Some Thoughts on the Clarity of Roles Within the Local Church

Church is never easy. How could it be? A local church is a group of people and as with any group of people, everybody is different. These differences whether big or small quickly form into opinions which when gone unchecked can cause conflict. Anyone who has ever decided where to go to lunch with a group of friends can relate. The difference between a local church and a group of friends making a decision is that the local church has infrastructure. The New Testament is clear that the local church is to be elder led, deacon served, and congregationally ruled (an article for another day perhaps).  In order for this type of healthy church government to exist, these roles must be clearly defined, appreciated, and protected. 

Some have a very high view of church government. They spend their day meditating on Robert’s Rules of Order and have a framed copy of their church constitution hanging over their desk. Most do not have a high view of church government. They are not concerned about establishing a quorum before a business meeting begins nor do they even really care for business meetings at all. After all “the church is not a business,” right? The trap of this kind of ideology is that in an attempt to remain spiritual and not so focused on meetings, votes, and rules of order, a swing of the pendulum can occur. Instead of being over-structured, the local church can have little structure. So people might fill roles that in other churches would be called titles like deacon, trustee, Sunday school superintendent, and even elder, but with this thinking they just fill the role while assuming no title. The roles are not clearly defined, because if they were then it would be clear that these individuals would have those titles.  Reasons for this could be myriad, but could include such reasons as not wanting to over complicate the local church, after all “it works,” right? 

There are many consequences of not defining the roles of the church. One of which is that if the roles are not clearly defined then the church is not being true to the Word of God. It is not sufficient to act as though a person is filling the title of an office or leadership position, but not call them what the Bible calls them. If we truly care for the Word of God then why are we so hesitant to call these individuals what the Bible asks us to call them? Another consequence of not defining the roles in the local church is that we rob the individual of power and reward. Think about it in the workplace. If you are supposed to lead others at your workplace but don’t have the title of manager or director, how far are you going to get? Probably not too far until some one says, “Who made you the boss?” Titles are important as they give the person leading influence and authority. Asking someone to fill a role without giving them the title associated with that role is undercutting their ability to lead and cause effective change. Unclear definitions also make applying I Timothy 3:13 and 4:17 very difficult to accomplish.

When the roles are unclear in the church it can lead to unqualified leaders filling these roles, after all they’re not “actual” leaders. First, yes they are. Second, maybe they shouldn’t be. The Word of God is clear that elders and deacons are to meet a high standard of spiritual maturity. To allow a person to fill the role of one of these offices without meeting the qualifications is unbiblical even if they don’t carry the title. As a principle of application, any role within the church such as Sunday school teacher, music leader, or even nursery worker should carry some type of qualifications with it.

Lastly, a consequence that can result from unclear distinctions between roles is chaos. By definition, chaos could be anything, it’s erratic. When the roles are unclear then it is unclear who to follow or who to listen to. It’s unclear who is in charge of certain ministries and functions within the church. It’s unclear who should take over for a ministry or function when that person is absent, sick, or leaves the church. A lack of clarity about distinctions does not seem to pair well with Paul’s words in I Corinthians 14 regarding orderly worship. The problem with chaos is that it seldom walks alone, disunity and strife often follow. 

This kind of chaos can lead to fighting over authority. If the distinctions between roles and definitions of who are actually fulfilling these roles are not clear, then people can become either confused or frustrated over these roles and then clash with one another. Understanding why someone is in their role and what that role actually is can save the local church from unnecessary confusion or even unrighteous judgment toward one another. Consider a church member looking at another church member and not understanding why the leadership seem to elevate this person without that person being given a leadership role. That looks a lot like favouritism. At least that could be one of the perceptions among a plethora of others in this type of chaotic structure.

I understand the desire to not over complicate the church and to abstain from acting too much like a business, it’s often been said the local church is an organism not an organization, yet distinctions and definitions are important to keep peace and transparency. We should be careful to make sure that we are clear about what we’re doing as churches and who is responsible for doing ministry within these churches. Definitions and distinctions are not there to confine the church, but to protect the church. Clarity over these roles is important for us to accomplish our mission while maintaining unity within the local church. 

- Dean