What Does the Bible Say About Church Leadership?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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Who’s in charge here? Who’s supposed to lead this church? Such questions show how practical theology can be, as it offers answers to these commonly asked questions. There are two offices in a local church: (a) elder/overseer/pastor and (b) deacon. The first group administers oversight of the church, while the second group serves the church. In the New Testament an elder ( presbyteros) is generally synonymous with an overseer (episkopos) or a pastor (poime-n), although the post-apostolic church made distinctions between the terms. This variation has led some denominations to make a distinction between an elder and an overseer, often referred to in English as a bishop. The qualifications for an elder may be found in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9. The primary responsibilities of an elder/ overseer/pastor include teaching (1 Tim. 3:2), guarding against false teaching (Titus 1:9), leading (1 Tim. 5:17), praying (James 5:4), and shepherding (Acts 20:28). In the Reformed tradition, there is often a distinction made between ruling and teaching elders, based on 1 Timothy 5:17. Ruling elders largely engage in administrative tasks while teaching elders largely minister God’s Word to the congregation.

How Many Leaders in the Local Church?

How many elders should a local church have? Scripture does not address that issue directly, though some guidance can be offered. There appears to have been, in some locations, multiple “elders” (presbyteroi). This built on existing Jewish religious leadership structures (Ex. 19:7; Mark 11:27). In Acts, we see elders being appointed in congregations including in Jerusalem (Acts 14:23; 21:18). These elders led local Christ-groups along with the apostles (Acts 16:4). There is, however, also evidence of a single-elder leadership structure as well (2 John 1; 3 John 1), though the overwhelming pattern is the multiple-elder structure. There are no examples in the New Testament of women being referred to as elders/overseers/pastors, though the boundaries evident in 1 Timothy 5:17–22 and Titus 1:5–6 would exclude some men from those positions as well.

What About Women in Church Leadership?

In the contemporary debate over the role of women in church leadership, complementarianism and egalitarianism serve as the dominant options. Complementarianism is the theological term that describes those who hold that women and men are complementary to each other in nature, though with differing roles in both the home and the church. In regard to church leadership, complementarians contend that women are not eligible for the position of elder. Support for this comes from 1 Timothy 2:12: “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (nasB). Additionally, the condition that an elder be the “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2) can only be fulfilled by a man. Complementarians support women serving in various ministries in a local church, with one exception—elder/overseer/pastor.

Egalitarianism is the opposing perspective; it contends that women and men are equal in both nature and roles. In the home, a husband and a wife submit mutually to one another, and in the church women and men serve side by side in all areas, including elder/overseer/pastor. Egalitarians thus resist those who identify restrictions on women in regard to church leadership. They support their position from Galatians 3:28, claiming that, in Christ, gender distinctions have been obliterated: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (nasB). Since these differences have been erased, egalitarians contend, the complementarian position falters. Moreover, there are examples of women leaders in Romans 16:1–16 doing what 1 Timothy 2:8–15 claims to restrict.

Deacons (diakonoi) are those who serve the church and function via delegated authority from the elders and a local church. It is to be distinguished from the office of the elder, though many churches conflate the two. In the New Testament, they are seen as leaders in the earliest Christ-movement and are evident throughout. It is difficult to discern when this leadership label shifted from a generic “servant” or “minister” to a “deacon” in the official way it’s used in most ecclesial settings. The influence of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:43 likely contributed to the role and office of the deacon. The serving aspect evident in Jesus’ teaching emerges in Acts 6:2–3, where the “servant” is one who waits on tables. This passage may be the point where the shift from function to office begins. Paul refers to himself and Apollos as “servants” (1 Cor. 3:5) and to himself (and others) as “ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). If Acts 6 is a starting point for the institutional development of the office, then the Corinthian correspondence reflects at least the idea of servility but possibly more.

Philippians 1:1 seems to be the place where Paul uses “bishops” (episkopoi) and “deacons” (diakonoi) in ways approximating church officers. In 1 Timothy the office is more explicit, and the local congregation is given specific guidelines for the position’s qualifications (1 Tim. 3:8–13). Similar to overseers, people serving in this capacity must have significant managerial capabilities and be above reproach morally; however, teaching and leading functions are not evident for them.

Women serving as elders/overseers/pastors is not evident in the New Testament. Romans 16:1, however, refers to Phoebe as a “deacon” (diakonos) of the “congregation” (ekkle-sia) in Cenchrea. The question is whether this is a functional role or a Christ-movement office. It is likely that what is evident here is similar to Philippians 1:1, where some sort of office is in view. Moreover, while the term “deacon” is used primarily for men, 1 Timothy 3:11 may be understood to include a mixed-gender grouping of deacons (though some think what’s evident here is only deacons’ wives).

Clarity Matters on This Issue

Being clear on the issue of leadership in the church is crucial in order to avoid confusion and conflict. There are cultural and contextual reasons for diverse practices, but it’s wise to closely follow scriptural guidance when it comes to these issues. In our present cultural moment, when there is significant confusion in regard to gender and authority, the need for theologically reasoned but empathically communicated biblical wisdom is of the upmost importance. Being clear on our definitions is a good start.

For Further Reading:

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