Church Leadership in the New Testament
Fourth essay in series on Developing a Theology of Ministry
In my tradition (Disciples) there was a long held belief that the New Testament provided the church with a fairly straightforward vision of church leadership. Just go to Acts and perhaps the Pastorals and you’ll have what you need. That vision has proved to be rather simplistic, especially since a close reading of the New Testament reveals a rather varied understanding of church leadership.
Having already noted the post-apostolic developments of Ignatius, I’d like to step back for a moment and look at that variety present in the New Testament. We might ask ourselves, what do these developments have to do with the contemporary church? There are those who wish to reproduce the New Testament church, but many of us feel that this is a dead end. So, what might we take from our engagement with the biblical text for today?
It seems rather clear that from a NT perspective, ministry begins with the whole people of God. Whatever forms of leadership may develop, they emerge out of a common call to ministry of the whole people of God. We see this clearly developed in Paul's description of the church as a body (1 Cor. 12:14-31). This description clearly suggests that the whole people of God have been gifted for and called to ministry.
But, what is ministry? The Greek term diakonos can be translated in a variety of ways, but its most important nuance suggests the role of being a servant. Thus ministers are servants of God and the people of God. The biblical model for Christian ministry is found in the person of Jesus, who demonstrated that servanthood defined diakonia, even the servanthood of the cross. Whatever we have to say about ministry and the relationship between ordained and non-ordained forms of ministry, we need to realize that servanthood and mutuality stand as the founding principles.
Further, we can say that because Christ stands before God as our high priest, we have the right of access to God as priests for ourselves and priests for one another (Heb. 10). This principle of a royal priesthood, so eloquently defined in 1 Peter 2:5-9, eliminates the clergy as necessary priestly intermediaries between God and the people of God.
When we look at the New Testament we discover that no church order dominates and that all seem to emerge in ways appropriate to its cultural context. This should give us insight into how we might create structures that are culturally appropriate but that reflect the ministry of the whole people of God.
Although scholars have disabused us of the idea that we can simply turn to Acts and find the New Testament church order, what is found there should at least offer us something to reflect upon. According to the Acts narrative, the Jerusalem church was led by the Twelve or the Apostles. According to this tradition Jesus chose eleven of the twelve prior to his death, while Matthias replaced the disgraced Judas. According to Acts 2:42 and 6:2-4 these twelve men (yes, they were men, but is this prescriptive or descriptive?) formed the primary teaching ministry of the earliest Jerusalem church. Of the twelve, Peter and John seem to stand out, with the rest falling into the background. One of the Twelve is arrested and executed early in the life of the church and does not seem to have been replaced (Acts 12:1-2).
Acts 6 describes the selection of seven men of the Spirit to provide for the needs of widows in the church, especially from the Hellenistic Jews. The reason this group is set aside stems from the Twelve's need to teach rather than "serve tables." They were chosen because the demonstrated the presence and power of the Spirit in their lives. The church's first martyr came from this group, Stephen (Acts 6-7). Another member of this group, Philip, took the gospel to the Samaritans and to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8).
If the Apostles are said to be the earliest leaders, it is interesting that before too long the primary leadership role goes to James the brother of Jesus. When and why isn’t really described by the text, but as time goes on the Twelve recede and James comes to the forefront. According to the Pauline letters there will be conflict between James and Paul – or at least between Paul and certain persons who claim to represent James. A détente is established at a council described in Acts 16, over which James presides. But James appears to be assisted by elders, who are mentioned along with James and the Apostles as leaders of the church (Acts 15:4, 22).
There is another church that figures prominently in the early sections of Acts, and that is the church of Antioch. This church seems to be composed of a mixture of Gentile and Jewish Christians, and it’s this church that commissions Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. It’s also where the believers first came to be called Christians (Acts 11:26). We’re never told when this church came into existence, but from this account one would assume that it occurred rather early on. In Acts 13:1-2 we read that the church in Antioch had both Prophets and Teachers. Nothing is said in Acts about elders or deacons in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas appear to be part of the leadership structure that seems somewhat charismatic in orientation.
Paul is described as the founder of the churches in Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor, and information on those churches we have not just Acts, but also Paul’s own letters. It would seem that Paul continues to have a supervisory role in these churches, even after he moves on to start another church. Even if it’s not institutional authority, his influence appears to be quite important.
Regarding the nature of authority in these churches there seems to be quite a degree of difference between individual churches. From the Corinthian letters we can see that at least that church had a somewhat "charismatically" orientated sense of ministry organized around the concept of spiritual gifts. Eduard Schweizer notes that there was "no fundamental organization of superior or subordinate ranks, because the gift of the Spirit is adapted to every church member." As one looks at the description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12 one sees this sense of gift-based ministry. On the other hand, as one looks at the Pastoral Epistles, which are post-Pauline, one sees a much more formalized sense of ministry – one of the reasons why this has been deemed post-Pauline, since elsewhere there appears to be a more charismatic and less formal structure.
The most potent example of a charismatically organized church could be found in Corinth. In his letters to this church, Paul instructs the church how to properly make use of the gifts given by God. Eduard Schweizer makes the astute observation that in the letter to this church, Paul addresses not the leaders, whom we know nothing about, but the church as a whole. Here ordination does not seem to be a central concern. Rather leadership is something that is demonstrated through involvement in the life of the church. Those persons who have demonstrated effective use of spiritual gifts are to be followed. Unfortunately the Corinthians had put the emphasis on certain gifts of the Spirit that tended to emphasize spiritual ecstasy rather than service to God and humanity. Schweizer comments:
It is not because a person has been chosen as prophet or presbyter that he may exercise this or that ministry, but on the contrary, because God has given him the charism, the possibility is given to him, through the church order, of exercising it.
The Philippian letter doesn’t speak too directly about church order, but Paul does open the letter by addressing the bishops/elders (episcopoi) and deacons of the church of Philippi.
The Ephesian letter, which is likely post-Pauline (though one can make an argument for it being Pauline), offers a look at a more formalized structure, with five orders of ministry (giftedness) spoken of: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers (Eph 4:11-13). The Ephesian church also seems to have had elders, a fact mentioned in Acts 20:17, where we find Paul meeting with the elders from Ephesus at Miletus.
The most detailed descriptions of ministry come from the Pastoral Epistles, which is quite likely post-Pauline. In these letters, the author(s) address questions of leadership qualifications. Two primary offices are discussed, that of eldership and the diaconate.
In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 "Paul" provides the qualifications for overseers or elders (episkopos). In later developments episcopal ministry will be equated with that of bishops. The focus of this letter is on personal and moral qualifications for ministry. Elders should be able to teach and manage their own finances as well as the church's. The word episkopoi, from which we get the word episcopacy (bishops), it’s helpful to remember that it’s used here in the plural, and thus no monarchical episcopate quite yet (1 Tim 3:1; Tit 1:5-7). While some would distinguish between those with the ministry of oversight (episkopos) and that of eldership (presbuteros) there does not seem to be any difference in office. In Titus 1:5 we find “Paul” directing Titus to appoint elders (presbuteros) for the churches in the cities of Crete, which at least suggests that by this time there was some form of outside supervision of the various churches.
In addition, the author suggests that these leaders should receive some kind of financial assistance, possibly so they can devote more time to the church's ministry than would be allowed if they had to earn their entire way outside the church (1 Tim 5:17, 19).
The second office mentioned in the Pastorals was that of deacon (1 Tim 3:8-13). The Greek word is diakonos, which can be translated as minister or servant. Paul describes himself as a diakonos (Col. 1:17, 23, 25) and he calls Phoebe a diakonos as well (Rom 16:1). Again the emphasis is on personal qualifications rather than on defining responsibilities. It is possible that they were entrusted with overseeing the church's work of social service or perhaps they oversaw the financial side of church life. Little else is known.
In 1 Tim 5:3-16 the ministry of the widows in the church is discussed. Qualifications are laid out – just as for those called to be elders and deacons. According to this passage a widow had to be older than 60, the widow of one man, have a reputation of good works, have raised children, shown hospitality to strangers, washed the feet of strangers and assisted those in distress. There does not seem to be much difference in role from that of the diakonate. This person, now alone in the world, is to be supported by the church and now has the ministry of intercession.
The office of elder is mentioned in several other books. The author of 2 John and 3 John addresses himself as an elder, as does Peter (1 Pet 5:1). Peter also advises his readers to be subject to their elders. James 5:14 provides a further job description, as the letter encourages the church to call on the elders to pray and anoint the sick for healing. Finally in Revelation 4:4, 10 we find described the twenty-four elders in heaven who sit on twenty-four thrones and worship God.
So then – what does this quick look at New Testament church orders suggest to us as we develop our own contemporary theologies of ministry? What might we take with us into the present?