ReThinking Church, Part 10 – Biblical Leadership

America was born out of the seed of representation and democracy. It has given us the greatest freedoms of any civilized nation. Of course, baggage and error always comes with liberty and freedom, but that is the price for genuine freedom. Along with the secular government given to us by the trials of the forefathers, there is another pattern given to us. Unfortunately, it was given to the Church. That pattern is that the American church, for the most part, adopted the same forms of secular society and imposed it upon the ecclesiology of the church. Many fellowships take a vote from the local members to decide just about everything, or at the very least, have a board of Deacons who run the church on all matters. (physical and spiritual)

Is this the New Testament pattern? Is this the way Paul and the early apostles established leadership in the expansion of the church? Is this the polity we should use in our local churches?

Upon a casual reading of the NT we find the biblical pattern for church government to be quiet different from the American version. Here are the constants we find throughout the survey of the New Testament.

    • Bishops and Elders are synonymous terms – This is an undeniable fact. These two terms were first separated in the early part of the second century in the writings of Ignatius. (A.D. 105) In the canon of Scripture Bishop/Overseer (episkopos) and Elder (presbuteros) are used interchangeably. (Acts 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5, 7; 1Pet. 5:1, 2) Why did the New testament writers use two different words? Elder was the term the Jewish believers understood to represent leadership through the ministry of the synagogue. Bishop (overseer) was the term used in the Greek culture for supervisors, officers and state officials. The Holy Spirit inspired the NT authors to use both terms interchangeably in order to identify with both cultures in language associated with authority. Similar to the early greeting of “Grace and Peace.” The former being a Greek greeting and the later a Jewish one.
    • Each Church was governed by a plurality of Elders – The early church, once established, did not have the one man show we see today, where one Elder is the face of all teaching. (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14; 1Pet. 5:1-2)
    • Two Offices – Bishop and Deacon – The leadership of a local church is expressed in two offices. (1Tim. 3:1-12; Phil. 1:1) Office of Bishop/Elder has the ruling authority (1Tim. 3:5), while the office of Deacon is for official servants to the local body.
    • Church Office held only by men – Offends the feminist element in many denominations, but this is the biblical pattern. The attempt of egalatarians to offer Phoebe as an office holder (Rom. 16:1) and argue for female leadership from one verse in Paul’s ecclesiastical passage (1Tim. 3:11), is extremely weak, unconvincing and lacks historical precedence.

What we do not see in the New Testament:

    • Husband and wife hold office together – This practice is prominent in many churches in America, especially in the African-American community. It appears to be more from pride, the milking of the congregation for a double salary and a desire for prestige rather than a demonstration of biblical freedom. It has no warrant in Scriptures, though some attempt to use Aquila and Priscilla as a proof. (Rom. 16:3) Functioning in a ministry does not automatically equal being in the office of oversight in a local church.
    • Single Pastor leadership – Even Jesus sent out the apostles two by two. Single leadership is the fertile ground where control and manipulation spring forth. Again, plurality of Elders is the undeniable NT pattern.
    • Deacon ruled churches – This idea is completely missing from the NT paradigm. Deacons are servants, not rulers. The practice of Deacons ruling a local church is adopted from the secular form of representative secular government, not from the New Testament. The argument from the Acts 6:3 that Deacons were appointed over the business of the church is very poor exegesis. They were appointed over a specific task assigned by the Apostles, not given ruling authority over the church.
    • Deacon and Elder swing board vote – Almost comical, but a part of the landscape of Americanized version of church leadership. Swing boards, at their heart, were created to be able to revolve problematic men out of office. The practice of 1 year, 3 year or 5 year terms of office for Deacons and Elders is a practice borrowed from secular business, not the New Testament.
    • Democratic vote – Could you imagine the Church of Ephesus voting on whether they wanted to keep the Apostle Paul or Timothy as a leader? Or the Church at Jerusalem deciding to dismiss Peter and John from leadership? Yet, this practice of democratic vote is what many churches do in regards to spiritual leadership.


The Pattern the Lord has given to us throughout the NT reveals a glaring difference between the early church and the American version. The abandonment of the biblical pattern of church government, and the adoption of a secular version, has brought many problems into American churches. It encourages confusion, division and a shallowness.

Confusion because authority falls into the hands of the wealthy or popular instead of the spiritually mature. Division because men not called by God to rule (deacons) become the hire and fire executives over men called by God to lead. (Elders) Shallowness because if revival breaks out and there is an influx of new believers, the next voting issue (Pastor, Deacons, building, etc…) will be determined by immature new comers instead of spiritually mature leadership.

The simplicity of the NT pattern of leadership offers the healthiest example. It is easily replicated, offers spiritual protection from carnality, and helps believers see and avoid Satan’s work of division. The biggest benefit is that it keeps the local church externally focused upon the great commission rather than becoming introverted and wasting resources on unnecessary and ostentatious facilities designed for selfish pride.

The gospel is not about us…

More to come, stayed tuned

Related topics:
ReThinking Church Series
The ‘Deaconized’ Pastor

5 thoughts on “ReThinking Church, Part 10 – Biblical Leadership

  1. Daniel Monaghan


    Thanks for this post. I very strongly agree that the church has had church polity wrong for so long.
    I do have a couple of problems however – one major and one not so much. The major one is that when the Holy Spirit uses two different words how are we free to say that they are the same? This is exactly what He does with episkopos (bishop) and presbuteros (elder).

    Second if the office of deacon is not a ruling office – AND IT IS NOT BIBLICALLY, and indeed might even be an ad hoc position, does the Biblical mandate against a woman holding authoritative position in the church hold? Corollary to this…what are we to do with Phoebe, the deaconess?

    Thanks again for all you do Bro,


    1. Daniel,
      Thanks for your input, Brother. And the questions you raise are very good. Having studied these issues extensively for many years (since 1986. Yes, I’m old), I’ll proffer my thoughts on your questions. Brother, I’m assuming several things in order to keep my comments as brief as possible. There are several foundational truths underneath my explanations. (Plurality of Leadership, synagogue leadership, biblical pattern, early church history, etc.) Therefore, if I say some things to succinctly, it is not flippantly. :)

      QUESTION #1 – When the Holy Spirit uses two different words how are we free to say that they are the same?

      I see the answer to this one in the fact that the biblical context leads or drives us there. The blog did not leave enough space to develop this in detail so I’ll offer more here.

      a) The terms ‘episkopos’ and ‘presbuteros’ are used interchangeably through Scriptures.
      **Paul calls for the Ephesian presbuteros to meet him. (Acts 20:17) While he addresses the presbuteros he calls them episkopos. (20:28)
      **Also, Paul instructs Titus to ordain presbuteros in the church of Crete, and then immediately lays out the qualifications of episkopos. (Titus 1:5,7)
      **Peter addresses the presbuteros of several local churches. In doing so he instructs them to take the episkopeo (verb form of episkopos). (1Pet. 5:1,2)
      **Paul addresses “all the saints…with the bishops and deacons.” in Philippians 1:1. Seeing he was addressing the church with it’s leadership, why would he leave out the elders (presbuteros) is they were a separate office?
      **Likewise, in his pastoral letter to Timothy, Paul lays out the qualifications of a bishops (episkopos) and deacons (1Tim. 3:1-13). Again, this would be strange if presbuteros were a seperate office for we know there were presbuteros in Ephesus (1Tim. 5:17), but he never gave qualifications.

      b) The term presbuteros focuses upon the man in the office, while episkopos directs attention upon the office or work.

      c) Presbuteros recognized by Jewish believers from its’ association with leadership in the synagogues, while episkopos was a term used to describe supervisory positions in Greek culture. With the establishment of these early churches, they were composed of both Jewish and Greek converts. By using these terms interchangeably, either group would understand the meaning.

      d) From church history we learn that it was not until the early part of the second century that a distinction was made between presbuteros and episkopos. From the writings of Ignatius (105-108 A.D.) we begin seeing the episkopos elevated above the presbuteros. However, and this is important, this was after what we know is the Apostolic age, and the precedent finds no warrant in the New Testament canon. In fact, Paul and John warned against this very elevation. (Acts. 20:30; 3Jn.9)

      e) If someone holds that presbuteros and episkopos are separate offices, the question would arise, “We know there are Elders in every church in the NT fellowships. Therefore, if they are separate, what are their qualifications?” The only answer to this is the assumption that the qualifications are the same, but the position is different (no warrant from the biblical record for this one), or that it developed in the following years after the life of the apostles. This one is dangerous as the unbiblical separation of these two offices eventually led to “bishop among bishops” (Pope) by the Roman Catholic Church.

      f) Greek scholars hold to the terms being synonymous. (too many to name)

      Because of all the above, I believe the context of the biblical record leads us to the understanding that presbuteros and episkopos were interchangeable words speaking of the same men/office.

      QUESTION #2 – If the office of deacon is not a ruling office – AND IT IS NOT BIBLICALLY, and indeed might even be an ad hoc position, does the Biblical mandate against a woman holding authoritative position in the church hold? Corollary to this…what are we to do with Phoebe, the deaconess?

      a) While not a SPIRITUAL ‘ruling office,’ the office of Deacon does carry administrative and organizational functions necessary for the healthy operation of the church. Therefore, there would be some overseeing of people and instruction taking place and this involves authority. Therefore, because it involves ‘authority,’ this prevents women from holding this office, and I would not see it as an ad hoc position or office.

      b) A person can serve (diakonos) in many capacities around a local church. However, this is different from being in an official office of diakonos where authority among and over men is in view. Therefore, IMO and to embrace this verse in Romans along with all the Scriptures dealing with the function of men and women in the local church, Phoebe was a ‘servant’ who helped with many things in the church at Cenchrea, but not in an official position via ‘Office of Deaconess.’

      c) One of the same problems which we saw in question #1 arises if someone attempts to hold to an egalitarian position concerning women in the church. That is, where are the qualifications for an official ‘Office of Deaconess?’ Some attempt to use 1Tim. 3:11, but by all accounts it is a grave stretch and a practice of eisegesis instead of exegesis.

      Brother, I hope this helps. Thanks for your questions…always a joy! God bless….


      1. Daniel Monaghan

        Terry, thanks for the response.
        I too started studying this subject in the mid ’80’s – perhaps a year or two earlier than you. At the time I thought i was headed to seminary and into the ministry and thought that i should gain a Biblical view of the subject rather than any denominational view, inasmuch as i had discovered through personal scriptural study over the previous decade that much of what I had been taught while growing up in a southern baptist church to be biblical, quite simply and clearly was not, but just the traditions of men. It was 1974 at age 24 when i began to take Holy Scripture more seriously than previously and began to study for myself.

        I came to the conclusion that the baptist structure of deacon-rule simply didnt stand up to the scriptural test, the biblical model being the plurality of elders, though i shared my conclusion with almost no one for years. Until the last few years i thought implementing the biblical model was hopelessly doomed in a baptist church. Then i became an original member of a church start in my hometown. About that time i began to learn that quite a number of Southern Baptist churches were going to the biblical model. After three years of planning for it, we also implemented a plurality of elders model in an SBC Church. We did not choose at that time to have deacons, but planned that as something that we would implement later if needed or desired. Within a year or so after that God called me out of that local body. Therefore, I dont know if the office of deacon has been implemented or not, nor do i know if i see an office of deacon in scripture.

        Anyway, i said all that just to say that to make clear that i believe in the plurality of elders as the biblical model. I have seen the damage done by the non-biblical models of democratic polity and deacon boards. Also, i don’t advocate for a hierarchical system as is often implemented using bishops as ‘district managers’. I understand and somewhat accept the logic that you have presented and i have previously read, that the two words used by the Holy Spirit refer to the same office, but i always cringe when we say “well, the Holy Spirit really didnt mean that, He really meant this…” regardless of the subject being considered.

        Again, thanks for all you do and i have gained much from you here in hyperspace! :-)


        1. Daniel, I understand the cringing Brother. The statement you referenced has been used by many to justify or attempt to change what God has clearly spoken. Whenever I am up around Tupelo, we’ll have to do lunch!

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