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5. The New Testament Church—Its Leadership

Colossians 1:15-20 And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created by Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Matthew 23:8-12 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.


As we come to the matter of leadership within the local church, there are those who would have us believe that there is no New Testament pattern for the organization and administration of the church. For example, Donald G. Miller states: “No particular structure of church life is divinely ordained.”16

Again he writes: “Any form … which the Holy Spirit can inhabit and to which He may impart the life of Christ, must be accepted as valid for the church. As all forms of life adapt themselves to their environment, so does the life of Christ by His Spirit in the church.”17

An error in Mr. Miller’s thinking, and I suspect in many of ours as well, is that he does not understand that the New Testament form of organization for the local church is based upon New Testament principle. It is that fundamental principle which provides for us the standard by which all organization and leadership in the local church must be measured which I would like to investigate in this message. I will then discuss that organizational framework for church leadership which this standard necessitates.

Incidentally, let me ask you, what do you think the fundamental principle is which is determinative for leadership within the local church? Do you know?

Jesus Christ Is the Head of the Church

The fundamental principle from which church leadership and organization develop is this: Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. Now I know that most every Bible-believing church would be willing to agree with this principle as I have stated it, but I must confess that until this week, I did not really understand it as I should and I am convinced that I shall realize in the future that I do not understand it yet as I should. I fear that very few Christians understand the Headship of Christ over the church, and that even less implement this principle in the life of the church.

This principle of the Headship of Jesus Christ is so foundational and so infrequently taught, that I want to take several minutes to be sure you understand it this morning. Although the Headship of Christ is taught elsewhere in the New Testament, we find the clearest teaching in the book of Colossians. Here we can best summarize the Headship of Christ by the use of three prepositional phrases,

  • of Him—Creation
  • through Him—Continuation
  • unto Him—Consummation

The phrase ‘of Him’ lays emphasis upon the Headship of Christ in that He is the ultimate source, or point of origin. We speak of the head of a river or of a body of water as its starting point. So Jesus Christ is the Head of all creation as its Creator: “For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16).

Likewise, our Lord Jesus is the Head of the church in the same sense, for He is its Creator. The church finds its origin in the person and work of the Lord Jesus: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18).

The second phrase ‘through Him’ instructs us of yet another way in which the Headship of Christ is manifested. Not only is Christ the Head of creation as its originator, but also as its sustainer: “And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Granted, creation would never have come into existence apart from its head, Jesus Christ, but also apart from Him it would not continue to exist, for “in Him all things hold together.” Now I am not a scientist, and before long you will all understand this, but I am told that scientists cannot really understand what it is that holds the atom together and keeps it from flying apart. Whatever this force is, I am told they call it ‘atomic glue.’ If I understand Col. 1:17 correctly Jesus Christ is the ‘atomic glue’ of creation, for it is He that continues to sustain the creation. In Him the creation finds its unity, its cohesiveness and direction and purpose. It is He who is working and directing and guiding all of creation to its intended purpose.

In a similar way, Christ is the Head of the Church as its sustainer, as well as its source. Jesus Christ as the Head of the church gives the body unity and cohesion. Just as the head coordinates and directs the physical body, coordinating every activity so as to produce one unified person, relating literally thousands of functions and impulses to the overall purpose of the body, so the Head of the church gives unity and order in the midst of great diversity. Paul tells us, “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17b).

Again in Colossians we read, “and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God” (Col. 2:19).

The third phrase ‘unto Him’ spotlights the ultimate purpose of the Headship of Christ. Not only is Jesus Christ the Head of creation in that He is the source and the sustainer of creation, but He is also its ultimate purpose for existence; He is its goal: “… that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).

Even God’s creation is praising the glory of its creator: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psa. 19:1). [E.g. Triumphal entry—if crowds had not praised Messiah, creation (the rocks) would have.]

The ultimate purpose of the Headship of Christ is that He might have pre-eminence in all things. That all praise and glory and honor might go to Him: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18).

The Implications of the
Headship of Christ for Church Leadership

There is nothing very controversial about the principle that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. But there surely is room for a great deal of discussion when it comes to the outworking of this principle. Hardly any Bible-believing church would dare deny that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, but all too few do anything to practice it. We have already said that in the New Testament, particularly in the life of the Apostle Paul, principle and practice are inseparable. (1 Cor. 4:11-17). Any biblical principle must result in biblical practice. The major question for us, then, is “How is the Headship of Christ over His church practiced?” Out of this great truth that Christ is the Head of the church, I see at least two foundational and fundamental operational principles for the church. These two principles dictate to a large degree a kind of church government which does not square with what is being done by the world or by most churches.

(1) Any form of church government which gives pre-eminence to men rather than to our Lord is unbiblical. Fundamental to the concept of headship is that of preeminence. “He is also head of the body, the church … so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18).

God’s purpose for Jesus Christ in being the Head of the church is that He might have the pre-eminence. Any form of church government which tends deliberately or otherwise to place men in a position of pre-eminence is contrary to God’s purpose. I don’t recall ever hearing one sermon on these very significant verses in the gospel of Matthew, where our Lord denounces the status-seeking scribes and Pharisees: “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your leader, that is, Christ” (Matt. 23:8-10).

The scribes and Pharisees loved prominence, they delighted in titles which honored them and the place of honor at public gatherings (cf. Matt. 23:5-7). Pre-eminence in the church belongs solely to our Lord. He alone is Teacher, Father, and leader. This is why our Lord forbids His disciples to take for themselves titles which would exalt them over others. Error was two-fold in Matt. 23:8-10.

  • They wanted to elevate themselves over men, to be served, not serve.
  • They wanted to claim that which belonged only to Christ.

Now our minds can immediately begin to think of men who are exalted in one fashion or another in churches in Dallas and throughout the world. I am not so concerned with them so much at the moment as I am with us. Are men exalted and praised and given prominence in our church? I pray that they are not. I know for myself, and I think for the others who are in a position of leadership, that we do not intend to honor men. That is why we do not have a man who is called the pastor of the church. In the ultimate sense there is only one pastor of Believers Chapel, or for that matter, of any other church which professes salvation by faith in Christ, and that is our Lord Himself. There is shepherding to be done in the church, and this shepherding is carried out by our Lord through the elders, whose work is the work of shepherding (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2), and those who have the gift of pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11). Never in the New Testament do we see any kind of hierarchical ‘pecking order’ where one pastor is the ‘head pastor’ and others are assistants to him. There is only one Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), and even the great Apostle Peter dares only call himself a ‘fellow elder’ (1 Peter 5:1).

The other day one of my friends told me of a church sign which he saw not very far from here. On the sign was the name of the church. Normally, as you know, there is at the bottom the name of a man, followed by the title, ‘pastor.’ On the bottom of this sign, however, was the name a man, followed by the title, ‘servant.’ I like that, for it is much closer to the teachings of the New Testament. Indeed, it is precisely what our Lord said to His disciples after He cautioned them about titles which tend to exalt one man over another in the church. “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:10-11).

The Headship of Christ, then, prohibits the exalting of anyone but our Lord Himself, for His headship demands that He have the pre-eminence.

(2) The Headship of Christ is best reflected in the rule of a plurality of elders. We have already approached this from the opposite side by saying that leadership by one person tends to exalt one man over others, while only Christ is to be exalted, for He is the Head of the church. To state the corollary to the first operational principle we must say also that the Headship of Christ is best reflected when the church is led by a plurality of elders.

We said previously that the Headship of Christ over the church was to be seen in His work of giving the body, composed of many diverse members, unity and cohesion. He is the unifying force who binds the body together. Now, how does this work out in the practical administration and leadership of the church? How, in practice, do we demonstrate the Headship of Christ to the world and the angelic hosts? Remember, we cannot divorce principle from practice. We must therefore practice the Headship of Christ organizationally, if the world is to observe that Jesus Christ directs and guides and gives unexplainable unity to His church. This is best accomplished by the church being ruled by a plurality of men, who in the New Testament, are called elders.

But why does plurality rule demonstrate the Headship of Christ? First of all, it avoids exalting men above men and giving them pre-eminence which belongs only to our Lord. Second, it is necessary because no one man has all the gifts necessary to lead the church. God has diversified His spiritual gifts, which necessitates plurality rule (cf. 1 Cor. 12:27-30). Third, and most important, plurality rule most clearly evidences the leadership of Christ over His church. We are not at all surprised when one individual is firmly convinced that his ideas ought to be followed. It is easy to have unity when only one person is involved. A man has no difficulty coming to a unanimous decision before he marries, but afterward unity comes a bit harder. You can well imagine how hard unity is to achieve when there are a group of men. If you have ever been a member of a committee, you know precisely what I mean. When a group of elders meet to discern the Lord’s guidance there is a great deal more assurance of God’s will when all come to a unanimous decision than when one man decides what is best.

I can hear some hard-headed businessman saying to himself, “Nonsense. You would never be able to get anything done, or come to any decisions that way!” Sir, you are precisely right, humanly speaking. But that is the point; we are not speaking humanly. Jesus Christ is alive and well, He is the Head of the church. He is at work in His church, guiding, directing, giving it unity, bringing it to its goal. The headship of Christ is no more apparent than when a group of stubborn, hardheaded, but godly Christian men come together, all seeking God’s guidance in a matter, and they all reach a harmonious decision.

Now what about the practice of the New Testament church—does it square with what I have just said? How was the early church guided and directed so as to know the will of the Lord, the Head of the church? Was it by the leading of one individual? Did Paul or Peter, or James dictate the will of God when His leading was needed? No! In Acts chapter 6 the church was faced with the problem of widows who were being overlooked in the daily administration of food. The apostles came to a collective decision on this vital matter, and their decision found approval by the whole congregation. The Lord’s Headship was clearly recognized. In Acts chapter 13 the Lord’s leading in the life and ministry of Paul and Barnabas was not determined individually, but collectively. In Acts chapter 15 we see the most crucial decision which the apostles and elders faced in the New Testament. Who made the decision? How was God’s leading discerned? Did Peter make the decision? Did Paul or James? No, the decision was made by the group of apostles and elders. Notice especially verse 25 and the expression, “having become of one mind” (Acts 15:25). That is how to best discern the leading of the Head of the church, and that is how we can best demonstrate His Headship in a very practical way—through leadership by a plurality of elders.

There is yet one passage of Scripture which underscores the necessity of leadership by a plurality of men. It is one which, to my knowledge, has never been clearly understood by most Christians. “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matt. 18:20).

Most Christians think that this is some kind of promise that our Lord will be present with a group of Christians, no matter how few gather. Many small churches have consoled themselves with this passage, especially on prayer meeting night, when literally two or three have come. But the context of this verse is not that of Christians to gather as a church for worship, or even of some less formal gathering of Christians. It is a coming together for the purpose of discipline. In verses 15-17 we are instructed as to how to deal with a brother who has sinned. In verse 18 we are told, ‘Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven—and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).

The ‘binding’ or ‘loosing’ refers to the judgment of those who have gathered over a matter of church discipline. When we come to verse 20 and the promise of our Lord’s presence when two or three are gathered, it is a gathering for judging a matter which may necessitate church discipline. Why does our Lord not promise His special presence when only one comes to decide a matter of discipline? It is because the Headship of Christ is best demonstrated when He convinces a plurality of men of His will.

Some may object on the basis of the Old Testament and singular leadership of Moses, David. That was in the Old Testament before the church. These men were ‘types’ of Christ, Who is the Head.

There is yet one thing which should be said concerning this principle of the Headship of Christ over His church. There is no other head of the church, other than He whose headquarters is heaven. There is no headquarters in Rome, nor at any denominational headquarters. Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.

I have given a good deal of emphasis to the headship of Christ over His church but it is a doctrine which at best receives only lip service in the church today. Christ’s headship prohibits any one man being set over duties, and it necessitates, I believe, rule at the local church level by a plurality of elders.

The Leaders of the New Testament Church

So far as leadership in the New Testament church is concerned there are only two offices, that of elders and deacons. There is no office of pastor; there is the work of pastoring and the gift of pastoring, but there is no office as such. No man in the New Testament is ever referred to as the pastor of a church.


      Two Words Used for the Office of Elder

In the New Testament there are two Greek words which are employed interchangeably for the office of elder (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7). The Greek word presbuteros, from which we get the word presbytery or Presbyterian, is usually rendered ‘elder,’ while the word episcopos (cf. episcopalian) is rendered ‘bishop’ or overseer. The word ‘elder’ emphasizes the maturity of the man, and the dignity of his office, while the term ‘bishop’ or ‘overseer’ refers more to the function of this office.

      The Plurality of Elders

Although we have already discussed the principle which necessitates the plurality of elders, let me say that the uniform practice of the churches in the New Testament was to have a plurality of elders (Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; James 5:14). In 1 Timothy 3:2 the singular is widely recognized as a “generic use,” speaking of elders as a class.

      The Work of Elders

The New Testament is quite specific concerning the work of elders. They are to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; 1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28); to guard (Acts 20:28-29; Titus 1:9-14); to oversee (1 Peter 5:3; Hebrews 13:7, 17); to give counsel (Acts 21:23); to handle disputes (Acts 15:2ff); to visit and pray for the sick (James 5:14) and to supervise the distribution of money (Acts 11:30)

      The Qualifications of Elders

The Scriptures lay down extensive qualifications for the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:2-3). Some qualifications, such as ‘the husband of one wife’ are absolute, while others are more relative, for example ‘hospitable,’ or ‘apt to teach’ (1 Tim. 3:2).

Obviously we do not have sufficient time to go into each of the qualifications for the office of elder, but let me outline the various categories into which these qualifications fall:

  • Social Qualifications: ‘not pugnacious’ (1 Tim. 3:3); ‘hospitable’ (1 Tim. 3:2)
  • Aptitudes: ‘apt to teach’ (1 Tim. 3:2); ‘able to exhort … and refute’ (Titus 1:9)
  • Experiential Qualifications: ‘not a new convert’ (1 Tim. 3:6); maturity implied in term ‘elder,’ though no specific age limit
  • Motivational Qualifications: ‘willing’ (1 Tim. 3:1; 1 Peter 5:2); not motivated by monetary gain (1 Peter 5:2); not for the power which the office affords (1 Peter 5:3)
  • Domestic Qualifications: ‘the husband of one wife’ (1 Tim. 3:2); ‘managing his own household well’ (1 Tim. 3:4)
      Our Responsibility Toward Elders

The Scriptures make it clear that we have an obligation toward elders. These responsibilities may be summarized as follows:

  • We are to obey them (Heb. 13:17)
  • We are to respect them (1 Thess. 5:13; 1 Tim. 5:1)
  • We are to protect them from unfounded charges (1 Tim. 5:9)
  • We are to remember them and imitate them (Heb. 13:7)
  • We are to remunerate them (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Not just those who are “full-time” but the others as well.
  • We are to recognize them (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Cor. 16:15-18)
      How Are Elders Appointed?

The major question in the minds of most Christians is, “How are elders appointed?” There are several passages which give us instruction in this matter. “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Here we are told that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit Who appoints elders. That is the Divine side. But there is also the human side, when we read, “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate (lit. know) those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction.” (1 Thess. 5:12).

Also in 1 Corinthians we read,

Now I urge you, brethren you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints, 16 that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors. 17 And I rejoice over the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus; because they have supplied what was lacking on your part. 18 For they have refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men (1 Cor. 16:15-18).

In these passages we are simply told to “recognize” those who are elders. We will know those who are elders because they will meet the qualifications of an elder and they will already be doing the work of an elder. We make this sound rather mystical, but we are able to discern that a man is an elder just as we recognize than an individual is gifted to teach or to recognize that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God.

The exact process, as you will note, is not specified. As I have said before, this silence of Scripture is instructive, for it tells us that there is no one way to formally recognize elders. As I understand it, this recognition is that of the church at large. Once initial elders are recognized these men will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s appointment of new elders by monitoring the congregation to see if others have emerged as elders. It is also possible that a man is no longer functioning as an elder, for a variety of reasons, family needs, business pressures, or whatever. In such a case that individual should step down. If the elders had some kind of systematic review it would more easily facilitate the recognition of new elders or a change in function of a former elder.


The deacons are the assistants to the elders in the carrying out of their responsibilities. There are no specific tasks outlined in the Scriptures for deacons, but the Greek work diakonos fundamentally conveys the idea of service. If Acts 6:1-6 is to be understood as a kind of proto-deacon situation (as I am inclined to take it), then the deacons are to relieve the elders of tasks which would detract them from a ministry of prayer and teaching (Acts 6:4).

It is most interesting that the qualifications for deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-13) are almost identical with those for elders, indicating the importance of their ministry. It is no surprise when a deacon is recognized as an elder.

Application and Conclusion

Let me say just a few words in conclusion and application.

First, Paul commends those who desire the office of overseer: “ It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).

I know that many of you are gun-shy on this matter; you are awe-struck by the magnitude of men who are elders in this ministry, but Paul commends the desire to be an elder. There is much eldering that needs to be done here as well as in the new ministry to be established.

Second, these qualifications which Paul gives us for elders and deacons are qualities which every Christian man, woman and child should desire in his or her life. They are, in the final analysis, the work of God the Holy Spirit. May God make of us the kind of man and woman which these qualities describe.

God never requires anything of us for which He does not make provision. God’s provision is found in His Word and in His Spirit. May God bring these qualities into your life and mine.

Finally, would you pray for us, that God will raise up leaders, elders and deacons who meet the requirements of His word.

16 Donald G. Miller, The Nature and Mission of the Church (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1957), p. 82.

17 Ibid.

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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