Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

10 Jun 2024

Church Leadership in the First Century

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What did church leadership look like in the first century? Below are a few observations.

In a passage penned in the mid-first century, James addressed the question of what to do when one is facing serious illness. He wrote, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (Jas 5:14; NIV). Setting aside the question of anointing the sick with oil, James assumed that an ailing believer would have “elders” (plural) whom he could call to his bedside to pray over him.

Just a few pages earlier in the NT, the author of Hebrews exhorted his readers to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb 13:17; cf. v. 7). Here again, the writer assumed that his Christian readers would have “leaders” (plural) to whom they must submit and who were accountable for their souls.

Similarly, throughout the book of Acts, church leaders are consistently mentioned in the plural in any given locale. For example, in Acts 14:23, Luke records that as Paul and Barnabas traveled around the Mediterranean, they “appointed elders for them in every church.” In Acts 15 and 16, Luke makes several references to “the apostles and elders” serving in the church in Jerusalem. And in Acts 20:17, we read that Paul called together the “elders” in Ephesus and exhorted them as “overseers” (20:28).

This emphasis on plurality extends beyond the book of Acts and into the epistles as well. For example, Paul addressed his letter to the saints in Philippi along with “the overseers and deacons” in that church (Phil 1:1). Elsewhere, believers in the church at Thessalonica were exhorted to “respect those who labor among you…and esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5:12–13). Echoing what Luke recorded in the book of Acts, Paul instructed Titus to put churches “in order,” and part of this included the need to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). Also, the apostle Peter wrote, in part, to “exhort the elders among you” (1 Pet 5:1).

Although we don’t have many extrabiblical Christian documents dating from the first century, among those we do have, the record is consistent with the NT pattern. In a letter written to the Corinthian church in the 90s, Clement praised the church for “submitting to your leaders” and spoke about “overseers and deacons” in the church (1 Clem 1.3; 42.4–5). As an interesting aside, Clement stated that after the death of the apostles, these overseers were appointed “with the consent of the whole church” (1 Clem 44.3). In what is likely the earliest surviving extrabiblical sermon, the preacher (who is not the previous Clement) exhorted his hearers to pay attention not only while they were “being admonished by the elders” but also to remember the Lord’s commands after they returned home (2 Clem 17.3). And in a church manual written around the turn of the century, believers were instructed to appoint “overseers and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Did 15.1).

This kind of consistent pattern led George Knight to conclude:

“An analysis of the data seems, therefore, to indicate the existence of oversight by a plurality of church leaders throughout the NT church in virtually every known area and acknowledged or commended by virtually every NT writer who writes about church leadership” (Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC, 176–77).

A few observations:

  • The general norm in the first century seems to be that churches were led by multiple elders/overseers/pastors. Some see this plurality as a command. I’m not sure it quite rises to that level. Still, multiple elders serving in a given congregation appears to be the pattern to which there are no clear exceptions in the NT.
  • One may have noticed that the words “elders” and “overseers” appear in the quotations above while the noun “pastor(s)” does not. This is simply a reflection of biblical usage. In the NT, “elders” is the most common noun used to refer to church leaders. The second most common term is “overseers.” The plural noun “pastors” occurs only once in the NT (Eph 4:11). And the singular noun “pastor” never appears in the NT.
  • The nouns “elders,” “overseers,” and “pastors” appear to refer to the same group of people. Probably the clearest passage pointing to this reality is Acts 20, where those who are identified as “elders” and “overseers” are exhorted to “shepherd” (or to pastor) the flock (Acts 20:17, 28).
  • Some view the words “To the angel of the church in ______” in Revelation 2–3 as an indication that there was a single elder/overseer/pastor over each of the seven churches mentioned in those chapters. There are a couple of problems with this interpretation. First, the Greek noun translated as angel is never used anywhere else in the NT to refer to an elder/overseer/pastor, including the dozens of times it appears in the book of Revelation. This would have to be the exception, and it seems strange to use an unsubstantiated exception to overturn the multiple clear passages cited above. Second, the first church mentioned in Revelation 2 is the church in Ephesus, and as we noted above, several decades before Revelation was written, Paul called together the elders in Ephesus and exhorted them as overseers (Acts 20:17, 28).

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