An Alternative Polity: Calling

“Legitimate leadership in God’s church is not conferred by congregational vote or organizational structure. No matter how revered or honored our leadership forms, the form itself cannot bestow spiritual authority. It must be Christ who gives, Christ who anoints, Christ who calls.” (From Dynamics of NT Polity Model)

Any alternative polity model that hopes to address the fundamental issues of church leadership must affirm a biblical theology of calling. Throughout Scripture, particular people are called to leadership roles at particular times and for particular situations. The instances of this are too numerous to mention here. [See Examples of Calling in the OT and following articles for specific examples.] If God is still active in kingdom business, if the Spirit still moves in our lives and in the church, and if Christ still bestows leadership gifts on his people, then a theology of calling is required to understand legitimate church governance.

Lacking an effective theology of calling, Churches of Christ have been vague about the sources of spiritual authority in the leadership of congregations. Does authority derive from the “consent of the governed”—a very American and democratized view of leadership (but not necessarily a biblical one)? Does it grow out of a certain competency and experience set—leadership legitimized by superior skills and knowledge and proven leadership track record? Or (as we often articulate) does authority spring from basing our leadership model on some sort of New Testament pattern—get the pattern right and God-given-authority necessarily follows?

The proposed alternative model affirms that church leaders are “called” by God, that he places his hand on certain people for his own good purposes, and that spiritual leadership can only result from the Spirit’s moving. Such notions are foreign to our movement—we don’t often use that kind of language or think in those terms. However (and in contrast), these notions are appealing to us precisely because—knowing and trusting Scripture as we do—they seem so biblically valid.

In the first century, God established certain leadership roles for his church. We can (and do) differ over which of those roles are still relevant for the church today. (Apostles? Prophets?)[1] Most of those who read my writings would at least recognize the continuing roles of “elder” and “evangelist” for some level of leadership in the modern church.

It is important for us to acknowledge that God established these roles. They are not arbitrary or accidental. They did not evolve with the growth and development of the church. They were present at the formation of the church, a part of the church’s structure from its earliest days.

It is not enough, however, for us to acknowledge God’s authorship of the role. Another step—recognizing God’s calling of individuals to fill those roles—is required. In the New Testament, specific people were called/appointed/chosen/authorized by Christ and his Spirit for leadership roles in the church. Personal spiritual authority arose not just because someone filled a leadership position but also (and more importantly) because that person—as an individual—was called by Christ and equipped for his leadership work.

A Leadership Role for Elders

The New Testament evidence of such a calling for elders is substantial. First, of course, is that pivotal passage on church leadership in Ephesians 4:7-15 where Paul addresses both the role of elders generally and the particular people whom Christ has called into that role.

The passage opens by addressing the individual:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. (Eph 4:7—NIV)

“Each one of” the Ephesian Christians (according to Paul) had a “grace” given by Christ, apportioned according to his own wisdom and design. The “grace” differed from person to person (a variety of spiritual gifts, for instance, or diverse ministries—ideas that are echoed in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). But at least some of those “graces” involved a call to leadership. The continuing march of Paul’s argument makes it clear that Paul was thinking about these “graces” in terms of leadership, for that is the subject he addresses next:

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.  (NLT)

Before the gospel was ever preached at Ephesus, God had established the role of pastor within the governance of his church. As Paul wrote his Ephesian epistle, Christ was raising up pastors within the Ephesian church, gifting individuals with the “grace” to serve in such a way. When the letter was read before the congregation, Paul taught that Christ gave the Ephesian church the people he had so “graced” (vs 11). Among the most important of those gifts were people who had been called to the leadership role of “pastor.”

In another passages—Acts 20:17ff —Paul met the elders of the Ephesian church in Miletus. He charged them to “feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders” (Ac 20:28—NLT). Notice that there were elders functioning in the Ephesus church. They had an important leadership role to play in the congregation: feeding, caring for, watching over.

But Paul made this very personal: the Holy Spirit has appointed you. Paul didn’t speak to a role created by the Holy Spirit but to the people the Spirit appointed to that role. Without doubt, Paul himself had selected these men for service, ordained them as leaders, and laid hands on them to invoke God’s blessing (as he did in churches throughout Asia Minor—Ac 14:23). Yet Paul still recognized that the Holy Spirit was the moving force behind these appointments and that these particular men had a divine calling on their lives and ministry.

When Peter addressed elders in his first epistle (1Pe 5:1ff), he used language about the work of elders that was richly personal. He spoke to elders about the “flock that is under your care,” urging them to “watch over [the church] … as God wants you to,” and referred to church members as “those entrusted to” these elders. Perhaps Peter was merely enumerating responsibilities that were expected of anyone who filled the role of an elder. But if Peter assumed a very personal calling by Christ to these individuals, the passage takes on special meaning. The flock was “under your care” not because these elders held a “position” but because Christ had called them (individually) to leadership and then given them (collectively) to the church as a blessing. God was vitally interested in how they “watch over” the church not simply because the church needed watching but because God had raised up these individuals and called them to watch in godly ways. Members had been “entrusted” to these men because of who they were and what God had been doing in their lives, not because they had been elected to a church office.

Churches of Christ appreciate the legitimacy of the “elder” role as something God-breathed. Our congregations are largely governed by men appointed to do the work of elders. But because we lack a clear theology of calling and recognize no mechanism by which God specifically calls particular people to leadership roles, we often assign the responsibilities of leadership without conveying the necessary authority. The work of elders requires a level of spiritual authority to accomplish effectively. Only the sense that “Christ has appointed me for this work” can give elders the confidence to serve boldly. And only the sense that “Christ has appointed him for this work” can persuade a congregation to permit elders to so serve.

Elders lead churches not because of congregational vote or a track record of business acumen or because they mirror some 1st Century pattern but because of the call of Christ on their lives. The Spirit appoints elders (Ac 20:28), whatever mechanism we utilize to recognize that appointing. This personal appointment legitimizes pastoral work and conveys spiritual authority. The “position” simply acknowledges the calling and grants authority to do the work. In the absence of personal and profound calling, there is no legitimacy to the role of elder.

A Leadership Role for Evangelists

The same God who created the elder role also created the role of evangelist. The same Christ who gifted elders to the church also gifted evangelists. That churches in our fellowship would be so adamant about recognizing the leadership authority of one and so reticent to recognize the leadership authority of the other is perplexing.[2]

Ephesians 4 speaks to the calling of “evangelists.” Individuals were gifted with the “grace” of leading the church in different ways (Eph 4:7). And, in turn, the church was gifted with those whom God called to lead (Eph 4:11). Among those leaders were “evangelists.” If we take this passage seriously, it suggests that evangelistic authority derives not from seminary degrees or personal charisma or a church’s hiring practices but from Christ himself.

Although a man named Philip was known as an “evangelist” (Ac 21:8), preaching and baptizing and establishing churches throughout Samaria (Ac 8:4ff), it is the other New Testament figure specifically called an “evangelist”—Timothy—who gives us the most detailed insight into how evangelists functioned and how they were called to serve.

In his letters to the young protégé, Paul charged Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2Ti 4:5). Just as Paul was appointed by Christ to his apostolic and teaching ministry (1Ti 1:12; 2Ti 1:11), so he understood that Timothy was called and appointed. Timothy may not have had a calling experience quite as dramatic as Paul’s (few have!), but he could point to a specific series of events in his past when he was set apart for the work of an evangelist. Paul reminded Timothy of the “prophecies once made of you” (1Ti 1:18), of the “gift … given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (1Ti 4:14), and of “the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2Ti 1:6). This “gift”—in a manner similar to the use of the word in Ephesians 4:7 and 11—is not a reference to spiritual abilities but to Timothy’s appointment to the ministry of an evangelist.

This calling context helps us to understand Paul’s charges to Timothy: “guard what has been entrusted to your care” (1Ti 6:20), “guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you” (2Ti 1:14), and “discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2Ti 4:5). What was “entrusted” to Timothy was the ministry God had given him. The “good deposit” was more than the doctrines he was to protect; it was the ministry that authorized Timothy to preach and teach and defend those doctrines. The “duties” Timothy was to discharge flowed from his wider calling to ministry and involved the range of work expected of an evangelist.

The spiritual authority that derived from this calling was clearly on a par with (indeed, often overlapped) the authority given to elders. Timothy was authorized to identify and appoint elders, protect doctrinal purity, order the worship of the Ephesian church, model godly behavior, preach and teach, read Scripture in the assemblies, ensure that widows were cared for by the church, honor elders who served well and censure elders who sinned, lay hands upon people (ordaining? commissioning?), and command church members about matters such as money. (Paul tells Timothy to “command” others four times in 1 Timothy!)

Since Timothy was told to appoint elders for the Ephesian church in 1 Timothy 3, it could perhaps be argued that the leadership authority implied for Timothy in that first letter was a special case, an extraordinary measure, until elders began to function in Ephesus.[3] However, by the time 2 Timothy was written, Paul had met with the Ephesian elders in Miletus (Ac 20) and the role of elders was well established in the church of Asia Minor.  Yet Paul’s second letter to his protégé still attests to a prominent leadership role for Timothy: the “gift of God” within Timothy that he is urged to enhance, Paul’s laying hands on Timothy, the fact that God’s Spirit “does not make us timid, but gives us power”; the need for Timothy to guard the faith of the church, to mentor others, to suffer when required; Timothy’s responsibility to remind God’s people, instruct and warn them, and mark false teachers; Timothy’s “duty” to preach, correct, rebuke, encourage, and “discharge all the duties” of an evangelist.

If there remains an “evangelist” role in the modern church, if Christ continues to call people to the work of an evangelist and to gift the church with their leadership abilities, acknowledging evangelistic authority is not an attempt to subvert elder-leadership but to balance it with other leadership roles Christ himself has ordained. Honoring the leadership authority of evangelists is, in that case, an act of faithfulness, not innovation or pragmatic accommodation.

I believe that ministers—like elders—are called by Christ to lead churches. The relationship that exists between a church and its minister is not primarily a matter of resumes, educational background, and ministry experience. Nor is it (contrary to the assumptions of our customary search process) a result of “best hiring practices.” It is rooted, rather, in Christ’s call to ministry in the lives of certain people, his equipping and preparation of those people to accomplish certain tasks on behalf of his church, and his “arrangement” of the body for effective service (see Ro 1:1; 1Cor 12:27-28; 1Ti 4:13; 2Ti 4:5).

Thus, both elders and ministers should have a seat at the leadership table of the local church. Both roles should be given “voting” authority in the decisions and activities of a congregation. And both should be seen as equally responsible and equally accountable for the effective functioning of the church.


[1]     An excellent case has been made by Hirsch and Catchim (The Permanent Revolution) for a continuation of the five-fold leadership structure found in Ephesians 4:11 within the church today. They argue that each leadership role has a vital and distinctive function … and that the God who established these roles continues to call individuals to function in these ways. Their book—if nothing else—will make you think about the importance of a diverse leadership and recognize the need for leaders who provide a creative, bold, risk-tolerant, mission-centered edge to the church.

[2]     While I recognize that those identified in the New Testament as “evangelists” did not necessarily function in an identical manner to “ministers” today, the role of a modern preaching minister is probably the closest equivalent we have to this New Testament role. More on this later.

[3]     Although, even in 1 Timothy, the responsibility of an evangelist to publicly honor or rebuke elders (and to identify and appoint future elders?) would persist since the command to honor or rebuke (1Ti 5:17-21) implies that elders be present for the evangelist to do so.