The Leadership Structure of the New Testament Church

The spiritual leaders of the New Testament (NT) church were known by a variety of titles.

Pastor

The sole NT reference is plural; the singular ‘pastor’ does not appear in the NT:

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: (Ephesians 4:11-12)

Elder

This is a somewhat general term, meaning ‘older’, and (implied by extension) wiser. The Greek word presbuterosis survives in the name of today’s Presbyterian Church.

Paul and Barnabas ordained elders:

And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

Elders were distinctly separate from the Apostles:

And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. (Acts 15:4)

And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. (Acts 15:6)

Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: (Acts 15:22, 23)

And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. (Acts 16:4)

Elders were undoubtedly the church’s leadership, synonymous with ‘bishops’ and ‘pastors’:

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. (Acts 20:17)

In the same passage, Paul says this to the elders:

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. (I Timothy 5:17)

For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: (Titus 1:5)

The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: (1 Peter 5:1)

Bishop

The name of the Episcopal church comes from episkopos, the Greek word for bishop, meaning ‘superintendent’. While some churches today have bishops, it is more common to refer to them as pastors.

Elder and bishop seem to be used interchangeably:

Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: (Philippians 1:1)

This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; (1 Timothy 3:1-2)

For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; (Titus 1:5-7)

Deacon

There’s little evidence that ‘elders’ includes ‘deacons’ (Philippians 1:1).

A deacon’s qualifications are separate from a bishop’s (I Timothy 3:8-13).

Deacons will be explored in-depth in a future post.

Ordaining Authority

The apostles ordained church leaders (Acts 14:23), who ordained other church leaders (Titus 1:5).

One or Many?

There’s more evidence in Scripture for a plurality of elders than for one man overseeing a congregation:

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders (plural) of the church (singular). Acts 20:17)

Remember them (not ‘him’) which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their (not ‘his’) conversation. (Hebrews 13:7)

Obey them (not ‘him’) that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they (not ‘he’) watch for your souls, as they (not ‘he’) that must give account, that they (not ‘he’) may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)

And when they had ordained them elders (plural) in every church (singular), and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

There are potentially serious issues with a governance structure of a church having only one leader, and each Christian having their very own pastor. These will be addressed in later posts.

 

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