Indigenous woman shepherd and his baby in Peru

An analysis of Church Leadership


Leadership Structures

Leadership is foundational and vital to the successful operation of any organization.

True leadership, however, must balance authority and accountability. 

  • Authority without accountability leads to dictatorships,
  • Accountability without authority leads to slavery.

Common Church Leadership Structures

Church leadership structures are generally different from Government and Business structures, and typically follow one of the following three patterns:

  • Pastor rule –  a number of Christian churches has the Pastor is the ruler, typically with deacons who serve but neither provide accountability or have any authority.
    • Technically there are other formats of this type of leadership;
      • Episcopal form involving multiple levels of hierarchy (priests, bishops, archbishops, etc.)
      • Presbyterian form involving hierarchical structures of church government (regional presbyteries, larger synods, general assemblies, etc.)
  • A plurality of Elders – some Christian churches empower a group of men who have met certain biblical qualifications to oversee a church.
  • Congregational Rule – other Christian churches, while maintaining biblical independence, empower the church members to vote and determine decisions of the church.

It should be apparent that two of these three leadership options could easily violate the balance of authority and accountability.

  • Singular rule – this is classic authority without accountability.
  • Plurality of Elders – this should be authority with accountability.
  • Congregational Rule – this is classic accountability without authority (from the perspective of elders and deacons.)

The question then is which one of the three patterns – pastoral, elder plurality, or congregational rule, is biblical?

To determine an answer, we need to understand what the Bible teaches.


Common Church Leadership Positions

The management positions generally associated with a church include the following:

  • Elder (presbuteros), overseer (episkopos), and pastor (poimen); all of which refer to the same office.
  • Deacons, and
  • Trustees (or some similar term.)

Now, although the bible discusses Elders and Deacons, it does not mention Trustee.

In fact, the position of Trustee is a created position, often for the convenience of the church. What that generally means is that those men, who either don’t meet certain qualifications, or who don’t want to become ordained as an elder or deacon, but want to participate in the leadership of the church are often given the title of Trustee.

Understandably, the ordination of elder and deacon carries a high level of responsibility. If one is not called and does not meet the qualifications of an elder or deacon, he should advisedly not apply.

In practice, the use of Trustees is not a problem, unless it is used to circumvent the Bible. In other words, if the authority and accountability should biblically be entrusted to an elder or deacon but for whatever reason is bestowed upon a Trustee, you could have an spiritual/obedience issue which should be examined and resolved.

The Office of Pastor/Elder/Overseer

Overseers and pastors are not distinct from elders; the terms are simply different ways of identifying the same people.

The qualifications for an overseer (episkopos) in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and those for an elder (presbuteros) in Titus 1:6-9 are unmistakably parallel. In fact, in Titus 1, Paul uses both terms to refer to the same man (presbuteros in v. 5 and episkopos in v. 7).

All three terms are used interchangeably in Acts 20. In verse 17, Paul assembles all the elders (presbuteros) of the church of Ephesus to give them his farewell message. In verse 28 he says, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to shepherd [poimaino] the church of God.”

The different terms, then – elder, overseer, and pastor, indicate various features of ministry, not varying levels of authority or separate offices.

A Plurality of Elders

Throughout the New Testament, there exists a consistent pattern of a plurality of Elders as the church’s leadership.

  • The Apostle Paul left Titus in Crete and instructed him to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5).
  • James instructed his readers to “call for the elders of the church” to pray for those who are sick (James 5:14).
  • When Paul and Barnabas were in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23).
  • In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, the apostle referred to “the elders who rule well” at the church at Ephesus 1 Tim. 5:17,
  • Acts 20:17, where Paul addresses “the elders of the church” at Ephesus.
  • The book of Acts indicates that there were “elders” at the church in Jerusalem:
    • Acts 11:30 “sending it…to the elders”;
    • Acts 15:2, “go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue…”;  
    • Acts 15:4; “they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders…”; and
    • Acts 21:18 “And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.”

Again and again, reference is made to a plurality of elders in each of the various churches.

In fact, in every place in the New Testament where the term presbuteros (“elder”) is used, it is plural, except where an apostle refers to himself.

Nowhere in the New Testament is there a reference to a one-pastor congregation or what is referred to above as “singular rule.”

In other passages, reference is made to a plurality of elders even though the word presbuteros itself is not used.

  • In the opening greeting of his epistle to the Philippians, Paul refers to the “overseers [plural of episkopos] and deacons” at the church of Philippi (Phil. 1:2).
  • In Acts 20:28, Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which God has made you overseers [plural of episkopos]”.
  • The writer of Hebrews called his readers to obey and submit to the “leaders” who kept watch over their souls (Heb. 13:17).
  • Paul exhorted his Thessalonian readers to “appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction” (1 Thess. 5:12)—a clear reference to the overseers in the Thessalonian assembly.

The Qualifications of Elders

Scripture stresses the importance of qualified church leadership and defines specific standards for evaluating those who would serve in that sacred position.

The qualifications for elders are found in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-8.

According to these passages, an elder must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money, not fond of sordid gain, a good manager of his household, one who has his children under control with dignity, not a new convert, one who has a good reputation outside the church, self-controlled, sensible, able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict, above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, loving what is good, just, and devout.

The single, overarching qualification of which the rest are supportive is that he is to be “above reproach.

That is, he must be a leader who cannot be accused of anything sinful because he has a sustained reputation for blamelessness. An elder is to be above reproach in his marital life, his social life, his business life, and his spiritual life. In this way, he is to be a model of godliness so he can legitimately call the congregation to follow his example – “join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” (Phil. 3:17).

All the other qualifications, except perhaps teaching and management skills, only amplify that idea.

In addition, the office of the elder is limited to men. 1st Timothy 2:11-12 says, “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” In the church, women are to be under the authority of the elders, excluded from teaching men, or holding positions of authority over them.

The distinction between the qualifications of  an”elder” and those of “deacon’s” is defined in 1 Timothy  3:2 “…able to teach…

The Functions of Elders

The primary responsibility of an elder is to serve as a manager and caretaker of the church (1 Tim. 3:5) – “if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?

As spiritual overseers of the flock, elders are to

  • determine church policy (Acts 15:22) “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch...”
  • oversee the church (Acts 20:28) “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which  He purchased with His own blood.
  • ordain others (1 Tim. 5:22) “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily…
  • rule well-deserving of honor especially preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17) “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”
  • Teach, and preach 1 Thess. 5:12; “appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction…” and 1 Tim. 3:2 “An overseer, then, must be above reproach…able to teach…”
  • exhort and refute (Titus 1:9) “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” and,
  • act as shepherds, setting an example for all (1 Pet. 5:1-3) “…I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.

Clearly the scriptures state that elders (plural within each church) shepherd, rule, ordain, teach, preach, exhort, refute, exercise oversight, and not lord it over those allotted to your charge and be examples. This is not a directive to a single pastor ruler nor to congregational rule – it is clearly to elders who began around at the time of the apostles and succeeded the apostles as leaders of the churches.

What arguments are usually presented for congregational rule

Galatians 3:28 – introduces the idea of a single level of church membership There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

  • True we are all equal as brothers and sisters in Christ, however, as in marriage where the husband is the leader and head of the wife, this equality doesn’t negate or diminish the authority and accountability of leadership.

Luke 22:25–27 indicates that the leaders of the coming church are actually to be servants; The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.”

  • This is also true, again, however, the Spirit is talking about taking on the “attitude” of a servant, this doesn’t diminish the authority and accountability of leadership.
    • In Philippians 2:5-8 Christ is pictured as a servant, however, that certainly doesn’t diminish His authority. Christ always had the authority to command legions of angels but for our salvation, chose to take the form of bondservant in obedience to the Father.
      • “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross”

In Acts 1:20, Peter initiates the replacement of Judas in fulfillment of Psalm 109:8.

  • A careful reading of this passage, however, reveals that only the leaders were involved, not the church and that the decision was made casting lots (effectively drawing straws). Certainly, this is not a pattern that would be recommended today and has nothing to do with congregational rule.

Acts 6:3–6 seem to show that the congregation elected deacons.

  • Let’s review this.
    • The Apostles needed to develop a quick solution in response to the problem of not adequately meeting the needs of the Hellenistic Jewish widows.
      • Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they (the apostles) laid their hands on them.”
    • First of all, if you read the passage, it certainly appears that the Apostles initiated the search for seven helpers, and even reserved the approval of the congregation’s selection – “whom we may put in charge…” This would hardly be proof of  congregational rule. The church did, however, “choose” seven men.
    • Although the word “deacon” is never mentioned, these seem deacon-like, but we can certainly not assume that this is the complete pattern. Especially since the qualifications for elders and deacon which are found in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-8, were not fully developed and distributed until later on in church history. Acts recorded the first 10 – 15-year history of the early church shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ. The epistles were written and distributed around 60 AD and later.
    • This particular story is truly a leadership situation that was in transition. We need to understand that this was very early in the rapid development of the Christian Church and that the leaders here were the Apostles. Remember, the Apostles were temporary and were being supported and supplanted by Elders.
      • Ephesians 4:11  “He gave to the church apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers for the edification of the saints – ” to teach the Word to the saints, “ – for the building up of the body,” Apostles and Prophets end while pastors, and teachers continue on the growth of the church.
    • The concept of “selecting seven” also aligns with the mishna, which is a kind of codification of Jewish law that says seven was the number of persons appointed to transact business publicly in Jewish towns.  It’s a little town council, and there are always seven because you would always have a majority. In effect, the Apostles resorted to their Jewish customs to address a particularly pressing problem. There certainly is no requirement today to appoint seven deacons.
    • The priority of the Apostles to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word…” is simply facilitated by instructing the congregation to “select from among you seven men of good reputation…”
  • What seems true, is that this illustrates a balance of elder rule and church member involvement. We can all learn something from this. Certainly, the apostles wouldn’t be accused of micromanagement, and effectively and property delegated the task of selecting qualified men of “good reputation.”
  • For those who still want to use Acts as proof of congregational rule, I would point you to Acts 14:21 – 23 which states “And after they had proclaimed the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned…strengthening the souls of the disciples, …and when they had appointed elders for them in every church…they commended them…”

Tradition – Some would argue that the concept of congregational rule has always been done in our church. This ignores the numerous passages which show a plurality of elder leadership in the New Testament and, is a very poor precedence. It is always dangerous to supplant the teachings of scripture with tradition.


In summary, none of the above reasons for Congregational Rule, negate the clear biblical teachings of a plurality of elders to “keep watch over the souls” of their congregation.

There is, however, a desire to ensure that Elder rule not become misaligned with respect to authority and accountability – or as Paul says “…nor yet as lording it over…”

Certainly, a plurality of elders is a natural accountability forum in this type of leadership, Elders will hold other Elders accountable and as mature men able to teach can hold one another to the highest spiritual levels of accountability.

This should be contrasted to Single rule leadership, where accountability is extremely difficult sometimes not only to ascertain but if not handled carefully can lead to violations of 1 Timothy 5:19

  • “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.”

In order, however, to balance the concept of authority and accountability, as it pertains to the church membership, there needs to be a recognition of two important features:

  1. appropriate transparency, and
  2. involvement of the church member.

The purpose of the church is to exalt God, edify believers and evangelize the lost.

Certainly within those three areas, there is more than enough tasks for both the leaders and the church members. With appropriate transparency and involvement, church members should be given the opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts. The leadership and direction of the church should, however, remain Biblically with a plurality of elders.


Congregational involvement should be differentiated from congregational rule. Involvement and the exercise of spiritual gifts is expected and biblical. Voting on all church decisions is not a pattern in the New Testament.

Even when entitled “Elder Lead,” if all decisions are voted upon by the church, it is Congregational rule. Both extremes are problematic.

The single rule leadership form should be dismissed out of hand as simply not Biblical and dangerous.

Finally, I would submit that no one should aspire to an ordained leadership position, elder or deacon, in any church body, where the church does not fully recognize the biblical authority of elders and deacons and proper balance with the congregation.

The danger here, I believe, is that the accountability to God is misaligned with the lack of authority given it by the church.

"It wasn't a potential atonement actuated by the sinner, it was an actual atonement initiated by the savior."

John MacArthur