How does Jesus lead the church?

Church leadership is an ‘interesting’ issue. Opinions abound as to how we should structure, organise, prioritise, conduct ourselves, and so on with regard to the leadership of local churches.

Yet for all this, it is quite hard to find an answer to how Jesus leads the Church, now that he has ascended to Heaven. Lots of people affirm that Jesus is the head of the church, and lots of people affirm the need for biblically called and qualified church leadership. What is missing is the link between the two: how does Jesus’ authority work itself out through local church leadership?

To answer this question, we need to follow the thread of divine authority as it is woven through the Bible.

Jesus’ authority in local church leadership

Are you ready, set? Then hold tight…

Just as the Father rules creation by his Word (Genesis 1:3; 2 Peter 3:5), King Jesus (who is the Word of God, John 1:1-3) rules His church by His Gospel and His word (Colossians 1:15-20; Colossians 3:15-17). While on the earth, Jesus faithfully carried out his Father’s will (John 17:1-5), and was thereby given all authority from the Father (Matthew 28:18). Jesus revealed the divine plan of sacrifice and salvation to his Apostles (Luke 24:25-27, 45-47) and he commissioned them to teach subsequent disciples after his ascension (Matthew 28:18-20; John 21:15-17). The Apostles carried out this commission for many years and then ensured that what they taught was written down (2 Peter 1:12-15). Others also ensured that the eye-witness testimonies of Jesus could be accessed and examined by those who had not been present at the time (Luke 1:1-4). After Jesus ascended to the Father, he sent His Spirit to guide his people to the truth of His Word (John 16:12-14). It is the Spirit that takes the Word, as it is proclaimed and taught, and applies it to the heart of God’s people (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12). Pastors and elders are those who have been given this role of faithfully passing on this apostolic teaching and testimony in the church (2 Timothy 3:16-4:2). It is this apostolic teaching that leads to Christian growth and maturity through repentance and faith (Ephesians 4:10-13). It is by this faithful Christ-centred apostolic teaching that Jesus speaks to and rules over his church today (Revelation 1:12-20, in particular the link between Jesus holding the spiritual messengers of his church with the sword of his Word in v16).

So, how does Jesus lead the church? Well…

King Jesus leads His church by His Gospel and His Word as it is faithfully preached and taught apostolically from the Bible by the Spirit through called and qualified church leaders.

Implications when this isn’t the case

The absence of any one of these aspects results in a distortion of Jesus’s leadership of the church. Let’s consider what the implications are if we were to remove the various components of how Jesus leads the church.

The ‘church’ leads itself by faithful preaching and teaching apostolically from the Bible by the Spirit through called and qualified church leaders.

Obviously, if you remove King Jesus, then simply put you are no longer the church. At best, you are a morally upright social-action group and at worst you are a religious sect or spiritual cult. Either way, without Jesus we are simply dead in sin and unknown to him as his people (Ephesians 2:1-3).

King Jesus leads His church by His Word as it is faithfully preached and taught apostolically from the Bible by the Spirit through called and qualified church leaders.

If you remove the Gospel then you ultimately have justification by works and wrong religion (doing things to earn God’s approval). This means that we would need to obey the Word of God on our own, in our own strength, by our own righteousness. Sadly, a lot of churches look like this, and not just the obvious ones like Roman Catholic or High-Church Anglican. Many ‘Bible’ churches seem to be Gospel churches, yet scratch under the surface and you’ll find a heart of wrong religion where the underlying mindset is that you become a Christian by believing the Gospel, yet you stay a Christian by reading your Bible, praying and going to church.

This is not what Jesus taught. According to him, you become a Christian by believing the Gospel and you stay a Christian by believing the Gospel (John 15:1-8).

Other implications are…

  • King Jesus leads as a tyrant because there is no Gospel grace.
  • ‘Faithful’ preaching of the Word becomes a matter of technical accuracy rather than seeking Gospel change in people’s hearts.
  • ‘Called and qualified church leaders’ are those who do not fail or make mistakes (in other words, they become people who are good at hiding and covering up their sin).

King Jesus leads His church by His Gospel as it is faithfully preached and taught apostolically from the Bible by the Spirit through called and qualified church leaders.

If you remove the Word then you end up with a church that is shallow in godliness and open to individual ideas of what the Christian life looks like, both personally and collectively as a church. Teaching in church is simply about sharing the message of Jesus. At best, this means the same sermon each week (where the message is always ‘trust in Jesus’ but says nothing on what that actually looks like in our hearts, minds and lives). At worst, it means sharing a different Gospel than the one true Gospel because the Bible is not the basis for the church’s message or ministry.

The Word of Christ is foundational and without it we build shallow, frail lives and shallow, frail churches (Matthew 7:24-27; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Other implications are…

  • King Jesus doesn’t have anything to say about how you live. Just as long as your trust is in Him, everything else doesn’t really matter.
  • ‘Faithful’ preaching is only a matter of whether or not there is an altar-call or an invitation to trust in Jesus, not helping people to trust and therefore obey Jesus.
  • ‘Called and qualified church leaders’ are people who say that they love Jesus and trust in him, no matter what else they say or do.

King Jesus leads His church by His Gospel and His Word by the Spirit through called and qualified church leaders.

Removing apostolic preaching and teaching from the Bible means that the highest validation for the church is spiritual experience. The better or more ‘biblical’ (that is, something like someone in the Bible somewhere) your experience of the Spirit, the more weight is added to your views. This is common in some charismatic or Pentecostal churches. As a result, someone with an open Bible seeking to understand what Jesus is saying to us can be trumped by someone with a go-to Bible verse and vision of who-knows-what.

Apostolic preaching and teaching is the continuation of the faithful and biblical teaching of Jesus and is how he has ordained his church to remain healthy and to grow in maturity (John 17:20-22; 2 Peter 3:1-2; 1 Timothy 4:9-11).

Other implications are…

  • King Jesus would lead only by vague ‘spiritual’ means and speak to his people by mystical prompts and vague ‘spiritual’ guidance.
  • Preaching and teaching is open to ‘spiritual’ interpretation, meaning you can effectively make the Bible say whatever you like, as long as you have some form of ‘spiritual’ leading. Likewise, you can do anything you like, as long as you have ‘prayed about it’.
  • ‘Called and qualified church leaders’ are those who are most persuasive or have the best ‘spiritual’ credentials (dreams, visions, charismatic/enthusiastic personality).

King Jesus leads His church by His Gospel and His Word as it is faithfully preached and taught apostolically from the Bible through called and qualified church leaders.

Without the Spirit at work leading us to Gospel biblical truth, the Christian life and ministry of the church is undertaken in the power and wisdom of men. We look to human effort to bring about Gospel change rather than a miraculous work of the Spirit in the hearts and lives of people. Often, this results in churches and ministries being driven by pragmatism (what seems to ‘work’ best) and/or tradition (what we used to do, what used to ‘work’ best). Human wisdom is a good thing and we are to think carefully about what we do, but without the Spirit we do what is best in our own eyes.

We are to ask and seek the Spirit to be at work in us and in the people we serve as we endeavour to understand and live out the Gospel according to the Word (John 16:12-14; Philippians 2:12-13). This ensures that we are following the wisdom of God rather than the wisdom of men (1 Corinthians 2:9-16) and depending on God to bring about change and lasting fruitfulness in people’s lives (Mark 4:26-29; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22).

Other implications are…

  • We are isolated from King Jesus and at a disadvantage because we do not have ‘another counsellor’ with us or in us (John 14:16-17; John 16:7).
  • The metrics for faithful preaching would only be things that are outward and external, such as large numbers, happy (aka ‘unchallenged’) congregations, and altar-call responses (as opposed to lifelong Gospel repentance and faith).
  • Called and qualified leaders become organisational management rather than a body of Spirit-dependent shepherds seeking to follow and do the will of their chief Shepherd.

King Jesus leads His church by His Gospel and His Word as it is faithfully preached and taught apostolically from the Bible by the Spirit.

The absence of called and qualified church leaders reduces the church to a bottom-up majority-vote democratic system. Even in a church that does have called and qualified church leaders present, this can still be true if and when the church do not submit to such biblically faithful church leaders. The person with the loudest voice, biggest bank balance, or strongest arm (or, more commonly, the most persuasive or pragmatic ideas) gets to direct the affairs of the church. At best, this results in the church conducting itself in a way that appears faithful and yet is at heart unfaithful and with impure motives. At worst, the church veers of the path of faithfulness altogether and ends up who-knows-where.

For us in the western world, we are quite happy with the idea of a democratic system: it is what appears to works best in terms of political government. The problem is that Jesus never spoke of the Republic of God. According to Jesus, the people of God are a Kingdom, under a Sovereign King (Colossians 1:13-14). This King, Jesus, has chosen to wield his authority through the Word (the Bible) and the Spirit at the hands of called and qualified church leaders.

Other implications are…

  • King Jesus rules a Kingdom of isolated individuals without any sense of being under appointed and delegated leadership.
  • Faithful preaching of the Gospel and the Word need only be a personal exercise. A daily time in the Bible and in prayer or watching talks online is just as much being part of ‘church’ as gathering together with other people.
  • Sin is easily left unchecked and disputes are resolved by appealing to the majority, or by those who have the greatest power or influence.

Long live the rule of the King!

As you can see, neglecting or overlooking any one aspect of how King Jesus leads the church can have significant practical consequences, let alone devastating emotional pastoral consequences. I know people who have experienced some of the implications mentioned above and have been deeply hurt because of it. I know that where I have neglected to allow King Jesus to lead and rule as he should, I too have hurt people in the process. Let’s remind ourselves of how King Jesus leads his church…

King Jesus leads His church by His Gospel and His Word as it is faithfully preached and taught apostolically from the Bible by the Spirit through called and qualified church leaders.

On its own that sounds pretty amazing. But when you consider the implications of this, it gets better still. Under such a rule…

  • The church is under the always-good and ever-glorious leadership of King Jesus who does all things for his right glory and the good of all who love him (Revelation 5:12; Romans 8:28).
  • The church is a place where dependence on grace and a call to holiness go hand in hand. We have grace to battle against sin and are called to pursue righteousness (Titus 2:11-14; 1 Peter 2:24).
  • The church has the apostolic preaching of the Word of God from the Bible at its centre (Colossians 3:16, 2 Timothy 4:1-2).
  • The church depends on Christ in us by the Spirit for all things, but especially for living in godliness and seeking to carry out God’s will (Galatians 5:22-26).
  • The church gladly comes under called and qualified leadership and values the correction and rebuke of such leaders (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
  • The church has called and qualified leaders who gladly stand in the grace of the Gospel and the promises of God’s Word. Such men willingly confess their sin (1 John 1:8-10) and allow other called and qualified leaders to challenge, correct and (where necessary) to rebuke them (see Paul’s challenge to Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 which seems to have been heeded given 2 Peter 3:14-18).

Sounds good, doesn’t it?