Is Anglican leadership biblical? | Psephizo

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In reading the headline, you might think that I am about to explore some of the claims of the recent GAFCON meeting on whether the C of E is being led in the right direction. But in fact I want to explore a much more basic question: are the patterns of ministry and leadership, and in particular the three-fold order of ‘bishops, priests and deacons’, found in the New Testament, and does their practice follow the practice of New Testament leadership?

Someone might object: ‘What is the point of asking that question, since the Church isn’t about to throw away such a well-established historical precedent?’ But there are immediately a couple of important things to note. The first is that, in the Book of Common Prayer, there is a certain degree of circumspection as to whether this pattern is Scriptural:

It is evident unto all men, diligently reading holy Scripture, and ancient Authors, That from the Apostles time, there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christs Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. (The BCP Ordinal).

So these orders have existed—but there is no explicit claim that they are essential (the following sentences of the ordinal focus on the need for careful examination of those called) nor that they are ‘proved’ as necessary by the Scriptures (the test set out in Article VI of the XXXIX Articles).

But the second thing to note is that the Church of England has itself answered the question of the relation between current patterns of leadership and New Testament patterns—in the report from the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) of January 2015, Senior Church Leadership. which I explored in the first chapter of my Grove booklet Evangelical Leadership: opportunities and challenges.


Both the report and my booklet begin by noting how important ‘leadership’ has become as an idea in both the world and the church. Since the 1990s, executive pay has moved from being around 60 times that of the average worker to almost 180 times it by last year. There are complex reasons behind this, not least the nature of the ‘closed shop’ of executives who appoint one another, and it raises important ethical issues. But it is a strong indicator of belief in the importance and value of leadership. The success of corporations often appears tied to the presence of a particular leader as CEO; football teams respond to success and failure by either lauding or sacking their manager; even theological colleges can thrive or fail depending on the principal it seems. And the FAOC reports notes how now, with the current focus on church growth, the spotlight has been turned on the leader.

In a Church of England press release, Professor David Voas, one of the leaders of the research, said that ‘Growth is a product of good leadership (lay and ordained) working with a willing set of churchgoers in a favourable environment.’ In the same press release, ‘leadership’ tops the list of ‘common ingredients strongly associated with growth,’ a list that also includes ‘clear mission and purpose,’ ‘being intentional’ and ‘vision.’ The Programme’s report, From Anecdote to Evidence: Findings from the Church Growth Research Programme 2011–2013, makes it clear that the ‘leadership’ in question is a matter of ‘motivating people, inspiring and generating enthusiasm to action’ (p 8); that is what they have discovered is needed for growth. (FAOC report, para 16).

This makes it all the more important to ask the question: what were NT patterns and practices of leadership, and how well do our own match this? The most basic challenge is to note the problem with the core question: it is not possible to name ‘THE leader’ in the church in Rome, Ephesus, Colossae, or any of the other places to which Paul writes. Leadership in the NT appears to be plural, as is made explicit by the description of the church in Antioch in Acts 13.1.

The second challenge is to note the terms that are used for leadership in the NT, and the ones that are not.  Despotes is used of masters who own slaves (1 Peter 2.18 and elsewhere), and is applied to God (Acts 4.24) which fits well with Paul’s self-designation as ‘bond slave’ in the opening of his letters—but is never used of Christian leaders. The term kathegetes is expressly forbidden by Jesus in Matt 23.10; the term means leader or teacher, but the teaching aspect is covered earlier in the passage, when Jesus also forbids the use of the term ‘rabbi’ since we have one teacher (didaskalos). Perhaps most striking is the absence of the normal term for ruler or leader, archon. It is used fairly neutrally of the rule of a synagogue (Matt 9.18), for leaders amongst the Pharisees (Luke 14.1) and for national leaders (Acts 3.17). But, in keeping with Jesus warning in Matt 10.25 (and the parallel in Mark 10.42), this term is never use for Christian leaders. There are three passages where we find the term hegoumenos (‘one who leads/guides’) used of church leaders (Hebrews 13.7, 17, 24; Acts 15.22 and Luke 22.26) but the related noun (hegemon) is used only to refer to royal or imperial governors like Pilate (Matthew 27.2).

Instead, biblical language about leadership tends to cluster around particular roles and draw on concrete metaphors. There is a ‘spiritual gift’ that is usually translated as ‘leadership’ in 1 Cor 12.28, kubernesis, which literally means the steering of a boat. We find kubernetes, stearsmen or pilots, mentioned in Acts 27.11 and Rev 18.17. But it is striking that this gift is listed as one among many, and is not given any prominence. (No-one was really interested in this gift when older Bibles translated it as ‘administration’!)


How do we account for this striking rejection and reconfiguration of the language of leadership? The FAOC report accounts for this by expanding on the idea behind Jesus’ prohibition in Matt 23. The suggest a ‘triangular’ understanding of leadership of the Christian community, noting that both the leader and the community itself depends on the call of God for their self-understanding and their identity.

At a very simple level, we can represent the triangular dynamic of these relationships in the form of an equilateral triangle enclosed in a circle. In this diagram, the two ‘sides’ of the triangle represent this double calling: God calls his people; and God calls individuals to lead his people. The base of the triangle represents the complex two-way relationship between people and leaders – a relationship created by God’s double call. (p 23)

This has profound implications for the way leadership is understood, and therefore for the way we understand the exercise of authority:

They [the terms use for leadership] are used to distance the authority of the leader from any sense of ownership or mastery, and to deflect attention back to the Lord of the church, who is the real source of the leader’s authority. They reflect what we may call a refracted authority, seen through a triangular prism that resists the construction of top-down management structures. (p 29)

This is such a helpful, insightful and striking observation about leadership in the NT that it is worth reflecting on for some time. Last week, I was teaching in Hereford Diocese on ‘Biblical reflections on leadership’, and intending this to be part of one of four sessions throughout the day—but it was so striking that we ended up spending most of the day discussing it!


It is helpful not least because it addresses two strong tendencies in church thinking about leadership. The first is a strong emphasis on the importance of leadership, and of the threefold offices of those ordained, which then struggles to find any role for the laity. Perhaps the worst of these was Linda Woodhead’s notion, articulated in the Church Times, that if we dispensed with all congregations and just retained the buildings and the clergy, ‘the most important functions of the Church would continue’! But it is equally present in any notion that the clergy, or one of the three orders (usually bishops) somehow ‘constitute’ the church itself.

The second tendency, present in Reformers like Luther, but also rediscovered in a slightly different way in the charismatic renewal movement from the 1960s onwards, is the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ which sees all the people of God as, in some sense, having equal importance—and then struggles to see the need for particular forms of leadership.

This triangular model of ‘refracted authority’ does see (ordained) leadership as important, and arising from a particular sense of calling (vocation) from God—but sees its importance in relation to the fulfilment of the calling (vocation) of the whole people of God to become what God wants them to be. This is, of course, expressed par excellence in Paul’s comment in Ephesians 4.11–13:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 

It is striking that this passage on particular ministries follows on from an exposition of the unity of the faith and of believers (‘there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism…’) and that both the unity of the body and the different ministries arise from the calling of God. This is the same pattern we find in 1 Cor 12, where Paul moves repeatedly between the idea of ‘to each’ and ‘for all’.


But the reason that, in Hereford, we spent so long on this model is that is raises two very important questions. First, what does it mean for the exercise of power and authority? If the vicar is not ‘in charge’, how do we ever get anything done? And is this a recipe for chaos, where either the different members of the congregation do their own thing or, worse still, the dominant get their own way?

The answer to these questions is found in the different sides of the triangle. The calling of those in leadership is a calling to enable the people to fulfil their calling from God—they are leaders of the church, not just some random collection of people. So there is a real task of responsibility and accountability in both encouraging and enabling the people of God to grow in their maturity, discipleship and obedience to God. And this growth is something that the leaders themselves share, since they never cease to be part of the laos of God:

Do the virtues being demanded of senior leaders today sit uneasily with the virtues of discipleship? A Christian leader is, after all, a disciple first and a leader second, and that means that he or she is and remains a follower even while being a leader. Furthermore, as a disciple a leader is called to display the fruit of the Spirit…

And the FAOC report goes on to set out how the responsibility of leaders is exercised, in relation to the teaching of the word, in leading prayer and worship, in continuing the work of service, ensuring all are cared for, and in engaging in the wider world.

Nevertheless, leaders are called to exercise real authority –they have a calling that instils confidence both in the leader and in other members of the church. From earliest times, the church has sensed a need for order and focus, for a clarity of vision that looks to the needs of the whole body. This leadership is consensual. The social world of the New Testament was intensely hierarchical; authority was instantly recognized and respected (Luke 7.8). It is all the more striking that leadership in the church is accorded by mutual recognition rather than imposedby external authority: it has to be ‘recognized’ (1 Corinthians 16.15, 1 Thessalonians 5.12). Effective leadership depends on co-operation between leaders and led (Hebrews 13.17; 1 Peter 5.2). (para 114)

But the second question is: if we are to inhabit this ‘refracted leadership’ model, can we relate it to the threefold order that we have? The FAOC report also engages with this question, and notes some of the tensions that arise. Early on, the formation of monarchical, geographical episcopacy conflated the ideas of local eldership and translocal apostolic ministry, in a way which (in some senses) compromised both, and the challenge to the threefold order is that, in the NT, it is very hard to relate presbyteral and episcopal ministry in any obvious way—indeed, the terms appear to be used interchangeably at some points.

Similar observations can be made at other critical points of history.

The Church of England’s decision to retain the historic three-fold order of bishop, priest and deacon also reflects the political realities of the Reformation in England. (para 151)

The report is really worth reading, not simply as a reflection on structure issues, but in offering a biblical challenge to the ethos of all church leadership. And my Grove booklet Evangelical Leadership goes on to look at what it means then to be leaders in mission, in being rooted in Scripture, and in engaging in the wider world.


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