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New Testament Church Leadership 



Yertle was a turtle who decided he was king of the little pond of Salamosond. He decided he couldn’t see enough sitting on his throne, so he called some other turtles to stand on each other’s backs so that Yertle could sit on his throne at the very top.  The higher he got, the more he wanted to see and consequently the more turtles he had to have beneath him. Thus he kept building his throne by stepping on more and more turtles. At the bottom of this immense pile of turtles was a very little turtle named Mack. Groaning under the terrific load, Mack cried out, “Your majesty, please…I don’t like to complain. But down here below, we are feeling great pain. I know, up on top, you are seeing great sights. But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights. We turtles can’t stand it.”  Yertle bellowed back, “There’s nothing higher than me!” But Mack did a very ordinary thing and brought the pile crashing down, Yertle and all. He burped!  -pg.119, Liberating the Laity, Equipping the Saints for Ministry, R. Paul Stevens, © 1985

Is this an unfair picture of the typical solo pastor?  Does the solo pastor build this pedestal or does someone else?  Is this pedestal built by the active work of one man, or has it, by necessity, evolved over time due to the passive nature of the laity?  Does the Bible shed any light on this subject? The answers to these questions vary depending on who you ask.  To the majority of modern-day Christians the organizational structure of their church doesn't seem to matter much at all.  If the way we structure our local church governments and place people into leadership positions is any indication, the Bible must have little to say on the subject!  Thankfully, this is not the case.  In fact, the New Testament contains more verses pertaining to the leadership structure of the local church than on the Lord's Supper, the Lord's Day, baptism, and even the proper use of spiritual gifts!

Thinking Biblically About Church Leadership

The New Testament clearly recognizes and delineates the need for leadership and authority in society and in the home.  So why not in regard to the local church?  In contrast to what many believe, the New Testament speaks unmistakably to the issue of choosing gifted men of certain spiritual maturity and character for leadership positions within the local church.  Why?  Because the health, strength, and effectiveness of the local church is directly related to the quality and function of its leadership.  Furthermore, a church’s leadership structure determines how people think and act.  How we view leadership and ministry determines the kind of men and women who lead our churches, the quality of their teaching and shepherding, and the kinds of ministries that will be envisioned and supported. Ultimately, the leadership structure determines what things are done in the local church and how these things are accomplished.


For this reason author Jon Zens writes: “This is why we need to seriously consider the doctrine of eldership; it jumps out at us from the pages of the New Testament, yet it has fallen into disrepute and is not being practiced as a whole in local churches.” The Major Concepts of Eldership in the New Testament, Baptist Reformation and Review, No. 7 (Summer, 1978).


The Head of the Church is Jesus Christ


Any discussion on church leadership must begin with the recognition that Jesus Christ is the supreme head of the church.  Every other leader, no matter how charismatic, selfless and loving, hard working, or soul stirring, is nothing more than an under-shepherd at best!  The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus,


“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” (Ephesians 5:23)


Jesus Christ is not the head of the church in name only.  Jesus Christ is the “great Shepherd of the sheep” as it says in  Heb.13:20-21,


“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.  Amen.” 


Even today Christ remains actively involved in His church! (Matt 16:18; Rev. 1:12-13, 20).  As a result, His is the only true authority. His glory is the reason we, the church, exists!  Having the fact of Christ’s ultimate headship clearly established in our mind we are better prepared for hearing what the Bible says about the subject of New Testament leadership.


Rightly Dividing the Truth of Words


Even a cursory treatment of the New Testament teaching on church leadership will uncover the clear, irrefutable fact that it was the Apostle Paul’s practice to appoint a group of godly and gifted men to the oversight of each local church (Acts 14:23). These men were charged with leading, teaching, and watching over the saints of their local congregations.  In the New Testament these men were called elders (bishops/overseers).  They were assisted in this task by other men known as deacons (servants/helpers).


The qualifications for an overseer in 1Tim. 3:1-7 are essentially identical to the qualifications for an elder in Titus 1:6-9.  Writing to Titus, Paul uses both terms to refer to the same office.  In Titus 1:5 Paul speaks of the office of elder, and in Titus 1:7 he clearly refers to the same office as that of overseer.  From these two passages it may be readily understood that these two offices are, in fact, one and the same.


Three Greek words are used to speak of church leaders in the New Testament.  These words are used interchangeably by various New Testament authors but always with consistency.  This consistency runs throughout each author’s own writing and “across the board” with the writings of the other authors who use these words.  This fact, in itself, reflects a common basic understanding of church leadership throughout the primitive church at the time of the writing of the New Testament.


· The word elder (presbuteros), most commonly used for church leaders, appears 67 times throughout the New Testament in a number of contexts.  Of these occurrences, it is employed 16 times as a title for New Testament leaders.


· The word overseer or bishop (episkopos) is used five times in the New Testament. It is used four times to denote New Testament leaders and one time for Christ, himself.


· The third word is pastor or shepherd (poimen). This word is used 18 times in the New Testament; 17 times as a title for Jesus Christ and only one time (as an accusative noun (poimenais)) to describe the work or function of an elder (Eph.4:11).


Two key passages further illuminate the relationship these three words have to each other. Though the noun pastor is only used once to refer to elders (Eph.4:11), the related verb form (poimaino) is used twice in passages that explicitly identify the task of pastoring or shepherding with the office of elder. 


· In Acts 20:17-28 Paul addresses the elders of the church in Ephesus (v.17) and instructs them that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (v.28) in order to pastor/shepherd (v.28) the church of God. 


· This same relationship may also be seen in 1Peter 5:1-3, where Peter exhorts the elders (v.1) to pastor/shepherd (v.2) the flock of God among [them]… (v.2).


In addition to the biblical writers who used these terms interchangeably, early church fathers sometimes used the terms bishop and presbyter interchangeably as well...


           "Our sin will not be small if we reject from oversight [or from the episcopate] those who have
           blamelessly and holily fulfilled it duties.  Blessed are those presbyters who have obtained a
           fruitful and perfect departure, having finished their course before now."
Clement of Rome (ca.
           96 A.D.) 1.17


          "We refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles and is preserved by the
          successions of presbyters in the churches...  The faith preached to men comes down to our time
          by means of the successions of bishops."
  Irenaeus (ca.180 A.D.) 1.415


         "Looking to the appointed bishop... John said, "This [youth] I commit to you in all
          earnestness."  ...And the presbyter took home the youth committed to him."
  Clement of
          Alexandria (ca.195 A.D.) 5.603


Describing these relationships, Professor Merrill C. Tenny, past Dean of Wheaton College concluded,


“The terms bishop and elder were probably interchangeable…  Bishop or overseer describes the activity of the person; elder, [describes] his position of seniority.  They apply to the same office, differing only in the aspect emphasized.  The elders were teachers, pastors, and preachers who were responsible for the instruction and guidance of the church (Acts 11:30;  1Peter 5:1-4).  Although the duties of these persons seem to be clearly marked and recognized, there is nevertheless no hint of the breach between clergy and laity that appeared in later centuries.”  New Testament Times, Eerdman Publishing Co.,  © 1965


So what’s in a name, anyway?  Consider this:  All three terms are used to speak of the very same office. Elder emphasizes the man's mature Christian character, overseer emphasizes his function, while the word translated pastor emphasizes the work of his ministry as a caring, shepherding leader.  While the term pastor is the most commonly used title for church leaders today, it is the least used in the Bible!  In the New Testament occurrences of this word the term pastor is either employed as a verb (which can never be understood as a title or office), or as an accusative noun (Eph. 4:11, emphasizing the manner in which a particular noun functions) In no passage of Scripture do we ever find Paul recognizing or instructing a solitary leader placed over any local church! 


In Eph. 4:11 the NASB translators did the Christian community a great service by translating the Greek text literally, rather than inject the modern-day misunderstanding of church leadership, as did the NIV translators.  In comparing the two English translations against the original Greek it is quite evident the NASB is much closer to the original meaning, "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers..."  The word as does not appear in the original Greek text.  The NASB translators added it for clarity in English.  This is why it appears in italics.  An alternate and equally valid rendering which does no harm to the original Greek, nor the NASB translation, would be, "And He gave some who [labor/work/function] as apostles, and some who [labor/work/function] as prophets, and some who [labor/work/function] as evangelists, and some who [labor/work/function] as pastors and teachers...."  This translation is more in harmony with the accusative noun form (poimenais) as found in this verse.  In any case, Eph. 4:11 cannot legitimately be used as a proof text for an established title or office of "pastor" in the New Testament!


For a brief discussion of the accusative case see pages 91-95 of A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Dana and Mantey, The Macmillan Co., © 1955, and pages 37-38 of An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament, by William Douglas Chamberlain, Baker Book House, © 1941.


One is the Loneliest Number

The Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth conducted a survey in 1991.  The resultant answers were unsettling, though not surprising: 90 percent of pastors work more than 46 hours per week. One out of three pastors said, "Being in the ministry is clearly a hazard to my family." One out of three pastors felt burned out within the first five years of ministry. Seventy percent of pastors did not have someone they would consider a close friend. Ninety percent of pastors felt they were not adequately trained to cope with the ministry demands placed upon them. Seventy-five percent of pastors had reported a significant crisis due to stress at least once in their ministry. Forty percent of pastors reported a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.   -Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth, 1991

The above survey results indicate a burden in pastoral ministry which God never intended for His under-shepherds to bear. As Luke records the history of Paul's church planting efforts, he carefully recounts how from the beginning Paul was deeply concerned with the appointment of multiple elders in every church.  God really does know what man is made of! (Psalm 103:13-14)


· Acts 14:23 is part of a short summary statement of a pattern of church planting that mattered very much to Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, "And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."


Notice the plurality of elders while the sphere of their leadership is a singular local church. There are six other New Testament passages where this pattern is equally clear…


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


· (Philippians 1:1) "Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons."


· (1Thessalonians 5:12,13) "But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another."  In light of what we already know, who else but elders could Paul be speaking of as discharging these duties in the church at Thessalonica?


· (1Timothy 5:17)  "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching."  This verse is part of Paul's instruction to Timothy, which he was to pass on to the church in Ephesus.


· (Titus 1:5)  "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you."


· (James 5:14) "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."


Once again, in no instance does Paul ever address a solitary pastor of any church in matters of theology, church leadership, or the decision making process, etc..


There are an additional eight passages that refer to the office of elders in the plural form but may possibly link them with more than one local congregation. Given this, these texts still provide no support for a single pastor over any New Testament church,  nor do they argue against plurality of eldership in any local church. These passages consist of (Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 21:18; 1Timothy 4:14; 1Peter 5:1,2; Eph 4:11; Hebrews 13:7,17,24).


There are only three passages where the terms for the office of elder appear in the singular form.


Two of these passages refer to the examination of individual elders as to their qualifications for the office (1Timothy 3:1-2 and 5:19).  The third passage (Titus 1:7) gives instruction on how to handle an accusation made against an elder.   It should be noted there is nothing in any of these verses that contradicts the overwhelming evidence from Scripture which argues for the New Testament church to be led by a plurality of elders.


Most conservative evangelical Bible scholars concur with the New Testament evidence outlined here.  In support of this widely held view, Wayne Grudem, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School writes,


“Although some have argued that different forms of church government are evident in the NT, a survey of the relevant texts shows the opposite to be true: there is quite a consistent pattern of plural elders as the main governing group in the NT churches.” (p.912,  Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan, 2000).


The Spiritual Resume of a New Testament Elder


The New Testament gives more instruction on the spiritual qualifications of elders than on any other aspect of church leadership.  This is because the health, strength, and effectiveness of the local church is directly related to the quality and function of its leadership.  Yet, often church leadership positions are given to men and women on the basis of popularity or personality, business success, income, or one’s adherence to established modes of communal conduct.  In some cases leadership positions are only offered to those who align themselves with a particular person already in leadership. In other instances one or more Biblical qualifications may be arbitrarily “relaxed” in the belief that a candidate’s other (much needed) skill(s) will compensate or justify the situation.   The reason(s) for these unbiblical practices are almost always justified by human logic or other Bible verses taken out of context, yet these practices remain in conflict with the New Testament just the same!  


Addressing this issue, Bruce Stabbert,  a founding elder of Fellowship Bible Church in Tacoma, Washington, makes an accurate observation:


“It is not uncommon in our modern churches to find specially talented men with large followings, who are desired for speaking or “candidating” in various places.  The problem is not that such men are sought after.  The problem is that they are usually sought after without any detailed inquiry into their personal character and the depth of their devotion to Christ.  Often, the only criterion which is taken into account involves the great numbers of people who are now following them.”  (p. 126, The Team Concept, Paul’s Church Leadership Patterns or Ours?, Hegg Bros. Printing, © 1982


Paul lists at great length the qualifications for elders to serve in the church. There are two significant lists of character traits needed for a man to serve as an elder. They are found in 1Timothy 3:1-7 and in Titus 1:5-9.  It is extremely important to understand that New Testament elders are meant to be spiritual examples to the flock.  For this reason, these qualifications must be essential considerations in selecting elders.


Alexander Strauch writes, "Proper qualification is a scriptural imperative, objective requirement, moral obligation, indispensable standard, and absolute necessity for those who would serve as leaders in the church" (p.76, Biblical Eldership, An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, Lewis & Roth, 1995).

            Note: For a helpful listing of relevant verses and a brief discussion of these qualifications
            please visit The Biblical Qualifications for Elders and Deacons, also located on this site.

Again, Wayne Grudem writes, "Those who are choosing elders in churches today would do well to look carefully at candidates in the light of these qualifications, and to look for those character traits and patterns of godly living rather than worldly achievement, fame, or success. Especially in churches in western industrial societies, there seems to be a tendency to think that success in the world of business (or law, or medicine, or government) is an indication of suitability for the office of elder, but this is not the teaching of the New Testament" (p.916, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan, 2000).


Reading further…


“Two significant conclusions may be drawn from [a] survey of the NT evidence.  First, no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder.  The consistent NT pattern is a plurality of elders “in every church” (Acts 14:23) and “in every town” (Titus 1:5).  Second, we do not see a diversity of forms of government in the NT church, but a unified and consistent pattern of in which every church had elders governing it and keeping watch over it." (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1Peter 5:2-3).  (p.913, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan, 2000).


The Ministry Work of New Testament Elders


By now a clearer picture should be emerging as to the elders God intended to lead His church.  But what does the work of an elder or overseer consist of?  The New Testament provides three key passages to create a thumbnail sketch of the ministry of local church elders.


· In 1Tim.5:17 we read, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching." The word for direct (proistemi) literally means to “stand before” or “preside over.” By implication it carries with it the idea of general oversight.  It is used three other times to speak of the ruling responsibility of elders in the church:


“He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)” (1Tim.3:4-5)


“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.” (1Thes.5:12)

· In 1Peter 5:1-4 Peter warns elders they are not to rule harshly or oppressively, which plainly means they were meant to exercise ruling authority and function in the churches to which he was writing.  In addition, the elders were charged with being examples of holy living before the church:

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:  Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

· Although Heb.13:17 does not use the specific terms for the office of elder, certainly the author has this in mind when he writes, "Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."


In addition, local church elders are charged elsewhere in Scripture with shepherding their flocks and overseeing their activities (Acts 20:28; Heb.13:7, 17; 1Pet.5:1-4), equipping the saints for works of service (Eph.4:12), living a life worthy of the calling [they] have received (Eph.4:1), making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph.4:3), as well as teaching and defending the Scriptures (1Tim.4:6-13, 5:17; Titus 1:9).


Deacons (servants) may also be appointed to assist or compliment the elders in their ministry work in both spiritual and practical matters as deemed necessary (Acts 6:1-6; Rom.16:1-2; 1Tim.3:8-13).


Clearly, the charge of duties listed here are not the responsibility of a single pastor.  Nor were they the responsibility of a group of pastor(s) separate from a group of men known as elders or another group known as “the board.”  God, in His sovereign will, has given this serious charge to a group of spiritually qualified men in each local church.  The New Testament calls these men elders!




The majority of Christian churches today, for a variety of reasons, no longer adheres to a New Testament pattern of elder leadership.  So how did we get here?


According to Alexander Strauch, “Only a few centuries after the apostles' death, for example, Christian churches began to assimilate both Roman and Jewish concepts of status, power, and priesthood. As a result, church leadership gradually became clericalized and sacralized. Under Christ's name an elaborately structured institution emerged that corrupted the simple, family structure of the apostolic churches, robbed God's people of their lofty position and ministry in Christ, and exchanged Christ's supremacy over His people for the supremacy of the institutional church.” Setting Things in Order, An Online Article featured at www.antithesis.com.


               John Calvin (1509-1564 A.D.), writing on the abuse of power in the church of his day, cited
               several ancient authors who had witnessed the gradual corruption of the church in regard
               to the leadership role of elders,
This power [the administration of justice in the ancient
               church], as we have already  stated, did not belong to an individual who could exercise it as
               he pleased, but belonged to the consistory of elders, which was in the Church what a council
               is in a city.
1, when mentioning those by whom it was exercised in his time, usually
               associates the whole  clergy with the bishop (Cyprian, Lib. 3 Ep. 14, 19).  In another place, he
               shows that though the clergy presided, the people, at the same time, were not excluded from
               cognisance: for he thus  writes:—“From the commencement of my bishopric, I determined to
               do nothing without the advice of the clergy, nothing without the consent of the people.” But
               the common and usual method of exercising this jurisdiction was by the council of
               presbyters, of whom, as I have said, there were two classes.  Some were for teaching, others
               were only censors of manners.  This institution gradually degenerated from its primitive
               form, so that, in the time of Ambrose, the clergy alone had cognisance of ecclesiastical
Of this he complains in the following terms:—“The ancient synagogue, and
               afterwards the Church, had elders, without whose advice nothing was done: this has grown
               obsolete, by whose fault I know not, unless it be by the sloth, or rather the pride, of
               teachers, who would have it seem that they only are somewhat”
(Ambros.2  on
). We
               see how indignant this holy man was because the better state was in some degree impaired,
               and yet the order which then existed was at least tolerable.
What, then, had he seen those
               shapeless ruins which exhibit no trace of the ancient edifice?  How would he have lamented?
               First, contrary to what was right and lawful, the bishop appropriated to himself what was
               given to the whole Church."
 Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.11.6-13.

              1Cyprian (ca.258 A.D.) Bishop of Carthage, Northern Africa
              2Ambosiaster (ca.375 A.D.), Commentary on 1Tim.5:1 (MPL 17.475 f.)

It has been well said, "Church as we know it is preventing church as God wants it."  Many modern churches claim to practice biblical eldership, but in fact their leaders are little more than temporary church board members.  Often such board members are selected by a single "senior" pastor, and more often than not, any serious discussion of the spiritual qualifications for church leaders (elders and deacons) is completely side-stepped in the process. The modern-day corporate language of  board members or trustees, or their historical equivalents), are nowhere to be found in Scripture.  Likewise, modern day expressions such as "the ministry" or "the pastor" are also completely absent from the pages of the New Testament!  And so the statement bears repeating, "Church as we know it is preventing church as God wants it!"

In addition to these trends, often the primary motivation for many (though certainly not all) who serve on a church board is to advance one's specific agenda or a desire to exercise an unscriptural measure of control over a local church body.  These cultural trends also stand in sharp conflict with the clear New Testament teaching on this subject!

I realize the concepts presented in this brief article may be new—even radical—to the majority of modern Christians.  However, these concepts come straight from the pages of the New Testament.  No one sneaked into your home and put these verses into your Bible while you slept!  When a pattern in Scripture is so very discernible and consistent, the only question remaining for the church is, are we willing to be obedient?  For all the high-sounding human logic as to why the church can no longer function as it once did, the Biblical record still remains.  So does that one simple question—are we willing to be obedient?  If we are not, we can only pray that God will bless our churches in spite of our willful disobedience!






Biblical Eldership, An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, Alexander Strauch, © 1995

The Team Concept, Paul’s Church Leadership Patterns or Ours?, Bruce Stabbert,  Hegg Bros., © 1982

Body Life, The Church Comes Alive, Ray C. Stedman, © 1972
Sharpening the Focus of the Church, Gene A. Getz, Moody Press, © 1974
The Church, Her Authority and Mission, W.E. Best, South Belt Grace Church, © 1982
Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, McNeill & Battles Ed., Westminster Press, © 1960

Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Wayne Grudem, © 1994

Servants In Charge, Keith M. Bailey, Christian Publications, © 1979

Liberating the Laity, Equipping the Saints for Ministry, R. Paul Stevens, © 1985

The Church at the End of the 20th Century, Francis A. Schaeffer, InterVarsity Press, © 1977

The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary, Alex. Rattray Hay, © Author

New Testament Times, Merrill C. Tenny, Eerdman Publishing Co.,  © 1965


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