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Laos and Leadership Gordon D. Fee

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

The People and Their Leadership

The sense of continuity with the old, however, does not seem to carry over to the role of leadership as well. Under the old covenant the king and priests in particular, although often included in much of the “people” language, were at the same time recognized as having an existence apart from the people, with their own sets of rules and expectations.

It is precisely this model of leadership that breaks down altogether in the New Testament. The basic reason for this is the Lordship of Christ himself. As God intended to be himself king over Israel, so Christ has come as God’s king over his newly constituted people. As head of his church, all others, including leaders, function as parts of the body both sustained by Christ and growing up into him (Eph 4:11-16). 

Thus leadership in the New Testament people of God is never seen as outside or above the people themselves, but simply as part of the whole, essential to its well-being, but governed by the same set of “rules”. Surely one of the ironies of my own tradition, the American Assemblies of God, as well as that of many other such traditions is that every criticism of the ministry in any of its forms, including very bad preaching, was always challenged on the basis of 1 Sam 24:6, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed”.

Although Pentecostals might argue that the NT analogy of “the Lord’s anointed” is the one who speaks by the Spirit, in fact, this became a tacit elevation of “ordained” ministry to the position of the untouchable king. No wonder the history of such movements, and even more so of independent churches, is fraught with stories of ministerial moral failure.

Kings play by a different set of rules, and the structures of accountability are seldom in place. Laos and Leadership are not “set apart” by “ordination” rather, their gifts are part of the Spirit’s work among the whole people. That this is the basic model can be demonstrated in a number of ways, some of which deserve special attention.

The Nature of the Epistles

One of the more remarkable features of the New Testament Epistles is the twin facts (a) that they are addressed to the church(es) as a whole, not to the church leadership, and (b) that leaders, therefore, are seldom, if ever singled out either to see to it that the directives of a given letter are carried out or to carry the directives out themselves. To the contrary, in every case, the writers. That is, they are not “set apart” to an office; rather, hands are laid upon them in recognition of the Spirit’s prior activity. Cf. Acts 13:1-2; 1 Tim 4:4.

The one exception to this is Philippians, where Paul writes to the church “together with the overseers and deacons”. One might also include Philemon, where Paul includes Archippus in the salutation, but since the letter is addressed to Philemon, Paul continues by mentioning two further individuals before including the church. Some, of course, would argue that 1 Timothy and Titus are such documents; however, both of these younger colleagues serve as Paul’s own apostolic delegates in Ephesus and Crete. They are both itinerants, whose stay is temporary.

Thus they are not church leaders in the local sense.

One exception to this might be Col 4:17, where Paul specifically tells the church to exhort Archippus to “complete the task you have received in the Lord” (NRSV); but even here the church is the primary focus, and it is not at all clear what Archippus’ “task” is. Cf. Phil 4:3, where Paul asks a trusted fellow worker to mediate the differences between Euodia and Syntyche.

But in this case, since these two women are also designated as his fellow-workers, Paul is asking for help not so much from a church leader as such, but from one who has been a co-laborer with both Paul and these women. As in the preceding note, Timothy and Titus are “leaders” of a different kind. They are in their respective situations in Paul’s place; they are not local leaders “in charge” of the church.

Laos and Leadership address the community as a whole, and the expectation of the letter is that there will be a community response to the directives. In several instances, leaders are mentioned (e.g., 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Cor 16:16; Heb 13:17), but basically in order to address the community’s attitudes toward them. In 1 Peter 5:1-4 the leaders themselves (apparently) 23 are addressed, in this case with reregard to their attitudes and responsibilities toward the rest of the people.

Thus, for example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 the whole community is called upon, among other things, to respect those who labor among them, care for them, 24 and admonish them; yet in vv. 14-15, when urging that they “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all”, Paul is once more addressing the community as a whole, not its leadership in particular.

So also in 2 Thessalonians 3:14 the whole community is to “note that person” who does not conform to Paul’s instruction and “have nothing to do with him”. Likewise, in all of 1 Corinthians not one of the many directives is 23This seems almost certainly to be the case, despite the corresponding “younger men” that follows in v. 5. 24The verb in this case is ambiguous in Greek, meaning either to “govern” or to “care for”. Apart from 1 Tim 3:4-5, elsewhere in the NT, as here, it is used absolutely so that one cannot determine which nuance is intended. But in the Timothy passage the synonym that is substituted for it in v. 5 means unambiguously to “care for”.

This seems most likely what Paul ordinarily had in mind. Cf. E. Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1972) 224-25. Fee: Laos and Leadership spoken to the leadership, and in 14:26 their worship is singularly corporate in nature (“When you [plural] assemble together, each one of you has . . . ; let all things be done with an eye to edification”). One receives the distinct impression that people and leaders alike are under the sovereign direction of the Holy Spirit.

This is not to downplay the role of leadership; 25 rather, it is to recognize that in the New Testament documents leaders are always seen as part of the whole people of God, never as a group unto themselves. Hence, they “labour among” you, Paul repeatedly says, and their task in Ephesians 4:11-16 is especially “to prepare God’s people [the saints] for works of service [ministry], so that the body of Christ may be built up”.

Thus the model that emerges in the New Testament is not that of clergy and laity, but of the whole people of God, among whom the leaders function in service of the rest. All of this is quite in keeping with Jesus’ word that his disciples were to call no one “rabbi”, “father”, or “master”, for “you have one teacher and you are all brothers and sisters” (Matt 23:8-12), and with his word that “those.

Indeed, despite some NT scholarship to the contrary, it is highly unlikely that the early communities ever existed long without local leadership. The picture Luke gives in Acts 14:23 is an altogether plausible one historically, given the clear evidence of leadership in the earliest of the Pauline letters (1 Thess 5:12-13) – a community where he had not stayed for a long time, whose leadership must have been in place when he was suddenly taken from them (Acts 17:10; 1 Thess 2:17).

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