Leadership in the Early Church

In Ephesians 4:11 we find the only reference to pastors found in the New Testament.  It is, of course, named as one of the five-fold ministry gifts given to the church by Christ for the purpose of assisting believers in the maturing process.  The word translated "pastors" is poimen, meaning shepherd (used in a spiritual sense - not a shepherd tending sheep, but men tending to others in spiritual matters).  The verb form of this word is poimaino, and is used by Peter in his first epistle (I Peter 5:2) to describe the duties of an elder - to shepherd or guide those in the church with less maturity or experience in spiritual things.

It is from this one simple reference that the traditional church defines the position and duties of the present-day entrepreneur, otherwise known as "the pastor".  I realize "entrepreneur" may be a strange word to use in describing the position of pastor, but the very reason pastors exist today is because as soon as Paul began establishing churches men saw an opportunity to seize power and influence in those churches for their own gain.  So, it’s not exactly a new concept.  Paul, Peter and Jude all speak out against the activities of men in the early church who were trying to take control of the churches for their own gain.  I don’t mean for this to be critical or demeaning.  However, as well- meaning and sincere as some pastors may be, the office is still not scriptural. In reality, it was never God’s intention that there be a professional clergy "running" His Church.  (The Holy Spirit is supposed to be in charge of the Church, but that’s a different discussion for a different time.)

What you see in scripture (if you’re willing to forget everything you’ve ever been taught about the church) is that the office of pastor, as it’s known today, doesn’t exist.  Instead, pastors in the five-fold ministry described in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesian church are actually nothing more than functioning elders.  Sometimes they were simply functioning as mentors in a local assembly, and sometimes they were sent to temporarily assist other churches.  There is, for example, no evidence that Timothy was ever installed as permanent "pastor" of the church in Ephesus, or any other church.  These elders were not building their own little empires, they were not carving their niche in society; they were only serving their fellow believers in the capacity of a spiritual guide or mentor.  So, to get a better idea of just what leadership in the early church looked like, let’s look at the scriptural development of the elder (since there is no scriptural development of the position of pastor).

1. The first mention of elders in the church is found in Acts 11:30.  It is now AD 44, and by this time the church in Jerusalem is about 15 years old.  The reference describes the time when Barnabas and Paul took an offering from the church in Antioch and presented it to the elders in the church in Jerusalem.  Most all of the Roman Empire was experiencing a great famine at the time (see Acts 11:27-29).  The word translated "elder" is presbuteros, which means ambassador or guide.  We’re not given any information in the record as to when elders were appointed in the church in Jerusalem, what process was used to select them, or what their responsibilities were.  We only know that at this point in time, elders were recognized and functioning.

2. The next reference is found in Acts 14:23.  Here, Paul and Barnabas are found appointing elders in some churches.  The exact timing of these events is difficult to determine.  However, it is evident that some time had elapsed between the establishment of the churches and Paul’s return to appoint elders.  This is at least three years later than the first reference in Acts 11 (about AD 47).  The process described in this verse seems to be one that involved seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer and fasting; then after the choices were made, dedicating those chosen to the Lord.  The thought occurred that if these churches were young churches, could there be any in the church who were mature enough in the Lord to function as elders?  The answer, obviously, is yes, because elders were appointed.  But the reason may be that there were actually more mature believers in the church that had come from Jerusalem as a result of the persecution there and resulting dispersion (Acts 8:1,4; 11:19).

3. When Paul writes his first epistle to the church in Thessalonica in AD 52, we find an interesting passage (I Thessalonians 5:12-15).  The word "elder" is not specifically used here. But, we do find instructions given to two different groups of "brethren".  (By the way, if you look, you’ll find that none of the epistles were written "to the pastor of the church at such and such", the reason being that none of the churches had pastors.  They were usually written to "the brethren", or "the church", or "the saints".)

In verses 12 and 13 the brethren are encouraged to know and esteem those "over them in the Lord".  "Over" is proistemi, literally, "those who are leading you".  We can safely assume this first instruction is for believers less mature in the church to follow those more mature, those who had accepted the role of guiding others less experienced than themselves.  Then in verses 14 and 15, we find instruction given to the second group of brethren.  The nature of this instruction tells us that the second group must be the elders.  They’re told to warn, comfort, support and be patient with all, to make sure that none seek vengeance, and to encourage everyone to follow their good example - all consistent with the duties of elders found in other passages.  Then, general instructions for both groups follow in verses 16-22.  But, what you don’t find here is any description of a ministry position of authority that approaches that of today’s pastor.

4. Another 7 years has gone by (bringing us to about AD 59, by now, the New Testament church is 30 years old), when we pick up the events described in Acts 20:17-38.  Paul is in Miletus, when he sends word to the elders in the church at Ephesus (about 40 miles away) to come to Miletus to see him.  Paul is in a hurry to sail on towards Jerusalem, but wanted to instruct these elders one last time.  It is an emotional meeting because he tells them that they will not see his face again.

In verse 28 Paul calls these elders episkopos, literally, "those who watch over".  It is generally understood that the term presbuteros (elder) describes the dignity or honor due to one who is able and willing to be a public example in the church for others to follow; while episkopos (overseer) describes the function or duty of an elder, to watch over those in the church and help them follow his example.

Here, Paul says the Holy Spirit appointed the elders.  This, certainly, is not inconsistent with what we saw in Acts 14.  The purpose of the prayer and fasting in that circumstance was, no doubt, the process of seeking the guidance and confirmation of the Spirit in the selection of those elders.  This is basically how verse 28 should read:

"So, continue to watch over your own lives, as well as the lives of the others in the church; remember, the Holy Spirit has chosen you to watch over them, and in so doing, guide the Lord’s church, which He bought with His own blood."  Again, nothing that even remotely resembles today’s pastor, in either function or authority, has been described.

5. When considered chronologically, Ephesians 4:11, mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, was written next (about 3 years later in AD 62).  By now, Paul is imprisoned in Rome.  When he writes his epistle to the church in Ephesus, according to our rough calculations, elders have been functioning in the Church for at least 18 years (since before AD 44 in Jerusalem, remember Acts 11:30).  The point is: regardless of what the King James translators were thinking when they translated the Greek word poimen, "pastors" (it means "shepherd", as we’ll see later, and it does make a difference), the fact is that Paul was talking about elders!  Something that was already well established in both his writings and the practice of the churches he was overseeing.  Otherwise, you have to believe that Paul used the occasion of this one, isolated verse to establish a new office in the church.  This is a difficult position to defend, when you realize that there are at least 12 epistles written after this time and in none of them does the Holy Spirit inspire the writers to describe or even mention this "new" office again.

6. Two years later in AD 64, Paul has been released from house arrest in Rome and writes his first epistle to Timothy, who is assisting the church at Ephesus at the time.  In I Timothy 3:1 he begins listing qualifications for the episkope.   This word is translated "office of a bishop" in the KJV (understandable, when you consider the source); however, this word is used to denote "someone who has been appointed to watch over" (an elder).  In verse 2episkopos (those who watch over) is used.  The qualifications that follow are common-sense qualities that would make one fit to watch over those less mature and less experienced in spiritual matters and to act as a mentor.  They include both spiritual and moral character issues.

7. Paul then writes his letter to Titus that same year.  Titus is trying to help a struggling church on the island of Crete.  This church is being torn apart by false teaching.  In this instruction, found in Titus 1:5-9, Paul uses both presbuteros and episkopos, while giving qualifications for those who would guide and watch over those in this troubled church.  It is interesting that Paul expands the qualifications past the spiritual and moral, to include a sound knowledge of doctrine and the ability to expose and rebuke false teachers.

8. About this same time, Peter writes the epistle known as I Peter, a general letter circulated from church to church in Asia Minor.  In I Peter 5:1-3, he gives instructions to the elders in those churches that help us understand just what their responsibilities are.  (By the way, Peter identifies himself as an elder in verse 1.)  In verse 2, the KJV translates poimaino "feed the flock".  This is, again, an instance of considering the source. This word means "to shepherd" and implies the duties of a shepherd (to guide and guard, the same as the noun form poimen mentioned before).  This verse encourages the elders to "shepherd" those in the church less mature and less experienced than themselves.  If Peter had wanted the elders to be responsible for their feeding, he probably would have used the word bosko.  This leads us to another topic that will have to wait until later, but will be addressed at some point.  Even though teachers are part of the five-fold ministry, they are intended to only complement and support the One who is ultimately responsible for the teaching ministry in the church - the One I’m talking about is the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).

In the next phrase, the KJV translates the verb episkopeo, "taking the oversight thereof".  This verb simply describes the function of an elder, which is to "watch over".  Those in the professional ministry like to cross over and use this verse to describe the duties of a pastor - their translation: "take charge and exercise your authority".

Peter’s charge to the elders in verses 2 and 3 should read something like this:

"Tend to God’s flock the very best that you can, carefully watching over them, not because I tell you to, but because you want to do what’s right.  Not because you want to create opportunities for yourselves to take advantage of them, but because you want to serve.  And certainly not because you want to exercise authority over those who have chosen to follow God, but because you want to be the model for them to follow of one who is seeing God’s purpose fulfilled in his life."

9. The last reference is in the Epistle to the Hebrews, also written about this same time, probably by Paul.  In his closing statements, we find in Hebrews 13:17, a phrase translated in the KJV "Obey them that have the rule over you".  This is a combination of the verb peitho, meaning, "to persuade, to gain confidence or trust" (it does not mean "to obey"), and hegeomai, meaning, "to lead on or forward".  These words, when properly applied to the context, should be translated something like "those who are leading you forward by their good example".  It should be correct to assume that Paul is talking about elders here.

This is a great verse to illustrate the misinterpretations and misunderstandings that can come out of isolated verses translated by men who needed to support a religious system already in place.  Pastors commonly use this verse as a whip to get people to submit to their authority. The KJV reads:

"Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you."

A corrected and expanded translation, however, shows who an elder is and what he does:

"Have confidence in those who are leading you forward in the faith by their good example. Follow them without reservation, because they’re sincerely watching out for your soul’s well being.  They know that they will be asked by me to give a report on your progress.  And I hope it will be a good report; because, if it’s not, that means you’ve spurned their good conduct and are in need of correction."

Note: If you doubt this translation, for starters, the word translated "obey" in verse 17is the same word (peitho, mentioned above) correctly translated "trust" in verse 18.  The translation starts out wrong and just keeps going from bad to worse.

So, who is an elder?  Someone who has been appointed by the Holy Spirit and has accepted the responsibility of being a role model to those less mature and less experienced in the church; someone who is willing to watch over others and guide them towards maturity.  Someone who has the courage and conviction to be able to tell others in the church, "you can trust me, you can follow my example, I’m not afraid of your scrutiny, imitate my life".  This is what Paul told his converts (I Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17; I Thessalonians 1:6).  In addition to being an apostle, he was a functioning elder.  In my 35 years in traditional church ministry, I never had a pastor tell me to imitate his life.  I wonder why?