A brief look at leadership in the NT church: “Who’s in Charge?”

In my last few newsletters I have tried to depict an ideal of the church as seen through the lens of the NT alone. I am deeply convinced that if we see “the Bride” living and functioning as she was intended to be – which I am confident means meeting in homes – we will be utterly captivated! What Elton Trueblood has written in regards to depicting the Christian family motivates me to keep writing about the true, hidden, biblical NT church:  “The intention is to depict an enduring ideal which is practically realisable and which, we believe, has such inherent attractiveness that its very depiction becomes a factor in the recovery and development of what is most precious in our civilisation as well as an antidote to some of our most distressing ills." (E. Trueblood)

The subject at hand here is leadership and authority in the NT church.

Perhaps no other subject on the life of the early church needs more discussion or causes more heated debates (most likely because money is involved!?!?) Indeed, I write with weak knees, knowing that I might be dismissed as a radical, fanatic or, in some other way, misunderstood! Yet the passion for the “NT design” burns within me stronger than ever!

First, let’s ask ourselves this question:   “Who did Paul write to when he wrote to the Corinthians, the Thessalonians, the Romans?”  Can’t remember, read on…

Paul, called to be an apostle… to all that are in Rome, beloved of God…     Rom. 1:1,7 
Paul, called to be an apostle… unto the church of God which is at Corinth     1 Cor. 1:1-2
Paul, an apostle… unto the churches of Galatia    Gal. 1:1-2
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… to the saints that are at Ephesus, and the faithful in Christ Jesus    Eph. 1:1
Paul and Timothy… to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons    Phil. 1:1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ that are at Colossae    Col. 1:1-2
Paul, and Silvanus, and Timothy, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God…   1 Thess.1:1

Paul wrote to “the whole church” — men, women, young people and, even, children!! (Consider: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” Eph. 5)  He wrote to ordinary, regular believers. People like you and me- “working stiffs” struggling to make both ends meet at the end of the month! And he expected everybody to read/hear the letters and understand them.
As Robert Fitts points out: “…each letter was written to the people of God and not to an elite group of ‘clerics’ who were to explain the meaning of the letters to the people. The letters were to be read to the people and that implied that they could understand the content of the letters. Of course there is nothing wrong with explaining difficult passages, but the Holy Spirit can and will reveal the meaning of his word to his people through his people. (Robert Fitts, The Church in the House,

“Is there an elder in the house?”

What then is the church, a leaderless movement of believers, the “family of God” joined organically through love and commitment? YES! Is there a place for leadership and authority in the church? The answer is also an emphatic: YES!

The plain teaching of the NT is that “elders are the leaders of the church”. 

Paul and Barnabas quickly appointed elders in each Galatian church after their apostolic tour there had ended (Acts 14). Later, at the great council in Jerusalem, we find the apostles and the elders gathering together to consider the “Gentile question”. Afterwards, they gathered together with the whole church to choose men (Silas and Judas) to send with Paul back to Antioch. When the decision of the council was read throughout the Syrian and Cillician churches, the letter was written on behalf of “the apostles and the elders” of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15).

As Paul travelled from Macedonia, he called the Ephesian elders to come to the beach at Miletus, where he would exhort them and encourage them one final time, never to see them again (Acts 20)! At the end of his life, Paul left Titus – his co-worker for over 20 years – behind in Crete for the main purpose of appointing elders in every town (Titus 1). The apostle James wanted the elders of the church to be called to lay hands on the sick and to pray the prayer of faith so that many would be healed. The apostle Peter exhorted the elders to tend the flock that is in their care willingly, not just for shameful gain.   

The problem, in our day, is that two millennium of church life has distorted and obscured the role and function of elders. Added to this distortion – which came chiefly through the “imperial church” of the Roman Empire/Constantine era – is the striking fact that the word pastor is used only once in all of the NT, even though we can hardly talk of church today and not ask: “So who is your Pastor?”

Of course, in Ephesians 4, we do read of the gift of pastor but here its used strictly in connection with the “pastor/ teacher” gift and is used solely in the context of a group of “extra-local” church ministries (the five-fold gifts) for “equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry”. If the church is ever to regain her early church impact– "These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” – we must move away from the system that brought us the clergy- laity schism  and recover the NT functioning of elders (notice the plural usage!) in every church.

I like how Link Hudson describes elders:

“Elders are not really introduced in the NT. They just show up [Acts 11]. There were already elders in the OT, and Jews in Jesus’ day had elders. So Jewish believers in the early church already understood what elders were… An elder in a church generally builds upon a foundation of another man’s work. His authority doesn’t necessarily come from being called and sent to lay a foundation in a particular church, but rather he reaches a point where he is recognised having a position of authority and responsibility because he has been faithful in his own life and in his own household.” (homechurch. com)

Many of us today are uneasy about using the actual biblical language (ie. elders) because it has lost its meaning through the centuries and has come to refer to so many different things to so many different people. I don’t see this as helpful! If something is lost, before we replace it with something new, I say we should try and find the “original” again… If we lose the biblical terms and replace them with ones of our own (ie. visionary, interns, cell leader, pastoral care team, etc.), when we look at the Scriptures as our mirror, however, we can’t find ourselves! (James 1)

Yours for the Kingdom,

Jeff Gilbertson

6 replies on “A brief look at leadership in the NT church: “Who’s in Charge?””

I agree with you comments about elders. Excellent. My only comment would be that making pastors an extra local ministry is the thin end of the wedge with respect to hiearchy. Pastoring is really just one role that elders take.
The Ascension Ministries are just roles that elders take. A team of elders needs each of these giftings to function fully.

Ron, I can’t get out of the NT that pastors and elders are the same person! Can you??
I see them as the five fold Christ-gifted ministers of Eph 4.
Let me know your thoughts on that…

The problem is that pastor (greek word = shepherd) does not exist as a separate role in the New Testament.
The word pastor is used as a verb in Acts 20:17,27 and 1 Pet 5:1,2. In both these cases, elders are told to shepherd (verb) the flock that is in their care. We do not have a verb for shepherd in English, so it is usually translated with the verb “to be” plus the noun shepherd/pastor. This translation is misleading, because it makes sound like an office. “Tend” or “look after” would be a better translation. These two passages both say that shepherding is something that elders should do. The use of a verb rather than a noun suggests that Peter and Paul are telling elders what to do, rather than giving them a name.
Shepherds watch over their sheep, so “tending” includes “watching”. Therefore, it is interesting that these two passages also give elders a role in exercising “oversight” (watching over). Titus 1:6,7; Phil 1:1 and 1 Tim 3:1,2 also imply that overseer is another title that was used for elders. We confuse situation by transliterating the Greek word episkopos as bishop. Actually it is just a word meaning “watch over”, which is a task that elders are commanded to do by Peter and Paul (skopos=watch).
The New Testament requires elders to shepherd and watch over the sheep. Apart from Eph 4:11, these are the only references to pastoring.
You have to impose a different meaning on the word shepherd to get a get a pastor role out of that passage. The problem with this is that Eph 4 is speaking about gifts and not offices. All four giftings are assigned to elders, elsewhere in the New Testament. I have expanded on this here.
Eph 4 does not define these giftings, so we have to look somewhere else to find what they mean. Then you are forced back to the passages that I have listed above.
And looking at the stuff that these giftings achieve, building up the body, keeping it united, discipling Chistians, these are all tasks that elders do and not a role for a special grouping of people.
If we look at the New Testament through our pator-elders-people-hierarchy glasses, we end up finding a pastor role that is not there and end up distoring the elder role that is so important in the New Testament.
So in answer to your question, I cannot find a reference to pastoring in the New Testament, apart from passages about elders.

Hi, Jeff.
You’re right about the story. “Elders” are everywhere… but what they actually did is something of a question. Other than the elders in Jerusalem, it’s hard to think of anywhere that elders are recorded to be taking any kind of dynamic action of any sort.
Have you read Gene Edwards’ book “Rethinking Elders”? ( He does a chronological study of the word through the whole NT, and give lots of unique insights, like in James, the believers were told to call the elders and tell them to pray. (Not the elders telling the others what to do!)
I also totally agree when you say, “two millennium of church life has distorted and obscured the role and function of elders”.
It’s not the word “elder” that we need to avoid. It’s the rest of it. My own personal view is that any young, american house-church today probably ought to ignore the whole thing (word, concept, practice, etc) and not worry about having elders… for years, if not decades.
But then, my own personal view is that new house-churches ought to start with an extra-local, itenerant church planter, too. (Like the NT “Apostles”… another charged, misunderstood word, right?)
If you’re going to talk about the NT pattern… what about him? What NT elder ever got “appointed” or “just showed up” without the presence and visitation of an outside worker?
What’s your view on that?

Ron, your comments are interesting. I am trying to piece together your overall view of the topic here, but I think I’m getting parts of it.
I like the terms ‘watch-over’ and ‘look out’. King (boy) David as a shepherd only had to kill one lion (or was it one bear?). The rest of his job was probably pretty boring! Sitting, watching, waiting.
If a sheep wanders off and gets caught in a throny bush, the shepherd might go find it and try to gently remove the branches, to free the sheep. If a sheep gets sick, he might pick it up, carry it under the shade, and care for it until it was well. If the sheep need food, water, or direction to know the way home, the shepherd stands up, and starts walking. They follow him. (I’m just imagining here. And the image is of One shepherd, wheras “elders” would be plural… but these are just thoughts.)
Somehow, I think I’ve heard from lots of peole whose “elders” spent time teaching, advising, warning, preaching, etc… but I don’t know where in scripture “elders” are told to do such things. Did I miss it? It seems like men take large liberties in order to say these are scriptural duties of elders.
For example, Timothy was neither a pastor nor an elder. Timothy was an “apostle”… so I would say that any instructions Paul gave to Timothy are not necessarily fitting as “duties of elders” either.
What do you guys think?

Dear Bill,
Here are some of my thoughts on elders. You might not want to call them responsibilities or duties but they seem to come through the pages of the NT.
I have read most of Gene’s stuff on elders and sometimes I think he swings the pendulum too far to make his point. I don’t think that over reaction is the answer, yet that is almost impossible to do, as God takes the church into new (old) ground for the Kingdom!
NT elders were all indigenous, “home grown” older men, raised up out of the soil of the local church.
Elders (aka “overseers”) were chosen by the HS, appointed by apostles, and recognized by local church. (Acts 20, Titus 1, 1 Thess. 5)
Top priorities in their selection seems to have been: character qualities and managing their families. Titus 1, 1 Tim 3
NT responsibilities:
– Teaching 1 Tim 5. 17; 3.2
– Shepherd the flock 1 Pet. 5; Acts 20
– Support weak by working Acts 20
– Lay hands on sick/ pray prayer of faith Jms. 5
– Be “among the people” 1 Pet. 5.1
– Be an example to the flock 1 Pet. 5.3
– Lay hands on others and impart spiritual gifts 1 Tim. 4.14
Were not elders “faithful men” whom Timothy was to entrust the things he heard from Paul to, and were also able to teach others. 2 Tim 2.2
Were not elders “the brothers” who when Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him… Acts 18:27

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