Human Leadership in the
In the New Testament, three different Greek terms are used to describe men who have been chosen of God to be the human leaders and rulers of the church, under the direction of Christ the Head. They are as follows:
Ø poimhn - (translated pastor) - a shepherd; one who generally cares for flocks.
Ø episkopos – (translated bishop/overseer) - a watchman; superintendent.
Ø presbuteros - (translated elder) - an older man; a senior; implies maturity.
These three terms are used
interchangeably. For example, in Titus 1:5, Paul commands Titus to appoint
elders in every city in
In similar fashion in Acts 20,
Paul addresses the elders from the church in
In I Peter 5:1-2, Peter addresses the elders, and commands them to feed (shepherd/pastor) the flock of God and to take the oversight (form of bishop). In three different contexts, the interchangeable and synonymous use of these three terms indicates that they each represent the same office or function in the Body.
In other words, God has appointed a group of older, spiritually mature, discerning men (elders) to take care of the church of God by watching over it, (bishop/overseer), feeding it, and protecting it, as a shepherd (pastor) would tend to his flock. The term “elder” is the most commonly used term in the New Testament for the church leader. In Acts and the epistles (in a church context), the noun “pastor” appears only once (although the verb form – the function of shepherding appears three times). The noun “bishop or overseer” appears five times. The term “elder” appears about sixteen times. Though not a hard and fast rule, the men themselves are usually referred to as elders, and their function is often listed as overseeing, shepherding, or both. In some circles much ado is made of the terms themselves, whether the leaders are to be called pastors, pastor/teachers, elders, or bishops. Since the terms are used interchangeably in the Scriptures, that debate is reduced to little more than one of semantics and personal preference. What matters is that the local church has qualified men functioning as God designed – regardless of what they are called. It is not the title of the office but the faithful and skillful function of that office that benefits the Body and glorifies the Head. F.F. Bruce noted that “there was in apostolic times no distinction between elders (presbyters) and bishops such as we find from the second century onwards: the leaders of the Ephesian church are indiscriminately described as elders, bishops (i.e. superintendents) and shepherds (or pastors).” Augustus H. Strong concurs when he writes, “the appellations ‘bishop,’ ‘presbyter,’ and ‘pastor’ designate the same office and order of persons.”
The New Testament reveals that every local church was to have a plurality of elders appointed to teach, shepherd, and oversee. The apostles and churches did not appoint one man as the only leader in any local church, and for obvious reasons. No one man has all the spiritual gifts necessary to properly shepherd the flock of God. God in His wisdom has designed a number (though not a particular number – this would vary depending upon the need) of men to function in a leadership role in the assembly.
It is clear that there was a plurality of elders in the
Many see in the Scriptures the inference that one of the elders (pastors) is to hold a senior position. He might be referred to as a presiding elder or a senior pastor. The inference comes from the following passages.
First of all, in Acts 15, the apostles and elders met to discuss the heresy of legalism entering the church. After much discussion (15:6), one man, James gave his sentence or judgment (vs.19). While James certainly participated in and benefited from the discussion, he seemed to speak for the rest of the elders with finality and ended the debate.
Another inference is found in I Timothy 1:3. In that passage
Paul gives Timothy (who was functioning as the pastor/teacher in
Of course, the real authority comes from the Scriptures and not the church leader (Titus ). An elder/pastor who deviates from the truth is no longer scripturally qualified to function in that office. He must “hold fast the faithful word as he hath been taught” (Titus 1:9a) or be rejected. Even if the presiding elder (senior pastor) deviates from the truth, he is no longer qualified to function in that capacity. It is the responsibility of the other elders and the congregation to deal with that as a matter of church discipline (Acts 17:11; I Tim.5:19-20).
Another inference from Scripture concerning the concept of a
senior pastor or presiding elder is found in Revelation chapters two and three.
Throughout the letters to the churches of
In the three passages mentioned (Acts 15; I Tim.1; Rev.2-3), the inference is that one man seemed to be a “senior among peers” and thus took the lead, spoke for the board (Acts 15; I Tim.1), or received the criticism for failure to take the lead (Rev.2-3). However, this does not imply that the senior pastor is to make all decisions unilaterally. The presiding elder (senior pastor) is one of the elders and not a different office or function. The church is to be led by the board of elders (pastoral staff) under the Headship of Christ and His Word. Strauch wrote, “church leadership is a team effort – not the sole responsibility one “professional” religious leader.” The existence of a presiding elder (senior pastor) in no way implies that one man is to have the preeminence in the assembly. That is reserved for Christ and Christ alone. The spiritual qualities and requirements for the office of elder/bishop would mitigate against a senior pastor becoming puffed up with arrogant pride (I Tim.3:6) or self-will (Titus 1:7). He must be “sober, just, holy, and temperate (Titus 1:8b). When an elder (senior or otherwise) continually demonstrates self-will or becomes a self proclaimed “Potentate,” he has disqualified himself from office. God does not tolerate men who rob Christ of His preeminence in the local church (III John 9-11). Church leaders are to lead by Christlike example (I Pet.5:3) which will always demonstrate the attitude of a servant (John 13:1-17; Phil.2:5-9; Matt.20:28), and not that of a dictator.
In I Pet.5:2 and in Acts , the elders are commanded to “feed” the flock of God. In both cases, the same Greek verb (poimaivnw) is used. The meaning of the term is broader than the English “feed” would imply. It is the verb form of the noun “shepherd.” Thus, the elder/pastor is to “shepherd” the flock. Shepherding a flock is broad enough to include all the things a shepherd does to care for his flock. It would of course include feeding, but would also imply protecting, leading, and general oversight of the flock. A shepherd was to care for all the physical needs of his flock. In the local church, the pastor/elder has a spiritual ministry to the flock, and is to attend to all their needs. While shepherding might be the major function of the elder/pastor on paper, too often in practice the board becomes more like business managers or organizational administrators who deal with policies, projects, and programs, but do precious little shepherding directly with the people. While some administration work is necessary, it is not the primary function of the elder. Shepherding is! James Moffat noted that the shepherd image spoke of “the twofold functions of control and devotion.”  A good shepherd leads the flock, but he is also devoted to the well being of the sheep. In the following sections, some of the more specific responsibilities of “shepherding” the flock are listed.
Elders are to rule in the local church. (I Tim.5:17). According to Vine, the word translated rule means “to stand before, hence, to lead, to attend to.” Arndt and Gingrich’s Lexicon defines the term as to be at the head of, to rule, to direct, or to manage. It is a leadership position of designed by God for the care of the Body of Christ. The type of rulership is suggested by the use of this term “rule” in I Timothy 3:5. Paul suggests that if an elder is going to be able to function in a leadership capacity in the local church, he must first be proven by demonstrating his ability to “rule” in his own home. Thus, church “rule” is to be similar to home “rule.” It is a loving, caring, devoted leadership, not a tyrannical or despotic rule. Just as a father has a God-given authority in the home, so too the elder/pastor has a God-given authority in the local church. The elder is said to have the “rule over” the congregation (Heb.13:7,17,24) but in a “fatherly” way (I Thess.2:11). The congregation is expected to “obey” those in a rulership position, just as children are to obey their parents in the Lord and wives are to submit to their husbands (Heb.13:17). While some might cringe at the thought of human authority in the local church, the text demands this conclusion. The elders “rule over” the congregation who is commanded to “obey.” The concept of authority may not be a popular one, but it is a Biblical one. This rule is to be shared by the elders, for in each of the passages sited, the author uses the plural “them” in referring to those who rule. The I Tim.5:17 passage also speaks of a plurality of elders who share in the rule of the congregation. This aspect of an elder’s work will include administrative responsibilities and requires diligence (Rom.12:8). Of course all of this must be understood in the greater context of Christ’s authority as Head of the Body. The elders have authority only in as far as their rule is in harmony with God’s Word.
The teaching of God’s
Word is one of the primary responsibilities of the elder/pastor/bishop. One of
the requirements for the office is that a man be “apt to teach” (I Tim.3:2).
The elders’ responsibility is to “labor in the Word” (I Tim.5:17). Homer
Kent stated that “This verse does not give sufficient warrant for the Reformed
view of two classes of elders, those who ruled and those who taught. Every
elder engaged in teaching (3:2). However, some would do so with more energy and
excellence than others.” After laboring in the Word, the elder
was also to speak the Word of God to the believers (Heb.13:7).
Paul charged Timothy (who seemed to be functioning as pastor in
The pastors/elders were also given the responsibility of general oversight of the flock of God (Acts 20:28; I Pet.5:1-2). Strong defines the term “oversight” (ejpiskopevw) as “to look upon, inspect, oversee, look after, care for, or to beware.” As a shepherd watches over his flock, a pastor/elder is to watch over the flock of God. In that sense, he serves as a “watchman” to the flock (Cf. Ezek.33:1-7; Prov.27:23). He is to observe the sheep with a view to their care, well being, and protection. Elders are to watch for wolves (Acts -31) and warn the sheep appropriately (Titus 1:9-14). Shepherds are to watch for any diseases that might arise among the sheep and deal with them. In a similar sense, pastors/elders are also to observe the sheep for spiritual diseases that might arise, such as sin problems, division, or infighting (II Tim.4:2; Titus 2:15). The elders are responsible to admonish those sheep who sin (I Thess.5:12). Elders are to watch for dangers from without and from within the assembly. The pastors/elders also are to watch and care for the physical needs of the sheep. In the New Testament, this care also included praying for the sick (James ) and sending relief funds to needy saints (Acts ).
In carrying out all of their responsibilities, it is of utmost importance that elders be examples to the flock (I Pet.5:3). Church leaders will be effective only insofar as they are first of all followers of Christ. Paul illustrates this important principle well when he said, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). The goal of the shepherd ought to be to bring the sheep to Christilike maturity (Col.1:29; Eph.4:12-15). The undershepherds are not to drive the sheep but are to gently lead the sheep to Christlikness by their example. Leading the sheep by example is a constant reminder to the pastor/elder that he is not above the sheep, but is one OF the sheep. All the sheep (saints, bishops, and deacons – Phil.1:1) are brethren and are to be followers of the Lamb (John ). The testimony and example of effective church leaders results in a flock that is cognizant of the fact that they are not followers of men (the pastor/elder) but are followers of Christ, the Chief Shepherd.
Elders are to lead and rule in the church, but are not to lord it over the flock (I Pet.5:3). Rather, they are to be servants. Earl Radmacher said that “human leaders, even Christian ones, are sinners and they only accomplish God’s will imperfectly. Multiple leaders, therefore, will serve as a ‘check and balance’ on each other and serve as a safeguard against the very human tendency to play God over other people.” The responsibility of the elders is not to push their own agenda, but to seek the will of Christ through His Word. Thus, there is a genuine LINK between Christ the head and His Body. Christ is the True Shepherd of the flock, and He carries out His ministry of shepherding the flock through the undershepherds or elders (pastors/bishops) in a local church. Elders therefore are to be knowledgeable in the Scriptures, discerning, and apt to teach (I Tim.3:2). The church is not to be governed by novices (vs.6), but by mature, Spirit-filled men. Christ shepherds the flock primarily by means of His Word. Spiritually mature men who know the Word are to point the assembly of the saints to the written record of God’s Word and will. Elders, whose hearts are in tune with God, will be concerned that Christ’s will is carried out by the Body. As elders study the Word and feed the flock, it is in reality Christ’s care for His Body. Christ is the Head of the Body and He is to have all the preeminence. Any practical outworking of church polity that exalts man to the place of preeminence (intentionally or otherwise) robs Christ of His glory, limits His function as Head of the Body, and undermines God’s purpose for the local church. Thus, when the saints are well taught and cared for, Christ gets all the glory. Undershepherds are merely the earthly instruments through whom the Chief Shepherd shepherds His flock. To use the Head/Body illustration, pastors/elders/bishops are the members through whom Christ (the heavenly Head) cares for His Body on earth.
The second “office” in the church is that of a deacon. In discussing the qualifications of a deacon in I Tim.3:8-13, Homer Kent wrote, “From the title given to the office (diakonos) and from the cognate verb employed in verse 10 (diakoneitosan), it is concluded that the nature of the office is a ministering or serving.” The term itself (diakonos) means “servant,” though the exact duties of service are nowhere listed in Scripture. There are several terms for servant in the New Testament. A doulos (Matt.8:9) was a bond slave, obligated to submitting to the will of his master. The term oikeths was a house servant (Acts 10:7), and spoke of a closer relationship between the master and servant than a doulos. Neither of those terms was chosen to describe the church office. The Greek term diakonos was chosen for this purpose. This term “refers to a servant in relationship to his activity, one who renders service to another for the benefit of the one being served. Unlike the word slave (doulos) diakonos (servant) implies the thought of voluntary service.”
Most often in the New Testament, the term refers to a servant in a general sense, but in a few passages it refers to the office of a deacon, the officially recognized servants of the church. For example, in Philippians 1:1, Paul addresses all the saints in the church “with the bishops and deacons.” Clearly this passage differentiates between the congregation of saints and the two officers in the church: the bishop/overseer and the deacon/servant. Augustus Strong wrote, “the number of offices in the church is two: first, the office of a bishop, presbyter, or pastor; and secondly, the office of a deacon.” The Philippian passage supports such a notion.
Another passage that clearly uses the term deacon as an officer in the church is found in I Tim.3:8-13. In this chapter Paul outlines the qualification for church officers. First he lists qualifications for the office of a bishop (vs.1-7) and then for the office of a deacon (vs.8-13). Specific spiritual qualifications must be met before a man is able to serve in this official capacity. In one sense, all believers are to be servants. However, not all believers are called to the office of a deacon. Deacons must first prove their faithfulness, demonstrate maturity, and a willingness to serve. Like the bishop/elder (vs.4-5), the deacons must know how to rule their own households well before being entrusted with caring for the house of God (vs.11-12). A man who cannot balance his checkbook at home would not be the best choice to handle church finances. The qualifications listed prove that Paul is referring to a specific office in the church and not to service in general.
Many New Testament passages mention in detail the specific
responsibilities of the elder/pastor. However, nothing is said concerning the
specific “duties” of the deacon. The obvious reason for this is that those
duties and responsibilities would vary greatly from church to church depending
upon its size and need. The deacons are to serve the Lord by ministering to the
needs of the local church as those needs arise. The needs of a small assembly
in the jungles of
In both passages which deal specifically with the office of a deacon (Phil.1:1; I Tim.3:8-13) speak of deacons in the plural. This would indicate that each church had more than one deacon, although the exact number would depend upon the need. They served together as a team of servants.
Many see the origin of the office of a deacon foreshadowed in
Acts 6:1-6. Although none of the men mentioned in this section are actually
called deacons, a related term (diakonia)
does appear twice, translated as “ministration” (vs.1) and “ministry” (vs.4).
The verb diakonew appears
in verse two in reference to serving tables. Thus, we see a “deacon” type of
service being rendered. At this point in church history, church officers had
not yet been revealed, for Paul (the author of the two passages dealing with
deacons) had not yet been saved! However, as the early church began to grow and
expand, the Body of Christ developed various types of needs which could not be
overlooked. The Acts six passage illustrates two types of needs and two groups
of men appointed to meet those needs. There was a need for some men to give
themselves “continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (vs.4). The
twelve saw this as their responsibility as leaders. However, they found that
the congregation of saints had physical needs to be cared for as well (vs.1-2).
Therefore, under the direction of the apostles, the multitude of believers
chose seven capable, trusted men to assist the twelve in this matter (vs.5).
The ones chosen had to be mature, Spirit-filled men of faith. The apostles
consented to the choice of the multitude, and seven men were thus appointed to
attend to “deacon service” (vs.6). Of course the “twelve” were not elders, and
the “seven” were not called deacons, but the story does demonstrate two
specific types of needs manifested in the early church. There was a need for
pastoral teaching and prayer and there was a need for ordinary earthly needs to
be attended to. God provided two groups of men to function in such a way so as
to meet those needs. The twelve were not able to do it all. Serving tables was
taking them away from their labor in the Word and in prayer (vs.2).
Therefore, seven servants were appointed to lighten their load. The result of
dividing the workload was that the “word of God increased and the number of
disciples multiplied in
The work of all church officers should be highly esteemed by the congregation of believers. This certainly does not mean the exaltation of man. Rather, it implies that the WORK elders and deacons do is to be greatly valued by the saints. The high esteem is to be shown “for their work’s sake” (I Thess.5:13; I Tim.3:13). The work that both the elders and deacons perform for the Body is first and foremost a work for Christ Himself. All service rendered unto men is to be done as unto the Lord and is in reality a service rendered unto Christ (Col.3:22-24). When elders faithfully and lovingly shepherd the flock, they are but a conduit of the love and care that flows from the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb.13:20). When deacons minister to the Body as servants, they are a reflection of Christ, “who made Himself of no reputation and took upon Him the form of a servant” (Phil.2:7b; cf. John 13:1-17). The concept of servanthood is elevated in Scriptures. “And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew -28). Jesus came not to be ministered unto but to minister (diakonhsai) “do the work of a deacon/servant.” The function of elder/pastor mirrors Christ as the Chief Shepherd, and the function of a deacon mirrors Christ’s ministry as a Servant. For that reason, the work of shepherding and selfless deacon-service is exceedingly valuable to the Body of Christ and should be esteemed highly by the congregation of the saints. (I Thess.5:13; I Tim.3:13).
 Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Pastoral Epistles, Moody Press, Chicago, 1979, p.121
 F.F. Bruce, The
Book of Acts, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,
 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic
Theology, Judson Press,
 Robert Gromacki, Stand True to the
Charge, Baker House,
 Alexander Strauch, Biblical
Eldership, Lewis and Roth Publishers,
 D. Edmond Hiebert, First Peter, Moody Press, Chicago, 1984, p.284
 W.E.Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary¸
Thomas Nelson Publishers,
 Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek English
Lexicon of the New Testament,
 Homer A. Kent, The Pastoral Epistles, Moody Press, Chicago, 1979, p.181-182
 Homer A. Kent, Ephesians, the Glory of the Church, Moody Press, Chicago, 1971, p.72
 Alexander Strauch, Biblical
Eldership, Lewis and Roth Publishers,
 Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Pastoral Epistles, Moody Press, Chicago, 1979, p.136
 D. Edmond Hiebert, Biblothecha Sacra, Vol. 140, #558, p.153
 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic
Theology, Judson Press,