From time to time, I pray that the Lord will bring down the hierarchical structure of the Church, wherever it exists. Does this sound radical? Well, after studying the concept of leadership in the New Testament, I’ve come to very oppositional conclusions about what we so easily today call “leadership.”
The concept of leadership is found in different manifestations in the New Testament. The word “leader,” which is how the ESV translates “hegeomai”—one who goes before or leads the way—is found in only four scriptures:
In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is exhorting the readers to:
Remember their leaders and imitate them (vs. 7)
Obey their leaders and submit to them because they keep watch over their souls (17).
To greet them (vs. 24).
However, the fourth place this word appears is the most significant, in Luke 22. Here is the context in which the word “hegeomai” or “leader” is used.
“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25–27 ESV).
So, it seems a bit contradictory, doesn’t it, that a leader is to be a servant and yet have people submit to and obey him? Apparently, leaders are to “lead the way” while being servants.
However, the idea of a leader in the Church becomes a bit clearer when we consider the biblical offices of elder, deacon, overseer, and pastor.
The first place the word “elder” occurs in the New Testament concerning the church is in Acts 11:29-30: “So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (ESV). The word “elder” here is “prebyteros,” which literally means “old man.” This word is used for church leaders in many, many verses in the context of church leadership. I won’t list them all, but if you study this word, you will find that old men were leaders in the New Testament church.
Another word used for church leaders is “diakonos,” the word from which we get “deacon.” BDAG defines “diakonos” as “one who is busy with someth. in a manner that is of assistance to someone.”1 This word means “servant,” but it is clear that in the New Testament church, the “diakonos” were leaders. The ESV translates “diakonos” as minister, deacon, and servant, and it is used multiple times. Paul called Apollos and himself “diakonos”: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Corinthians 3:5 ESV). He also wrote that Jesus was a “diakonos.” “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” (Romans 15:8–9 ESV).
Another word for leader in the New Testament is, “overseer,” which is “episkopos” in Greek. An episkopos is “one who has the responsibility of safeguarding or seeing to it that someth. is done in the correct way, guardian,” according to the definition in BDAG.2 This word is used only four times in the New Testament for someone who has what we would call a leadership role in the Church. Here is one example: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28 ESV). Once, it refers to Jesus. “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25 ESV). In each instance, it describes the work of someone we would call a pastor today.
The word “doulos” also means servant, but such a person is also a leader in the New Testament. All of the New Testament writers referred to themselves as “doulos,” and it goes without saying that they were leaders. This word is used multiple times in the New Testament. Here is an example. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5 ESV). However, Jesus is also called a “doulos”: “…but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7 ESV).
Pastors or shepherds are also leaders. Surprisingly, this word only occurs twice in regards to human leadership in the church, in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Peter 5:2. (It is used once concerning evil human leadership in Jude 12.) The other times refer to Jesus. Here is an example: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4 ESV).
In addition, a leader would be a person who is included in one or more of these ministries:
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:11–14 ESV).
Finally, a leader would, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV).
So, to sum up, leaders in the church are:
Those who lead the way.
One who is an older person, most likely a man.
One who is an overseer, a guardian, keeping watch over peoples’ souls.
One who is a servant. The use of the words for servant—diakonos and doulos—are used many times more in the context of leadership than any other word.
One who shepherds people.
He would teach, preach, reprove, rebuke, and exhort. He may also be a prophet, an apostle, or an evangelist.
Therefore, the New Testament idea of leadership is an older person who cares for others, guards and oversees them, leads the way, and serves them. He would lovingly teach, rebuke, and exhort. Should one obey such a person, as the writer of Hebrews exhorts us to? Certainly. However, that obedience is in terms of spiritual authority, not hierarchical authority. This must be true because servants do not “exercise authority” like the “Gentiles” do (Luke 22:25–27). They serve them as wise and loving shepherds, leading the way to…Jesus
1Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.