What is Biblical leadership? How should leadership function in the church? How should authority be delegated? This is an important issue that should be considered carefully because we cannot afford to be careless about matters of leadership in the church. Believing that the Word of God is the first and final authority on all matters of faith and practice, I believe we have a solid foundation for church leadership clearly conveyed in Scripture. It is important that we get this right. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “We have somehow got hold of the idea that error is only that which is outrageously wrong; and we do not seem to understand that the most dangerous person of all is the one who does not emphasize the right things.”
To begin the process of understanding how leadership in the church should function we need a proper understanding of what it really means to be a congregational church. If churches desire to conform as much as possible to the teachings of the New Testament then they should pay careful attention to the structure of leadership in the early church. From Scripture we clearly see only two offices in the church; Elders (also known as: bishops, overseers, pastors, shepherds) and Deacons. Understanding the early church is quite simple; the people were led, organized, and governed by a plurality of leaders who fit into one of these two categories.
The Bible is quite clear that Jesus Christ is head of the church (Eph. 1:22). Ultimately Jesus is in charge, ruling over the church as its Spiritual head and ultimately its chief Shepherd. And yet Christ has appointed gifted leaders to equip the saints for the work of ministry to build up the Body of Christ (Eph 4:11-12). In other words, Christ as the head Shepherd has delegated the duties of shepherding to men whom he has gifted with the ability to lead the church. Peter expresses this concept very well in 1 Peter 5:1-4 where he tells the elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” and then goes on to say “and when the chief Shepherd appears you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” Notice that Peter makes an undeniable connection between elders who are shepherds of the church and Christ who is the chief Shepherd of the church. To put it simply, the elders shepherd the church, tend to the sheep, and exercise oversight in the church all under the leadership, guidance, and example of the chief Shepherd. It is not a coincidence, then, that Peter refers to Jesus as the “Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls (1 Peter 2:25), using the same titles and terminology used throughout Scripture to describe the elders in the church (Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-3; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:2) and the same imagery found in the Book of Hebrews when it claims that we should obey our leaders for they are “keeping watch over your souls” (Hebrews 13:17). The parallel between Christ as head of the church and elders as overseers is unmistakable. Elders were recognized as a group of men, set apart, and addressed as ones having authority in the matters of the church.
This is why pluralities of elders were appointed to rule in every church in every town (Acts 14:23, 1 Titus 1:5, 1Tim 5:17). These were men who had spiritual and governing authority as seen by the many verses referring to their rule, care, and charge of the church. This is also implied in the other names for an elder: overseer or shepherd. Today we call them Pastors. These were men set apart and qualified to lead the church, teach and preach sound doctrine, guard against false teachers, and care for the people. They protect, nourish, comfort, educate, and shepherd the flock. The Bible itself gives definition to the idea of shepherding as it refers to those who rule or govern (2 Sam. 5:2; Ps 78:71,72; Matt 2:6; 1 Peter 5:2). Our understanding of Scripture leads us to grasp the principle that elders had ruling or governing functions in the early church. These men were appointed, having been called by God, to be overseers of the church. Paul understood this when he exhorted the elders in the Ephesian church to pay careful attention to the flock “in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28).
Paul and Barnabas affirm the authority of the elders when they bring the debate over circumcision to the apostles and the elders. Once the debate was settled, Paul traveled throughout the cities reporting the decisions made by the Apostles and elders to the churches (Acts 16:4). Clearly, the elders had the authority to make such decisions. Paul even reiterated the same ruling authority of the elders when writing to Timothy. He says, “let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim 5:17). Peter understood eldership the same way. In 1 Peter 5 he says, “I exhort the elders among you…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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Peter goes on further to encourage those who are younger to “be subject to the elders” (1 Peter 5:5). In Hebrews 13:17 we see clear indication that submission to leaders is directly commanded and seen as a benefit that brings joy rather than something to be feared. In Titus 1:5 Paul indicates that things are not in order in the church until Titus appoints elders. In Titus 1:7 Paul gives us yet another indication of the governing of elders when he addresses the overseer as “God’s steward”. A steward is one who supervises or manages something, generally finances and property.
The elders were called and appointed to exercise authority and manage the church as the shepherds and overseers. For this reason, one could not be an elder unless he met certain qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-7). Due to the nature of the authority given to elders in the early church, one could only be an elder if he was found to be trustworthy, above reproach, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, gentle, humble, dignified, mature, a lover of good, upright, disciplined, and with the ability to teach and preach.
To me it only makes sense that a church would desire to have men who meet these qualifications to be a part of the leadership and governing authority of the church. What does not make sense is having a church with a governing body with no elders. This idea is not Biblical and it puts the church at risk. It is quite clear in Scripture that appointed elders were not advisors who simply provided input hoping the people in charge of governing the church would make the right decisions. The elders were the people in charge of governing the church and therefore they were the ones making certain decisions.
Though it was the norm at one time in our history, many Baptist churches today do not currently have a plurality of elders that lead the church. If we are honest, we must admit we’ve stepped outside the bounds of the model of church organization in the early church and created a whole new system. Many churches now use a Deacon Board or a Board of Directors to govern the church. These boards replace the elder board and take on the governing role and duty of elders. What is strange is that many of these boards do not allow the elders (pastors) of the church to be a part of the board. Does this make sense? Should churches have a Board of Directors or Board of Deacons that perform the Biblical duties of elders and then not allow those who meet the Biblical qualifications of elders to be part of that board? What is even more confusing is that churches allow deacons to be on these governing boards but not the elders. In the Bible, the elders were the only officers with clear governing and ruling authority in the church. Clearly we are confused about Biblical leadership and how it should function.
If we we desire to establish the practices and doctrines of our churches on the teachings of the Bible, then I believe it to be unbiblical and unwise for us to deny church appointed pastors the ability to be active participants in the decision-making processes of the church. The language of the New Testament should not be ignored. If a church is going to have a board that governs and makes decisions on behalf of the church, that board should include men who meet the qualifications of eldership and are called by the Holy Spirit to lead and govern the church under the headship of Christ.
Churches should not fear this type of leadership. We should embrace that which God has given to his church for the building up of the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-12). If indeed our leaders are trustworthy and capable of serving, then we should let them serve. If they are untrustworthy and incapable of serving the church, they should no longer be our leaders.
Churches should take some time to consider how they are structured and governed. Dust off the old governing documents of the church and consider whether or not they conform to the pattern we see in the New Testament.