Church leadership

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder); Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mar 3:13–9)

Twelve apostles

The first thing we should ask is: Why did Jesus choose twelve apostles? Why not five, or eight, or ten? The answer is because there are twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus said that at the renewal of all things, when he sits on his glorious throne, his twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mat 19:27–8).

Judging, in this sense, will mean administering justice and settling disputes. It will take place when our Lord returns and begins his thousand year reign on earth (Rev 20:1–6). At that time the twelve apostles will judge Israel, as others had done in the Old Testament (Exo 18:13–26).

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve Jesus had chosen, hanged himself after betraying the Lord (Mat 27:3–5). The betrayal was in accordance with God's will and purpose (Act 2:23) and had been foretold by the prophet Zechariah five hundred years previously (Zec 11:12–3).

Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. John's Gospel tells us that he was a thief who, as keeper of the money bag, used to help himself to what was put into it (Joh 12:4–6).

So our Lord was handed over to be crucified for financial gain. We can see why the Bible says that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1Ti 6:10), and why church leaders should not be lovers of money (1Ti 3:1–3).

Because Judas hanged himself it was necessary for another apostle to be chosen: that had been foretold in the Book of Psalms (Act 1:20). The man had to be an eye witness of everything our Lord had said and done and to have seen him after his resurrection (Act 1:21–2).

Our Lord's resurrection figured prominently in the apostles' preaching (Act 2:24,31–2), the belief of which is essential for salvation (Rom 10:9).

They chose a man to replace Judas by casting lots (Act 1:23–6) and Matthias was chosen. Casting lots was an Old Testament way of discerning God's will (Jos 18:8–10; Pro 16:33). After Pentecost such methods became obsolete and his will was decided by the leading and witness of the Spirit (Act 15:28–9).

Role of elders

The twelve apostles were the first leaders of the church, but as it expanded numerically and geographically more leaders were needed. The problem was solved by appointing elders (Act 14:23), a method of government God had used in the Old Testament.

The role and function of elders in the New Testament is the same as it was in the Old:

Leaders of the people

In the Old Testament, when Moses went up the mountain to meet with God, he took seventy of Israel's elders with him. The Bible says that God did not raise his hand against those leaders of Israel (Exo 24:1,9–11). God regarded Israel's elders as leaders.

In the New Testament, when a dispute arose over whether Gentile believers should be circumcised, it was brought before the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. They consulted together and issued a statement declaring what the Holy Spirit had instructed (Act 15:1–29). Those elders were clearly leaders in the church.

Guardians of the people

In the Old Testament, when God met with Moses in the desert and told him to bring his people out of Egypt, he sent him first to the elders of Israel. Even though Moses had been chosen by God and anointed by him, he had to convince the elders he'd been sent from God (Exo 3:1–18).

In the New Testament, when Paul said farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus, he told them to keep watch over the flock of which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Act 20:17,28–31). The Greek word translated 'overseer' (episkopos) means a watchman.

Elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit to watch over the flock of God. They are guardians of his people and are responsible for their spiritual welfare.

The New Testament warns against false apostles (2Co 11:13), false prophets (1Jo 4:1) and false teachers (2Pe 2:1) who will try to infiltrate the church and lead people astray. One of the functions of elders is to guard against such false brethren.

Authority to discipline

In the Old Testament, God decreed that if a man married a woman and then afterwards claimed that she wasn't a virgin, the elders should investigate the case and, if they found the claim to be false, they should punish the man who had given an Israelite virgin a bad name (Deu 22:13–9).

In the New Testament, church leaders have authority from God to discipline those who need it. When Paul told the church at Corinth to expel the immoral brother from their midst, it would have been the leaders of the church (including the elders) who would have performed that task (1Co 5:1–5).

Advice to ministries

In the Old Testament, when Rehoboam became king in place of his father Solomon, he didn't listen to the advice given him by the elders who had served his father. Instead he consulted the young men who had grown up with him and followed their advice. In doing so he brought trouble upon himself and Israel (2Ch 10:1–17).

In the New Testament, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are given, by Jesus, to bring his people to maturity in the faith (Eph 4:11–3), but they still need advice from elders. No ministry, no matter how anointed, is infallible; all are human and capable of error.

There must be consensus in church government. The apostles and elders said it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them… (Act 15:28). There was general agreement that the decision they had made was in accordance with God's will.

But what if a pastor receives direction from the Lord for his church and the elders don't agree with it? In that case the pastor should pray that the Holy Spirit will speak to them also.

The alternative is to have an autocracy where one person makes all the decisions. That is not wise. Pro 11:14 says: 'Where there is no counsel [advice], the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors [advisers] there is safety (NKJV).'

Elders figure prominently in both Old and New Testaments, and if we want further proof of their importance we should look at Rev 4:2–4. Elders are very important in the church.

Qualities of elders

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 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?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap. (1Ti 3:1–7)

The words 'overseer' and 'elder' are used interchangeably in the New Testament and represent the same office, which is why the qualities required of them are the same (Tit 1:6–9). The word 'elder' denotes the title of the person, whereas 'overseer' describes what he does.

It is scriptural to desire to be an elder, but that doesn't mean the position is open to anyone who wants it. Because of its importance and the level of responsibility involved, the Holy Spirit has laid down strict qualifications for those who would serve in this way (see above text). Most of them are self-explanatory, but a few can benefit from comment:

Husband of one wife

An elder doesn't have to be married, but if he is he must only have one wife. Even though polygyny (a man having more than one wife) was permitted in the Old Testament (Gen 32:22; Deu 21:15–6), monogamy (one husband, one wife) is the rule in God's church.

Able to teach

An elder doesn't have to be a Bible teacher, but he must be able to counsel and instruct the people in the ways of the Lord. That means he must know the basic doctrines of the faith and be able to teach them, even if it's only on a one-to-one basis.

Those who do preach and teach are worthy of double honour, which includes receiving financial support from those they minister to (1Ti 5:17–8). However, the greatest sermon a leader can present to the church is his own life. Paul told Timothy to set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity (1Ti 4:12).

Charles Spurgeon said that Christians often read their leaders more than they read their Bibles. If a leader sets a bad example, the whole church can go astray.

Not a recent convert

A recent convert, placed in a position of authority in a church, is more likely to struggle with conceit (pride) than someone who is older in the Lord.

We must not underestimate the seriousness of pride. Pride was the first recorded sin: it caused Satan's fall even before man was tempted (Eze 28:12–7). A proud heart may not be obvious to others, but God looks at the heart (1Sa 16:7).

Neither proud leaders nor a proud church will be blessed by God, for he opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (1Pe 5:5).

Leadership is male

Is it possible for a woman to be a leader in the church? The answer is no. She can be spiritually gifted and manifest those gifts in meetings (1Co 14:1,26), but she cannot be a leader.

The Greek word translated 'brothers' in v26 refers to believers, both men and women; and women not being allowed to speak in the church (v33–5) refers to them asking questions about things they don't understand.

Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote the following (the comments are mine):

I do not permit a woman to teach [from a position of leadership] or to have [spiritual] authority over a man; she must be silent [in this respect]. For Adam was formed first, then Eve [God's order in creation]. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (1Ti 2:12–4)

Paul had written to Timothy, who was at Ephesus (1Ti 1:3). One of the themes of his letter was church leadership. Women can be leaders in the secular world, but not in the church. God gives three reasons for that:

Whether it's easier for Satan to deceive a woman than a man is uncertain but, because of those three facts, God will not allow women to exercise spiritual authority over men. church leadership involves correcting those who fall into sin and, as woman sinned first and then led man into sin (Gen 3:6), God will not allow her to perform that task.

But that doesn't mean she cannot minister the Word of God. I've heard inspired teachings given by women to mixed congregations, but they weren't leaders.

God said that in the last days he would pour out his Spirit on all people (men and women) and they would prophesy (speak inspired messages from him: Act 2:17–8).

We are still in the last days (the days preceding our Lord's return: 2Pe 3:3–4), and women are still prophesying (prophecy strengthens, encourages and comforts the Body of Christ: 1Co 14:3); but they cannot be leaders.

As we've already seen, not only must an overseer be the husband of one wife (not the wife of one husband) and manage his own family well (not her own family well), but the Greek text provides further evidence that church leadership is male.

The Greek word translated 'elder' in the New Testament is presbyteros which, depending on the context, can mean either an elder in the church or an older person (male or female). However, the word needed to specify a female elder would be presbytera. That word occurs only once (1Ti 5:2) where it clearly refers to older women, and not elders (1).

Choosing elders

In the Old Testament an elder was simply an older man, because a person who had seen more of life was more likely to have gained wisdom. However, in the Book of Job Elihu declared that it's God's Spirit who gives man (true) wisdom (Job 32:4–9).

And even though wisdom can be given by God to any Christian of any age (Jam 1:5), because of the qualities of character required of elders in the New Testament, we are more likely to be looking at older, rather than younger, men.

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches they planted (Act 14:23) and they, in turn, would have appointed others as needed. But if a man is not scripturally qualified to be an elder, then he cannot be an elder—at least not yet.

We can only appoint elders as God raises them up. Many problems in the church have been caused by unfit leaders within: either leaders have been appointed whom God has not chosen, or they've been placed in positions of authority before their time.

Jesus said that he will build his church (Mat 16:18); let us not get ahead of him. David was anointed as the future king of Israel at an early age (1Sa 16:11–2), but he had to go through many years of trials and testings before he was ready for the post. Those trials and testings developed his character.

The twelve apostles were the first leaders of the church and Luke tells us that Jesus spent a whole night in prayer before he chose them (Luk 6:12–3). If Jesus spent a night in prayer before choosing leaders, how much more time should we spend in prayer before choosing them.

Satanic attacks

Paul wrote that we shouldn't be hasty in the laying on of hands (1Ti 5:22). The laying on of hands is a New Testament way of appointing people to ministries in the church (Act 6:1–6;13:1–3) and it shouldn't be done hastily. It's easier to place someone in a position of authority than to remove them from it.

The Bible says that we shouldn't entertain an accusation against an elder unless it's brought by two or three witnesses (1Ti 5:19). Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Zec 3:1). The Hebrew word translated 'Satan' in the Old Testament means accuser, slanderer, adversary; and he will try to discredit church leaders.

The words: 'Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zec 13:7),' were not only prophetic for our Lord and his disciples (Mat 26:31), but can also be true for his church.

If leaders are accused of wrongdoing and find it difficult to prove their innocence, whole fellowships can be destroyed. We need to pray for our leaders and they, for their part, should avoid getting into situations where Satan could accuse them falsely.

Obey your leaders

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13:17)

Church leaders watch over God's people on God's behalf and will have to account for their ministry. That is an awesome responsibility and is not something anyone should enter into lightly.

Because of that we are told to obey our leaders when they give us moral and spiritual instruction so that their work will be a joy and not a burden. The Greek word translated 'burden' means to groan or to sigh.

John, who was an apostle and an elder, said that he had no greater joy than to hear that his children were walking in the truth (3Jo :4). It blesses the heart of any leader to see God's people walking in the truth. If we refuse to obey the godly counsel of our leaders, their ministry will be of no benefit to us.

Michael Graham
June 2006
Revised January 2019

(1) Hebrew Greek Key Word Study Bible New International Version. 1996. AMG International, Inc. p1665. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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