Culture The Church

Ecclesiology and the Start-Up Culture

Christian growth cannot be commoditized to scale up.


The doctrine of the church—ecclesiology—has been among the most malleable and flexible for believers today. How a church is organized, what it’s polity may be, many Christians see as of secondary importance. Instead, expediency is what is more important. Is what we’re doing working? And the measure of what works often mirrors the culture of business start-ups. Although this isn’t new, we’re seeing the full flowering (and decay) of the mindset. Going back to Willow Creek and the massive growth they experienced, growing a church is very much akin to growing a brand, to penetrating a market with a product. Indeed, it’s well documented that in the early days of Willow Creek, they did market research to find out what people didn’t like about the previous church “products.” And the vision for the product is cast by a leader who is charismatic and inspiring. If you think of Apple or Amazon, these companies grew largely because of the innovative leaders who founded them. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos had a drive and a vision that captured people and made them want to follow and get on board. It worked spectacularly.

Willow Creek had Bill Hybels and Harvest Bible Chapel had James MacDonald. These were the CEO equivalents to Jobs and Bezos. They had the vision, and they had the power. But by tying the success of the venture so firmly to themselves, they entered into unbiblical territory. The New Testament is clear that oversight of a local church belongs to a plurality of elders. It is a shared burden of leadership that must go beyond an on-paper org chart to being shared in fact and in practice. These churches had elder boards and an ostensible plurality, but it was clear that the senior pastor was “more equal” than the others. To have a genuine plurality, the full-time pastors must have the same authority as any other elder. Investing one man with more authority than others is to set up a situation that will produce grief and pain—as both Willow Creek and Harvest (and, one might add, Mars Hill Seattle) show.

It is also to establish what the New Testament does not. Rather than viewing church polity as a choice among several models that “work” why don’t local churches treat the doctrine of ecclesiology as they do things like soteriology: as a non-negotiable? The sole epistle where Paul addresses local church leaders is Philippians, and he begins that letter by saying “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” It is the whole congregation he first addresses, and then the leaders, but note it is plural, the overseers (elders) and deacons. There is no senior elder, teaching elder, or any such thing; plurality and equality. The other place Paul addresses local church leaders is on the beach at Ephesus. “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” Acts 20:17. Here, too, there is no hierarchy or pecking order. Paul goes on to admonish and warn them. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Acts 20:28-29. Paul counts on the fact that even among the elders themselves, there will arise men who would draw away the disciples!

The heart is deceitfully wicked, as Jeremiah reminds us, and as Lord Acton also reminds us, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whether one thinks pastors should rise above this is beside the point. Look at the evidence. The New Testament model of a plural oversight is the means of protection against this happening.

Christians have been seduced by the idea that growth is always good. If we’re gaining market share, then what we’re doing is working. This is folly. The growth of Christians in their faith cannot be commoditized. Indeed, if we go in this direction, the results are apparent. Conformity to Christ, a deeper understanding of God’s purposes and person; these things can’t be measured by a pie chart. It requires an investment that is slow and steady, faithful shepherding of the congregation. Smaller churches where the elders know the sheep, are involved in their lives, provides both safety and conforms to the New Testament model. What works to build a corporation is fundamentally different than what works to build the body of Christ. The goals are different, the motivation is different, and since we do not answer to shareholders but to the Lord of glory, we need to rethink assumptions that have prevailed in Evangelicalism. We have (justly) pointed out the flaws in churches that have a strict hierarchy, bishops over bishops, but evangelical churches have erected their own model of church polity that is itself flawed.
The New Testament has the answer to “how should the church be organized and governed?” That doesn’t mean it’s easy or perhaps “expedient” but it is what God has delivered to us.

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