Who Does What in the Life of the Church?
The Nature of the Local Church | by Pastor Adam Sinnett
Note: This post is the second in a series (1, 3) on the nature of the local church. The intent of this series is loving clarity, amidst cultural confusion. I write with gospel-forged hope, deep love for our church, co-mingled with genuine pastoral concern. This series is intended to give us a healthy set of shared understandings about the nature of the local church by which we carry out the many important conversations of this tumultuous season. We’re in this together.
As I mentioned in my last piece, this season has revealed that there are widespread misunderstandings about what Jesus’ local church is meant to be and do—even among followers of Jesus. In this piece we will consider the role of the church in relation to the role of the individual Christian. Who does what?
This is approximately a ten minute read, so I encourage you to set aside some time to thoughtfully process.
How do the local church’s twin priorities of faith-filled proclamation and worship-full disciple-making (Mt. 28:19-20; Col. 1:28) connect to the rest of our lives—work and vocation, singleness and dating, marriage and family, trial and tragedy, conflict and conscience, hope and healing, manhood and womanhood, suffering and social issues, parenting and politics, guilt and good works?
If we misunderstand who does what in the life of the church we will misunderstand the individual role we play, neglect the privilege we have within God’s unfolding purposes, lose valuable opportunities to exercise our God-given gifts and passions, fail to love (even our enemies) as we ought, while (perhaps) assigning to others the joyful burden that is ours to bear for the good of the world. There is a lot at stake.
What Church Are We Talking About?
Let’s start with getting our definitions squared away. Clear definitions are our friends; vagueness and ambiguity are not. When we talk about the “church” it is easy to assume we are talking about the same thing. But, are we? Practically speaking, what is Jesus’ local church?
Jesus’ local church is a group of His born-again people in a particular location, created by the Spirit through the gospel of Jesus, set apart by baptism, united around the Lord’s Supper, who regularly gather together for worship, relationship, growth, and accountability under the leadership of pastors and service of deacons, for the glory of God and the good of the world.
So, when you think about “the church” you might think of its leaders (as its representatives), or the people (as its members), or the collective whole (as an institution). Which do you primarily think of?
If we think of the church primarily as “the leaders” we’ll place the burden of responsibility for the life of the church on the pastors. If we think of the church primarily as “the people”, we’ll place the burden of responsibility on the individuals. If we think of the church primarily as an “institution”, we’ll place the burden of responsibility on the organization, its structures, and processes.
Who then is responsible for fulfilling God’s purpose for his church? Is it the leaders, or the people, or the institution? Put simply, everyone is responsible, though in different ways. Understanding this is crucial to understanding the purpose of the local church and your role within it.
Who Does What?
The unique and central role of the local church, as an institution, is faith-filled proclamation of the gospel and worship-full disciple-making (Mt. 28:19-20; Col. 1:28). A healthy local church begins with the church, as a collective whole of God’s new humanity, being clear about what it is and is to be about.
Therefore, the unique and central role of pastor-elders (the NT treats these terms as synonymous) is to lead Jesus’ local people to fulfill that God-given purpose (1 Pet. 5:2). In other words, pastor-elders equip God’s people to protect, preserve and propagate the gospel (i.e. that’s proclamation) and walk as worship-full, Christ-exalting disciples in every day life (i.e. that’s disciple-making). In a word, pastors are equippers and that equipping takes place through the Scriptures, the Bible.
The unique and central role of Jesus’ people, then, is to live out this equipping in every day life. So, while pastors equip, Jesus’ people do the good works prepared for them by God (Eph. 4:12; 2:10). Of course, pastors are among Jesus’ people as co-laboring doers, but here I am speaking of the God-ordained uniqueness of these roles. So, let’s consider these differences more carefully.
What Pastors Do
The pastor-elders of Jesus’ local church are primarily equippers. In Ephesians 4:11-12, the apostle Paul explains that God gave leaders to his church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”. Pastors are men of God, who are called and qualified by God, to unfold the Word of God, for the equipping of the people of God, to do the good works of God, for the glory of God.
Pastors are brokers of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), real reality, in a world gone awry and under bondage to sin (Rom. 8:21). They are trained in the Scriptures, the original languages, church history, biblical studies, systematic theology, christology, soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, eschatology, hermeneutics, homiletics, apologetics, counseling care and more. Why? Because pastors are stewards of God’s truth (1 Tim. 1:4; Titus 1:7) for the equipping, flourishing, transforming, and joy-filled persevering of God’s people.
How do pastor-elders do this equipping? From the Scriptures. Paul explains in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, and for training in righteousness, that the man [and woman] of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
In other words, pastoral equipping happens primarily through God’s Word in the Bible. God’s Word equips us for “every good work” (every one!) which is why it is His word that pastors must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24), rightly handle (2 Tim. 2:15), and hold fast (Titus 1:9).
Why? Because what we hold to be true gives shape to our lives, our relationships, our singleness, our marriages, our parenting, our vocations, our decision-making, our hopes, our suffering, our successes, our emotions, our evangelism, and our eternal future. This is why pastors must be able to correct those in error (2 Tim. 2:25) and identify whatever is “contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:3).
We also see a similar call to pastoral Word-based equipping in the great commission in Matthew 28:20 where Jesus tells the apostles to “[teach his people] to observe all that I have commanded you.” The leaders of Jesus’ church are to teach his people to walk in his ways. Where do we find Jesus’ ways? Again, in the Scriptures, all of which point to him (Lk. 24:27; Jn. 5:39). This is why Paul pleads with Timothy to “Keep a close watch…on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16) and to “guard the deposit” of truth entrusted to him.
So, the role of a pastor is not a junk drawer for anything-that-might-help-and-inspire-people.
Rather, pastors are men of God (1 Tim. 3:1-7), commissioned by God (2 Cor. 2:17), in the presence of God (2 Tim. 4:1), to preach (2 Tim. 4:2), protect (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) and propagate the gospel of Jesus (2 Tim. 2:2), while equipping Jesus’ people to live as joy-filled worshippers through teaching, encouraging, loving, admonishing, and correcting (2 Cor. 1:24; Phil. 1:25; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 2:15).
Why? So that Jesus’ people progressively learn how to faithfully follow him in every day life, and all it throws at them, through the lens of God’s truth, whether amidst unwanted singleness or suffering, conflict or catastrophe, sin or social issues.
Therefore, pastors are not politicians, nor activists, nor community health workers. Pastors are not sociologists, nor businessmen, nor social workers. Pastors are not entertainers, nor managers, nor marketers. Pastors are not life coaches, nor strategists, nor creative visionaries. Pastors are not salesman, subtle comedians, or fashionistas. Pastors are not epidemiologists or experts in constitutional law. Christians may fill any one of these roles. But, those are not the role of a pastor. If a pastor wants to fill one of these other roles, he may, provided he understands those are fundamentally different than the role of the pastor. Yes, there may be overlap in areas. But, that does not negate the primary role of the pastor to lovingly lead a church to be about faith-filled proclamation of the gospel and worship-full disciple-making. Pastors are equippers from God’s Word.
As pastors we take this God-mandated, Word-based call to equip the saints very seriously.
- This is why our Sunday gatherings are marked more by worship, than the weekly newscycle. Our gatherings are primarily vertical in nature, focusing on the reality of God, the unsearchable worth of Jesus, the presence of the Spirit, His inspired Word, the unbelievable news of the gospel, songs of praise, corporate prayer, celebration of His sacraments, as Jesus’ new redeemed humanity.
- This is why we preach through the Bible verse by verse and treat truth with a joy-filled gravity.
- This is why we equip on relevant issues such as abortion (like this, this, this, or this), racism (like here, here, here and here, or here, here and here), politics (like this or this), every day suffering or what it means to be human.
- This is why we give instruction, and gospel-informed encouragement, on how we are to treat one another amidst our differences and disagreements (like here and here).
- This is why we write articles on our expectations, our pursuit of God, our longing for justice, our corporate prayer life, or how to make the most of a livestream gathering, and more.
- This is why we offer classes on marriage, evangelism, unity and diversity, how Jesus changes us, meeting with God, how to study the bible, making disciples, discerning god’s will, developing relationships, singleness, parenting, missions, Christians in the workplace, theology, church history and more.
- This is why we plan targeted workshops (like this, this or this) and retreats (like this or this).
- This is why we have created multiple channels by which to grow as a disciple, whether in community, or discipleship or an Equip group, or as a family, or in service, or city-based mercy ministries.
- This is why we offer biblical care to those who are hurting or in need.
- This is why we emphasize meaningful church membership.
- This is why we aim to cultivate a culture that is God-centered, Jesus-treasuring, Spirit-empowered, bible-saturated, prayer-filled, mission-driven, disciple-making, church-focused, people-loving, and city-renewing.
- This is why we, by God’s grace, aim for everyone who calls DCC home to grow in Him, with Him, for Him.
- As we do all this, we then seek to equip others to take the same gospel across the street and around the world so that all people everywhere can know and belong to Jesus as we do.
These are just some of the ways that the pastor-elders of DCC, albeit imperfectly, are equipping God’s people to protect, preserve and propagate the gospel (i.e. proclamation) and walk as worship-full, Christ-exalting disciples in every day life (i.e. disciple-making) through God’s Word. In a word, pastors equip individual followers of Jesus with a biblical worldview for how to navigate life and all it throws at them.
What Christians Do
So, while pastors equip, individual Christians are to do the “work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). Put simply, followers of Jesus are to put into practice the equipping they receive.
So, for example, the elders biblically equip on the wickedness of racism and the many ways it has given shape to the world we are in. Then, Jesus’ people seek to put racism to death in their lives, or peacefully protest, or write letters to their representatives, or create new policies at work, or invest in impoverished communities, or volunteer, or start a non-profit, or read more broadly, or befriend others who are different, and more. The pastors equip from God’s Word, Jesus’ people do.
Or, the elders biblically equip on the nature of earthly politics and its function within God’s greater kingdom purposes. Then, Jesus’ people seek to wisely and graciously serve as faithful citizens of the city of man, while their ultimate identity is found as citizens of the city of God. So, we steward our ability to vote, we listen to the viewpoints of others, we consider running for political office, and are careful not to bind consciences where God does not. The pastors equip from God’s Word, Jesus’ people do.
Or, the elders biblically equip, and model, the importance of ongoing discipleship. Then, Jesus’ people seek to welcome one another (Rom. 15:7), not judge one another (Rom. 14:13), instruct one another (Rom. 15:14), love and honor one another (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9), bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), be patient with one another (Col. 3:13), teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16), encourage one another and build one another up (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11), while holding one another accountable (Mt. 18:15-20). The pastors equip from God’s Word, Jesus’ people do.
Or, the elders teach how good works blossom in genuinely regenerate hearts (Eph. 2:10). They explain that practical love for others will flow out of God’s love for us in Jesus (1 John 4:7f) and that these works will be marked by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). These good works will begin with the needs of those in closest proximity (Prov. 3:27; 1 Tim. 5:8) and prioritize those “who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Then, Jesus’ people move into our fallen world, in ways big and small, to love their families and friends, neighbors and enemies. They stand up for the voiceless, oppressed, and trafficked. They weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15). They come alongside those ravaged by divorce or poverty, famine or disease, abuse or adultery, homelessness or addiction. They care for single mothers, kids stuck in the foster cul-de-sac, and those burned over by the lies of the so-called sexual revolution. The pastors equip from God’s Word, Jesus’ people do.
Should Churches Lead On Social Issues?
So, in light of these distinctions, should churches lead the charge on social issues, or rebuking public officials, or advocating for specific public policy decisions? Well, again, we must define our terms. What do we mean by “leadership”?
Yes, if leadership is taken to mean spreading the gospel of Jesus, teaching biblical principles, identifying the root of evil and its manifold manifestations, heralding the riches of Christ, living for God, pursuing faithfulness, cultivating worship, loving our neighbors and enemies, and making disciples—disciples that then go on to lobby for change, write articles, become experts in tax law or foreign policy or community development, get involved in politics, start new organizations, get in the trenches as volunteers, and/or bring good works into their relational spheres in ten thousand different ways. In this way, the leadership of the institutional church in social engagement is indirect, but no less potent and arguably more so.
But, no, if leadership is taken to mean that the church-as-institution should get involved in such a way that its unique task is side-lined or watered-down. Pastor-elders should not get in the practice of offering specific solutions to climate change, inequitable tax policies, immigration reform, philosophies of policing, global food shortages, or structures that perpetuate inequalities. That is the role of individual Christians. The pastors, of course, may have personal opinions on such matters, but that is beside the point. The pastoral role is not a platform for personal opinions, but faithful equipping. The pastors equip from God’s Word, Jesus’ people do.
The good, beautiful and necessary works of individual followers of Jesus, are different than the good, beautiful, and necessary works of the church as an institution. This distinction does not make the corporate church complicit in social issues, but faithful to God’s unique purpose amidst them. The institution of the church is not responsible to right every wrong, or meet every need, as much as we’d like to. Its role, under the servant leadership of pastor-elders is to form truth-soaked, Bible-forged, God-centered, Jesus-satisfied, Spirit-empowered, redemptively-diverse followers who then go into the world to affect that kind of change. We believe more change is brought about in this way, not less.
Christ is all,