Leading change is always a challenge within congregational life, but particularly when it affects how leadership and governance structures get defined, named, and integrated. People become invested in traditional modes and terms, often believing that divergence indicates a deviation from what God’s inspired word has mandated. The question of flexibility regarding such matters touches issues of biblical interpretation and contextualization, as well as values related to the relevance of the gospel and the church. Within my own denominational circle some interesting developments in the use of terminology have occurred. Up until the early 1980’s many churches functioned with governance and leadership groups using the terms deacons and pastors. After this period we see the term “elder” becoming more popular, but uncertainty as to how this term relates to the language of deacon and pastor. More recently some churches have dispensed entirely with the terms deacon and elder, and are using expressions such as leadership team or church board, while retaining the term pastor for specific vocational leaders. So it seems, at least within this denominational family, flexibility of terminology is acceptable. Defining function is the more important concern.
As your congregation grows in size, the way the governing body functions will also change. This leads inevitably to questions such as:
- Can we dispense with the term “elder” in devising a new leadership and governance structure? Is there something sacred about this term? Does the NT gives us this flexibility?
- Is there appropriate terminology we can employ that demonstrates that the work of the governance group is “spiritual” work on behalf of the congregation?
The distribution and use of the term ‘elder’ is mixed in the NT. It describes an older male who presumably has wisdom based upon experience and socially defined role in the average Greco-Roman household. Surprisingly Paul rarely uses the expression to describe church leaders in his writings except for a few examples in the Pastoral Epistle. Peter employs it once (1 Peter 5:1-5) to describe church leaders generally, but he also links it with terms related to shepherding and managing. In Acts Luke refers to leaders of local assemblies as ‘elders’. We discover that Luke reports that Paul terms these leaders “elders” (v.17) and then in vv. 28 he urges them to “shepherd (‘pastor’) the “flock” among which the Holy Spirit has set them as managers or supervisors (‘episkopoi’). Hebrews 13:7, 17 uses the more generic “the leaders” (tōn hēgoumenōn) to reference church leaders. Within the Pastoral Epistles Paul employs another term “diakonoi,” i.e., assistants, to describe another group of church leaders. It is unclear whether he includes them within the general term “older ones/elders” along with the episkopoi (managers or supervisors, sometimes translated as “bishops” or “overseers”).
It seems as if the NT employs a variety of terms to designate individuals giving leadership within the local assemblies. The leadership functions that local churches require, i.e., managers or supervisors (‘episkopos’), stewards (‘oikonomos’) and assistants (‘diakonoi’), are clear, but such leaders generally can be termed ‘shepherds’, ‘older ones’ or ‘leaders’. Age in that cultural context often was associated with the wisdom, experience and status necessary to lead and so it is not surprising that “older ones” are selected to serve in leadership roles. If this presentation and analysis of the NT data is correct, then it would seem that local churches have flexibility in choosing terms to describe the leadership functions required to enable such assemblies to function well.
What do we do with Ephesians 4:12 where Paul talks about “apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers”? First, we have no guidance in the context that Paul expects every leadership team in a local congregation to include gifted people who represent these functions. Paul’s focus in the first three chapters of Ephesians is upon God’s plan for human salvation through the Messiah and his assembly, the church, as a global phenomenon. There is no evidence from the remainder of the NT that Paul uses such terminology to describe leadership roles as necessary for every congregation. Second, these gifted individuals represent the Messiah’s provision to his church as a totality for restoring “the holy ones” so that they can do “the work of assisting” and contribute to “the construction of the Messiah’s body.” Paul’s itinerant ministry as an apostle would suggest, for example, that “apostle-like” leaders were not present among the leadership teams of local assemblies, otherwise why would he be travelling among them and producing letters of guidance. Further, the use of the term “evangelist” is not common in the NT and the one person so named is Timothy who seems to carry various functions as a leader within the Ephesian church. The other person so designated is Philip who does not seem to have any specific leadership role in a local congregation. Paul seems to collect key functions related to training and discipling and show how they all collaborate generally to enable the collective “body of the Messiah to achieve its growth.” According to Acts 20:17 the Ephesian church leaders generally were termed “elders” and we have no evidence that this group constituted only one part of the church leadership group, along with additional components comprising apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc.
Further, we have little data that specifies exactly which functions were being allotted to which kinds of leaders. Based on the specific mention of “apt to teach” Paul employs in 1 Timothy 3:2, we assume that the teaching function in a congregation was covered primarily by ‘episkopoi’ (managers, supervisors). However, it is a fallacy to assume that this positive expression means that ‘diakonoi’ (assistants) or ‘poimaines’ (shepherds) or ‘oikonomoi’ (stewards, administrators) were excluded from this function. Consider Stephen’s role in Acts 6.
A second question then concerns the nature of the functions that local church leaders exercised within these assemblies. Probably the most complete description of such functions occurs in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15. Paul discusses how the believers respond to the direction provided by “those who work hard among you and who exercise caring leadership of you in the Lord and those who gently correct by telling you the truth” (my translation). However, Paul does not define such individuals by any specific leadership term. Such leaders however “gently correct by telling the truth to the unruly, encourage those who have little faith, support the weak, and demonstrate patience to everyone” (v.14). It is impossible to parse this list of leadership responsibilities and assign some to ‘episkopoi’, some to ‘oikonomoi’, some to ‘poimaines’, and some to ‘diakonoi’. However, whoever performs these functions is doing the work of discipling and sustaining the assembly in all of its many dimensions.
Again, the NT writers do not seem to distinguish some kinds of congregational leadership work as “spiritual” and other kinds as “non-spiritual” in some way. All work done to sustain the local assembly is “Spirit-led” and “Spirit-infused” work and thus ‘pneumatikos’, i.e. related to and dependent upon the Spirit (pneuma). Our modern practice of distinguishing between “spiritual” and “practical” ministry has no foundation in the NT documents, in my opinion. Within Paul’s discourse it is all “diakonia,” i.e., work done to assist the Messiah advance his mission and purposes particularly as expressed in the church. It should be noted that terms such as “episkopos” and “oikonomos” which often describe leadership roles in the NT are essentially secular terms that incorporate primarily administrative or supervisory functions, including management of land, finances, personnel, etc. They relate to domestic, city, state or religious organizational requirements.
The events narrated in Acts 15 form a rather special case for various reasons. First, the Jerusalem ‘church’ itself was a unique entity in that it included “apostles and elders,” a combination we do not find in churches outside of Jerusalem in any consistent way. Second, it is unclear what status Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James have in these discussions. For example, Paul and Barnabas are described as individuals appointed by the Antioch church with other believers to present a specific understanding about the inclusiveness of the Gospel. However, the text in Acts 15 does not describe them contributing to the discussion either as apostles or elders. James’ role also is ambiguous. He is not an apostle, but then again he is not defined as an elder in Jerusalem, although one might assume this given his prominent role. Third, we do not know how these two groups described as apostles and elders relate to the actions taken by the apostles in Acts 6 to oversee the care for widows in the Jerusalem church. What is the status of the Seven – are they elders? So this episode and the way Luke describes these groups in the Jerusalem church does not provide much guidance regarding the possible ways to organize leadership within a local church.
It would seem then that:
- the NT gives us flexibility in choosing terminology to define local leadership and governance structures;
- certain leadership functions are necessary for the health of the congregation;
- the character of such leaders is the more important consideration, rather than terminology;
- we should not seek to distinguish one leadership group in a local church as doing “spiritual work” and another as doing a different kind of “ministry work” within the congregation.
If these conclusions are correct then we can dispense with the term “elder” should we choose, so long as we make sure that the necessary and complete suite of spiritual leadership functions necessary for local church growth and health is being sustained. We would suggest using terminology such as “governing council” and “pastoral care group” as possible language to describe possible new leadership and spiritual care roles. The governing council would give focus to matters of policy, including theological policy. The pastoral care group would assist a lead pastor in visitation, spiritual counselling, prayer and discipling.
 It is worth noting that Jesus does not seem to select any specific terminology to describe those he will call to serve as leaders in his messianic community. Apart from the Twelve whom Mark tells us he designated “apostles,” i.e., commissioned agents to serve his goals. The rest are simply termed “learners (disciples)” without further specification. General terms such as slave and assistant also get used by Jesus.
 Paul uses the feminine form to describe the role of older women in the congregation, particularly those who function in the capacity of “widow” (1 Timothy 5).