Leadership of the Church

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul of Tarsus wrote, "The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (4:11-12). This is the fivefold ministry of the first-century church. Paul's letters also refer to a threefold leadership model of bishop (Greek: episkoposG1985, "overseer"), presbyter (presbuteros; G4245, "elder"), and deacon (diakonos; G1249, "server") that many scholars believe reflected a gradual shift in Christianity from decentralized local governance toward hierarchy (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-3). However, early church leadership was a matter of function rather than of office. We tend to use transliterations of biblical Greek terms for these various responsibilities, which causes us to view them as positions imbued with rank and divine privileges. Moreover, we must reconsider words such as "ordination" to see if they match the original intent of the New Testament authors. 

Jesus warns us, "You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28). This is the very definition of servant leadership from Jesus, the servant leader par excellence. This rules out all forms of intercession and mediation, to include popes, monarchical bishops, and even local pastors who try to be go-betweens from God to the churches they lead.


Apostles & Prophets


Today, "apostle" and "prophet" are the most commonly misused and abused words when it comes to church leadership. Many self-appointed leaders and even the most casual of Bible readers claim to be apostles and prophets "led only by the Spirit" when they teach false doctrine, a dubious appeal to God's authority. If we interpret the meaning of the biblical Greek words apostolos (G652) and prophētēs (G4396) instead of romanizing the letters, they simply translate as "delegate" and "spokesperson." Simply put, only God appoints individuals to send or publicly speak messages on his behalf. If the false teachers who claim to be apostles and prophets knew the responsibilities and consequences of being an apostle or a prophet, they would never call themselves as such. In ancient politics, the penalty for misrepresenting the king to a foreign ruler was death; this was also God's punishment for false prophets according to the Law of Moses (cf. Deut. 18:20). Yes, both the words "apostle" and "prophet" have very strong political implications. To be an apostle means to be sent by God and to formally represent the kingdom of heaven as an emissary to the unbelieving world. The prophet lives in the same embassy, advising those who do not know the King about his intent. Remember, the major Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah were advisors to Israel's monarchs (cf. Ezra 1:12 Kings 1:9:1-2). Philips's daughters, along with other prophets, foretold of God's kingdom coming to earth in the form of Jesus' disciples sharing the good news of his resurrection (cf. Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 13:2). 

The primary meaning of apostle in scripture referred to the twelve men whom Jesus appointed as his leadership team during his ministry years, especially because they were immersed by John the Baptist and witnessed the resurrected Christ (cf. Acts 1:22). Paul was a later apostle, though he was not one of the twelve and persecuted the church, he was an eyewitness to Jesus resurrected (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-2). The third and final meaning of apostle described those men or women who founded new churches in places where one did not yet exist (cf. Rom. 11:13; 16:7). For example, Epaphras started churches in the Lycus Valley cities of Laodicea, Hierapolis, and his native Colossae (cf. Col. 4:12-14). Therefore, an apostle today would be a person who founds a mission or Christian community in a place that desperately needs one. While none of us have seen the resurrected Jesus for ourselves, it is still possible for us to be emissaries of God's kingdom in places where the gospel has yet to reach. 


Overseers & Elders


Paul admonished the elders of Ephesian church: "Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son" (Acts 20:28). He also wrote these instructions to Timothy of Lystra:


The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once (Greek: mias gunaikos andra, "husband of one wife"), temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way—for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil (1 Tim. 3:1-7). 


Paul wrote to Titus: "For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it" (1:7-9).


In the first century, the apostles who witnessed the resurrected Jesus "appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe" (Acts 14:23). Notice that Luke of Antioch used the word "appointed" instead of "ordained," as we say in modern Christendom. Yes, there is a difference. The Greek verb cheirotoneō (G5500) refers to the laying on of hands, akin to how a leader handpicks their next-in-command. However, this has to do with one human being appointing another human being. This is not an ordination in the sense that God himself delegates or anoints church leaders. To be sure, Paul used this word when he wrote, "For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19; emp. added). Another Greek verb sometimes mistranslated as "to ordain" is kathistēmi (G2525), which means "to stand down" and refers to the delegation of authority. Strictly speaking, "ordination" has to do with God "thoroughly commanding" (diatassō; G1299, "ordain") leaders to do his will (cf. 1 Cor. 9:14), but in scripture we see that he delegates the task of appointing leaders to our local churches (cf. 2 Cor. 8:19). When some Bible translators deliberately misinterpret words, they choose to support contemporary errors such as ordination and clericalism instead of the original context. 


In the New Testament, there is no ceremony for anointing leaders, period. The authors only called Jesus "anointed" because they recognized his unique messianic identity as both king and priest of Israel (cf. John 1:41; Acts 10:38). In the Old Testament, only kings and priests were "anointed," meaning they literally had olive oil poured over their heads (cf. Lev. 8:12; 21:10; 1 Sam. 10:1; 2 Kings 9:6). However, way too many church leaders call themselves "anointed," not realizing the are claiming to be Messiah and Christ, titles belonging to Jesus alone. In fact, the only time a New Testament author mentioned an anointing ceremony was by church leaders rather than for them: "They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord" (James 5:14). Paul informed us, "It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment" (2 Cor. 1:21-22) in the order of salvation. Likewise, John son of Zebedee wrote, "You have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge" (1 John 2:20), implying that Jesus anoints all believers! Peter wrote, "Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:4-5; 9).




The server is an administrator of the church. S/he is responsible for items such as the budget and other administrative responsibilities. They must be "of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" (Acts 6:3). A server is the function of an actual service, not an honorary title given to long-term members or elders-in-training. S/he is the ecclesiastical counterpart of a server in a restaurant today: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on [diakoneō; G1247, "to serve"] tables" (Acts 6:2; emp. added). This coincides with the appointment of servers like Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch (Acts 6:5). 

These scriptural qualifications for servers: "Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women [i.e., female deacons] likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once [Greek: mias gunaikos andres, 'husband of one wife'], and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 3:8-13).

Both men and women served in the first-century diaconate. Historically, the early church appointed female deacons, as attested by Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) that lowered their minimum age from sixty to forty years (cf. 1 Tim. 5:9). Furthermore, Paul recognized Phoebe of Cenchreae as a deacon in his letter to the Romans (16:1; see "Equality & Praiseworthy Women").


Evangelists & Teachers

When Paul wrote that "some would be evangelists, pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11), koinē Greek did not have commas and other punctuation marks. This fact leads some readers to the conclusion that pastors and teachers are one and the same, while others views them separately. The word pastor is a Latin translation of the Greek poimēn (G4166), both literally meaning "shepherd." Eph. 4:11 is the only verse in which poimēn alludes to the pastoral ministry of anyone beside Jesus himself, who alone is the Good Shepherd (Poimēn ho Kalos; John 10:1-18). Every elder is a pastor, and many churches today do recognize this when they delineate teaching pastors from senior pastors, youth pastors, etc. However, too many churches identify one elder to be their "pastor," allowing him to dominate the entire church; this is a clear violation of scripture. Simon Peter admonished us, 

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (1 Pet. 5:1-5 [Prov. 3:34]).

What appears to be a fivefold ministry in Ephesians and a threefold ministry in Paul's general letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) were actually all the same roles and responsibilities of one overall ministry. Many of the words are interchangeable and probably represent a difference between local jargons. Consider the differences between an American president and a Canadian prime minister, offices that share many of the same functions but symbolize distinctive ideals. A teacher (G1320; didaskalos) was simply one who taught lessons from scripture who may or may not have been charged with other tasks (cf. Acts 18:26). An evangelist (G2099; euaggelistēs) was someone like Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John who wrote accounts of Jesus' life or who simply proclaimed the good news (G2098; euaggelion) of his resurrection (cf. 2 Tim. 4:5). Their role emphasized the public delivery of a message rather than personal interaction. Evangelists were much like town criers who declared the arrival of the Roman emperor before his official visits or tours. However, they proclaimed God's royal incarnation of Jesus as the "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Rev. 19:16).


Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, in your wise providence you appoint leaders for the mission of your church: Give grace to your servants, to whom the keys of your kingdom are now given: so empower them with the truth of sound doctrine, and endue them with holiness of life, that they may faithfully serve before you to the glory of your great name, and the benefit of your holy church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


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