Map | Contact Us |
Site Search |
Biblical Leadership in the Church of Christ
For the sake of clarification, let me begin by stating
that there must be no leadership for the churches of Christ except what is authorized by the New Testament. When we are
referring to the head of the church, the New Testament expressly states and asserts consistently in many passages that
Christ is the only Head of the one New Testament Church (Matthew 16:13-19; Ephesians 1:20-23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18).
Before we can gain an understanding of the church’s leadership we must first gain an understanding of the church’s organization. The New Testament refers both to “the church” (Colossians 1:24) and also to “the churches” (Romans 16:16). This is not a reference to many denominations that make up one universal church (1Corinthians 1:10-13), but rather to the many congregations that all teach and practice the doctrine of the New Testament (1Corinthians 4:14-17), and which are all part of the one church that Christ established. The New Testament further demands that these localized congregations of the New Testament church should each be governed according to the direct authority of the New Testament itself, and that each congregation should appoint qualified and experienced Christian men to make sure that the congregation is following accurately the teachings Christ.
Paul gave to Timothy and Titus each a list of the qualifications for elders. Notice, in the side-by-side comparison below, that Paul did not give two different lists, but the same list to both men. It should therefore be understood that this list of qualifications are applied to the elders in every established congregation of the Lord’s church.
|Qualifications of overseers - 1Timothy 3:1-8||Qualifications of elders - Titus 1:5-9|
|Husband of one wife||Husband of one wife|
|Temperate||Having faithful children|
|Of good behavior||Not quick-tempered|
|Hospitable||Not given to wine|
|Able to teach||Not violent|
|Not given to wine||Not greedy for money|
|Not greedy for money||Lover of good|
|One who rules his own house well||Self-Controlled|
|Having his children in submission||Holding fast the faithful word|
|Not a novice|
|Having a good testimony among outsiders|
These specially qualified men are referred to by a number of descriptive terms and phrases. They are referred to as elders (Greek: presbuteros, also translated presbyter - Acts 14:23; 1Timothy 4:14; Titus 1:5), overseers (Greek: episkopos, also translated bishop - 1Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7), and shepherds (Greek: poimen, also translated pastor - Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1Peter 5:2). These men are further defined as, “those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord.” (1Thessalonians 5:12), as those who “watch out for your souls.” (Hebrews 13:17), and as those who stop the mouths of those “who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not for the sake of dishonest gain.” (Titus 1:10-11).
The terms elders or presbyters, overseers or bishops, shepherds or pastors are used interchangeably to refer to the same group of men in the local congregations. These are not titles but rather terms describing these men and the work they do. The word elder, for example, denotes someone who is older. No specific age limit is given, but these men must be old enough to meet the specific qualifications laid out for them. Since these terms are specific and apply to this certain group of men it is improper to misuse them. The word pastor, for example is frequently misused and applied to the local ministers of churches. The word bishop is also misapplied in the sense that there is often one chief or archbishop over several other bishops in several churches. It is important to understand that these are not biblical applications.
As we noticed earlier, when Paul gave the list of qualifications to Timothy (1Timothy 3:1-8), he described the office to which he was referring as the office of a bishop (v.1). When he gave the same list of qualifications to Titus (Titus 1:5-9) he described the same office or group of men, as elders or bishops (vv.5, 7). On one occasion when Paul was in the city of Miletus, he called for the elders from Ephesus to come there and meet with him (Acts 20:17). Among the many things that Paul said to these men was this admonishment, “Take heed to yourselves and to 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). In these verses we see a group of men from the church in Ephesus, whom Paul referred to as the elders, being instructed to oversee (or bishop) and shepherd (or pastor) that congregation of the church of God. The apostle Peter also wrote a passage where he used all three of the terms and applied them to the elders. Peter wrote, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; not as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” (1Peter 5:1-4). Here again we have Biblical reference to the elders being instructed to shepherd and oversee the flock that is among them. We also see that Peter refers to himself as a fellow elder. Peter was able to refer to himself as an elder in the official sense because he obviously met the qualifications and had been appointed to that office by the church most likely in Jerusalem. Timothy and Titus and Paul, on the other hand, were mentioned many times as localized gospel preachers/evangelists and yet they are never referred to as pastors, bishops or elders.
The immediate conclusion, therefore, is that a man can be a gospel preacher without being limited by the qualifications specifically given for the office of elders. For example, a preacher does not have to be married with children to qualify to serve the church as a preacher. By the same token therefore, it is improper to refer to preachers as pastors, elders or bishops if they do not meet the qualifications and have not been appointed by the congregation to that office.
It is God’s intention that every congregation of the church of Christ should appoint qualified elders to oversee and shepherd the church. To further support this understanding we are given, in the New Testament, numerous examples of established congregations that had appointed elders. We know, for example that the church in Jerusalem had appointed elders (Acts 11:30; 15:2; 21:15-18). We know also that the church in Ephesus had appointed elders (Acts 20:17; 1Timothy 3:1-8; 5:1, 17, 19). Paul instructed Titus, whom he had left on the island of Crete, to appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5). We know also that there were elders in Thessalonica (1Thessalonians 5:12-13), and in Philippi (Philippians 1:1). We know that it was the consistent practice of Paul to appoint elders in every church that he had helped to establish (Acts 14:23). So also, when Peter wrote to the Christians who had been scattered by persecution, whom he referred to as the “pilgrims of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,” he included a special encouragement to the elders among them (1Peter 5:1-4).
It is, furthermore, God’s clear intention that there should be more than one elder in each congregation. We know that the church in Jerusalem had a plurality of elders overseeing the work of the church there (Acts 15:2, 6), as did also the church in Philippi (Philippians 1:1), and Thessalonica (1Thessalonians 5:12), and Ephesus (Acts 20:17) and so on. We know that Paul commanded Titus to appoint elders (plural) in every city (Titus 1:5), and Paul and Barnabas appointed elders (plural) in every church (Acts 14:23).
Since it is clearly God’s design for local congregations to appoint from among their members a plurality of men who meet the qualifications listed in the New Testament to serve in the office of the eldership, then we must determine what to do when a congregation does not have a plurality of men who qualify. It does happen, occasionally, that a congregation of only a few members does not have qualified men. In this case, it is better for a congregation to not have appointed elders rather than appointing those who are not qualified. That being said, however, those congregations that do not have qualified men should want them and be determined to have them as soon as possible.
God has laid upon the shoulders of these few men in each congregation important and sometimes difficult responsibilities. The work is so important that it requires proven and qualified men to do it in the manner that brings the most glory, growth and stability to the kingdom of God. In doing their work these men deserve the support and submission of the congregation in their care. The elders are over them in the Lord (1Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:7, 17), and as the elders have been given the responsibility to watch out for the souls of the members of their congregation, they should be ever mindful that they are accountable to God in this work.