New Testament Church Leadership
"Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers" (1 Pe 5:2)
by Steve Atkerson
Some churches are ruled by a single man (pastor, pope, or archbishop). Perhaps such churches could be pigeonholed as benign "dictatorships." Other churches are controlled by the ultimate authority of congregational vote. These could be referred to as "democracies." Finally, many churches operate under the guidance of a plurality of elders. It was argued earlier in this book that the ideal is government by the consensus of the whole church. If this really is the case, they why are elders needed in the church?
The Advantage of Having Elders
During the Battle of Midway (World War II), a lone American bomber squadron discovered and attacked the Japanese fleet. Tragically, the squadron had become separated from its fighter escort. The attack proved suicidal. All but one of the men were killed. Elders are to the church what the fighters were to the bombers: protection. They also provide direction, teaching, help the church to achieve consensus and to grow into maturity.
Regarding false teachers, the elders must "refute" those who oppose sound doctrine (Tit 1:9), but even this should ultimately follow the check and balance process of Mt 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" (1 Pe 5:3). Having a plurality of elders (all of whom have equal authority) also tends to prevent any modern Diotrophes from arising (3 Jn 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 Ac 20:25-31, Tit 1:9, Ep 4:11-13, 1 Ti 1:3 & 3:4-5 & 5:17, 6:20, 2 Ti 1:13-14, 2:2, 15, 3:16-17 4:2-4, Tit 1:9, 13 & 2:15, Heb 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, help achieve consensus, etc. In sum, church leaders are men of mature character who oversee, teach, protect, equip, and encourage the church. Every now and then they will need to call on the church to "submit" (Heb 13:17) to their leadership.
Though they were technically apostolic workers, Timothy and Titus clearly functioned as elders until local elders were appointed. Thus, the elders that they appointed could be expected to do the same types of things that the apostolic workers did on the local level (1 Ti 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 Mt 18 process. Authority, ultimately, still rests with the church corporately.
There is a delicate balance to be reached between the leading role of elders and the ecclesia-type 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. They have no final right of veto on any of the proceedings. On the other hand, you have the flock. They can do what they want but are exhorted to follow their elders and to allow themselves to be persuaded by their 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 similar to the way elders were respected in Israelite towns throughout the Old Testament. 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.
Elder Led Consensus
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; 1 Ti 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?" (1 Ti 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" (1 Pe 5:2); once more elders are painted in a leadership mode. 1 Ti 5:17 refers to elders who "direct the affairs of the church well." 1 Th 5:12 asks the brothers to respect those "who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you." Heb 13:7 commands, "Remember your leaders." Following that, Heb 13:17 reads, "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 Ac 20:17, 28-30; Tit 1:5-7; and 1 Pe 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 Mt 18:15-17 as it relates to a church's decision making process (see also 1 Co 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 corporate decision.
This corporate process is also glimpsed in Ac 1:15-26. The apostle Peter placed the burden for finding a replacement for Judas upon the church as a whole. In Ac 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" (1 Co 1:2, and 2 Co 1:1). Again there was no emphasis on the overseers. The greeting in Ga 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 Php 1:1 the saints were given equal billing with the overseers and deacons. In Col 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 Th 1:1; 2 Th 1:1; Jam 1:1; 1 Pe 1:1; 2 Pe 1:1; 1 Jn 2:1, 7, and Jude 1:1. In fact, the book of Hebrews was written to a subgroup 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 Heb 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, Heb 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 meaning "to give in, to yield" 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 not the relationship pictured in the NT between elders and the church. Of course, there will be those times when some in the flock can't be completely persuaded of something and an impasse will arise. When necessary to break the gridlock , the congregation is to "give in to, to yield to" (hupeiko) the wisdom of its leaders.
Much may be gleaned from the way that NT 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. 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.
Heb 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 Th 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).
As pointed out in a previous chapter, the word "church" in the NT is used to refer to the universal church, city-wide churches, and house churches. No organized church is any bigger than a single city, and has no official jurisdiction or authority over any other church (though there naturally will be inter-church cooperation and assistance). Each church is ideally to be guided by a plurality of leaders. Each elder is equal in authority to all the other elders (there is no "senior" pastor). Their primary authority is based on their ability to persuade with the truth. They are 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.
The Appointment of Elders
How should elders be appointed? Paul required all potential overseers to be able to meet a lengthy list of requirements (1 Ti 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, 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 Ac 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 Ti 3:1-7), under the leadership of the existing elders, and under the advisement of any apostles 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 Ac 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 NT pattern of having a plurality of elders per church. From the NT perspective there is technically only one church per city! For instance, Ac 8:1 mentions "the church at Jerusalem," Paul wrote to "the church of God in Corinth" (1 Co 1:2) and to "the church of the Thessalonians" (1 Th 1:1). Jesus told John to write to "the" church of God in Corinth (1 Co 1:2) and to "the" church in Ephesus, "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 The Normal Christian Church Life, Watchman Nee observed, "in the Word of God we see no church that extends beyond the area of a city" (48). When referring to large geographical areas, the Bible uses the word "church" in the plural. For example, "He went through Syria and Cilia, strengthening the churches" (Ac 15:41), "the churches in the provinces of Asia" (1 Co 16:19), "the Macedonian churches" (1 Co 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 NT as a national church, or a regional church. The only 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 NT 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 2 Co 8-9).
Then, as a subset of the one city-wide church, there were numerous churches that met in various homes within each city (Ro 16:5; 1 Co 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 interdependence, yet each remain autonomous.
So, did the plurality of elders lead the city-wide church as a whole, or only individual house churches? That elders worked together is clear from Php 1:1, 1 Ti 4:14 & Tit 1:5, but 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 solely in his ability to persuade with the truth, and since any respect due him is earned is 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 elders. In those transitional situations where a house church has no one qualified to be an elder, temporary leadership could be sought from a respected apostle, an elder in a nearby church, or itinerant pastor-teacher. The NT pattern is for each house church to led by a body of equal brothers (some of whom are elders) leading the church, depending upon one another, accountable to one another, submitting to one another, and living out a mutuality in ministry.
Harvey Bluedorn wrote an excellent summary of the ministry of elders, which he entitled, "A Statement on Biblical Eldership and Authority in The Assembly."
- 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 [1 Ch
28:11-13,19], so the pattern of things shown in the New
Testament establishes the standards for the assembly, the
temple of God [1 Co 3:9,16,17; 6:19,20; 2 Co 6:16; Ep
2:21,22; 4:13-16; 1 Ti 3:15; 1 Pe 2:5,9; Re 1:6; 3:12;
- 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].
- Multiple Elders - A plural number of elders
will ordinarily emerge from the membership of an assembly
[Acts 14:23], although in a newly formed assembly it may
require some time to pass before the Lord fully equips
and qualifies elders [Lk12:42; 1 Co 4:2; 1 Ti 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; 1 Th 5:12,13; 1 Ti 5:17].
- 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.
- 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.
- The Saints are Kings and Priests - It is a
severe violation of the adult conscience to treat the
saints as children under the overlordship 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.
- 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.
- 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."
Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra live in Atlanta and homeschool their three children. Steve earned an M.Div. from Mid America Baptist Theological Seminary and then served seven years as one of the pastors of a Southern Baptist Church. He resigned in 1990 to work with biblical house churches. Steve is now a bi-vocational local house church elder, itinerant teacher, and president of the New Testament Restoration Foundation. He can be contacted at email@example.com .
Note: This article originally appeared in the New Testament Restoration Foundation website.