Model of Biblical Church Leadership

Model of Biblical Church Leadership

A new movement of God is afoot in the church. There is a growing desire in Christianity to turn God's Assembly from a higharchial institution into an organic community with a model of biblical church leadership. I have been discovering more and more people around the world pursuing this model and the next chapter in church growth.

But for some reason in the last couple of months, I've come across a lot of disagreement about this new movement, even from inside of it. There seems to be a growing concern about a perceived lack of leadership in this model. I've written previously both about how how important leadership is within the Assembly, as well as how misguided traditional church leadership is. Let's drill down on what the Bible has to say about the specific leadership roles and structure within the Assembly.


It all began with the apostles. Jesus had around 120 disciples (Acts 1:15), which is quite a lot of students for one guy to manage. So he picked out 12 of them and appointed them apostles, which were sort of like chief disciples (Matthew 10:1-4). These first 12 were significant -- there was approximately one for every 10 original disciples, Acts makes it clear that having exactly 12 was important (Acts 1:26), and Revelation draws parallels between the first 12 apostles the Assembly is built on and the 12 tribes of Israel (Revelation 21:12 & 14). But after these original 12, many more men were also appointed apostles, like the Apostle Paul for example. Some Christians believe in the "apostolic age", meaning apostleship died off with the original 12. But the biblical evidence for this is flimsy at best, and it's really more of an idea invented to support the false teaching that miracles have ceased.

The word apostle refers to someone who is sent out on a mission. "Messenger," "ambassador," and "envoy" are also common translations. Interestingly, there are a few places in the Bible where the word "messenger", usually translated "angel", might be better translated "apostle". Apostles are men who are given authority and power by Jesus to spread the good news of God's Kingdom. Many missionaries today fit this definition of an apostle. But I believe that apostles don't just build churches in new places, they build churches in new ways. Think of the reformers and founders of Pentecostalism for example. They are to Christianity what entrepreneurs are to business. They start new movements of God. They are pioneers of the Kingdom of Heaven.


The early assemblies were much more focused on serving the physical needs of the poor than most churches are today. Their charity played a big role in the respect the Assemblies received from the communities (Acts 5:13 for example). The first Assembly in Jerusalem grew so fast that some logistical problems arose when trying to provide for all those people. The apostles appointed seven men to coordinate serving tables so that the apostles could focus on prayer and teaching (Acts 6). These seven servants provided for the physical needs of the congregation while the apostles focused on the spiritual needs of the congregation. The term "deacon" used later in the Bible means "servant" (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8-13). The office of deacon probably originated from these first seven servants.


Just like deacons, elders are appointed to allow the apostles to focus on spiritual growth. I believe that the ability to get something new started and the ability to keep something going are two different skill sets. Once the apostles get things up and running, elders are entrusted to take their spiritual authority to keep the movement going while the apostles move on to start something new. In the early Assembly, the apostles would appoint multiple elders to oversee the assemblies they started (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5).

Eldership was an ancient office that formed the backbone of Israel's society. Before Israel had rabbis, prophets, kings, judges, priests, before Israel had even the law -- Israel had elders (Genesis 50:7). Since the church started in Israel as a branch of Judaism, it makes sense that elders would also form the backbone of church leadership as well. An elder is far and away the primary form of biblical church leadership that we read about. In the Bible, there's more talk of elders than any other role in the Assembly.

In Israel, the elders had different ranks -- there were elders of Israel, elders of the city, and elders of the household. The law gave the elders of the city certain tasks in enforcing the rules and bringing justice (Deuteronomy 19:12, 21:1-2, 21:3, 6, 21:19, 22:15, 25:9, 27:1). The elders of Israel appointed kings (Judges 11:5-11, 1 Samuel 8:4), advised kings (2 Samuel 3:17, 5:3, 17:4, 15, 1 Kings 20:7), represented the people in worship (Exodus 19:7, 24:1, Deuteronomy 31:9, 1 Kings 8:3), and performed sacred ceremonies (Exodus 12:21, 18:12, Leviticus 9:1, 1 Samuel 4:3, 1 Kings 8:1, 3, 1 Chronicles 16:25). The term elder didn't just refer to a person's age, it referred to their life experience and position in the community. Elders were men who were wise and from a noble class.

An elder in the Assembly today is just like an elder in Israel. Paul gave a list of qualifications which was more about his character and wisdom than his age (Titus 1:5-9). And elders perform the same function in the Assembly as they did in Israel as well. They lead the assembly, enforce justice, appoint other leaders, and coordinate worship. It's important to note that elders are not hired; they are not paid; they don't go to seminary; it's not a career or a job; they don't have unilateral control; they were not like the kings in Israel, separate from the community. Rather, they are part of the community, earning their position only by having more life experience than the rest. Elders work together and make decisions collectively. There is not one instance in the Bible of a single elder being given responsibility over something or acting alone. As you can see, the model of biblical church leadership is much different than the idea of ministers and clergy that lead most churches today. 


Overseer and bishop are the same thing, just translated differently from the same word depending on what English version of the Bible you're reading. But the biblical concept of this role actually has no relation to the Catholic bishops which form church hierarchy.

Like an elder, the office of overseer may have also come out of Jewish tradition. Christian churches grew from Jewish synagogues. Many of the traditions we still have in church today are still modeled after synagogue worship. Synagogues were not established by scripture, but rather arose out of necessity and tradition. The synagogues had leaders (Luke 4:20, 8:41, 13:14, Acts 13:15). One of these leaders was called a "chazen", which seems was at least occasionally referred to as an overseer.

But these synagogue leaders didn't preach and do all the ministry themselves like the leaders of church today. Their job was to coordinate and lead the congregation so that the congregation could teach and minister to each other. The synagogue leaders sat nearby to correct them if they made a mistake. This is why Jesus frequently was allowed teach in synagogues as a visitor. Many other members of the community also taught. Are you sensing a theme here?

But more tellingly, the Bible refers to elder and overseer interchangeably (Acts 20:17-28, Titus 1:5-7). It seems that the authors use "overseer" to refer to the function and office, while "elder" refers to the person who holds the office and his character. So for all the different words, we really can only find three distinct church leadership roles in the Bible: apostle, elder, and deacon.

Pastor, Prophet, Evangelist, and Teacher

For all the focus on pastors in church today, you'd think it would be a big part of the Bible. But do you know how many times it's mentioned? Once. That's right, pastors barely makes the list of biblical church leadership. Pastors are mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 along with apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers. We've already discussed apostles. The rest round out what is commonly called the five-fold ministry. But here's the thing: Paul's not really talking about church leadership here. Paul didn't say we "appoint" these people, he said God "gave". He's talking about people who were given spiritual gifts, not people appointed to certain church offices. If a pastor is someone who is supposed to be hired on a church staff, then where are all the prophets, evangelists, and apostles on church staff? If you visited a church that had an in-house, full-time church prophet on staff, you'd probably get out of there faster than a sermon on repentance! Yet you probably have no problem attending a church with a paid pastor on staff. Why is that?

And if it's not clear already, Paul says the reason God gives these gifts is not for ministry of the church leaders, but "for equipping of the saints for the work of service". These gifts are to edify the Assembly for the ministry of the congregation, not the ministry of the church leaders. We need to reverse our thinking! Leaders are not the only ones in ministry, it's all members of the Assembly who are in ministry. The leaders are there to facilitate and organize the work of the congregation. That's why Paul called the Assembly a body made up of all of its members, each serving its own purpose in ministry (1 Corinthians 12). He is adamant that no part of the body is superior to others; the whole body works together to serve its purpose.

"Pastor" is actually just another translation of the word "shepherd". In the New Testament, a shepherd primarily refers to Jesus. Jesus is the good shepherd (John 10:11). Did Jesus shepherd his flock by preaching a 43 minute sermon to them once a week? Of course not! He did his share of teaching big crowds, but mostly he was trying to escape the crowds (Matthew 8:18, 14:22, 9:25, Mark 3:7, 7:33, Luke 5:16). He wanted to focus on what he came to do: discipling the flock through hands-on training, teaching the disciples how to do ministry themselves. Shepherds today would do well to follow his example and model his behavior.

Shepherding the flock is spoken of not as a separate role from, but rather the function of elders and overseers (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-2). Again, we see these terms are interchangeable. Spiritual gifts like shepherding, prophecy, and teaching are not church offices, but rather abilities that God gives to the whole Assembly to equip it to carry out its function.


The word "priest" is tricky because it's one word translated from several unrelated words with very different meanings. Catholic churches call their leaders priests, which simply comes from the Latin word for elder. However, the Catholic priest also models some duties of a Jewish priest, which is completely unrelated. The fact that they translate to the same English word is coincidental. A Jewish priest served as a mediator between God and man. But Paul says that he was appointed as a leader in the church to teach non-Jews (Gentiles) that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 1:5-7) -- not any priest or elder, Catholic, Jewish, or otherwise. So elders of the Assembly should be teaching the members to have their own relationship with Jesus, not pushing them away and mediating like a Catholic priest.

Catholic priests are often called "Father", a practice expressly forbidden by Jesus (Matthew 23:8-12). Jesus said people shouldn't be calling themselves teacher or leader either. Many people in the church insist on being called "Apostle so-and-so" or "Pastor you-know-what". Beware of these people!! Giving themselves a title, or even using a title given by others, is not reflective of the servant heart that a biblical church leader should have. Servant-hood is the most important aspect in the model of biblical church leadership. It is true that some will occasionally have to defend their authority as Paul did, but even he did so with humility (1 Corinthians 15:9). Not one time does the Bible record Jesus claiming to be the Messiah -- he only confirms it when other people figured it out (Mark 14:61-62 for example). If not even Jesus made claims to his authority, than certainly no church leader has a right to. If I call Jesus by his first name, then calling his ministers by their first name is certainly good enough for me too!

Further reading:


  1. Good write up. I agree with your point about titles. However, Jesus did state that he was the Messiah to the women at the well in John 4. I always thought it was noteworthy that this is the only person that he told.


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