When we think about church leadership, we typically project our current experience on the leadership passages of Scripture. For example, Peter exhorts elders to willingly shepherd God’s flock, not in a controlling way, but in humility and the fear of God, knowing that a heavenly rewards awaits those who shepherd faithfully (1 Peter 5:1-11).
Someone reading this passage from a Baptist background might imagine that Peter had Baptist polity in mind and could easily forget who Peter was talking to and what leadership roles actually existed in the first century. Presbyterians, on the other hand, have another view of an elder’s authority and will probably study 1 Peter 5 while wearing twenty-first century reading glasses.
In other words, we all have the tendency to automatically interject our own experiences on the Bible, rather than beginning with first century principles and applying those principles to the twenty-first century.
But what would happen if we started with the first century worldview and moved forward over time to our current circumstances? What if we allowed the patterns back then to critique and shape what we do today? If we are willing to do this, the biblical narrative will instruct and critique our own leadership models.
So how did leadership emerge in the early church? What key characteristics did Paul and the other New Testament writers look for?
Jesus trained the first church leaders—his very own disciples. In Acts 6:2, Scripture says, “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.’”
Among the twelve, Peter maintained a position of preeminence (Acts 1-12; Galatians 1:18). Not only was Peter the leader of the house church in the upper room, he also led the Jerusalem church. Peter probably led the team of apostles in Acts 6, when the twelve asked the multitude to find seven leaders. Yet we no longer hear about Peter after the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Most likely he had to leave the leadership team in Jerusalem because of persecution.
After Peter disappeared, the leadership mantle passed over to James, the Lord’s brother. James emerged to become head elder of the Jerusalem church, as we can see in the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:13, where he assumes authority and gives the final pronouncement to the question of grace versus following law.
Although Paul was not among the twelve, Jesus did appear to him personally and gave him an apostolic commission (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Acts 9:1-19). Paul’s apostolic ministry mainly focused on the Gentile world while Peter and James concentrated on the Jewish converts (Galatians 2:7-8). Paul planted house churches throughout the Roman world, developed leadership from his converts, and then mentored the new leaders as Christianity continued to spread. For example after planting churches throughout the empire, Paul says to his team, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing. . . . He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:36, 41).
Because of the growth of the early church, the need for leadership expanded rapidly. One of the first leadership shortages occurs in Acts 6, where we see the widows of the Grecian Jews being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The apostles asked the disciples to choose leaders from among themselves. Most likely the disciples chose seven leaders from those with leadership ability already proven in the house church structure.
The early apostles provided the overarching leadership but depended on the house church leaders to shepherd and care for the rest of God’s church. The authors of Home Groups and House Churches write,
In the apostolic period, it was the apostles who gave general guidance to the life of the house churches; the original eleven under the leadership of James in Judea and Paul in the Gentile world with Peter moving somewhat in both worlds. There was a certain authority which emanated from their ministries. Otherwise, leadership in the churches centered in the host and/or leader of the house church. A variety of leadership roles and functions existed in the various house congregations: bishops (overseers), pastors, elders, prophets, teachers, and deacons. There may have been some distinction among the functions of bishops, or elders, and deacons; but these roles were not formalized in a definitive way in the New Testament era.
Incubating Leaders In the House Church Structure
The early house churches were the incubators for leadership. Often the person who opened his or her home would assume the leadership role. William Lane concludes,
The host who possessed the resources and initiative to invite the church into his or her home assumed major leadership responsibilities deriving from the patronage offered. These included important administrative tasks, such as the provision of the common meals of the community, the extension of hospitality to traveling missionaries and other Christians, the representation of the community outside the domestic setting, in addition to pastoral oversight and governance . . . those who acted as patrons were in some sense also involved in governance of the community.
Many are amazed at how quickly Paul developed leadership in the early church. In Paul’s church plants, we don’t see formal leadership structures. Why? Because Paul used the oikos structure to develop leadership naturally. Gehring writes, “For the congregation that met in a house, a leadership structure was already in place from the very beginning, built into the social infrastructure of the ancient oikos in advance.”
We don’t read about the official installation of church leaders because it really wasn’t necessary as the homeowners opened their homes. Leaders emerged from within the house church setting. Granted, these leaders had to be accepted by the house church members and by Paul. Giles writes,
An example of how such a house-church might begin is given in Acts 17:1-9, where we read about the first Christians at Thessalonica who found in Jason’s home a center for their assembling. The ‘head’ of such a household would naturally be recognized as having oversight of the new church. His social standing would give him pre-eminence in the group; his close association with the apostle who founded the church and sought his assistance would add to this. And as time passed, the fact that he was the first (or one of the first) converts would further enhance his position in the group.
Often these house owners had their oikos built in and the gospel penetrated the entire household. The natural leadership produced rapid growth and reproduction. I’ve also noticed this same dynamic in most growing cell churches around the world. Leaders are developed naturally from within the cell structure and eventually become leaders because of their faithfulness and fruitfulness in ministry.
Those leaders who emerged from the households were only later given titles. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul says, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” Paul is talking about house church leaders, but he didn’t feel it was worth mentioning their exact title. In other words, they developed organically within the house church structure.
Harry Maier argues persuasively that we ought to look to the household, the social setting in which the early churches met to derive the origins of the leadership structures. Granted, many others were raised up as house church leaders besides the home owners themselves, but it is important to know that often the hosts doubled as leaders of the house churches.
In 1 Corinthians 16:15-16, Paul says, “You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it.” Paul challenged the Corinthians to submit to Stephanas and to those who work hard for the church. Stephanas made his home available to the believers and provided care for the group. Arthur G. Patzia writes,
Recently, certain scholars have connected local congregational leadership to the head of the household where the church met. Such could be the case with Stephanas as well as with Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19) and Philemon and Apphia (Philemon vv. 1-2).
The writers of Home Cell Groups and House Churches say,
What seems clear in the New Testament is that next to the apostles themselves, the house church leaders were the most important in terms of the ongoing life of the church. Since there was no actual distinction between clergy and laity in the New Testament and since all leaders had other vocations, it is difficult to distinguish between “minister types” (Priscilla and Aquila) and “lay types” (Philemon and Nympha). No doubt some of the house church leaders were bishops and elders, but certainly not all of them appear to have been.
In the New Testament, we don’t find an exact prescriptive of church government because leadership developed naturally and spontaneously. Gehring says, “Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a picture closely resembling any of the fully developed systems of today. It is likely that in those days church government was not very highly developed, indeed, that local congregations were rather loosely knit groups.” Gilbert Bilezikian writes,
Whatever leadership structures existed in the early churches, they were inconspicuous, discreet, self-effacing, and flexible. They seem to have adapted their activities and visibility to local circumstances and needs. Clearly evident is a concern not to preempt congregational initiative and involvement. The leadership of New Testament churches seems to stand on the sidelines, ready to intervene only in situations of necessity. They are invisible servants, whose role is to equip the body.
Those early house meetings encouraged everyone to participate. As the Spirit of God ministered through each member and each one served one another, God would develop certain ones to serve in a leadership role.
Paul’s perception of Christian leadership came from his understanding of the church’s nature. He viewed the church as the body of Christ and that all church roles were under the authority of Christ, the head of the church. Everyone needed to give allegiance to the living head, while faithfully serving and loving one another.
The Priesthood of Believers Operating through the Spiritual Gifts
The Holy Spirit developed and guided early church leadership. Church ministry was fluid and dynamic. Members were encouraged to experience their spiritual gifts for the common good of the body, and leaders operated as gifted men and women (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 27-28).
The priesthood of all believers was the norm in the early church, and for this reason the early church spread rapidly. Gilbert Bilezikian writes,
In a few decades, the early church movement spread like wildfire through the ancient world. One of the secrets for this rapid expansion was total lay involvement in the ministries of the local churches . . . The book of Acts and most of the New Testament letters are permeated with the euphoria and the vitality of churches where everyone was involved in body life and ministry. Under normal circumstances, therefore, the apostle Paul was more interested in encouraging Christian folks to minister to each other and together than in setting up orders of hierarchy for their governance.
Dependence on the Spirit of God through the gifts of the Spirit shaped the direction of the early church. The spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:7-12, and 1 Peter 4:8-11 were written to those participating in house churches. Because God gave gifts to each individual within the community, the focus was strongly egalitarian. Everyone participated in the building up of Christ’s body.
Paul expected church leadership to develop according to spiritual giftedness and that ultimately the Holy Spirit would set each member in the body according to his will and purpose (1 Corinthians 12:11). The early church believed that the Spirit was given to all believers and was actively working through each member (Romans 12:11; 1 Corinthians 2:4, 12:7;12-13; Galatians 3:5; 5:18, 22; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).
God did gift certain individuals to lead his church as we can see in Ephesians 4:7-12. Many have called this the five-fold ministry, although it’s probably more accurate to call it the four-fold ministry, since pastor-teacher is often considered one role. Gifted leaders included:
- Apostles: The Twelve (Luke 6:13-16), plus Matthias (Acts 1:24-26), Paul (Galatians 1:1), Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7)
- Prophets: The company from Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-28), Agabus (Acts 21:10-11), Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32) and the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9)
- Evangelists: Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9)
- Pastor-teachers (1 Timothy 3:1-3, 5:17; Titus 1:5, 7, 9)
The gifted leaders mentioned in Ephesians were specifically equipped to prepare the body of Christ to minister more effectively. In other words, God equipped these men and women to mobilize the church for service.
Paul’s main point in Ephesians is equipping the saints for ministry. The specific purpose of gifted men and women is to equip the church for growth and expansion. The focus is not on the gifted person, but on his or her ministry to equip the body of Christ so that the body of Christ would be built up and mobilized for service. Whatever gift God distributes to a particular person, his or her main role is to equip God’s people, so he or she can minister more effectively.
Paul also mentions some twenty gifts (not just four or five) and wants his readers to know that each house church member needed to minister according to his or her giftedness (1 Corinthians 12-14; Romans 12; Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Peter 4:8-11). And whether recognized formally or not, each member had an important part to play in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). The spiritual gifts were to build up the body of Christ in unity and maturity.
Women In Church Leadership
The New Testament portrays women as full participants in the church. Peter reminded the hearers on the day of Pentecost,
These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:15-18).
Your sons and daughters will prophesy and dream dreams. Paul says something similar in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Speaking of this text, Gordon Fee writes,
Indeed, on the basis of this text and its place in the argument of Galatians—where socialized distinctions between people in their relationship to God have been overcome by Christ and the Spirit—one must argue that the new creation has brought in the time when the Spirit’s gifting (the Spirit who is responsible for ushering in the new order) should precede roles and structures, which are on a carryover from the old order that is passing away.
This new era or new creation is focused on the charisma of the Spirit working through both male and females. The gifts of the Spirit are not gender or role specific. In Romans 12:8, where Paul talks about the gift of leadership, the pronoun “your” is genderless. Leadership was given to both men and women.
Paul and the other New Testament writers demonstrate the significant role that women played in the New Testament church. Approximately one-fourth of Paul’s co-workers are women. If Nympha, mentioned in Colossians, is added, and Lydia, in Acts, there are a total of twelve women who Paul mentions prominently: Euodia, Julia, Junias, Lydia, Mary, Nympha, Persis, Phoebe, Priscilla, Syntyche, Tryphena, and Tryphosa.
Seven of them were instrumental in the house church movement in Rome: Priscilla (Romans 16:3), Mary (Romans 16:6), Junias (Romans 16:7), Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis (Romans 16:12) and Julia (Romans 16:15).
Arthur Patzia writes, “The overall impression from Luke’s and Paul’s perspective is that women played a significant role in the life, ministry, and leadership of the early church.” Paul treated women with equal dignity and valued their contribution to the ministry of the gospel. Paul wanted to break down the barriers that existed between ethnic groups and gender classes. His desire was to see the church implement unity among males and females.
As mentioned earlier, various women were house church hosts and leaders. Mary the mother of John Mark appears to have been a leader of one of the early Christian groups, her house being used for church meetings (Acts 12:12); Lydia’s household served as a gathering place for the early believers in Philippi (Acts 16:12-15, 40); in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4) several “leading women” responded to the gospel; as did other Greek women in Berea (Acts 17:12).
The fact that Nympha hosted one of the house churches shows that women were allowed positions of authority and leadership. Nympha would have been a person of social standing and wealth who had a large home. She was probably a widow who owned land or managed a business and was the “head” of an extended family including blood relations, employees, and slaves.
Paul says about Phoebe, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (Romans 16:1-2). Phoebe made her own house available to the congregation as a meeting place, serving as hostess. She probably took over responsibilities of the absent housefather. It could be that Phoebe had a teaching ministry in the house church in Cenchrea and delivered the letter to the Romans but also read and explained it to the house churches in Rome. Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch have studied the women’s place in the early house churches and conclude,
To step into a Christian house church was to step into a women’s world. This was true even when the leader of the assembly was male. Further, it can be established that women, probably for the most part widows who had autonomous administration of their own households, hosted house churches of the early Christian movement.
In the early church, women were active evangelists, coworkers, patrons, and even apostles. It is virtually certain that Paul refers to the woman Junia as an apostle in Romans 16:7. Some Bibles translate this passage as referring to the male apostle “Junias.”
However, Eldon Jay Epp is an eminent New Testament scholar who has recently done the definitive study on Romans 16:7 in his book Junia: The First Woman Apostle. He shows that (a) there are over 250 first-century inscriptions in Rome alone with the female name “Junia,” (b) there is no evidence whatsoever in the Greek or Latin literature of the day for the existence of the male name “Junias,” (c) there is no evidence whatsoever that the known male name “Junianus” was ever shortened to “Junias” or any other type of nickname, (d) the construction of the Greek wording in this verse should not be translated as “well known to the apostles,” and (e) virtually all bible scholars and theologians up to about 1300 AD recognized that “Junia” was indeed a female name.
Consequently, after carefully exegeting the passage, Linda Belleville writes, “Thus the reading of this reference to Junia yields an example of a woman not only functioning as an ‘apostle’ in the New Testament church but being highly esteemed as such by Paul and his apostolic colleagues.”
Luke refers to the prophetic ministry of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:8-9). Paul and John also acknowledge the existence of female prophets in the early church. Women prayed and prophesied in public (1 Corinthians 11:5). Paul suggests that a prophet, like an apostle, designated an official role (1 Corinthians 12:28-29).
Priscilla and her husband Aquila became significant leaders of the church in several different locations (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul speaks of Aquila and Priscilla together having a congregation meeting in their house.
Priscilla is a good example of a woman teacher. Four times, Paul and Luke mention Priscilla before her husband, Aquila (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19). Priscilla’s role as teacher emerges when Apollos visited Ephesus. Scripture says, “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:24-26). The account shows her teaching role, and she is mentioned before her husband in connection with the instruction of Apollos. Apollos was “well-versed in the Scriptures” (18:24), and so the fact that they explained “the way of God to him more accurately” means they must have had sufficient expertise to gain his acceptance. Michael Green says,
The New Testament tells us of women laboring in evangelism, acting as hostess to the church in their houses, prophesying and speaking in tongues, and acting as deaconesses. This prominence of women continued, as we have seen, in the second century. Sometimes it would be exercised through public speaking, sometimes through martyrdom.
Some have used 1 Timothy 3:1 to prohibit women in ministry because some translations, like the NASB read, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” The problem in the Greek is that the word man in English does not appear in the Greek text. In the Greek, the word is tis, an indefinite pronoun. The masculine and feminine forms of this pronoun are identical, and indistinguishable as to gender apart from the context (The NIV translation is better, “If any one”). We’ve already seen that the early church was fluid and flowed naturally from the house church structure.
Although the New Testament does not directly designate a specific woman as an elder or bishop, we do find women acting in the kind of leadership functions normally associated with this office. Women exercised the authority of prophets, teachers, and apostolic coworkers. Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo write,
Paul readily spoke of women, as well as men, as his coworkers. He never cautioned his recipients to view only the men as possessing authority or being worthy of honor. Rather, his readers were to “submit to . . . everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it” (1 Corinthians 16:16).
The New Testament paints a clear picture of women’s role in ministry in the early church. It’s beyond the scope of this book to provide an in-depth study of the three controversial passages about women in ministry: 1 Corinthians 11-14, 1 Timothy 2: 8-15, and 1 Timothy 3. However, I do write about these passages in detail elsewhere.
What about the office of bishop, pastor, and elder? In today’s church these offices have become formalized and official. In the New Testament there was no bishop-pastor-elder hierarchy, in fact, they were interchangeable terms for the same role. A bishop/overseer” (Greek = episkopos) was also called a “pastor/shepherd” (Greek = poimen) and a “presbyter/elder” (Greek = presbuteros), since all three terms in the Greek address the same group of people in Acts 20:17, 28 and 1 Pet 5:1-5.
Therefore, it seems that in the early church, those who assumed these titles were house church leaders or overseers of various house churches. Gehring, writing about these roles, says,
Everything seems to indicate that they were overseers of the churches that met in their homes, much like Stephanas in Corinth; in other words, they were leaders of individual house churches. Together as a group such overseers could have formed the leadership team or council for the whole local church in that city.
Arthur G. Patzia writes, “From the extant evidence it is possible to conclude that, at the time the Pastorals were written, bishops were overseers of local house churches and were assisted by a group of individuals identified as deacons.”
1 Timothy 3:1-3 and Titus 1:5-6 describe an overseer as a hospitable house leader with his domestic affairs in order. When Paul says that the overseer must have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7), most likely he’s envisioning a house church leader held in high esteem in the local society. If the leader had a bad reputation in the city, this would hinder the evangelistic outreach. In the Pastoral Epistles, we see leaders who are supposed to exemplify a godly, well-ordered household to a pagan society (1 Timothy 2:4; 3:15; Titus 3:8).
Teams of Leaders
The norm in the early church was to have a team of leaders over house churches. Paul, for example, told the leaders of the Ephesian church that the Holy Spirit had made them “overseers” of the flock (Acts 20:28). When writing to the church at Philippi, Paul greeted the congregation and, separately, the “overseers” (Philippians 1:1). When he wrote to Titus, Paul directed the appointment of elders, whom he also identified with the functions of “overseer” (Titus 1:5-7). Whether they are designated as a “body of elders” (1 Timothy 4:14) or simply as “elders,” this form of leadership was always exercised by a group of people rather than by one single individual (Acts 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Michael Green says about early church leadership,
Leadership was always plural: the word ‘presbyter’ from which we derive `priest’ is regularly used in the plural when describing Christian ministry in the New Testament. They were a leadership team, supporting and encouraging one another, and doubtless making up for each other’s deficiencies. This team leadership is very evident in the missionary journeys of the New Testament, and Acts 13 is particularly interesting. It indicates not only a plural leadership in Antioch, consisting of five members, but diverse types of leadership: some were ‘prophets’ relying on charismatic gifts, while others were ‘teachers’ relying on study of the Scriptures.
Even the first apostles operated as a team. While guiding the Jerusalem church, they shared the leadership of the congregation with a group of elders (Acts 15:4, 6, 22), who remained long after the apostles were gone (Acts 21:18).
The New Testament writers avoid the idea of one, single leader. The norm for the early churches was to have a team of pastors rather than only one. In addition to overseers and/or elders, two churches are mentioned as having deacons (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 12). Whatever their functions may have been, their services were also provided on the basis of shared leadership since they are always mentioned in the plural.
The authors of Home Cell Groups and House Churches write, “There seems to have been a plurality of leaders in each congregation—certainly in each community of house churches in a given city. Moreover, these titles of leadership often seemed interchangeable with the same leaders being designated by more than one title.”
Flexible and Reproducible
We don’t see a formal hierarchical structure in the New Testament like we see today. The gifts of the Spirit flowed among the house church members, and the gifted equippers developed the saints to continue the house-to-house growth.