Leadership in Torah Observant Communities: Part 1
This brief article will introduce a topic that we will be discussing in multiple parts. In this part, I'll be introducing and - I believe you'll agree - diagnosing one of the most pressing issues and biggest problems in Torah Observant communities: leadership. Whether by the misuse of authority, or the lack thereof, many well-meaning congregations of believers fail to thrive because of improper leadership. Or worse, people suffer spiritual abuse from improper leadership.
There are, by my estimation, three different primary veins of this Torah Observant, Messianic, Hebrew Roots walk (whatever the preferred nomenclature of the day happens to be). Now I'm not talking denominationally-speaking (such as the differences between these three aforementioned terms). No, that will be addressed elsewhere. For our purposes here, I'm talking about structure as it pertains to leadership within the congregation.
You have your “traditional model” approach. This is where you have a head pastor or Rabbi that is tasked with being in charge of almost everything. There may be elders or overseers and/or deacons that report to him, but for the most part, this person is the ultimate authority. He makes all the decisions, assigns all the tasks, and is the ultimate authority in every instance where authority is invoked.
Many people in this walk have rightly questioned and even opposed this sort of one-man show, recognizing that the Biblical precedent for leadership in the Assembly is supposed to be plural. Paul gives instructions in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 (which are, I believe, based on Deut. 1) for establishing leaders and setting up leadership structure in the various believing communities. In all of his directions and qualifications that he presents to Timothy and Titus, nowhere do we find any indication of the expectation of a head pastor or Rabbi. Rather, we see elder (or overseer) and deacon (attendant / servant). These positions are established in the sense of plurality. Paul offers no instruction on how to organize a hierarchy of elders over deacons, and both of them over the laity (community). What the evangelical Church has largely done – and indeed persists into many Torah-Keeping groups as well – has been to take one of the elders and put him above the others, to make him the head pastor.
This has, at times, worked out decently; especially when that person is able to dedicate himself to ministry to full time. However, it also opens the door for abuse. From large international Christian ministries whose president engages in some sort of deviant behavior, to smaller Torah Observant ones who turn their well-meaning congregation into a cult of their own making, there are numerous examples of what can go wrong with a lack of accountability. Now to be sure, whether a congregation has 1 elder or 50, the possibility of abuse is always there. But the more checks and balances, the better. A plurality of leadership can better rein in one rogue agent than a congregation suffering under the tyranny of a single heavy-handed leader.
Because of the reaction to the first method, we come to the second method: the "mutual congregational model." This has led many people to reject leadership roles altogether. I have personally been part of groups in the past where there is no recognized leadership. All the adults in the group met together, worshipped together, studied together. Just like the prior model, this model can also work decently. It allows for a more tight-knit community. This less formal structure is more comfortable and, to many people, seems more “authentic” to what we see described in the Epistles, especially Paul's letters.
These “house churches” are not unique to the Torah Observant / Pronomian sphere, however. Many nondenominational churches operate as a group of home fellowships. While the strong bonds of community nourished by a mutual congregational model are good – and definitely an improvement over a domineering self-appointed Rabbi – they are nonetheless also deficient. Issues will, inevitably, arise. Who will address them? Who will confront the unruly person, or the brother or sister that has fallen into egregious sin? Surely not everyone present is qualified to be in that role (again, see 1 Tim. 3).
Plurality of Elders Model
The third and final model is that of a plurality of leadership, the “plural elder model.” This model has a leadership structure that recognizes the need for appointed / ordained leaders. Leaders that are not those that simply appoint themselves because they like being in charge, or because they are the smartest person (read: most arrogant) in the room, or the most compelling speaker. Rather, leaders that are recognized and known by the congregation, those that are supported and endorsed by their own community, that meet the qualifications laid out for us in Scripture.
In Deut. 1, Moses recounts that the people of each tribe selected their own elders / chiefs, and he appointed them over their respective tribes. That's the basis for Paul's model. Paul did not instruct Timothy to take people that he trusted from Rome, and put them in charge of the congregation in Ephesus. Rather, the leaders were supposed to be known among their own community. In James 5:14, he instructs his readers to “call for the elders of the assembly” when someone is sick. If there are no elders, no one in leadership, this cannot happen. In Acts 20, Paul “called for the elders of the assembly” to speak a word to them. Again, this cannot happen if there are no recognized leaders. The question would be asked by the congregants, “Whose an elder? Me? You? All of us?”
To remedy this, I propose the following steps be taken:
If you are a singular leader, look for those in your community – and indeed, ask the community to look among themselves – that are equipped and qualified to be in an eldership role. Don't treat this person as someone subservient to you, but rather as an equal co-laborer, whose job it is to serve and equip the body. You need to not be the only one in charge. It didn't work for Moses (hence his father-in-law's advice to appoint various other leaders), and it won't serve the body as well as a plurality.
If you are part of a group that doesn't have any structured leadership, open the dialogue. Share this article with them, pray with them, and read the Scriptures referenced. Talk amongst yourselves and discuss the qualifications. If you need one, NRF will happily provide our template of Eldership questionnaire, which lists the qualifications we require in order to be ordained and appointed as an elder / overseer.
Ultimately, if the goal is to preserve one's own ego, he/she will be opposed to this idea. But if we approach this with humility and with the understanding that there is a higher standard and level of responsibility for those in leadership, we must come to accept that Godly leaders are necessary for the healthy function of a congregation.
If you need to reach us with additional clarifying questions, or to request a digital copy of our eldership evaluation, you may reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I pray this has blessed you.