HH, Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div

Leadership in the Church

An Examination of Offices


The New Testament mentions a wide variety of leaders in the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, bishops, elders and deacons. What are these offices? Are they commanded for the church today? Let’s examine the evidence, starting with the titles given in Ephesians 4:11: “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.”


“Elder” is the most common translation of presbyteros, which means “older one.” The prodigal son’s older brother was a presbyteros, “the older one” (Luke 15:25). Patriarchs and prophets were presbyteroi, which the NIV translates as “ancients” (Hebrews 11:2). The 24 elders in heaven are also presbyteroi (Revelation 4:4, etc.). Jewish religious leaders were often called elders. The word was used within the Christian community, too (Acts 11:30;  Acts15:2, etc.). Peter and John called themselves elders (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1 and 3 John 1).

Since presbyteros can refer to an older man or to a church leader, we have to look at the context to see which is meant. Since 1 Timothy 5:1-2 deals with younger men, older women and younger women, it appears that presbyteroi in verse 1 refers to older men, not to church leaders. Titus 2:2-3 also seems to be about older men and older women. They need to be taught basic things that church leaders should already know. Verses 4-6 then address younger women and younger men, so the context shows that Paul is dealing with older men as an age group, not church leaders.

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each of the churches they founded (Acts 14:23). Paul told Titus to appoint elders in every town in Crete (Titus 1:5). In both cases, the churches were young and probably small. Nevertheless, more than one elder was appointed in each church. In Jerusalem, elders seem to have had a ruling function in conjunction with the apostles (Acts 15:6; Acts 22-23; Acts16:4 and Acts 21:18), just as the Jewish elders had a ruling function when they met as the Sanhedrin. Paul referred to “the elders who direct the affairs of the church” (1 Timothy 5:17).

What does it mean to “direct” the church? The Greek word is proistemi, which comes from root words meaning “to stand before.” This word is used to say that elders and deacons should “manage” their own households (1 Timothy 3:4-5 and verse 12), which should be done with self-sacrificial love. The NIV translates the word “leadership” in Romans 12:8. 1 Timothy 5:17 tells us that elders helped direct the church, but only some of the elders were preachers and teachers. All preachers were elders, but not all elders were preachers.

The extent and limits of elders’ authority are not spelt out in the New Testament, but they do have authority. Members are told, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden” (Hebrews 13:17). “Respect those…who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12). “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour” (1 Timothy 5:17).

Because elders have a leadership position, they sometimes become the object of a disgruntled person’s anger. For that reason, Paul told Timothy, “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). If the accusation is true, it must be dealt with publicly: “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (verse 20).

Although elders have authority that should be obeyed, they should not use their authority for self-service. Peter told them to serve “as overseers — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3). Like overseers and pastors, they are to take care of the flock (1 Timothy 3:5). They anoint the sick and pray for healing (James 5:14). “They keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).

However, many of the functions of elders are not restricted to elders. The New Testament tells members to serve one another, teach another, instruct one another, edify one another, admonish one another and submit to one another. The elders serve in all these areas to build others up, teach the right doctrines, promote spiritual maturity and equip the saints for works of ministry. Elders preach and direct the church with concern for the spiritual well-being of the members; they work to bring out the most in the other members.


Author: Godfrey Gregg

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