New Testament Church Leadership
by Steve Atkerson
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1 Pe 5:2)
It was argued earlier in this book that the ideal is government by the consensus of the whole church, and that churches should be elder-led more so than elder-ruled. If this really is the case, then why are elders needed in the church? What function do they serve?
The Advantage of Having Elders
During the Battle of Midway (World War II), a lone American torpedo air squadron discovered and attacked the Japanese flotilla. Tragically, the squadron attacked without fighter escort. It proved suicidal. All but one of the airmen were killed. Elders are to the church what the fighters would have been to the bombers: protection. Elders offer protection from savage wolves in sheep’s clothing. They also provide direction, and teaching, and help the church to achieve consensus and to grow into maturity.
Regarding false teachers, the elders must be able to “refute” those who oppose sound doctrine (Tit 1:9). Yet even this should ultimately follow the checks and balances process of Matthew 18:15-35 (Christian discipline). Elders must not be guilty of “lording it over those entrusted” to their care, but instead be “examples to the flock” (1Pe 5:3). Having a plurality of elders (all of whom have equal authority) also tends to prevent any modern-day Diotrophes from arising (3Jn 9-10). However, despite any church’s best efforts, we need to realize that “even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Ac 20:30-31)
Based on such texts as Acts 20:25-31, Titus 1:9, Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Timothy 1:3, 3:4-5, 5:17, 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2, 15, 3:16-17, 4:2-4, Titus 1:9, 13, 2:15 and Hebrews 13:17, the function that leaders are to serve in the church becomes clear. Leaders are to guard and protect against false teachers, train other leaders in apostolic tradition, lead by example, guard the truth, beat off wolves, and help achieve consensus. To sum up, church leaders are men of mature character who oversee, teach, protect, equip, and encourage the church. Further, every now and then they will need to call on the obstinate to “submit” (Heb 13:17 ) to their leadership.
Though they were technically apostolic workers, Timothy and Titus clearly functioned as substitute elders until permanent local elders were appointed. Thus, the elders that they appointed could be expected to do the same types of things that the temporary apostolic workers did on the local level (1Ti 1:3, 4:11 , 5:17 , 6:17 , Tit 1:12 -13, 2:15 , 3:10 ). From this is it clear that it is proper for elders, in exercising leadership, to authoritatively reprove, speak, teach, and guide. Elders are to “rule well” and “oversee” the churches, taking the initiative in prompting and guarding. As mature believers, their understanding of what constitutes right or wrong behavior and doctrine will most probably be correct. They naturally will often be among the first to detect and deal with problems. However, if those they confront refuse to listen, the elder’s only recourse is to then present the matter to the whole church in accordance with the Matthew 18 process. Authority, ultimately, still rests with the church cor porately.
There is a delicate balance to be reached between the leading role of elders and the ekklesia responsibilities of the church as a whole. Too far one way and you set up a pope. Too far the other and you have a ship with no rudder. In essence, both arguments for the leadership of the elders and for the corporate responsibility of the entire church are valid. These need to both be emphasized. On one hand, you have elders leading by example, guiding with teaching and by moderating the give-and-take discussion of the assembly. On the other hand, you have the flock. The church corporately makes the final decision, yet they are exhorted to follow their elders and to allow themselves to be persuaded by their leaders’ arguments. Elders’ words have weight only to the extent that the people give it to them. Elders deserve honor due to the position God has placed them in. This idea is somewhat similar to the way elders were respected in Israelite towns during the Old Testament era. They did not have any actual authority or power, but they sure did accord a great deal of respect. To not listen to the wisdom of an elder was tantamount to calling yourself a fool and a rebel.
All are agreed that the Lord Jesus is the head of the church ( Col 1:15 -20). Thus, the church ultimately is a dictatorship (or theocracy) ruled by Christ through His written word and the influence of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:25 -27; 16:12 -15; Ac 2:42 ; Ep 2:19 -22; 1Ti 3:14 -15). Once we follow the organizational flow chart down from the head, where does the line of authority go?
In speaking to the “elders” of the Ephesian church (Ac 20:17 ), Paul said, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which He bought with His own blood” ( 20:28 ). The presence of the terms “overseers” and “shepherds” certainly suggests a supervisory position for elders. When writing to Timothy about the qualifications for an elder, Paul asked, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1Ti 3:5). This again implies a management role for elders. Peter asked the elders to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1Pe 5:2). Once more elders are painted in a leadership mode.
1 Timothy 5:17 refers to elders who “direct the affairs of the church well.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12 asks the brothers to respect those “who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.” Hebrews 13:7 commands, “Remember your leaders.” Following that, Hebrews 13:17 adds, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” All of this indicates that there are to be human “leaders” in the church. These leaders are most often referred to as “elders” or “overseers.”
(As to the difference between an elder, overseer (“bishop” in the KJV), and pastor (shepherd), an examination of Acts 20:17, 28-30, Titus 1:5-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-3 will show the synonymous usage of the words. All three refer to the same office. Any modern distinction between them is purely artificial and without Scriptural warrant.)The above references to “rule” by overseers could, if taken in isolation, easily lead to a wrong view of how elder rule should operate. There is more to the equation. Consider the steps of church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17 as it relates to a church’s decision making process (see also 1Co 5:1-5; Ga 6:1). Notice that the whole congregation seems to be involved in the decision to exercise discipline. Notice also that the leaders are not especially singled out to screen the cases before they reach the open meeting nor to carry out the disciplining. It is a congregational decision.
This corporate process is also glimpsed in Acts 1:15-26. The apostle Peter placed the burden for finding a replacement for Judas upon the church as a whole. In Acts 6:1-6, the apostles turned to “all the disciples” (6:2) and asked them to choose administrators for the church’s welfare system. Both these examples point to congregational involvement.
Paul wrote to “all” (1:7) the saints in Rome , and made no special mention of the elders. The letters to the Corinthians were addressed to the entire “church” (1Co 1:2, and 2Co 1:1). Again there was no emphasis on the overseers. The greeting in Galatians 1:2 focuses on the “churches” in Galatia . The message was not first filtered through the leaders. The “Saints in Ephesus ” (1:1) were the recipients of that letter. In Philippians 1:1 the saints were given equal billing with the overseers and deacons. In Colossians 1:2, the salutation went to “the holy and faithful brothers in Christ.” All of this implies that the elders were themselves also sheep. The elders were a subset of the church as a whole. There was no clergy/laity distinction.
This lack of emphasis on the leadership is also seen in 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 2:1, 7, and Jude 1:1. In fact, the book of Hebrews was written to a group of believers and it was not until the very last chapter that the author asked them to “greet all your leaders” ( 13:24 ). He did not even greet the leaders directly!
In Hebrews 13:17, believers are encouraged to “obey” church leaders. Interestingly, the Greek behind “obey” is not the regular Greek word for “obey.” Instead, peitho is used, which literally means “to persuade” or “to convince.” Thus, Hebrews 13:17 should be rendered “let yourselves be persuaded by.” This same verse also instructs believers to “submit” to the authority of their church leaders. As with “obey,” the common Greek word for “submit” is not used. Instead, hupeiko was chosen by the author, a word that still does mean “to give in, to yield”, but after a fight. It was used of combatants. The idea behind hupeiko is seen in Southern General Robert E. Lee’s letter to his troops concerning their surrender at Appomadox: “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”
Thus, God’s flock is to be open to being “persuaded by” ( peitho ) its shepherds. In the course of on-going discussion and teaching the flock is to be “convinced by” (peitho) its leaders. Mindless slave-like obedience is rarely the relationship pictured in the New Testament between elders and the church. However, there will be those times when someone or some few in the flock can’t be persuaded of something and an impasse will arise. When necessary to break the grid-lock, dissenters are to “give in to, to yield to” (hupeiko) the wisdom of the church leaders.
Much may be gleaned from the way that New Testament writers made appeals directly to entire churches. They went to great lengths to influence ordinary “rank and file” believers. The apostles did not simply bark orders and issue injunctions (as a military commander might do). Instead, they treated other believers as equals and appealed directly to them as such. No doubt local church leaders led in much the same way. Their primary authority lay in their ability to influence with the truth. The respect they were given was honestly earned. It was the opposite of military authority wherein soldiers respect the rank but not necessarily the man.
Hebrews 13:7 reflects the fact that the leadership “style” employed by church leaders is primarily one of direction by example: “Remember your leaders . . . Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Along this same line, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 reveals that leaders are to be respected, not because of automatically inferred authority of rank, but because of the value of their service – “Hold them in highest regard in love because of their work.” Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Mt 20:25 -28).
The word “church” in the New Testament is used to refer to the universal church, city-wide churches, and house churches. No organized church should be any bigger than a single congregation, and no church has official jurisdiction or authority over any other church (though there naturally will be interchurch cooperation and assistance). Each house church is ideally to be guided by its own elder(s). Each elder is equal in authority to all the other elders in the city (there is to be no “senior” pastor nor presiding bishop over a city). A leader’s primary authority is based on his ability to persuade with the truth. He is to lead by example, not “lording it over” the church. Church polity is thus a dynamic process of interaction, persuasion, and right timing between the shepherds and the sheep.
Jesus’ comments on leadership truly must be the starting point and final reference in our understanding of an elder’s authority. Hal Miller has insightfully observed, “Jesus’ disturbing teaching about authority among his followers contrasts their experience of it with every other society. The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects and make that appear good by calling themselves “benefactors.” They exercise their power and try (more or less successfully) to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church. There, on the contrary, the one who leads is as a slave and the one who rules is as the youngest (Lk 22:24 -27). Lest this lose its impact, you should stop to reflect that the youngest and the slaves are precisely those without authority in our normal sense of the word. Yet this is what leadership among Jesus’ people is like.”
The Appointment of Elders
How should elders be appointed? Paul required all potential overseers to be able to meet a lengthy list of requirements (1Ti 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9). That a man is willing and able to be an elder is obviously the work of the Holy Spirit (Ac 20:28 ). Once these prerequisites are met, the would-be elder is then appointed. In Ac 14:23 Paul and Barnabas apparently did the appointing, and Titus was left in Crete by Paul to appoint elders (Tit 1:5). As Nee observed, “they merely established as elders those whom the Holy Spirit had already made overseers in the church” (The Normal Christian Church Life, p. 41).
After the apostles (missionaries/church planters) appointed elders and moved on, there is virtual silence as to how subsequent elders were or ought to be chosen. Operating from the principle of Acts 1:15-26 & 6:1-6, one could be led to conclude that the succeeding elders were chosen by the whole congregation (following the requirements laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7), under the leadership of the existing elders, and under the advisement of any itinerant ministers that have earned the right to be heard by that local congregation.
Is there supposed to be one elder per church, several elders per church, or several churches per elder? In Acts 14:23 , Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders in each church”. The biblical evidence seems to support a plurality of elders in every church. However, a bit of confusion arises over the New Testament pattern of having a plurality of elders per church. The New Testament often speaks as if there is only one church per city! For instance, Acts 8:1 mentions “the church at Jerusalem ,” Paul wrote to “the church of God in Corinth ” (1Co 1:2) and to “the church of the Thessalonians” (1Th 1:1). Jesus told John to write to “the” church in Smyrna , “the” church in Pergamum , etc. (Re 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). Thus, Scripturally speaking, there is but one church in Atlanta , one in London , one in Moscow , etc.
In contrast, when referring to large geographical areas, the Bible generally uses the word “churches” (in the plural). For example, the Bible makes mention of “the churches in the provinces of Asia ” (1Co 16:19 ), “the Macedonian churches” (2Co 8:1), “the churches of Galatia ” (Ga 1:1), “the churches of Judea ” (Ga 1:22 ), etc. Thus, there is no such thing in the New Testament as an organized national church, nor an organized regional church. The only positive reason for division among churches is geographic location. Mention is made, of course, of the universal church (Ep 1:22 -23; 3:10 , 21; 5:23 -32; Col 1:18 ) to which all believers of all time belong, but the universal church is invisible and spiritual, with no universal earthly organization.
An examination of the New Testament will reveal that, though all churches were united under Christ as head, there was no outward ecclesiastical organization uniting them. Though cooperating voluntarily together, each church was autonomous. Theirs was a strong inward bond, a spiritual oneness of life in the Lord. Though independent of outward government, they were interdependent in responsibility to one another (see 2Co 8-9). As there is philosophically one church universal, so there is philosophically one church per city. And, as the universal church is an abstract reality with no outward organization, so too the city church is an abstract reality, without outward organization.
Finally, as a subset of the one unstructured city-wide church, there were numerous organized churches that met in various homes within each city (Ro 16:5; 1Co 16:19 ; Phm 2; Col 4:15 ). The relationship between the various house churches is similar to the relationship between the various city churches: all are united under Christ as Head, but there is to be no outward ecclesiastical organization uniting them. All are to cooperate together in an attitude of interdependence, yet each remain autonomous.
So, did the plurality of elders serve the city-wide church as a whole, or only individual house churches? That elders worked together is clear from Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 4:14 and Titus 1:5. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that they collectively were over multiple churches as some sort of ruling presbytery. Since any elder’s authority lies primarily in his ability to persuade with the truth, and since any respect due him is earned via personal interaction, there is no way a presbytery of elders could minister over a group of churches anyhow. Ideally, each house church should have its own elder(s). In those transitional situations where a house church has no one qualified to be an elder, temporary leadership could be sought from a respected church planter, a missionary, an elder in a nearby church, or an itinerant pastor-teacher. The New Testament pattern is for each house church to led by a body of equal brothers (some of whom are elders), depending upon one another, accountable to one anothe r, submitting to one another, and living out a mutual ministry.
Harvey Bluedorn wrote an excellent biblical summary of the ministry and authority of elders:
1. The New Testament Standard — As the pattern of things shown to Moses established the standards for the tabernacle (Ex 25:9,40; 26:30; 39:42,43; Ac 7:44; Heb 8:5), and as the pattern of things shown to David established the standards for the temple (1Ch 28:11-13,19), so the pattern of things shown in the New Testament establishes the standards for the assembly, the temple of God (1Co 3:9,16,17; 6:19,20; 2Co 6:16; Ep 2:21,22; 4:13-16; 1Ti 3:15; 1Pe 2:5,9; Re 1:6; 3:12; 5:10; 20:6).
2. Servant Leaders — Leaders are a functional necessity for the assembly. The Lord Jesus raises up men from among the members of the body, and equips them to meet stated qualifications. They will inevitably emerge from among the membership and become apparent to the assembly, and the assembly must formally recognize the Lord's calling in those whom the Lord has truly gifted and qualified to serve as guides, teachers, and examples to the whole body. Such servants are called elders and overseers, or shepherds and teachers (Tit 1:5, Ep 4:11 ).
3. Multiple Elders — A plural number of elders will ordinarily emerge from the membership of an assembly (Ac 14:23), although in a newly formed assembly it may require some time to pass before the Lord fully equips and qualifies elders (Lk 12:42; 1Co 4:2; 1Ti 3:6,10; 5:22; Tit 1:5; Heb 5:12,13). Among the pastor-elders there are some who especially toil in discourse and teaching (Ep 4:11 ; 1Th 5:12 ,13; 1Ti 5:17 ).
4. Decisions by Full Agreement — Decisions are made by the full agreement of the assembly, as represented in the men of the assembly, under the advise and counsel of their servants, the elders. Presumably, the men may, by full agreement, delegate certain on-the-spot-type decisions to someone, including to elders, but they must always reserve the right to make the decision themselves, or to determine the policy for such decisions, and they must require of those to whom they delegate decisions a full report and accountability to the assembly.
5. Elders are Servants, Not Lords — The Word of Christ rules by His Spirit in the midst of His people, through the regenerate hearts and renewed minds of the members of the assembly as He brings them to complete mutual agreement, unanimous accord, or consensus. Elders lead by the moral authority of a servant who provides word and example, and who commands respect for what he gives, not for what he requires. Elders do not rule as independent authorities. Their role is advisory and supervisory, not the lordly authority of command and conform. Elders are instrumental, through their leadership, teaching, and example, in bringing about consensus in the assembly, but all authority rests in Christ alone. All members - including elders - submit to the Lord, then to one another in the Lord - including elder members, who submit to other members, including to other elder members. In other words, there is no chain of command - God, then Christ, then elders, then members - but only a network of submission, and elders have the greatest burden of submission and accountability because they are servants to the whole assembly. Only those who humble themselves to the level of servants before the Lord and His assembly may be raised to this level of accountability. By the nature of the case, those who would exalt themselves to a position of authority over all, have necessarily disqualified themselves from a position of service.
6. The Saints are Kings and Priests — It is a severe violation of the adult conscience to treat the saints as children under the over-lordship of elders. The ultimate effect of treating the saints as children is that they will either remain children in their understanding as they submit to bondage, or they will rebel. Elders exercise appropriate authority as fathers within their own households, but their role in the assembly is not as fathers and lords over children and servants, but as elder brothers in the faith and humble servants to the whole.
7. A Deliberative Assembly — The gathered assembly is a deliberative body. The men (adult males) in the assembly are encouraged to interact in an orderly manner with the reading, exhortation, and teaching in the assembly, regardless of what form that interaction assumes - informative lecture, thoughtful consideration and discussion of propositions of Scripture, logical debate of different sides of a question, or consultation on practical issues. This is not a "Quaker-like" meeting of "whenever-the-spirit-leads," nor is it a "family-friendly-style" meeting of token affirmations by heads of household, nor is it a "worship-centered" meeting of lively entertainment, but it is a genuine discipleship learning process which edifies and brings the whole assembly to maturity in Christ through the interaction of the men of the assembly.
8. Independent Congregational Accountability — Each congregation constitutes its own communion and is independently accountable to the Lord, but all true congregations exist within the same spiritual kingdom. They depend upon the same Lord, and they cooperate as much as circumstances require and allow, both on the level of individual persons and on a congregational level. There should be no ungodly jealousy between brother believers, nor between sister assemblies.
Want help teaching this topic? To aid you in leading others to the truths of New Testament church life, teaching notes have been prepared for this subject. They will give you ideas on how to lead an interactive (Socratic) group discussion. The idea is to guide people to discover for themselves what the New Testament says about this topic. At the end of the guide there are study questions to pass (or e-mail) out in advance.
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Steve resides in north Georgia with his wife, Sandra, and their three home-schooled children. Steve graduated from Georgia Tech and worked in industrial electronics before heading off to seminary. After receiving a Master of Divinity degree from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, served on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church. After seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He travels and teach as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at the home church he helped start in 1990, is president of the NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, is author of both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to Ekklesia: To The Roots of Biblical House Church Life.