Church leadership is a complex and multifaceted topic, but is essentially important to explore if God’s people are to be built together into healthy churches. There are a myriad of questions and issues to consider.
In this post, we will explore many of the common questions people ask about this topic. You should come away with valuable insights and information that get you thinking about God’s design for His Church (and human relationships in general).
Click any of the links below to jump directly to any specific question…
How should a person become a church leader?
The Body of Christ is supposed to work like the human body (1 Cor. 12). Everything in the Christian life, including the topic of church leadership, should be seen through the lens of what it means to be the Body of Christ.
It’s a major problem when we approach church leadership without first understanding and demonstrating properly what it is to be the Body of Christ. Body life comes first. Everything else comes second.
This is a mystery that is only revealed by the Spirit. When it isn’t, you see people going after positions of status in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
So instead of asking how to become a church leader, one should ask “how do I live well with others as the Body of Christ?” When you do that well, then you are leading (because most people don’t) regardless of how that leadership is expressed through your unique gifts and knowledge.
Therefore, becoming a church leader should not be a goal. When it is the focus, people tend to bypass the necessary requirement of Body Life that naturally creates people that can influence others well for the Kingdom of God.
As we seek to live well with others as the Body of Christ, we may be called to take on leadership roles, but it should never be our primary focus. Leadership in a church should always be revolving, just like it is in a human body.
In this way, everyone is called to be a church leader just like every part of a body is designed to lead in certain ways.
How important is church leadership?
This can be a difficult question to answer because it depends on what we mean by “church leadership.”
If we mean leadership in the sense of serving others, using our gifts to build up the body of Christ, and following the example of Jesus, then church leadership is what the Christian life is about for everyone. It’s the essence of what authentic church life is.
However, if we mean leadership in the sense of holding positions of power, enforcing rules and regulations, and promoting hierarchy and authority, then we have missed the mark entirely.
None of that is important. In fact, it’s a direct violation of God’s design for His church.
The focus on the 2nd type of church leadership has led to all sorts of traditions and practices that are at odds with the biblical story and how the first Christians operated.
As Jon Zens says in his book 58:0: How Christ Leads Through the One Anothers…
Traditional church practice puts decision-making, and the nuts-and-bolts of church machinery in the hands of “leaders.” The N.T. puts the responsibility of carrying out the will of Christ on the shoulders of the entire body.
In the lopsidedness of our leader-dependence, we have lost the vision of an assembly listening to the voice of Christ together. To focus on leaders without having first a functioning body is to put the proverbial cart before the horse – with dire consequences.
The early church was characterized by a radical equality and mutual submission, with each member using their gifts to serve the whole community. There were no “leaders” in the modern sense of the word, but rather a shared responsibility for the well-being of the community.
Unfortunately, as the church grew and became more institutionalized, the focus on hierarchy and authority became more prominent. This has led to a top-down approach to church leadership that often places more emphasis on maintaining power structures than on serving others.
This has resulted in abuses of power, scandals, and a lack of accountability.
What’s important is the first type of leadership where we focus on living out the values of the kingdom of God in co-equal, mutually submissive relationships with one another.
What did Jesus say about church leadership?
In contrast to the prevailing mindset that greatness came from holding power and exerting authority, Jesus taught that true greatness was found in serving others (Luke 22:24-27). In fact, Jesus himself modeled this idea by washing His disciples’ feet, a task reserved for the lowest servants in society.
Then He said, “you should do the same for each other.” Notice that in Jesus’ paradigm, everyone was called to leadership, not a select few.
Jesus’ teachings on leadership in the Kingdom of God were clear: there was to be no hierarchy or exercising of authority over others (Matthew 20:25-28). Instead, the focus was to be on serving and loving others selflessly. Status and power were not to be the focus.
Furthermore, Jesus flat-out rejected the idea of religious titles and the separation of His people into different tiers of importance within a community. Here’s what He says in Matthew 23:8-12…
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers/sisters. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called Leaders, for you have one Leader, the Messiah.
The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
He emphasized that in His church, all believers were co-equal brothers and sisters, united in their love for Him and their desire to serve one another. In this way, Jesus intended to build a church that was not defined by power structures or titles, but by a community of love and servanthood that images the community life of God.
How does Jesus lead a church?
Jesus leads His church as its Head through His Body made up of many parts as they operate as servants and slaves of one another. “Christ’s Body” is not a metaphor, but a reality.
Jesus’ leadership through the whole church is fluid, floating, and shared, varying each time they come together, as the Lord leads. This means that there is no fixed hierarchy or chain of command in the church, and no one holds permanent power or authority.
Instead, each member of the Body has a unique role to play, and they all work together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes.
Leadership from Jesus occurs in people through example, maturity, humility, and brokenness, not positions, titles, intimidation, guilt and fear. A church that operates this way is never without leadership and experiences the fullness of Christ’s leadership in their midst.
What is biblical church leadership structure?
The word leadership is typically incorrectly associated with tiered relationships. If you think about it this way, you will struggle to understand what the Bible teaches.
Biblical church leadership structure is based on the idea of partnership. From beginning to end, the Bible teaches that humans were designed to be diverse partners acting as one person, reflecting God’s character and ruling His good world.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul describes it like the parts of the human body working together. Each part has a unique function, but all are necessary for the body to function properly. Similarly, in the church, each member has a unique role to play, but all are essential for the body of Christ to function effectively.
This model of leadership emphasizes collaboration and mutual submission, rather than power and control.
A church is a circle of relationships, not a triangle. This means it resists establishing a tiered relationship structure that breaks partnership. It allows Christ to lead them collectively through all the members together.
If Christ is the foundation of the church (practically, not just in words), it’s the only leadership structure it will take on.
Where did the concept of leadership go wrong in church history?
There were some pivotal moments in church history that caused the original vision Jesus and His apostles presented for His Church to be significantly skewed. They were all driven by the desire for human power and control.
One of the earliest was in 150 AD when Clement made a distinction between “priest” and “laity.” This new, human-based type of church order and authority gave rise to a hierarchy of power within the church that would only grow in strength over time.
Then in 250 AD, the practice of “one-bishop rule” took root. This put one person “in charge” of groups of Christians that were defined territorially, which of course led to a sense of competition and power struggles.
Perhaps the most significant moment of them all was in 325 AD when the Emperor Constantine created a new religion mixed with paganism, called it “Christianity,” and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. This led to a merging of church and state, and the church became a tool of political power.
The original vision of Jesus Christ was mostly abandoned, and a human organization calling itself the “church” took its place.
These institutions had specific experts who led the religious practices, specific places (temples) where the people came to practice the religion, and specific religious rituals that were carried out in designated ways and times.
This whole system of merging church and state led to the long-lasting effect of how we view church leadership as positions of power to be filled, just like the world’s system does.
Who has the authority in a church?
The most common teaching on authority within the hierarchical religious system claims that some people have authority over others. However, a closer examination of the New Testament reveals a different perspective.
The primary Greek word for “authority” in the New Testament is never used to mean any person or persons has “authority over” other humans. Instead, the New Testament is clear that all authority belongs to Jesus Christ.
In any context where authority is given to humans, it has nothing to do with being “over” other people. Rather, authority comes from Christ and is expressed through each and every part of His Body as it does its work.
The apostle Paul describes the church as a body with Christ as the head, and each member has a unique role and function within the body. Therefore, authority in the church is not something that is held by a select few individuals, but rather it is distributed throughout the entire body of Christ.
Each member of the church has a responsibility to use their gifts and talents to serve others and to advance the kingdom of God. This means that everyone in the church has authority, and no one person or group should have absolute power or control.
Ultimately, the source of authority in the church is not found in human structures or systems, but in Jesus Christ himself. He is the one who empowers and equips his followers to carry out his mission in the world.
As we submit ourselves to his authority and follow his example of servanthood and love, we can be confident that we are fulfilling our role in the body of Christ and advancing the kingdom of God.
Is leadership in a church only for men?
Many argue that the Bible supports male-only leadership in the church, citing passages that seem to give men the authority over women (1 Cor. 11:3). However, upon closer examination of the biblical text, it becomes clear that the idea of male-only leadership is a misunderstanding of the Bible’s teachings.
One of the main arguments used to support male-only leadership in the church is based on the use of the word “head” in English translations of the Bible. However, it is important to understand that the New Testament writers did not believe that the head was the decision-making center of the body, as is commonly thought today.
In fact, they believed that the gut was the decision-making center. Furthermore, the Greek word used for “head” is kephale, which means “source” or “origin.” In this context, the word head refers to the idea of being the source or origin of something, not to the idea of having authority over something.
The design of co-equal partnership between men and women was there in the story of the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were created. Adam was Eve’s source in that she was taken out of him, and all of the language used in this event speaks of partnership.
Additionally, Christ is the Church’s source or origin, and as His partner, it holds the power of choice to follow His leading or not. The rest of the biblical story never contradicts this design.
In 1 Corinthians 11:11, Paul writes that “in the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.” In Ephesians 5:21, he writes to “submit yourselves to one another.” And in Galatians 3:28, he writes “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
How and when people take the lead in a church’s life together should be determined by their gifts, abilities and motivations. This is certainly shaped by a person’s gender in some ways, but gender should never be used as a primary qualification or disqualification from serving a church in any legitimately biblical way.
What was the leadership role of apostles in the early church?
The leadership role of apostles in the early church was not one of controlling authority but rather one of servant leadership. Paul, an apostle himself, made it clear in his letters to the churches he worked with that he did not seek to “lord it over” their faith, but rather worked with them for their joy and to help them stand firm in their faith.
The first churches were not subject to apostles or any other human authority, but directly to Christ himself.
In Ephesians 4, Paul writes about the gifts Christ gave to the church, including apostles, prophets, and other leaders. These leaders were not given to control the church but to help build it up. The church had the freedom to decide whether or not to follow their guidance.
The authority of an apostle, or any leader, never goes beyond the authority of the Gospel itself. This means their authority was in the proclamation of the Truth, and not in the decision-making of the life of the church.
Healthy servant leadership in the early church recognized the freedom of the community in Christ and did not seek to control or dominate. The community itself, and not any individuals within it, was seen as the vessel of the Spirit’s guidance.
As a result, apostles and other leaders acted as helpful guides and slaves to the community, presenting their guidance on matters in light of the Gospel but ultimately leaving the decision-making to the community.
What was the leadership role of elders in the early church?
In the early church, the role of elders was primarily to provide guidance and support to the congregation. This role was not one of authority or decision-making power, but rather one of leadership through example and service.
Decisions were made collectively, with input from all members of the congregation. For example, when the apostles needed to choose someone to replace Judas, they put forward a suggestion, but it was the congregation that ultimately made the decision. Similarly, when men were chosen to oversee charitable work, the congregation made the decision while the apostles provided guidance and approval.
The elders were chosen from among the congregation based on their maturity and spiritual depth, and their role was to help shepherd the flock towards Christlikeness. Primarily, this was to make sure the Truth was kept front and center in the daily activities and decisions of the church as they went about them.
In the early church, the leadership role of elders did not involve the power to make decisions for the congregation. Jesus himself taught that his followers were not designed to have authority over any other humans, and this was reflected in the early church.
The Greek word for authority (exousia) used to describe Christ the Head was never applied to the role of elders in the New Testament. Instead, other words were used that did not carry the same hierarchical force, such as “lead,” “guide,” “direct,” “manage,” “administrate,” “shepherd,” and “oversee.”
Consistently throughout the early church, the decisions in the early church were taken regularly by the body of the congregation, rather than by a small group of leaders.
It is important to note that words like “leaders” and “authority” that people use to support decision-making leadership in churches are not in the Greek text. The English NIV translation of Hebrews 13:17 says “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority,” but the authors’ original meaning of this verse was to encourage Christians to “give more of a listening ear to” or “pay more attention to” those who have proven themselves to be good guides in the pursuit of Christ.
It does not mean that leaders make decisions and others submit to those decisions. Instead, the congregation as a whole was responsible for making decisions, with the apostles and elders providing guidance and suggestions.
How should church leaders be addressed?
Titles commonly used in churches today, such as “pastor” or “elder,” are not actually titles at all in the New Testament. Rather, they are functional descriptions of what people do within the church.
Titles of distinction are appropriate only to Christ, as He is the only One that is to be elevated. In Matthew 23:8, Jesus explicitly forbids His followers from seeking or accepting honorific titles, reminding us that “all of you are brothers and sisters.”
We should address everyone as brothers and sisters in Christ. Using their first names or simply referring to them as “brother” or “sister” expresses the truth that we are all equal in God’s eyes, regardless of our roles or positions within the church. It also expresses our status as servants of one another.
When titles are used, it’s impossible to resist distinctions in worth and value between people that do and do not carry them. Besides being clearly contrary to what Jesus and the apostles taught, it also stirs up pride and jealousy, which creates all sorts of relational trouble.
The Headship of Christ
Here’s a closing thought from Jon Zens in 58:0: How Christ Leads Through the One Anothers that offers an important point…
Do we really believe that Christ is present in the church as the Head of the church by the Holy Spirit working in each member? Do we really believe He has made a unified body out of the congregation, which will function harmoniously, if we pursue Him together? The very fact that we can ask such a question – won’t it be chaos? – shows that we do not have much faith in the reality of the Holy Spirit implementing the Headship of Christ.