Is there a New Testament pattern for church leadership? In my last post “Sola Scriptura or Not,” I asked this very important question. While I believe the New Testament is almost devoid of specifics in terms of prescriptions for church leadership, there is enough consistency in the descriptive passages that seem to indicate God’s leading on this most important issue.
I just used two words that are important to keep in mind when seeking to discern any truth from the Bible: prescription and description. Prescriptive would be as the word implies, things that are directly stated as an imperative. The most obvious example for the church would be what we now call the “Great Commission.”[i] Another example would be the institution of what we sometimes refer to as “The Lord’s Supper.”[ii] These and many other imperatives would not be bound by culture or time and so it becomes the responsibility of every local church, in every culture and every era to find ways to carry out these mandates.
Descriptive passages on the other hand are a record of how the early disciples did something that may or may not be culturally bound but there is no imperative that we must also do it the same way. When however there is a consistency of pattern throughout the New Testament, it seems to me that we must pay attention. I believe we have such a consistency in the area of church leadership that we cannot look away and invent our own.
Early in the public ministry of Jesus he called twelve whom he appointed as apostles.[iii] Eleven of the twelve carried on the work Jesus started after his departure into Heaven.[iv] These eleven were joined by Matthias who replaced Judas;[v] this was done so that the Scriptures would be fulfilled.[vi] One of the things that becomes clear as you trace the history of the church throughout the book of Acts is that in the early chapters, the Apostles are clearly the governing body of the church.[vii]
Beginning in Acts 11:30 we read about a group of people in the church called “elders.” The frequency of mention of elders increases from this point forward in Acts along with a decrease in frequency of mention of the apostles. According to Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in all the churches they had established on their missionary journey to lead those local congregations after they left.
We see this transfer of authority beginning in Acts 15:2, where apostles” and “elders” are used in parallel with one another as though they had equal standing. Although they are referred to as two different groups they seemed to be functioning as one in this text and the rest of the context in 15:4, 15:6, 15:22-23 and 16:4. While there are others who were called “apostles,”[viii] as individuals, James being one[ix] and of course the most well known, Paul[x] we note that 16:4 is the last reference to “apostles” as a group in the book of Acts.
Acts 20:17-28 is a significant reference to “elders.” These were called from the church in Ephesus to meet with Paul in Miletus on his return to Jerusalem. Part of what he tells them is:
“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”[xi]
Significant in this passage is not only the description of the role of these men called “elders” and “overseers” but the reminder of who the people belong to that are part of their church. It is the “church of God,” purchased with “His own blood.” While God has entrusted his people to the care of human leaders, it must never be forgotten to whom they belong. I cringe every time I hear a church leader refer to the people he gets to serve as “my church” or “my people”. When he is qualified and prepared to shed his blood for the sins of those people, maybe he can use those terms appropriately. They are God’s people, purchased by the blood of God’s Son.
As you continue to follow the use of the word “elders” throughout the NT you are struck by two things. They are always the ones referred to in a position of leadership or authority over a local church and where mentioned they are always mentioned in the plural.[xii] There are a lot of descriptive passages on this important topic, too many in my opinion to be ignored.
[i] Matt. 28:19-20.
[ii] 1 Cor. 11:23-26.
[iii] Luke 6:14.
[iv] Acts 1:1-12.
[v] Acts 1:15-26.
[vi] Acts 1:20.
[vii] Acts 1:25-26; 2:37; 2:43; 5:12; 5:29; 6:6; 8:14; 9:27; 15:2.
[viii] Rom. 16:7.
[ix] Gal. 1:19.
[x] Rom 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:1; 1:11; Titus 1:1.
[xi] Acts 17:28.
[xii] Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:1-2; 17; 19; Titus 1:5; 7; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:1; 5:5.
About Jim Hislop
Jim Hislop is the Director of Western Seminary's Center for Leadership Development.