The title of “worship leader” to describe the chief musician in a church’s worship service has become fairly mainstream in contemporary evangelicalism. One problem with this title is that it is not a biblical church office. The New Testament prescribes only two offices for the church, that of elder and deacon. “Worship leader” (along with “minister,” “director,” or any other title) may possibly describe a function of one of the two biblical offices, but the title itself is not found in Scripture.
A problem emerges out of adding this extra-biblical title, particularly for a person so prominent in a church’s worship service: who may serve in this role? Are there any biblical qualifications that must be met for a person to serve as a leader in a worship service? Qualifications for an elder or deacon are clear in the New Testament, but what of an office that is not found in Scripture?
One particular issue in this regard is whether or not a woman may serve in this role. “Worship leader” is not a biblical office, some might insist, and so why couldn’t a woman lead in this capacity? In fact, most complementarians haven’t settled on an answer to this question. The “Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” affirms that “some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 11:2–16; 1 Tim 2:11–15),” but on the issue of whether a woman may serve as “worship leader,” complementarians have not given a definitive answer. In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper lists the music ministries of “composition, training, performance, voice, choir, and instrumentalist” as opportunities for women to serve, and Tom Schreiner states that “using artistic gifts by ministering in music” is a role in which a woman may serve, but neither of them specifically address service planning or musical leadership.1 In the same book, H. Wayne House addresses the question of women in musical leadership directly:
Does the biblical model preclude a woman from giving her testimony in a church meeting or offering the Scripture reading, or making announcements, or leading songs, or offering a public prayer? These questions can be answered with another question: Are any of these ministries an expression of authoritative, elder-like teaching over men? Probably not, and thus they should not be excluded from the ministry opportunities afforded qualified women of God.
Likewise, in an article in CBMW News, Wayne Grudem lists “leading singing on Sunday morning” as a duty open to women, thought he does acknowledge that this depends “on how a church understands the degree of authority over the assembled congregation that is involved.”2
All of this imprecision is simply illustrative of the fact that there is much confusion over what, exactly, this role involves and consequently who may serve. However, careful consideration about what Scripture says about corporate worship helps to clarify the matter.
Jesus Is the Only True Worship Leader
A central problem with the title “worship leader” to describe the chief musician of a church service is that it reflects an errant theology of worship. The title implies that a person can lead people into God’s presence, largely through music. In fact, this is exactly where the term “worship leader” came from in the first place. The term originally came out of Pentecostal theology of worship, where the goal of music and the “worship leader” is to “usher worshipers” into the presence of God in heaven, to “bring the congregational worshipers into a corporate awareness of God’s manifest presence.”3
Contemporary worship believes that the experience of God’s felt presence is achieved through what they call “emotional flow” of the service, largely created through music and the “worship leader.”5 As Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth note, “Flow should facilitate worshipers having an experience with God.”6 Zac Hicks suggests, “Part of leading a worship service’s flow . . . involves keeping the awareness of God’s real, abiding presence before his worshipers.” This kind of flow, according to Hicks, “lies in understanding and guiding your worship service’s emotional journey.”7 “Grouping songs in such a way that they flow together,” worship leader Carl Tuttle explains, “is essential to a good worship experience.”8
There are many problems with this theology of worship, not the least of which is that only Christ leads us into God’s presence. God commands us to draw near to his presence, but this is possible only through the sacrificial atonement and high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. As Paul states in Ephesians 2:18, “For through [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” This reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the New Testament, Hebrews 10:19–22:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Only Jesus’s sacrifice and his office as high priest enable sinners to “draw near,” a phrase that signifies entering God’s presence for communion with him. Only Jesus leads us to worship.
Therefore, entrance into the presence of God is not accomplished through music, nor is the presence of God experienced tangibly through a certain “atmosphere” or emotion. We need faith as we draw near to communion with God because even though we know we have access to the presence of God in the real temple of heaven, we cannot see God or feel God with any of our physical senses. Our communion with God is at its essence spiritual. And so, we come with assurance and conviction that when we draw near through Christ, we are actually in the presence of God even though we have no tangible, physical proof. When we’re asked the question, how do you know you’ve worshiped, we ought to answer, “I know I’ve worshiped, because I drew near to God through Christ, with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.” Our assurance that we’ve worshiped is not based on any kind of physical feeling or musical experience.
So the first important step toward understanding the function and qualifications of a church’s primary service leader is to recognize that Jesus is the only true worship leader.
Scripture Prescribes only Two Church Offices
However, even though only Jesus can bring us into God’s presence, a human leader does still need to plan a church service and lead the people through the various elements of Scripture reading, prayer, singing, etc. So the question still remains, Who may do that?
The fact is that if we are going to rely on the sufficiency of Scripture to regulate our worship, then the first step toward answering that question is to remember that Scripture prescribes only two church offices—elder and deacon.
The New Testament actually uses four different terms, but careful observation reveals that that three of them describe a single office. The office of “deacon” is fairly straightforward, with its first mention in Acts 6 and qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.
The other three titles are “elder” (presbyteros), “overseer” (episkopos), and “pastor” (or “shepherd,” poimēn). What becomes quickly apparent is that the New Testament uses these three terms for the same office. For example, in Acts 20, Paul assembles the “elders” (presbyteros) of the Ephesian church (v 17) and exhorts them to “care for” (poimēn) “all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopos)” (v 28). Likewise, in 1 Peter 5:1, Peter exhorts elders (presbyteros) to “shepherd (poimēn) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (episkopos).” In these passages, we see elders who are also called overseers and pastors. So it is important to understand that according to the New Testament, there are two offices in the church—elders and deacons.
Therefore, what should become clear is that if a church has an individual whose primary responsibility is to plan and lead that church’s weekly corporate gatherings of worship, then such a prominent and important position must be performed by one of the two biblical officers of the church. To create another distinct extra-biblical office, whether “worship leader,” “music minister,” or “song leader” is unwise since it removes such an important role from the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God.
Leadership within the Context of a Church’s Corporate Worship is a Pastoral Teaching Function
The final question to address, then, is under which office ought the planning and leadership of a church’s corporate worship be placed? To answer this question, we must consider what, exactly, is taking place in corporate worship.
Scripture is clear that all believers are priests who may offer worship to God through Christ:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.1 Pet 2:4–5
The only qualification for worship is repentant faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. The worship that takes place in the church is not reserved for ordained clergy who worship on behalf of the congregation as mediators between them and God. All believers are priests who have full access to the presence of God and who offer spiritual sacrifices to him. Jesus Christ is the sacrifice that makes communion with God possible, and he is also the great High Priest who leads us into God’s presence. No merely human priest serves as a mediator between God and man; “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). As we have seen, Jesus Christ is the worship leader who brings us into the presence of God, where we all as priests offer spiritual sacrifices to God through him. Therefore, all who are in Christ are priests who are able to draw near and offer those sacrifices.
But we must also recognize that what we do when we gather for corporate worship is not only expression of worship toward God, but rather, corporate worship is a weekly time in which we cultivate our communion with God through renewing our gospel vows, and the Word-centered elements of our worship help to continually sanctify us and mature us in our worship toward God. As Paul clearly argues in 1 Corinthians 14, everything about a church’s corporate gathering must be done for the purpose of “building up” the body (v 26).
In Ephesians 4, Paul discusses this nature and purpose of the church:
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.
All believers may worship through Christ, but God has appointed biblical leaders to oversee and shepherd the church for the building up of the body. And that is exactly what is happening when someone plans and leads a worship service. That person is exercising oversight; that person is shepherding.
If this is true, what do we call a person who shepherds and exercises oversight over the church of Christ? We call that person an elder. What is clear when we recognize the “building up” significance of corporate worship is that planning and leadership within the context of a church’s corporate worship is a pastoral teaching function.
Therefore, the leadership of a church’s worship, including the planning of services and leadership within the service, ought to be performed by God-called, spiritually qualified elders. Biblical worship is led by the Great Shepherd and his under-shepherds.
1 John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 58, 223, 361.
2 Wayne Grudem, “But What Should Women Do in the Church?” CBMW News 1, no. 2 (1995): 3.
3 Barry Griffing, “Releasing Charismatic Worship,” in Restoring Praise & Worship to the Church (Shippensburg, PA: Revival Press, 1989), 92.
4 Runn Ann Ashton, God’s Presence through Music (South Bend, IN: Lesea Publishing Co., 1993).
5 Zac M. Hicks, The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 153. For a review of this book, see here.
6 Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 32.
7 Hicks, The Worship Pastor, 184.
8 Carl Tuttle, “Song Selection & New Song Introduction,” in In Worship Leaders Training Manual (Anaheim, CA: Worship Resource Center/Vineyard Ministries International, 1987), 141.