Understanding, applying and getting to experience real New Testament Church Leadership is a huge challenge to the Church in this day and age. This is because we are so easily clouded by years of church traditions, tempted by the world’s form of leadership and are also often sadly unclear about the nature of New Testament church leadership.
If we are to do things God’s way then obviously the Biblical view is the one that we need clarity on. And, in order to get a sharper understanding of New Testament church leadership, we can ask various questions of the Biblical texts. But, for now, I would like to consider only two key questions because their answers reveal a stark contrast to typical Western churches and highlight where our main blockage exists.
Firstly, besides Jesus being the head of the Church, does the Bible advocate any form of chain of command in church leadership? And, secondly, was church leadership singular or plural by nature? I will show evidence in the New Testament that leaders did not have the positions of hierarchy that people so often afford them and that church leadership was never singular. (Most of the following is a slightly expanded version of my post, Does the Bible Support the Position of a Senior Pastor?)
Let’s begin by considering Acts 15 where we have an account of a church council at work. This chapter is used by some to support the idea of hierarchical church leadership with a lead elder. In the account, Paul, Barnabas and some others were sent from Antioch “to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders” about an issue. Notice that they did not go seeking James, a key leader in Jerusalem, or the apostles alone, but their aim was to see the plurality of apostles and elders in Jerusalem to resolve the issue.
From a quick reading of this chapter, it can appear to some that James is the main leader of the church in Jerusalem. One reason is that after a lot of discussion at this significant council meeting, James made the final statements that gave direction to the issue at hand. Secondly, he did this with the words, “my judgment is…” which seem to suggest that he was calling the shots. However, is this enough evidence to conclude that James was the lead elder? Couldn’t it be argued that any of the apostles or elders could have had the final word giving direction? If so, we would be wrong to conclude that James was the lead elder on that basis alone.
Rather than be likened to a final verdict of a judge, James’ statements, that helped conclude the meeting, should be viewed as the assessment and opinion of a seasoned and respected brother, elder and apostle. Also, that it was the group as a whole that was led by the Spirit to the conclusion is seen in the following, “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch…with the following letter, ‘From the apostles and the elders, your brothers (KJV reads and your brothers) to the gentile brothers… Greetings…it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us (the brothers, elders and apostles), to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…”
Notice too, that the letter was not addressed from James, but from “The apostles and the elders, your brothers”. Also, it was not addressed to a church leader, but to “the brothers” of many churches. Brothers wrote to brothers. Granted, a strong argument for James’ leadership in the Jerusalem Church exists, but this would have been alongside other elders and it would have been without rank. It would have been in the context of Jesus’ teaching on leadership in Matthew 20:25-27 where he said things like “all ye are brethren” and “it shall not be so among you” when Jesus contrasted the world’s leadership with what theirs should be like. (For more on this see my post Servant Leadership – a Misnomer).
This James was prominent in the New Testament church, but that does not equate to rank leadership. We are reading far too much of our church experience into this historical account if we use it as a bases for the practice of having a single senior pastor. This is especially a problem if the text can be more comfortably viewed in a way that fits Paul’s specific instructions elsewhere and all of the other historical accounts in the New Testament.
For example, in 1Timothy 1:3 we see that Paul urged Timothy to remain behind in Ephesus in order to settle things in the church. Timothy was not the pastor, nor lead pastor, but he was part of a church planting team. In this letter, Paul instructs Timothy on the appointment of multiple elders. Also, in Acts 14:23 we see the appointment of a plurality of elders with no sign of seniority given to any. It reads, “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.”
Notice too, that whenever Paul wrote to churches, the list of recipients were the elders and saints, with no mention of a senior leader. Had there been a lead elder, then surely he would have been listed ahead of the elders and saints in the list of recipients. Also, Elsewhere, Paul requests to meet with the elders of Ephesus and there is no mention of a senior leader. This furthers the case that singular leadership didn’t exist in the New Testament. In fact, the appointment of a senior/lead pastor is never mentioned in the Bible. Respect for eldership, role and gifting, existed, but there was never superiority of rank.
While certain leaders like James and Peter are mentioned because of the key roles that they played, this honor is not to be equated to hierarchy. Nothing was done outside of the plurality of eldership and church consensus. The only leader with rank in the Church was and is Jesus.
For more on Church Leadership, see my posts: