enough to simply display a servant’s attitude in public, but one must also possess personal values that are displayed privately as well. The key passages related to personal and family character of church leaders are 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 respectively, which read:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore, an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, appoint elders in every town as I directed you – if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9)
Personal values are described with the terms: sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. These behaviors are not intended to be a checklist, per se, but rather that the leader’s life is consistent with godly values. Calvin suggested that these values prevent the selection of a leader whose life is marked by a disgrace that detracts from leadership authority. Gary Bredfeldt adds that “a reproachable character undermines even the most competent of Bible teachers.”
It is clear that the New Testament makes a strong connection between the fitness of an individual for leadership in the church based, in part, upon his leadership in the home. That is, both passages indicate that a crucial aspect of the church leader’s integrity is his family life. Though there is some debate about whether the phrase “above reproach” is specifically tied to family life expectations, it seems reasonable to conclude that the family life of the church leader was uppermost in the Apostle Paul’s mind. Such a conclusion is based on that fact that, in both texts, the requirements for church leaders are introduced by the phrase “above reproach” and are immediately followed by expectations related to family life. The Titus passage, in fact, brackets the family life expectations by using “above reproach” as an introductory and concluding statement.
The teaching of both texts is consistent in indicating that one is not fit to be a church leader if he is not honoring the Lord in his family life.Thus, ministry leaders need to be marked by an attitude of servanthood. Further their personal lives need to demonstrate personal values that are consistent with the teachings of Scripture. Further, their personal values must be manifest to those to whom they are the closest: their family.
Principles Related to Competence
Character is not the only essential for ministry leaders. Ministry leaders must also demonstrate competence for the task of advancing the mission of Jesus. The competencies necessary for ministry leaders may be divided into two categories: competencies related to teaching and those related to leading.
Teaching. An examination of the 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 passages above will reveal that there is only one skill that is absolutely essential for a ministry leader: the ability to teach. To Timothy, Paul describes this skill with simply the phrase, “able to teach” (I Tim 3:2). To Titus, Paul expands on the idea a bit when he says, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). John Stott says of the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, "Nine of them are moral or social (e.g., self-controlled, hospitable, sober, gentle). Only one could be called a “professional” qualification, namely didaktikos (v. 2), “a good teacher” (Revised Standard Version)." Ministry leaders must possess the ability to teach others and continually work to hone that skill.
Further, ministry leaders must establish teaching as the priority of their ministry. Bredfeldt says, “Once leaders forget that teaching is job number one, they diminish their eternal impact by accepting a standard only esteemed by human beings and surrendering the standard applied by God.” The fact that pastors are called primarily to teach God’s Word is of vital concern for the church today. Considering the tremendous amount of non-teaching responsibilities that face pastors, it is imperative that the church restore priority to teaching the Word of God. Since this ministry of the Word is connected to unity and maturity, and in light of the demands on pastors that detract from the ministry of the Word, it should not be surprising that many churches are experiencing neither unity nor maturity.
Leading. The bible describes teaching and leading as going together in the life of a ministry leader. Leadership, in this context, is best described as equipping the body for ministry and then releasing the body to serve. Since all believers are the body of Christ, all believers are to serve. The role of ministry leadership is to equip them for that purpose, and then release the people to serve. In a sense, this is an extension of the servanthood characteristic of the ministry leader.
Equipping. Few other passages are as clear as Ephesians 4:11-16 regarding the task of pastors and teachers to equip God’s people for ministry. The passage reads,
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The pastors and teachers are given the dual task of shepherding (the classical meaning of pastor) the church and teaching God’s word. Paul considered the task of teaching to be an ongoing ministry of the church, as his admonition to Timothy to train and equip others to teach (2 Tim. 2:2) demonstrates. In fact, the teaching role is the one emphasized here, as all pastors are regarded as teachers; but not all teachers are pastors. Teaching, then, is one of the primary tools for equipping God’s people. Equipping is not limited to teaching, however, but also extends to hands-on ministry experiences as well as personal mentoring.
Releasing. Once believers are taught, they are to be released in ministry. Such is the model followed by Jesus. In Luke’s gospel, three distinct phases of a discipleship process have been noted: calling, building, and sending. In Simple Church, Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger argue that in the sending phase, Jesus “turned ministry over to his disciples.” The idea is that once followers have been trained, they are to assume the task(s) of ministry. Jesus does much the same thing at the very end of his earthly ministry. In the Great Commission texts, Jesus leaves the execution of ministry to his disciples.
A model has been established then, in which, followers are to be sent out to do ministry after they have been taught and instructed. Bredfeldt refers to this releasing of followers as “empowerment” and warns that empowerment is a risk because the leader has to trust the person to whom they are entrusting the task. Yet, it is essential is the mission of Jesus is going to significantly advance in the world.
The church is the body of Christ in the world. Because of its union with Christ, the church is called to carry out the mission of Jesus in the world. Every part of the body of Christ is to be engaged in that mission. But, God has established leaders over the church for the purpose of facilitating the church’s development in Christ-likeness.
The leaders of the church are to be marked by character. Their character is to derive from an absolute dependence upon Jesus himself. Their lives should be marked by humility and prayer. Further, the Holy Spirit is at work in them developing godly character. That character is demonstrated in an attitude of servanthood to those under their care. Further, their lives are to be marked by godly personal and family values. The personal and home life of the ministry leader is a key factor in their fitness for serving the church.
Leaders of the church are also to be marked by competence. First, this competence is to be found in their ability to teach. No other “skill” is demanded by the text of Scripture for a ministry leader. Second, they are to be competent to equip and release the body of Christ for ministry. Individuals who are unable or unwillingly to involve others in the work of the kingdom have a place in ministry leadership. The reality is that a ministry leader cannot do all of the work of ministry themselves. Believers must be taught and trained and released to advance the mission of Jesus in the world. Only then is the body of Christ able to grow and build itself up in love.
What principles do you think have been overlooked? What would you add to the above or, what do you consider not to be as essential as presented here?