Missional Ecclesiology: Problems and Pitfalls (Part 1)

We are planting churches in a context – American evangelical Christianity – in which biblical eldership is almost non-existent. Though Scripture teaches clearly the necessity of eldership, the qualifications for eldership (1 Tim 3, Titus 1), and the importance of submitting to elders (Heb 13:17), most churches have a desperately unbiblical model of leadership.

In contrast, Coram Deo has adopted a high view of eldership and has sought to faithfully apply the teachings of Scripture in this area. We call men to aspire toward eldership. We examine men rigorously to determine whether they meet the biblical qualifications for eldership. We honor elders (1 Tim 5:17), call the church to submit to elders (Heb 13:17), and practice church discipline (Matt 18). All of this has resulted in a church culture that reflects a healthy, biblical pattern of leadership and submission (1 Peter 5:1-5).

However, a high view of church leadership tends to foster a centralized ministry model, where the pastor/elders are involved in every ministry decision. But Coram Deo’s ministry model is radically decentralized, relying on missional communities as the primary structure for mission and spiritual formation. We expect 80% of pastoral ministry – discipleship, spiritual formation, counseling, and care – to take place within missional community.

Combining a high view of eldership with a decentralized ministry model creates the possibility for two opposite errors at the missional community level: MC’s can go rogue or become rigid.

  • The Rogue MC is a missional community (or missional community leader) that operates without elder accountability or oversight. This disconnection is usually functional rather than formal – that is, though the MC may remain connected to a church community “on paper,” it functions as a disconnected entity. The leaders are not pursuing community with other leaders, keeping the elders abreast of their decisions, and inviting oversight, coaching, and accountability. Rogue missional communities are dangerous and unbiblical because they divorce the work of disciplemaking from the local church and from the oversight of biblical elders.
  • The Rigid MC is a missional community (or missional community leader) that can’t (or is unwilling to) function without constant elder/staff oversight. It’s possible to be so dependent on elders or coaches that the priesthood of all believers is minimized and distorted. Rather than trusting the gifts that the Holy Spirit has placed within the missional community, every decision or situation is “referred up” to the church leaders. Functionally, this results in the elders leading the missional community vicariously.

We’ve seen both these mistakes in our church over the past six years. We’ve learned that to avoid both rogue and rigid missional communities, church leaders must clearly answer three questions:

  • What is the role and function of the individual Christian?
  • What is the role and function of local church elders?
  • How do these roles and functions work together for the glory of God and the good of the body?

A failure to answer these questions will lead to confusion and stagnation in the church. Or, to say it another way: a healthy church requires a healthy ecclesiology.

This series of blog posts seeks to explore these three questions.


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