Leadership, First Century Style

Today’s topic will cover the positions within a church and how church leadership was back in the First Century. We can determine from scripture that there are five different names used for leadership within the church. The first name, and is a distinct position, is an apostle, or emissary, of the LORD. In today’s world that would be an evangelist who goes around and plants new churches. The second through fourth names are elder, overseer, and bishop. The final name is the deacon(ess). Each of these leadership positions has unique qualifications and I will highlight them.

Jesus commanded his disciples to go out to all the nations and make disciples of them in Matthew 28:18-20.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name*, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. –NIV 2011

*The original untranslated scripture just says, “baptizing them in the Name,”. Later on, editors altered and added, “name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” When they altered the text in Matthew, they forgot to alter the text in other gospels and in Acts about the specific way of baptizing just in the Name of Jesus. This is why the original text just says in the Name as a clear reference to only Jesus.

An evangelist must put away the desire for wealth, earthly comforts, and seek to do God’s work in planting churches. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that we are to imitate him as he imitated Jesus. Paul, and other evangelists in his time, worked a second job while preaching and teaching the churches they founded. They did not seek fame or fortune in spreading the Gospel and neither should current evangelists.

The next set of positions are within the governing body of the church. They are all names referring to the same position which in modern times would be the pastor. The original Jerusalem church followed the model called First Among Equals. All of the elders of the church were equal, except for when handing down decisions regarding church affairs. One single person spoke for the entire group as they rendered important decisions for the church. In Acts 15 we see this in action as all of the disciples of Christ are there and James, the brother of Jesus, renders the decision about Gentiles coming into the church. Peter and Paul were given an opportunity to speak before the assembled group of elders and informed them of what happened in their missionary efforts.

The positions are elder, overseer, and bishop. These are merely titles for the same position. Each carried the exact same requirements, so we can safely assume from scripture that they are one and the same. The position they filled was that of pastors that guided the local church assembly. They were equal in running the affairs of the church, but one of them would always speak for the entire group when handling important church matters. First century churches were rather autonomous and reported to the Apostles in Jerusalem.

What does scripture say about the requirements for being an elder/overseer/bishop?

1 Timothy 3:1-7– Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to the be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach. faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Titus 1:5-9–The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

The scripture clearly paints a picture of someone that has great virtues and avoids the pitfalls of the devil. They are upstanding, holy, and disciplined in the way of the LORD. Disciplined as used in Titus refers to being a disciple and trained as such. Discipleship is an important characteristic since they are trained by the generation before them. Notice that there is no requirement for a person having degrees or other certificates of education? There were colleges back then, but this is not a requirement. The requirements leave it open for anyone that is led by the Holy Spirit to be an elder/overseer/bishop can be one. Man sometimes puts traps and pitfalls in front of those that are called to serve with false qualifications that is in the tradition of men.

For deacon(ess)’s the requirements are similar to that of an overseer, but this position is open to women.

1 Timothy 3:8-13–In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They first must be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

A deacon(ess) serves the church in a variety functions that are not related to the actual teaching of the Word. They are the point of contact for any person that comes into the door and must be hospitable to these guests in the House of the Lord. There have been many churches were deacons failed to be the point of contact and hospitable to those visiting the House of the Lord. They also have duties like collecting tithes and offerings, etc… However, the key point thing that they must do is show people proper respect and to have a humble attitude. Deacon as translated means servant. As I previously stated, I’ve been to plenty of churches where this humble and respectful attitude of the deacons was lacking.

May the Lord light and guide your path,

Reverend Richard Littles


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