Using the wisdom of the past to address the challenges of the present, Christopher Beeley's Leading God's People presents key principles of church leadership as they were taught by great pastor-theologians of the early church, including Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Gregory the Great.
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Leading God's PeopleWisdom from the Early Church for Today
By Christopher A. Beeley
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2012 Christopher A. Beeley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Leadership of the Church
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Keep watch over yourselves and over the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God that he has obtained with the blood of his own Son. Acts 20:28
Anyone who has attended Sunday services knows how crucial church leadership is. When strong leadership is present, we appreciate it palpably, and the entire community benefits in tangible ways. When it is lacking, we know that something of central importance is missing, and we rightly lament its absence. In every period of history Christians have had cause to reflect on what may seem an obvious fact: the effectiveness of the church's leadership is crucial to its vitality and faithfulness, its spiritual health, and its fulfillment of God's mission in the world.
Scripture, tradition, and the experience of countless believers show that God has designed the church in such a way that someone needs to be in charge of each Christian community. Particular people — most often a senior pastor together with assistant clergy and laypeople — are officially entrusted with the authority of leadership for the sake of the entire body. But this is not an automatic thing, as if having appointed leaders were enough in itself. The way in which leadership is exercised is of the utmost importance for the church's life and well-being. While we may regret those instances in which solid leadership was absent or severely impaired, we can also be grateful that there have been so many outstanding church leaders throughout history, beginning with the apostles themselves. Since the first generation of the church there have been distinct leaders, and the basic character and rationale of this leadership is surprisingly well-defined across a variety of cultural, geographical, and historical differences.
The Origins and Importance of Church Leadership
Before we look at the basic identity and work of church leaders, it may be helpful to consider the earliest beginnings of leadership office. The New Testament gives little explicit description of the roles and functions of church leaders, just as it also lacks a formal order of worship. Yet the apostolic writings clearly indicate that leadership was both necessary and centrally important. Jesus himself appointed a distinct group of twelve disciples, with an inner circle of three (Peter, James, and John) and a predominant leader among them (Peter). The gospels record that Jesus spent most of his time and attention with these twelve, and it was to them that he entrusted the furtherance of his mission after his death, resurrection, and ascension. The apostles, who soon included Paul and others, carried on the authority and the work of leadership, including the spread of the gospel and the planting of new churches among peoples and territories beyond Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora. As a result of this spread, it eventually became necessary to appoint new local leaders in each community. In the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus) — so named in the modern period because they give unprecedented attention to the office and duties of pastoral leadership — we see the further stabilization of distinct leadership offices in second- or third-generation communities. In recognition of Paul's apostolic authority, many later writers looked to him as the premier example of pastoral or episcopal leadership.
In the New Testament church leaders are commonly, though not exclusively, referred to as overseers or bishops (episkopoi) as well as elders or presbyters (presbyteroi). These two terms are often used interchangeably; and while there may have been a distinct supervisor (bishop) among the group of overseer-elders, they are not clearly demarcated as a radically distinct office. In addition to these primary leaders, all of whom are considered servants or ministers (diakonoi), we occasionally find another group called "deacons" in a more particular sense (also diakonoi). It appears that by the time of the Pastoral Epistles, these functions developed into three distinct offices which were either instituted or supported by the laying on of hands. Yet even here we have relatively little indication of the degree of formality or of all the functions associated with each office.
The simplest and most telling description of early pastoral leadership comes in Paul's address to the leaders from Ephesus in the Acts of the Apostles. According to Luke the evangelist (who wrote Acts), Paul tells the Ephesian elders (presbyteroi) that the Holy Spirit has appointed them to be overseers (episkopoi) as shepherds of God's church (Acts 20:28). Paul calls the same group both presbyters and bishops; he regards their authority as having come from the Holy Spirit; and he characterizes their ministry as that of pastoring, or shepherding sheep. Also illuminating is the following statement in 1 Peter:
I exhort the elders (presbyteroi) among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight (episkopountes), not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it — not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. (1 Pet. 5:1-4)
In both passages the apostles instruct the presbyter-bishops to act as overseers and shepherds of God's sheep in such a way that they will earn the approval of Christ, who is the Great Shepherd.
During the first generation of the church particular apostles exercised supervisory authority over the communities in their charge, such as James in Jerusalem and Paul among his Gentile and Jewish-Gentile churches (we know less about Peter's later ministry). There is also evidence of a single person who acted as a chief leader among the group of local presbyter-bishops, a practice that eventually produced the distinct supervisory office of bishop. By the time the apostles receded into the background, we find more frequent references to a single bishop — possibly in the Pastoral Epistles and certainly in the letters of Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, which date from the early-second century (roughly contemporaneous with the Pastorals), and in most writers afterward. The development of a singular supervisory office is notoriously murky, yet it is in keeping with the initial apostolic pattern, and it became the norm in most churches by the end of the second century, as it still is today.
Despite the great importance of these earliest witnesses, they are rare and relatively brief. It is only from later generations that we have any extensive treatment of church leadership. One of the most striking things about these later works is the extent to which they agree on basic principles, particularly if we consider the great diversity of early Christian communities. For example, each of the early sources speaks of the crucial importance of pastoral leadership for the life of the community. Gregory of Nazianzus echoes earlier writers by placing a special emphasis on the role that pastoral leaders play. God has providentially arranged the church so that certain people are distinctly gifted, called, and ordained to serve as leaders for the sake of the rest of the community, just as the different organs in the human body work to preserve its overall health and vitality. Bishops and priests serve as "leaders of men and women" in the most basic matters of the Christian life, and they preside over the community gathered in worship. Similarly, in a letter to a church that was about to elect a new bishop, Gregory of Nyssa defines a bishop as "a leader, a superior, a teacher of piety, and a director of the hidden mysteries," that is, the Eucharist.
In one of his sermons, Augustine speaks movingly of God's provision of pastoral leadership for the church:
It is unthinkable that good shepherds could be lacking now. Far be it from us that they should be lacking—far be it from God's mercy not to produce them and establish them! Of course, if there are good sheep, there are also good shepherds, because good shepherds are made out of good sheep.
The provision of leadership is fundamental for the life of the church; it is unthinkable that the one would exist without the other. In another sermon, on Psalm 127, Augustine gives an exquisite description of pastoral authority: "Jerusalem has its vigilant guardians. Just as it has its builders, the workers who labor on the building, so too does it have its watchmen (see Psalms 126/127:1)." He observes how vigilantly the Apostle Paul guarded a church in his charge:
He was guarding it, he was its keeper, he kept watch to the utmost of his ability over those committed to his care. And this is what bishops do still. A higher position is assigned to them precisely so that they can oversee the people and guard them.... In a vineyard a watchtower is provided for the worker responsible for the vineyard's safety, so that he or she can keep an eye on it; and similarly a higher station is accorded to bishops.
Each of the great pastoral theologians of the early church not only regard leadership as divinely instituted; they also consider the quality of that leadership essential to the church's vitality, faithfulness, and effectiveness in carrying out God's mission.
In this book we will be focusing on the primary leaders of the church — its bishops, priests, or pastors. Yet, as we have already seen, pastoral leadership is often shared among a team of various ministers, and most of the elements of pastoral ministry are exercised by the laity as well. Our discussion of primary church leadership therefore applies to many types of service. There are several different terms used for church leaders in early Christian sources, much as there are among today's churches. Yet the most common single term, and the one that most aptly describes the nature and work of church leadership as a whole, is "pastor" or "shepherd." Above all else, church leaders are those who shepherd God's flock on behalf of Christ, the Great Shepherd. We will therefore speak throughout the book about the ministry of pastoral leadership, knowing that much of what we discuss applies to the priesthood of all believers.
The early sources typically refer their thoughts on pastoral ministry to "bishops," a term that also needs some explanation. For many centuries bishops functioned primarily as senior pastors of particular Christian communities, even after they began to exercise wider authority over other clergy in a given region. Not only did bishops remain practicing local pastors, but the other functions they performed were based on their spiritual authority within their own communities. This applies to famous metropolitan bishops such as Basil of Caesarea and Augustine of Hippo, who regularly ministered as pastors to their congregations. In the early church a "bishop" was first and foremost a pastor, not an administrative official. When we speak here of bishops, we are therefore talking about the primary leaders of local churches, and we are reminded that all types of church leadership are rooted in pastoral ministry.
It is also important to note that patristic theologians, like the New Testament documents, give essentially the same advice to presbyters or priests that they do to bishops. The reason is that their ministries are seen to be essentially the same, even though bishops have the extra responsibility of supervision. I will therefore speak interchangeably of pastors, bishops, priests, and presbyters in the pages that follow. If the language of "bishops" and "priests" is familiar to readers in more catholic traditions, then the language of the "pastorate" and "presbyterate" will serve to remind them of the chief functions of such leaders. And if readers in Reformed traditions are more used to the terms "pastor" and "elder" (or "presbyter"), then they can appreciate that the language of "bishop" and "priest" has been the accepted terminology for millions of Christians throughout history and is also not without biblical precedent.
Service with Authority
It is common to think of pastoral ministry as a kind of service, and so it is. But before we consider its servant-like quality, it is important to appreciate the real power that leaders carry in their communities and in the lives of individual people. Like actual shepherds, Christian pastors exercise a clear and necessary authority over their flocks, by which they are able to guide the members of the church toward God. In the earliest document in the New Testament, Paul speaks of the authority of leadership in very strong terms. He admonishes the church in Thessaloniki to have respect for "those who labor among you and have charge over you in the Lord and admonish you." Because of their work, leaders are to be "highly esteemed in love" (1 Thess. 5:12-13). Similarly, we see Jesus giving the twelve disciples great "power and authority" to cast out demons, heal diseases, and preach the gospel (Luke 9:1). Such authority has been fundamental to church leadership since its earliest beginnings, and in every age the church has needed strong and authoritative pastors.
People naturally look to their pastors for competent leadership, and they expect them to hold real authority, otherwise they would look elsewhere or simply help themselves. An effective pastoral relationship depends entirely on the authority that leaders receive from Christ through the Holy Spirit and on the accompanying set of projections and expectations that church members ascribe to them. In the early second century Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church in Ephesus that, in order to be sanctified by God, they must submit to the teaching and the sacramental authority of the bishop and presbytery. Gregory Nazianzen too emphasizes that priestly ministry is a form of command that carries real authority, responsibility, and the power of spiritual governance, even as it is also a form of service carried out in great humility. Without this authority, he adds, the health of the entire community suffers greatly.
Who would want to consult a doctor or a lawyer who lacks the ability and expertise necessary to do the job? It is the same in the church: Christians, and even many unbelievers, rightly expect pastoral leaders to know what they are doing and to be able to do it. On the authority of the pastorate John Chrysostom writes,
God has given to priests a power greater than that of our natural parents. The two are as different as the present and the future life, for our natural parents bring us into this life, but priests bring us into the life to come.... They have often saved a sick soul, or one that was on the point of perishing.
People sometimes have mixed feelings about whether to expect the same excellence from church leaders that they do from other professions. Some believe that the church should not be so exacting in its standards, whether out of a misguided sense of compassion or a fear of authority. At the opposite extreme, others have an inflated sense of what pastoral authority involves, believing that leaders can practically do their people's religion for them.
The apostles and the early theologians urge us to be very clear about the power that pastoral leaders carry. Simply put, church leaders are capable of doing either enormous good or great harm. In order to promote constructive leadership and to avoid the potential dangers that exist, it is imperative to understand the true nature of pastoral authority, for what we do not understand we are more likely to abuse. Competent, helpful, and safe Christian leaders are confident in the purpose and the influence of their work, and they are deeply humbled by the privilege of serving God and others in this way.
Speaking of pastoral authority can raise concerns about the ways in which certain leaders have abused their authority and harmed those in their charge. This is a serious problem, and one that the early sources addressed with great earnestness, as we will see in the next chapter. For now, we must remind ourselves that such abuses do not undermine the validity of strong and authoritative leadership any more than a bad doctor makes the work of good doctors less necessary. If anything, the regrettable abuses of the pastoral office further highlight the qualities of good leadership, and they show us how important it is that leaders understand and remain faithful to the true nature of their authority.
Excerpted from Leading God's People by Christopher A. Beeley Copyright © 2012 by Christopher A. Beeley. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I The Leadership of the Church 1
The Origins and Importance of Church Leadership 2
Service with Authority 8
All for Others 13
In Christ 20
Difficulty and Delight 24
II Spirituality for Leadership 28
The Order of the Spirit 30
Pastoral Virtue 33
Character and Office 43
The Tragic Alternative 46
All from God 51
III The Cure of Souls 54
The Art of Arts 56
The Cure of Souls 61
The Healing of Christ 74
IV Scripture and Theology 77
The Resource of Scripture 80
Interpretation according to the Spirit 82
Pastoral Theology 97
Contemplation in Action 101
V The Ministry of the Word 105
Word and Sacrament 105
Christian Doctrine 108
Study and Prayer 122
The Leader 125
Suggestions for Further Reading 143
Index of Names and Subjects 145
Index of Scripture References 147