The Nature of the Church and the Function and Structure of Church Leadership

What church should look like and do is something often debated. The same can be said about leadership in the church. These are the issues that will be addressed today. First we will examine the biblical verses dealing with the church.

The term ekklesia in the NT is used to speak of an assembly of people who are called out from the world.[i] It is used to describe both the universal church and the local church. God is the one who founds a church – indeed, Christ said in Matthew 16:13-19 that He would build His church (speaking of the universal church) on either the faith demonstrated by the apostle Peter or on Peter himself (depending on your understanding of the text). Membership in the church universal is made up of all people who change from following their own ways to following God, believe Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of their sins, was resurrected and is Lord of all, and who live like it (Acts 2:47, 5:11-14, 11:24, 26:20; Hebrews 12:22-24; James 2:14-26).  In fact, Peter said, “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).

While the term ekklesia is used to speak of the church universal, it also used to refer to a church meeting in a home (Romans 16:5), in a particular city (1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1), in a region (Acts 9:31) or a larger area such as Asia itself (1 Corinthians 16:19)[ii].  All believers should attend church (Hebrews 10:25). In fact, originally, the church was made up only of people who believed in Christ (Acts 2:47). The believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:42,43-47).  “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32). But over time the local church membership came to include both believers and non-believers, some of whom simply visit and others who somehow get into leadership roles (1 Corinthians 14:22-25; 3 John 1:5-11).

Perhaps because the church is made up of both believers and non-believers, the role of the church includes speaking the word of God (prophecy, teaching, preaching, and evangelism). The purpose of the church is to grow believers – from non-believers to new converts, to mature believers who are ministering (Acts 2:47; Romans 12:4-8; Hebrews 6:1). The preaching, prophecy and evangelism will convince people they are sinners and lead them to believe (Romans 10:14; 1 Corinthians 14:22-25). The teaching will help people grow to spiritual maturity and become more and more holy (1 Corinthians 1:1-2, 4:15-17; Titus 2:1). This is done through the edification of the church – everything we do in church should be to strengthen the church (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Part of strengthening the church is to choose and send out missionaries (Acts 14:14, 15:22). These missionaries might start new churches, evangelize, teach, or do whatever might need doing. The original twelve were called apostles by Jesus Christ, but others were also known as apostles, such as James the brother of Jesus, Paul, Barnabas, Andronicus and Junias (Matthew 10:2; Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13; Romans 16:7; 2 Timothy 1:1). But to be an apostle, one had to do special signs, wonders, and miracles (Acts 5:12; 2 Corinthians 12:12). Another part of strengthening the church is the appointment of leaders in the church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). The titles for leaders in the church are apostle (Acts 15:2, 16:4), elder (Acts 14:23,15:2, 16:4, 20:17), overseer (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1), deacon (Philippians 1:1), and perhaps deaconess (Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:11; Philippians 4:1-3).  Both deacons and deaconesses are servants to the church, performing functions such as serving tables but not leading the church. Apostles, elders and overseers pray, teach, preach, decide issues of doctrine, and lead the church and see to the affairs of the church (Acts 6:1-6, 15:1-6; 1 Timothy 5:17). Apostles also start new churches and appoint new leaders for those churches. Elders serve as overseers to be an example of Christ to believers, to shepherd, and guard the church and to tend to the affairs of the church (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-11).

While God calls people to be leaders, ever since the beginning of the church, man has decided upon different structures of church government, with three being the most common: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational. In the Epsicopal form, there is a hierarchy where an archbishop has authority over the bishop, who has authority over several churches, and each church is cared for by a priest/vicar/rector. The Catholic, Anglican (AKA Episcopalian), and Method churches all employee the Episcopalian form of church government.  In the Presbterian form, each local church elects their own elders, who must be confirmed by the existing elders or by a larger ruling body.  Some local church elders are elected to a larger ruling body (known as a session or consistory) and some or all of them are members of a still higher body of government (called either a presbytery or chassis). Some members of the presbytery are elected to form a synod. The Presbyterian Church also has a General Assembly, which is responsible for a number of churches in a region or country. The Reformed Chuch, various Presbyterian denominations, and Lutheran churches in America use this form of government. The Congregational form of government has the members of the local church elect its leaders. Each local church member has the right to vote upon any major decision the church faces. Each local church is independent from the other church of like mind, with which it associates itself. [iii],[iv]

Regardless of how church leadership is structured, or what it is called, leaders in the church must meet certain biblical qualifications. The full list of qualifications can be found in Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-11, but among other things, an elder or overseer (also called a bishop) must be a man who a mature Christian, above reproach, the husband of one wife, hospitable, and someone who manages his family well. Deacons among other things must be men worthy of respect, sincere. In addition, the women must be dignified.

Having said this, we need to examine what, for some, might be problem passages. First, in requiring a person seeking to be an elder to be above reproach – in Titus 1:6-9, Paul called this being blameless, and describes it as “not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.” This can pose a problem if we are to assume that someone who desires to be an elder can never have sinned, since we know from Ecclesiastes 7:20, 1 John 1:6, and Romans 3:23 that no one is without sin. So the question of how long should someone have been above reproach must be asked and answered. If someone was quite the drunk and crook before accepting Christ, would this disqualify him from becoming an elder, if he had lived a godly life since coming to Christ? If not, then what if the person continued to be dishonest up to five years ago, even after coming to Christ? The answer must be determined by each church or group of churches, but I believe that a person should have a good reputation, regardless of how they used to be, if they have a consistent record of spiritual growth since accepting Christ and of being above reproach within the last five years (for example), then they should be eligible to be an elder as long as they meet the other requirements.

The next problem requirement is the statement that he must be the husband of but one wife – some believe this is meant to require that an elder could never be divorced. I would agree with this stance if we can agree that an elder must always have been above reproach and blameless – even before coming to Christ. There is no question that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16; Mark 10:2-12). However, there are biblical exceptions to the biblical mandate to not divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10-17). An elder should be an example to people, and a man who follows the biblical requirements for marriage and divorce would certainly meet the requirements to be an example. The idea here is to have a consistent record of being someone cares for his wife and faithful.

In general, a leader of the church must be a mature Christian, worthy of respect, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well. He should be a model Christian who lives a life of trusting Christ daily.

Leaders should either be appointed by leaders outside the church, or they should be elected by the congregation. The former occurred in Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5, with elders. The latter was done with the deacons in Acts 6, with deacons. Men have added their own versions of church government, but these seem to be the only biblical models of choosing leadership.

If we use the book of Acts, as well as the various scriptures mentioned already, as a model for how leaders were developed and chosen, we see that people of mature Christian faith were chosen for leaders (Acts 6). They were tested in small things (1 Timothy 3:10), and as they grew in their ability and showed they could be trusted, they were given more and more responsibility, which we saw with Mark and Timothy.

Ultimately, the Bible must be the guide to all things, including church leadership. The qualifications for leaders come from the Bible, as do the functions and the process for choosing leaders. We need to follow the Word of God in choosing leaders, as we do in all things.


[i] Thayer and Smith. “Greek Lexicon entry for Ekklesia”. “The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon”. <http://www.biblestudytools.net/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=1577&version=nas&gt;. 1999. Available Online [23 June 2006]

[ii] Herrick, Greg , “Ecclesiology: The Church”, Bible.org Ministry, http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=731#P283_132043 Available online [23 June 2006].

[iii] Bahnsen, Greg. “For the Record: Church Government Briefly Considered.” http://www.reformed.org/webfiles/antithesis/index.html?mainframe=/webfiles/antithesis/v1n1/ant_v1n1_record.html. Available online 25 June 2006.

[iv] Herrick, Greg. “Ecclesiology: The Church.”  http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=731. Available online 25 June 2006.

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