Leadership in the early church (1)

Recently I have been part of discussions in our church about leadership structures. In one conversation we were talking about the early church model of leadership, and someone asked how the early church structured their leadership.

I want to spend some time in a number of posts outlining my thoughts on this topic, based on my reading of the New Testament.

1) The early church worked out their leadership based on the mission and method of Jesus.

Jesus’ mission was to rescue God’s creation family and to restore God’s creation kingdom. Through His life, death, resurrection and ascension He re-establishes both God’s creation kingdom and creation family. As followers of Jesus, we are restored as God’s children (identity), renewed in the goodness of God (character) and recommissioned in the service of God (purpose). As disciples, we are being trained to live WITH God as His children, LIKE God in His character, and FOR God’s purpose in the world.

Jesus’ method was to model this WITH, LIKE and FOR life for us. He lived and loved and led like God created us to. He gathered around Himself disciples and trained them to live, love and lead like Him, like God. The Jesus Way of leadership was through graciously and humbly serving others in love, equipping them to become all that God made and saved them to be.

On His ascension day, He commissioned His disciples to go into the world to continue multipling disciples like themselves, like Jesus, like God (Matthew 28:18-20). Their assignment was to call, equip and send out more and more Jesus followers, and thus to extend God’s kingdom throughout the world.

The apostles (the first twelve ‘sent ones’) spread out and multiplied from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Wherever they went they trained and appointed ‘elders’ (presbyteros), more mature Jesus followers, to continue leading and equipping in the churches (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). These elders were the overseers (episkopos) and shepherds (poimen), called to watch over Jesus’ followers and to direct the affairs of the church (Acts 20:28, 1 Timothy 5:17).

First the apostles, then the elders with them, then the elders after them, were the leadership team in the early church (Acts 15:4,6,23). This was not a hierarchial position; it was a missional calling. Peter did not see himself as higher or greater, but as a fellow elder (1 Peter 5:1). The apostles and elders were older disciples training and equipping younger disciples. In time those younger disciples were then released to train other young disciples (2 Timothy 2:2). And so the movement spread.

The original church model was designed to advance the mission (restore creation kingdom/family) and method (equipping disciples) of Jesus. The structure was simple, reproducible and non-hierarchical. At least for the first few decades of the church. Over time this model was adapted and corrupted. The focus shifted away from advancing the mission to maintaining the institution. The focus shifted from equipping leadership to positional leadership (church hierarchy, clergy over laity).

We need to restore Jesus’ mission and method to the church. We need to return to an equipping model where older disciples (pastors/elders) train younger disciples to lead, to pray, to preach, to serve, etc., so eventually they can train others. Maybe every elder should have a younger disciple assigned to them to mentor and train. In a future post I will talk further about how elders can equip members for ministry.

In the next post, I will explain how the elders were the pastors in the church.

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