Who appoints leaders in the church?

I have said that this year I want to learn more about leadership and authority structure in the church. Alan Knox intrigued me this past week with his republished post “The Holy Spirit has made you overseers“. Here’s an excerpt:

According to Acts 20:28 (above), it is the Holy Spirit who makes someone a pastor. Does the Holy Spirit do this as a response to the actions of a church? I don’t think so. Instead, I believe that the Holy Spirit makes someone an overseer regardless of the actions or lack of actions of the church itself.

In other words, the Holy Spirit places someone in a group of believers and subsequently gives that person the responsibility of “caring for” (that is, being an overseer for) that group of believers. The church is then supposed to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit and to recognize that individual as an overseer.

This is an interesting thought, one that has some scriptural support, and one that goes against a lot of our actual practice in the church. Alan’s post caught my attention because I was thinking about similar things this past week.

Last Tuesday, at our weekly church planting team meeting, a couple members of our team were relating challenges they’ve been facing with a budding home fellowship. This fellowship has two couples who meet together semi-regularly for Bible study, prayer, etc. One man is viewed by the four adults involved as the leader of the group, though he has not officially been given that position. Some holes in his leadership, possibly rooted in some sin issues, were concerning our team because of the negative effect they could have on the fellowship. They asked my advice.

Though this man is not an “official” leader in the fellowship, I focused on the fact that the rest of the group views him as a leader. They are placing themselves under his authority. God has driven home to me recently that (without arguing technicalities) the only time to disobey someone in authority over us is if that person tells us to sin. The leader in question was not telling others to sin.

Some might say this man shouldn’t be in leadership or doesn’t actually have any authority. Maybe the other members of the fellowship should resist him if he’s not leading in a good way. Whether or not humans have formally placed this man in authority, though, I could not see advising other members of the flock to step out from under his covering if they have submitted themselves already to his spiritual authority. It seems that they have given him authority. And maybe their submission to him is actually an extension of the Holy Spirit giving him authority.

If this man is not in leadership, the only other choices are the other man in the group (who is great but doesn’t seem cut out for leadership), the two wives in the group (we won’t raise those questions here), or members of our expatriate church planting team (we are trying to empower local leaders and work ourselves out of a job). I advised our team to instruct the rest of the group to continue to submit to this leader’s authority and then pray that God would bring about any needed changes in his life.

Our conversation took place Tuesday morning. By Saturday morning, our two church planters who raised the issue already had a great testimony of a noticeable change taking place in the life of their disciple.

This post is more just a “thinking out loud” regarding a situation, rather than a tidy box of something I feel like I’ve figured out. I welcome any perspectives or additional thoughts you, my readers, would like to contribute in the comments.

What do you think of my advice to our church planting team? Can the Holy Spirit place someone in a position of authority in a church without it ever being formally recognized by the people?