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Foundations for Christian Life

Local Church: Responsibilities

Study verses: Hebrews 13:17

"Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."

The New Testament presents a structure for the church based on principles which are clearly defined yet remarkably flexible and adaptable to different circumstances. We are thinking here, not so much of the universal church as of the local church, which may be defined as a community of believers in a given locality, relating together in submission to the lordship of Christ under a local leadership.

Part of the structure of local church is the leadership. Leadership is a gift from God to his church, not his imposition on it. As Christians, we are all equal in God's sight, but he has chosen some people to lead in every local church. This God-given role does not make the person who functions in it more equal than any other Christian. In fact, local church leaders tend to have a particularly difficult responsibility (for which they will need every encouragement church members can give). They need to function in their role to enable any church to achieve the purposes God has for it and to enable the members of the church to reach their full potential in Christ.

In biblical terms, local church leadership consisted mainly of elders, deacons and other congregational ministries. In today's church we can add homegroup leaders, youth group leaders, ladies group leaders, worship leaders and Sunday school teachers etc. In larger churches they also have section leaders and church board directors etc. All these forms of leadership in God's church should be appointed by him and not by man. The church simply needs to recognise where God has placed his calling, because the gifting necessary to carry out any work in his church will accompany his call (when it's God's timing), then a person can be given the relevant title or office. Like the early church, the church today should consider effective function or gifting as more important than any label or office title. Like them we should never expect any person to carry out any office without gifting and the appointment of God. To do so simply creates a situation in which a person is placed in a position for which they are not adequately qualified, equipped or empowered.

ELDERS The place of authority within the local church is taken by the elders. In Acts 14:23 we see that Paul and Barnabas "...appointed elders in each church..." and in Titus 1:5 Paul instructs Titus to "...appoint elders in every town..." As the apostles planted churches they then appointed elders to oversee, "...not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." (1 Pet.5:3) The qualifications and standard required of elders is very high (1 Tim.3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9) for their role as overseers is very important. It is sadly a fact that not all live up to this high standard when all ought to. Their appointment should be with much prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23) and their function within the body of Christ is explained as follows: Acts 20:28 "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers." 1 Pet.5:1-4 "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers ... being examples to the flock." 1 Tim.3:2 "Now the overseer must be ... able to teach..." James 5:14 "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church..." Titus 1:7-9 "Since an overseer is entrusted with God's work ... He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message ... so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it." The Greek word translated 'rule' or 'direct' in 1 Tim.5:17 means 'to stand before', or 'to lead'. An elder may or may not be a ministry gift - all the ministry gifts are subject to the elders' authority, and those 'ministers' who are in a place of authority within this church exercise that authority by virtue of their eldership, not their ministry gift.

DEACONS The Greek word for deacon is 'diakonos'; its literal meaning is 'servant' or 'one who waits on table'. However, the word in the New Testament widened its meaning to include any service lovingly given to a brother, sister or neighbour for Jesus' sake. The deacons within a church were recognised and set apart for a particular task within the church. Just as with elders, the qualifications for a deacon are high and are listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. These people are called by God and given a mantle to enable them to fulfil the function of serving the body of Christ. Remember from the early sections of the course the different aspects of the body.

1. The headship of Jesus established the church. He is building it and he controls and directs it. We, as the body of Christ, share in his life and come under his control.

2. Unity of the Spirit. All believers are part of one body and there is an invisible unity among them, because they all share in the same Lord Jesus. Jesus prayed for complete unity among all believers. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each member, although having different functions, belongs to all the others members.

3. Variety of gifts and functions The body is not made up of one part but of many. There are different kinds of gifts, service and workings, but it is the same God who works all of them in all men. Just as parts of the human body are varied in function, so are the members of the body of Christ. We all have a definite part to play, even though as yet it may not be clear what that part or role is. There are no spare parts in the body of Christ. We have been hand picked and placed in that body for a special purpose. Your role will be suited to your gifts and personality.

4. Rule of God. It is God who has arranged the parts of the body and who makes appointments in it. Sometimes he may make his will known through his delegated authority. Members of the body of Christ need to accept their place. Many try to be what God has not called them to be. We need to find out what our function in God is and accept it, stick to it, develop it and fulfil it.

5. Rightly related Members of the body of Christ need to be rightly related to the head, Jesus Christ, and to each other. We need each other, therefore we must accept one another as Christ accepted us, learning to forgive (as he has forgiven us) and bearing with one another. A lot of your growth and development as a Christian will come through your relationship with other believers. This will not only happen because of what the leaders and other people share with you, but also because of what you share with them.

6. Commitment. Because of the unique purposes which God has made known by the body, the tremendous plan he has for it, and because of the intricate relationships in the body, no true believer can find fulfillment and accomplishment outside of the body of Christ, the church. To fail to identify with the visible body of Christ, that is, the local church, is to sever yourself from the body of Christ as a whole. The body can only grow when each member functions as they should. This requires commitment. Then the body will truly be the expression of Jesus on earth.

7. Service. Your real attitude to Christ Jesus is seen by your attitude to his body, the church. A life of service for God is the most fulfilling life there is, because we are created by God to serve him. There are a number of attitudes today that hinder or stop a free-flowing spirit of service. Often there can be an unwillingness to accept a role which appears to be less important, or a role which is in submission to another. People think of this as below their dignity. Also there can often be a desire to dominate or lead, when there is neither the ability nor the calling to do so. A willingness to accept the hard discipline of responsibility, and an attitude of humility of service which Jesus so clearly exemplified, needs to be central in a life that is called to leadership.

On top of all this, there can be a reluctance to accept menial tasks, because service is seen only in terms of what is evidently rewarding or pleasant. We should never compare or rate ministries, or indeed any service for God. God never does. He does not hold one ministry above another. To him they are all important. He gives the ministry or service in the first place. All he is looking for is a useable vessel that will be faithful to do that which he has willed. As you wait to discover your role in the body, do whatever needs to be done with all your might. We need also to be careful about our motives for service. We should not do anything primarily for our own benefit or satisfaction, but rather do everything for the glory of God and the extension of his kingdom. We should desire to serve our fellow disciples of Jesus, who are part of the body of Christ. Jesus taught that serving others is the path to promotion in his kingdom. Jesus himself did not come to have a servant but to be a servant; we need to do the same.

How to play your part in the body of Christ

1. Be filled with the Holy Spirit (1 Cor.12:13).
2. Play your part without envying someone else's. Use your gifts and abilities to serve the body as good stewards of Jesus Christ (1 Cor.12:15-16, 1 Pet.4:10).
3. Make room for others (1 Cor. 12:17) and do not try to do it all yourself. Others may do some things better than you. 4. Know your place in the body (1 Cor.12:18-20) because this brings security and confidence (Rom.12:3).
5. Admit your need of other people (1 Cor.12:21). The church is your life support system, so do not be afraid to draw on the life of God through others in the church. Do not be so independent that you cannot be helped, advised or corrected.
6. Value other believers (1 Cor.12:22-24) and encourage them.
7. Care for the body (1 Cor.12:26), practice hospitality (Rom.12:13, 1 Pet.4:7), and look for practical ways to share with and help your your brothers and sisters in the church. (Heb.10:24, Gal.6:10).
8. Make love your aim and earnestly desire spiritual gifts. (1 Cor.13:1-3, 1 Cor.14:1).

Dearly loved friend, now you have been through these ten courses, you have quite a lot of information. Yet that is all it remains unless you put the things you have learnt into practice and experience for yourself the faithfulness of God and the blessing of obedience to his word. Let us encourage you to experience and explore the things of God for he has so much for each one of us. We could spend many lifetimes enjoying and searching for the treasures he has for us, without ever exhausting the depth of his love.

Eph.3:16-21 - "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

This is our prayer and hope for you.

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