Leadership in the church

I’ve just started reading Alec Motyer‘s commentary on Philippians in my morning devotions. The following long-ish quotation is an amazingly clear picture that is painted of leadership in the local church. I would encourage you to read the whole quotation:

The impression we receive in the New Testament is of local churches loosely federated under apostolic authority, with each church managing its own affairs under the leadership of overseers (who are also called elders) and deacons.

Deacons were obviously a distinct office, but we are told nothing about the functions a deacon was meant to fulfil. There is insufficient evidence to enable us to identity the deacons of 1 Timothy 3:8ff. with the ‘seven’ appointed in Acts 6 to ‘serve tables’, even though the identification is not in itself unreasonable. The word ‘deacon’ (diakonos) and its related verb (diakoneo) are used too widely–of ministering the gospel as well as of ministering to bodily or social needs — for us to say what the deacons (and deaconesses, cf. Rom. 16:1) may or may not have done in the enviably flexible arrangements of ministry in a New Testament church.

The word ‘flexibility’ seems equally to apply to those church leaders who are described as ‘elders’ and ‘overseers’ (‘bishops’ in older traditions). It is clear however, that the two titles describe the same person. Possibly such an official could also be called ‘pastor’ or ‘teacher’. the title ‘elder’ expresses seniority and experience; ‘overseer’, ‘pastor” and ‘teacher’ refer to the functions of leadership, care and instruction. Indeed ‘teaching’ is the only specific function required of elders: apart from this the lists devote their attention to personal qualities rather than job-descriptions.

One thing, however, is plain: the were ‘elders’ (plural) in every church. From the first reference to apostolic practice in Acts 14:23 onwards through the uniform testimony of the New Testament, and even earlier according to the testimony of Acts 11:30, local leadership was committed not to an individual but to a group. And if we ask why their respective functions are not more closely defined, then surely the answer is this: ministry arises from the nature and needs of the church, not vice versa. The elders shared the qualities which fitted them for office. they probably shared also that one thing without which a church cannot exist: the ministry of the God’s Word. But otherwise they wrapped their ministry round the needs of the local church in which they served.”


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