The question now turns to its next phase – how was the church in the New Testament (NT) lead. As seen previously, the congregations with large numbers was probably not the norm after the Jerusalem brethren dispersed during the Saul-led persecution. In fact, not until the closing of the canon do we even see what could be recognized as a “modern church” and then only sparingly.
Groups of believers would tend to seek each other out thereby making nodes in a web or net in their networking. Places such as Jerusalem, Antioch-Syria, and Alexandria became centers where Christian thought could safely be undertaken. Individuals arose who seemed more capable to discern and rightly divide the scriptures. Eventually playing off names for roles in the bible, they assumed a leadership position of “bishop.” Later, after the Constantine Christianizing of Rome these centers would eventually give precedence to the Bishopric of Rome. Divisions occurred creating the Eastern Orthodox series of Bishops. At the time of the Reformation, catalyzed by Martin Luther, many offices were present – priest, bishop cardinal, and Pope being the simplest outline. The protestants took a vestige of this that eventually came to be predominant in American Protestant evangelical churches – deacons, elders, and pastors with elder often being left out. Some charismatic groups sought another division of leadership claiming the reinstitution of the “offices” of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher – the so-called five-fold ministry (Ephesians 4:11).
Today, most evangelical churches will try to claim a model of leadership based on the NT. With varying commendable degrees of success, they have been successful in carrying out Jesus’ mandates from the gospels and Acts. Their claim to NT authenticity is unwarranted except for the lifting of labels from the Bible to give to positions of leadership. The hierarchal-based leadership structure is the predominant foundation of nearly all churches today. How then was a church led in the NT?
Priority in leadership must be given to the founder. Jesus Christ is the founder of the church. In answer to Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “…the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus said, “I will build my church…” using the believers as His building material (see 1 Peter 2:5). Therefore, from this point on, we make the presupposition that Jesus is the primary leader of the church.
Paul, being given the task by Jesus of carrying Jesus’ name to the world (Acts 9:15-16) helped in the establishing of a good number of churches. In fact, he wrote letters to some of them and to congregations he did not start but wished to visit for purposes of encouragement, exhortation, and sometimes discipline. In these letters can be found a theme for leadership that interconnects and runs throughout the NT. This recurrent theme is then how the church is lead in the NT. We will look to see how this traces through Paul’s letters. Peter and John used this theme as well giving more weight to this argument.
We will start with a look at the letter to the churches in Galatia. From Galatians 4:1-7 (ESV) “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (see also the parallel in Romans 8:12-17). Note the use of words such as ‘father,’ ‘children,’ ‘sons,’ and ‘heirs.’ Paul’s word choices convey an image of family. That Paul may be envisioning the churches of Galatia (and Rome) as being part of the family is not difficult to perceive.
His letter to the church at Ephesus gives us another look at Paul’s understanding of leadership in the church. Through inspiration by the Holy Spirit, a description of relation is given to the reader. Using comparative analogies Paul shows the pattern in the family, distinct husband and wife roles, parallels the distinct relationship of Jesus Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Paul leaves no doubt at verse 32, “This mystery is profound and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (See also the parallel in Colossians 3:18-21)
In reading Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we encounter familial language as he describes his relationship with Timothy. “But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Philippians 2:22). Side by side with Timothy through Macedonia and Greece, Paul labored to give the gospel and establish churches. A sense of family and belonging permeates their relationship. Paul saw his own leadership as one that would be characterized as being like a father – not a chief executive officer.
Paul’s letter to his good friend Philemon serves as an awesome landmark in church leadership. If ever Paul could, some would say SHOULD, have invoked heavy-handed hierarchal derived leadership, this would be that point. In asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, Paul does not refer to Philemon as a subject, employ, member, or lower-level leader. He calls Philemon brother (Philemon 7).
Were it enough that Paul alone used familial language to describe leadership in the church that would be enough. Peter and John, as alluded to earlier, both used the language as well. Peter uses Paul’s husband and wife motif in 1 Peter 3:1-7. In 1 John 2 we see the use of ‘children’ and ‘father.’ John wrote, not from a position of hierarchal authority, but from the stance, that familial relationship provides proper leadership in the church.
As we have seen the typical NT, relational, familial leadership led church. Paul did have problems with the church at Corinth, pointing out divisions brought about by unhealthy relationships (1 Corinthians 11:18-19). Even so, he still viewed them from a familial standpoint (1 Corinthians 4:6).
We will next turn our attention to what impact this carries for how church is to be led today.