A Biblical Approach To Church Leadership

from Gospel Eldership by Bob Thune


THE BIBLICAL MODEL                 

According to the Bible, the church is to be led by a plurality of called, qualfiied men known as elders. Let’s examine each aspect of this definition.


The Bible consistently speaks of elders in terms of plurality. For instance: “When [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). Likewise, in Titus 1:5 (NASB): “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” Even Paul, who was an apostle with a capital A, submitted his own ministry and calling to the elders in Jerusalem. “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (Galatians 2:1–2).                   

A properly functioning biblical church is led by a plurality of leaders. Some of them may serve in a full-time, vocational capacity, receiving their financial income from the church (1 Timothy 5:17–18; 1 Corinthians 9:7–14). Others may serve in a volunteer capacity, receiving their income from another job. One of them may have a “first among equals” role, while others may serve in less visible ways according to their gifting and calling. But whatever the nuances of its specific application, the biblical model of church leadership demands that qualified pastor-elders serve together as the spiritual leaders of the church, shepherding the flock and sharing responsibility, authority, and accountability as a team.                   

In a church-planting or pioneering missions context, one man often serves as the lone elder until other qualified men are raised up. This is commensurate with Paul’s own ministry; he and his missionary team had to make disciples in Crete in the first place before he could leave Titus behind to “set in order what remains and appoint elders” (Titus 1:5). But even in this early “apostolic band” stage of church planting, a good leader should pray, work, and labor to raise up additional elders from within the church as quickly as possible.                    

CALLED MEN                    

“Called” is a loaded word, isn’t it? It’s been used to justify all sorts of nonsense: “The Lord is calling me to...” And yet, no matter how abused and mistreated this idea is, it captures something very fundamental about how the Spirit of God works. Paul says to Timothy, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Elders aspire to the office. They feel a sort of internal compulsion. They are provoked by the Holy Spirit to pursue the office.                    

But there is more to calling than a mere subjective interest. Dave Harvey tells of a church member who “sat across from his pastor testifying that he’d received a ‘call to ministry.’ . . . Then he informed the pastor he would be leaving the church in search of his ministry. So is that what happens? God speaks so loudly to a man that other voices become unnecessary?” On the contrary, Harvey observes, “if you’re called to pastoral ministry, you’re called to the church. . . . Identifying called men, evaluating their call, assessing their character, and positioning them to be fruitful in their call . . . [is] the responsibility of the local church.” This is symbolized in the biblical practice of “laying hands” on a new elder, representing his commissioning by God and the church (1 Timothy 5:22).                  

For this reason, some churches and church-planting agencies use the word commended rather than called. Commended implies that others have evaluated and affirmed a man’s calling. A calling to eldership is not merely a subjective aspiration; it’s an aspiration that has been tested and confirmed by other godly leaders in the context of a local church community.                    


It’s not enough for elders to be called; they must also be qualified. Since the people of the church are instructed to submit to the elders (Hebrews 13:17), God demands that elders be the type of people who are worthy of trust and submission. He protects the flock by laying out clear scriptural guidelines for all who wish to serve as elders.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (1 Timothy 3:1–7).

Appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:5b–9).           

These texts lay out qualifications, not preferences. These are not traits that are nice for an elder to have; these are traits an elder must have. These are the benchmarks against which every potential elder must be measured. If a man does not meet these qualifications, he is not fit to serve in the office of elder.    


In the Bible, the terms elder (presbuteros), pastor (poimen), and bishop (episkopos) are all used interchangeably to refer to the same person or group of people. ere are not elders, and then pastors, and then bishops. Rather, an elder = a pastor = a bishop. As noted in the Introduction, two particular New Testament texts make this abundantly clear (Acts 20:17–18, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–2)         

In the church, the office of elder is referred to under various titles. The term elder describes the man “with reference to his dignity and standing (older); bishop describing the man with reference to his function and duty (oversight). . . . [T]he chief role of the pastor is feeding the flock through teaching, a role clearly assigned to bishops/overseers in 1 Timothy 3:2 (“An elder must be . . . apt to teach”) and to elders in Titus 1:9 (“He will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict”). This suggests that pastor is another name for elder and overseer.”

In conclusion, the Bible teaches that the church is to be led by a plurality of called, qualified men known as elders.


Now that we’ve considered the biblical model of church leadership, let’s contrast it with three models of church leadership that are widely practiced, but are biblically unjustifiable. To identify these models as flawed is not to say that the Holy Spirit doesn’t work through them! Thankfully, he does. But if we’re going to return to a biblical model of church governance, we need to speak honestly about where other models fall short.                    


The first faulty model of leadership is the model of the “anointed leader.” In churches with this form of leadership, the pastor is “God’s man” who has the Holy Spirit’s blessing and is seen to be a virtually untouchable and unquestionable spiritual leader. He usually practices a solo model of leadership, shunning peer accountability and often ruling with an authoritarian spirit.           

Biblically, there are a number of problems with this model.

Elders are always spoken of in plurality. As noted above, the Bible always mentions elders in plurality. For instance, Acts 14:23: “When [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

  1. The Bible warns of false teachers who will seek power. “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). Not every “anointed leader” is a wolf. But without true peer accountability, there is a strong temptation to seek power in this model.

  2. Apostleship is a spiritual gift, not a title or office. Wayne Grudem observes, “The word apostle can be used in a broad or narrow sense. In a broad sense, it just means ‘messenger’ or ‘pioneer missionary.’ But in a narrow sense, the most common sense in the New Testament, it refers to a specific office. . . . If any in modern times want to take the title ‘apostle’ to themselves, they immediately raise the suspicion that they may be motivated by inappropriate pride and desires for self-exaltation, along with excessive ambition and a desire for much more authority in the church than any one person should rightfully have.”                    

The word apostle, in its broad sense, refers to those gifted by the Holy Spirit to start new churches and missions. True apostles (i.e. church-planters) serve as solo leaders only temporarily. They follow God’s call to start new churches from scratch, and they see it as their responsibility to develop and raise up other elders to serve alongside them as quickly as God allows.


The second faulty model of leadership is the ecclesiastical hierarchy model. In this model there is a hierarchy of leadership, from deacon all the way up to bishop, cardinal, or even pope. A local church’s leaders are not shepherds selected from within the flock, but outsiders brought in to serve for a season before moving on to serve somewhere else. Additionally, the higher offices of leadership such as bishop and cardinal usually don’t pastor a specific flock, but rather serve as “leaders at large.”

Again, there are a number of problems with this model biblically:            

  1. The words bishop (overseer), elder, and pastor all refer in Scripture to the same office. There is no biblical justification for using these terms to refer to different levels of leadership. A pastor is a bishop. A bishop is a pastor. Bishops are not “over” pastors, nor is any one bishop (i.e., the bishop of Rome) given more authority than any other.

  2. The Bible sees elders as part of the flock, not separate from it. “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). An elder is both a shepherd and a sheep. He is part of the flock, and he is entrusted by God to watch over it.

  3. Elders are to serve in a particular local church. Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church and, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord, in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). Likewise, Paul instructed Timothy to “put what remained into order and appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). Elders exercise oversight of a particular local church. There is no such thing as an elder who has no specific flock.                                                            

In addition to the biblical problems with the ecclesiastical hierarchy model, it can create significant practical chaos. Wolves, heretics, and false teachers who rise to the ranks of higher leadership are able to exert their will over helpless Christians who are seeking to be faithful to Jesus and to the Bible. This scenario has played out over and over again in traditional Protestant denominations, many of which have abandoned biblical convictions despite the protests of the faithful people within their rank-and-file membership.                  

During the Reformation, John Calvin argued strongly that if pastors do not arise from and serve in a local church, they are not biblical elders. “It is a wicked spoliation of the church to force upon any people a bishop whom they have not desired or have not at least approved with free voice,” he wrote. “Ridiculous are those who wish... to be called lawful pastors of the church, and yet do not wish to be such! Natural sense itself... repudiates the notion that he who has never seen a sheep of his flock is the shepherd of it.”                   

MODEL #3: THE CEO/BOARD MODEL                    

The third faulty model of leadership is the CEO/Board Model. In this model, which closely mirrors corporate governance, the pastor functions as the CEO or “point leader” of the church. The elders are not seen as pastors, but rather as a sort of “governing board” whose job is to keep the pastors in check and provide a system of checks and balances (lest the ministry staff or pastors have too much power).                   

This model of church leadership persists even in many churches that agree (on paper) with the biblical teaching on eldership. But as Alexander Strauch observes, “the contemporary, church-board concept of eldership is irreconcilably at odds with the New Testament definition of eldership” (emphasis mine). It is crucial that we reject the “church board” model of eldership just as resolutely as we reject the other faulty models of leadership. Churches that practice this model are not following the Bible’s teaching on church leadership.                    


This resource is designed to help reform our practices of church leadership. And reformation requires us to identify where we’ve been wrongly formed, and allow the Scriptures to deconstruct and reconstruct our ways of thinking and living. The fact that the Holy Spirit can work through faulty models of church leadership does not make it okay for us to replicate those models. Jesus is the head of the church. And Jesus has taught us how he wants his church to be led. Our job is to follow his blueprint.                    

Here’s the good news: God loves us no more when we follow his rules and no less when we don’t! We are not saved by our rule-keeping, but by the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Because Jesus has died and risen again for us, we’re free to acknowledge where we’ve fallen short. We’re free to tell it like it is. We’re free to identify where our church leadership structures are flawed and faulty and unhealthy. And we’re free to change those structures—not just to “get things right,” but to enter more deeply into the joy of our Father, and to better honor and glorify our great Lord and Savior.