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What is the biblical pattern of church leadership?

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There is a distinct pattern for church leadership in the New Testament, although the pattern seems to be assumed rather than specifically prescribed. The New Testament mentions two official positions in the church: deacons and elders (also called pastors or overseers).

The words elder (sometimes translated “presbyter”), pastor (which may be translated “shepherd”), and overseer (sometimes translated “bishop”) are used interchangeably in the New Testament. Even though these terms often mean different things among various churches today, the New Testament seems to point to one office, which was occupied by several godly men within each church. The following verses illustrate how the terms overlap and are used interchangeably:

In Acts 20:17–35, Paul is speaking to leaders from the Ephesian church. They are called “elders” in verse 17. Then in verse 28 he says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.” Here the elders are called “overseers” and their pastoral/shepherding duties are implied as the church is called the “flock.”

In Titus 1:5–9, Paul gives the qualifications of elders (verse 5) and says these qualifications are necessary because “an overseer must be above reproach” (verse 7). In 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Paul gives the qualifications for overseers, which are essentially the same as the qualifications for elders in Titus. In 1 Peter 5:1–4, Peter tells the elders to “shepherd the flock of God.” From these passages, we see that the office of elder/pastor-shepherd/overseer-bishop is one. Those who occupy this office are to lead, teach, and watch over the church like a shepherd.

Furthermore, we see that every church has elders (plural). Elders are supposed to rule and teach (1 Timothy 5:17). The biblical pattern is that a group of men (and elders are always men) is responsible for the spiritual leadership and ministry of the church. There is no mention of a church with a single elder/pastor who is in charge of everything, nor is there any mention of congregational rule (although the congregation plays a part).

While the elders are responsible for teaching and leading the flock, there is still much that needs to be done on the physical level. The office of deacon focuses on the more physical needs of the church. In Acts 6, the church in Jerusalem was meeting the physical needs of many people in the church by distributing food. Some of the widows came to the apostles because they were not getting what they needed. The apostles responded, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). To relieve the apostles, the people were told “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3–4). Although the men chosen here are not called deacons, most Bible scholars see them as the first deacons, or at least prototypical of the position. The word deacon simply means “servant.” Deacons are appointed church officials who minister to the more physical needs of the church, relieving the elders to attend to more spiritual ministry. Deacons are to be spiritually fit, and the qualifications of deacons are given in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.

In summary, elders lead and deacons serve. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Elders serve their people by leading, teaching, praying, counseling, etc.; and deacons may lead others in service. In fact, deacons might be the leaders of service teams within the church. Still, there is the basic distinction between those responsible for spiritual leadership of the church and those responsible for service.

So, where does the congregation fit into the pattern of church leadership? In Acts 6, it was the congregation who chose the deacons, so many churches today will have the congregation nominate and ratify the deacons of the church. Members also serve in various capacities in the church. And, of course, the members of the congregation are to be the primary ministers and evangelists reaching out to a lost world. The idea that the congregation hires professional ministers to do the work of the church is unbiblical.

There may be local variations of church leadership because this is only a basic pattern; every detail is not prescribed in Scripture. The basic pattern found in the New Testament is that every church should have a plurality of godly male elders who are responsible for leading and teaching the church and godly deacons who are responsible for facilitating the more physical aspects of church ministry. A plurality of elders protects the church from the weaknesses and possible excesses a single elder might bring. As long as this basic pattern is followed, the church is operating according to the biblical pattern. Having a sole pastor who controls the church is not the biblical pattern, and neither is an arrangement in which the pastor works for the deacons who really run the church. The congregation is to follow the leading of the shepherds who follow Christ. In their wisdom, the elders may request congregational approval of major decisions, but the congregation should not be the final authority. The buck stops with the elders/pastors/overseers, who answer to Christ.

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This page last updated: June 2, 2023