Leadership in the Church: The Second Testament View

by drwinn on March 9, 2015

The Second Testament
To summarize this idea, the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system in which the First Testament operated was replaced by the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus is seen as the high priest (Romans 3.25, Hebrews). The incarnation identified Jesus with humankind (Heb. 2.14-18; 4.15; 5.1, 7-10). He mediates the new covenant (Heb. 7.23-28; 8.6-13; 9.5). A community, gathering as the continued people of God, continue to fulfill and echo Exodus 19.4-6. Peter says the church is a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2.9).

As with the First Testament, it appears that the Second Testament does not support any form of hierarchical structure of the people of God when they gathered. It is impossible to determine in the sacred text how often they met. In the early part of Acts, they met daily. At one point in Acts they were meeting on the first day of the week, which could have been either early Sunday morning because folks had to work on Sunday just like every other day of the week. Or, it could have been Saturday night depending on whether Luke was using a Roman accounting of a day or a Jewish accounting of the day. In the story of Acts 20, it seems to be more of an ad hoc meeting because Paul was traveling through Troas and the followers of Jesus gathered to hear what he had to say.

The Ruler of the Synagogue
A survey of Paul’s own language would suggest that he eluded words that might have been used in a Jewish setting the idea of a priestly office. The synagogues had an archisynagogus (R-kay-sin-ah-ga-gos), the leader or president of the synagogue, 1 who was the presiding officer of the synagogue. An archisynagogus was elected for a specific timeframe, most likely a year. However, it was possible for an archisynagogus to be elected for life. 2 The job description of the “ruler of the synagogue” included the responsibility for maintaining the order of the service, the selecting of who the readers of the Torah and Prophets would be and the speakers. It appears that individual leaders who were the equivalent of the leader of the synagogue were not part of any church that Paul planted. 3

The First Testament mentions several who functioned as an archisynagogus: Jairus (Mark 5.22, 35), Unnamed (Luke 13.10-17), Unnamed (allowed Paul and Barnabas to speak, Antioch of Pisidia – Acts 13.15), Crispus (Corinth – Acts 18.8), Sosthenes (Corinth – Acts 18.17). Both Crispus and Sosthenes became Jesus followers (Acts 18.8; 1 Cor. 1.1). It should be noted that none of them served within the fledging community of Jesus followers. The support of the synagogue was by offerings that were given voluntarily. Years later, it appears that the model of the synagogue organization was kept by the Catholic Church and used by the Protestant Reformation. 4

Servants, Elders
In the section of 1 Corinthians 1 Cor. 4.1ff., where Paul is addressing the problem the Corinthians had developed of choosing who to follow, he shares with the Corinthians that they should regard Apollos, Peter, and him as “servants.” The word used there and in Luke 4.20 is (hyperetes, hoo-per-e-tas, Luke 4.20). It is a non-technical word, i.e., these men did not have a position in the church at Corinth; rather they were like an under-oarsman, a rower on a ship’s crew, or assistant.

Jewish congregations were governed by elders (presbuteroi, pres-bu-ter-oi). The church in Jerusalem was most likely formed after the Jewish model. 5 Remember, the Jerusalem church was made up of Jews, so it would be natural for them to continue their pattern even though they were now followers of Jesus. Elders do not occur in any of Paul’s writings before the so-called Pastoral letters of 1, 2, Timothy and Titus. 6

One wonders how the Jewish synagogue system survived as the predominant form for operating as a community of faith moving forward from the first century. Here’s my perspective: The Catholic Church, beginning in the third century, took their model of operation from Acts 15 and what is often called the Pastoral Epistles, and simply overlooked the charismatic function of the Pauline churches that was created in the earliest years of his missions to create Jesus followers in the Mediterranean world.

It is often argued that if the church in Jerusalem was patterned like the Jewish synagogue, then there is a clear line that aids the argument with continuity for a hierarchical structure for the church governance. Anyone can arrive at this result if the presupposition of “unity means uniformity” is held closely. Unity and uniformity are not necessarily the same thing. Scripture reveals both unity and diversity. It is likely that there were two systems of government in the church moving into the second century. These two forms could be called: Pauline and institutional or what I have come to designate as ChurchWorld. The Pauline form was functional and charismatic. The ChurchWorld moved from function to form and is revealed in the so-called Pastoral letters. Some First Testament specialists have suggested that the authorship of these letters was an edited version of Paul and leaned toward the institutional approach to govern the church. But, what is more important than authorship for these letters is the content that they offer for solving problems in the churches in the Ephesian and Cyprus area.

It is sometimes posited that the Pastorals are the first illustrations of a progressive form of institutionalization. It may be possible to come to this conclusion by reading back into the text of these letters the concept that all modern renewal projects find institutionalization in the second or third generation. The reasoning would be: if institutional church is true now, it must have been true then. That backward reasoning seems wrongheaded to me.

By the time of Timothy and Titus, the freshness of the renewal experiences, which brought the communities of faith about, was beginning to harden into rigid set forms. The second and third generation leaders may have been less creative and sensitive toward the Spirit. They began to treat the experiences of the founding fathers as the faith. The teaching and experience of the founders become the sacred words, hallowed heritage, which are to be preserved, guarded, and handed on, but never revisited or reinterpreted. The present becomes only a channel whereby the religion of the past can be transmitted in good order for the next generation. The vitality of the founders usually disappears and the second generation tries what is impossible, to live out the past experience in the present. This has not fully happened in the letters to Timothy and Titus, but the processes are well-advanced and possibly irreversible. 7 This movement toward what has been called “early Catholicism” has three features:

First, the fading of the Second Coming of Jesus in the present life of the early church is observable in the writings of Paul. In First Thessalonians, he suggested that he would be around when this event occurred when he wrote “we who are alive and remain.” A little over a decade later, he has changed his opinion, not about the coming of Jesus again, but about being alive when Jesus returns. In 2 Timothy 4.6-8, he writes that he is ready to die:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Second, there was the increase of institutionalization with its beginning concept of office, a distinction between the clergy and laity and a priestly hierarchy. This can be seen in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.

Third, the formalization of the faith into set forms was a way to ward off false teaching. This punctilious idea was because the founding era of the founders had not passed and the next generation has the responsibility to concretely preserve the faith for the future generations. Prophetic words were now suspiciously marked as heretical rather than acceptable in the communities of faith. It was a complete reversal of what had been created by the Spirit. 8

The Septuagint (LXX) uses the word service (leitourgia, LA-toor-gee-a) to converse about ceremonial service that was offered by a priest. Paul only used this word once at Romans 15.16 in relationship to his own ministry. The other uses of the word centers on the ministry of the whole congregation. 9 Paul shuns this word when he writes about individuals or other ministry peers within the church. 10

There is one exception to the above and it is found in Philippians 1.1 (see below). Therein Paul does address what seems to be a single group of leaders who are responsible to organize or provide for the spiritual well-being of others over whom they provide oversight. It is interesting that the book of 1 Corinthians would have been a splendid place to have addressed a specific leader to handle all the problems in which the Corinthian church was involved. The reading of the opening sentences of that letter makes it apparent that Paul did not do so. The brusque implication there was: if problems in the Corinthian church were going to be solved, the Spirit was going to have to do it. 11

It is fair to conclude then that a hierarchical system of church government was not created by Paul for the churches he planted, rather his was a charismatic form. While Paul was the “ad hoc” leader of the church at Corinth as its founder, the instructions that he provided to the congregants were given by the Spirit to help correct the problems at hand. This may serve the present generation of churches a model of solving church problems.


  1. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 285.
  2. Merrill Chapin Tenney and J. D. Douglas, The New International Dictionary of the Bible, Pictorial ed. (Grand Rapids, MI, U.S.A.: Regency Reference Library, Zondervan Pub. House, 1987), 489.
  3. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 285.
  4. Merrill Chapin Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), 5:566.
  5. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 285; 180-182. See also: W. M. F. Scott, “Priesthood in the New Testament,” Scottish Journal of Theology 10, no. 4 (1957): 413.
  6. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 285.
  7. Ibid., 349-350.
  8. James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminester Press, 1977), 344.
  9. Eduard Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament (Norwich, UK: SCM Press, 2011: Revised Edition ), 171-173.
  10. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 285.
  11. Ibid.

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