Who Leads the Church?

As I’m blogging my way through 1 Timothy i’ve come to a section of the letter that explains who should lead the church. You’ll know, if you’ve been following along with these blogs that Timothy is a young pastor in a divided church and Paul is writing to him to encourage him to set things in order. So, when it comes to leading the church this is a pretty big deal! Here is the passage:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become 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, into a snare of the devil. 

So in this chapter Paul identifies two primary leadership roles in the church: elders, who are servant leaders, and deacons, who are leading servants. In this section Paul is specifically describing the kind of person who is a “servant leader” and how they are fit to fill the office of an “elder”. The term elder is the Greek word episkopē which means “overseer” and in this article I’d like to give you my take on who it is that leads the church, and by what qualification they do so.

Jesus Leads the Church

This is really the crux of the matter. Paul makes it clear in his letter to the church in Ephesus that Jesus is head of the church:

… Christ also is the head of the church

Ephesians 5:23

Paul repeats this claim in his letter to the church in Colossi

He is also head of the body, the church; ….

Colossians 1:18

Peter also agrees with Paul, and even using the same Greek word as Paul in 1 Timothy 3:1 – overseer:

For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:25

Paul told the Ephesians elders (a passage we’ll look at in a little while) that Jesus had bought the church:

with his own blood

Acts 20:28

There are many other verses that we could reference but I think these three are sufficient to draw an accurate conclusion from: the church belongs to Jesus and He is the One leading it and overseer it.

Jesus Delegates Rule

So having established that the church belongs to Jesus and that He, and He alone leads the church, the question then remains: how exactly does Jesus lead and rule over the church today? Well, not only does Peter refer to Jesus as the Overseer, but in Acts 20:28 ; Php 1:1 ; 1 Tim 3:2 ; Titus 1:7 people are also referred to as overseers. What this means then is that there are certain individuals whom God has called to continue the work of overseeing Jesus’ church. It is still His church, but He has delegated oversight to others.

What are the Responsibilities of Elders?

If God has entrusted his church to elders, then we need to consider the responsibilities of such leaders. Here it is helpful to look at Paul’s sermon to the Ephesian elders:

28 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, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified

Acts 20:28-32

I’d like to highlight four responsibilities (from Acts 20) that elders have:

  1. They are to lead under the authority of Jesus

The Holy Spirit has made you overseers …. this means that none of our elders stands up or sends an email because they are acting on their own authority. All authority belongs to Jesus but authority in the church has been entrusted to elders. It’s also important to note, however, that in Matthews 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 Jesus has invested the whole church with authority over those in sin. We are part of His body after all and no one stands isolated or as the head, and the church has authority too, particular when then we those in the church who are wilfully sinning against God.

2. They are to lead by caring for the church

Paul says to “care for the church of God”. This is the same thing that Peter instructs too:

shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

1 Peter 5:2

This is the picture of a shepherd who protects and feeds the sheep that God has given him. This is what Paul says: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you”. He previously told them to “Pay attention” or to “be on guard”. This is the front line of spiritual warfare as elders guard not only their own lives but also the lives of the sheep that God has given them. They are to be on the look out for those that claim to be Christians but want to lead people astray. Pastor Chuck Smith always used to say that you can tell if wolves are about because sheep start disappearing and it’s the shepherds job to put themselves between he sheep and the wolf. Of course this comes with risks and many times the church aren’t aware of what is going on, or at least the depths of what is going on, and remain blissfully unaware. The church would do well to remember their elders in prayer since this is such a dangerous position to take on their behalf.

The second way that Paul says to care for the flock of God is through feeding and nurturing them. It’s not enough to keep the sheep away from wolves, the sheep need to be led to places where they can rest, feed and grow. In Acts 20:32 Paul writes about being built up and sanctified. This is the third main responsibility of elders.

3. They are to lead by teaching the Bible

Paul says that

I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.

Acts 20:27

so that they would be equipped and build up in the church. The Word alone has the power to build up the church and it is where the elder derives their authority from, otherwise it’s just man’s opinion.

4. Model the Character of Christ

The text in 1 Timothy is primarily about the character of Christ reflected in the people who are filling the office of elder. Actually there are three passages in the New Testament that deal with this (1 Timothy 3: 1-7; Titus 1: 5-9; and 1 Peter 5: 1-3). When these lists are combined we can draw some interesting conclusions about the kind of person an elder should be:

His Personal Life:

  • He is self-controlled
  • He is wise
  • He doesn’t start arguments but is peaceable
  • He is gentle but not weak
  • He gives despite the cost
  • He is humble
  • He is patient
  • He is open and honest
  • He is disciplined

His Home:

  • He is an elder in his home
  • He committed to his wife (of self controlled if single) – note that elders should be male.
  • His children (if he has them) honour him

Social Life:

  • Eager to open his home
  • Shows kindness to strangers
  • Doesn’t have favourites
  • His reputation isn’t tarnished

Spiritual Life:

  • He actively makes disciples
  • He loves the Word
  • He goes quickly to prayer
  • He is gracious

In the end no one will fulfil these qualifications perfectly apart from Jesus and the more we grow to be like Him, the more these characteristics are evident in our lives.

Just a couple of notes now about what an elder isn’t. Over the years there has been a lot of misunderstandings about elders and they often relate to things that the Bible simply doesn’t state as true. For example, no where do we read that an elder has to be an older man. Older men should not automatically become elders, and young men should not automatically be disqualified. I have met many foolish old men and wise young men. Additionally, no where doesn’t the Bible talk about business acumen, likability or academic excellence. Constantly the Biblical message is: “are they like Jesus, have they been called by Jesus?” – this is why we often refer to elders as leading servants – called to lead like Jesus.

So what about Pastors?

The New Testament uses the term “elder”, and “pastor” for those who have been given the primary responsibility to be spiritual leaders of the local church.  The term “pastor” is actually the Greek word for Shepherd. So in one sense an elder is the same as a pastor. However, as with many things there are some caveats to this. By that I mean that in the New Testament the idea of “elder” is alway plural (meaning that there is always more than one). So, at Calvary we believe in a plurality of elders who are equal in authority and responsibility. However, we do not believe in a “presbytery” (a group of elders who lead and manage the affairs of the church). We believe in something called “the first among equals” principle …

First Among Equals

The New Testament points to the idea that from among the group of elders is one man who is primarily responsible for preaching (Eph 4:11, 1 Tim. 5:17), vision and leading the other elders. (Romans 12:8). The elder who has primary responsibility for preaching is also referred to as The Pastor (to distinguish them from the other elders). The Pastor is above, more authoritative or more controlling that the other elders. His primary responsibility is to lead the group of elders. The Elders still have final responsibility before God for prayer ministry (James 5:14), ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4) including teaching and protecting the church’s doctrine (Acts 20:27-31; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:9), the administration of the church (1 Tim. 3:5), and shepherding the flock (1 Peter 5:2) by guiding them in the way of Biblical truth, and by protecting them from false teachers and diseased doctrine (Acts 20:28-31) . Some general observations about the first among equals perspective:

  1.  Whilst the Old Testament offers the hall of faith (Hebrews 11), of people that remind us of God’s practice of using one to influence many, the fact remains that in the New Testament Jesus chose 12 men.
  2. Even though Jesus chose 12 men Peter was undoubtedly given a very uniquely prominent role.
  3. A plurality of eldership with no lead elder/pastor is appealing to those that seek to prevent leadership mistakes, and drifting into theological error. It is not set up for expansion but protection.
  4. A plurality of eldership with no lead elder/pastor often results in situations where no one voice unites the eldership and speaks authoritatively on its behalf. The result of this is that church members gravitate to their favourite elder, which develops independent identities within the church.
  5. A plurality of eldership with no lead elder/pastor makes accountability difficult and diminishes responsibility. (Where everyone is responsible, no one is responsible).
  6. A plurality of eldership with no lead elder/pastor means that the most vocal or most gifted elder to all intents and purposes becomes the lead elder/pastor. This compromises the veracity of the eldership in their attempts to make a representation of unity.
  7. The spiritual gift of leadership makes no sense if there is a plurality of eldership with no lead elder/pastor.

At the end of the day, the Bible does not describe how elders should organise themselves, which gives the local church freedom to determine how best to organise themselves to meet the specific needs of the local body of Christ.

In the next article we’ll talk about Leading Servants aka Deacons.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.