Leadership in the early church

I’m of the school of church leadership that, while wanting to learn from the whole of church history, places more weight on the forms and patterns of the first century church. I believe, for a variety of reasons, that close approximation to the patterns, habits and practices of the New Testament church is most helpful for church and mission today.

One crucial area, is in the area of church government and leadership. So what did the early church do and how did it work?

According to Michael Kruger, we know that ‘by the end of the second century, most churches were ruled by a single bishop. For whatever set of reasons, monepiscopacy had won the day.’

Trevor Saxby goes a bit further and argues that “By the end of the 1stcentury, the pattern that emerged was a threefold, “cascade” structure.”

This cascade structure had a single pastor-bishop, who should be at least 50 years old, who appointed the second tier of leaders – men who were called presbyters, priests or elders. This second tier then appointed a third tier, men and women who were called deacons.

This narrowing of the leadership to a single pastor-bishop led to the development of what we call ‘apostolic succession‘ a trend most visible in the Roman Catholic church and mostly roundly rejected by many protestants.

Yet as Michael Kruger points out, if we look carefully at the Biblical evidence, it supports a plurality of elders and not a single-bishop.

The New Testament evidence itself seems to favor a plurality of elders as the standard model. The book of Acts tells us that as the apostles planted churches, they appointed “elders” (from the Greek term πρεσβυτέρος) to oversee them (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2; 20:17). Likewise, Titus is told to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5).

Kruger then points to evidence from the Didache, 1 Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas  to show that during the first century a plurality of elders leading a local church was the most common pattern.

In sum, the NT texts and texts from the early second century indicate that a plurality of elders was the standard structure in the earliest stages.

So how did the church shift from plural elders to a single bishop, what in other words, went wrong? Cheeky broadsides at episcopalians aside, what went on?

Both Kruger & Saxby agree that it developed as a response against Gnostic heresies. First it offered continuity of teaching, secondly it offered authenticity if it could be shown to be connected to an apostle and thirdly (although a bit later on) was the idea that anointing was passed on in this manner (akin to Elijah and Elisha).

Saxby goes on to say that over time, the source of trust moved away from the person to the place. For example…Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Canterbury

The focus moved from the truly apostolic (anointed, commissioned men known to the churches and trusted by them) to places and systems. These became the schools of training. Local churches no longer had a relationship with a trusted apostle. The apostolic place now commissioned its senior bishops, increasingly with a trouble-shooting role.

If then, we are to look to the New Testament for our pattern of leadership we see two interweaving and interacting sources of authority that provide protection and mission.

The first is that local churches are led not by a single pastor but by a team of elders, as Kruger points out, ‘the plurality of elders model seems to go back to the very beginning’. Kruger then quotes Jerome in support of this view who says,

The presbyter is the same as the bishop, and before parties had been raised up in religion by the provocations of Satan, the churches were governed by the Senate of the presbyters.

The second loci of authority is how this team of elders engage and work with the gifts God gives to the church in Ephesians 4:11-12.

As Rickard Cruz says (*Swedish),

If we’re longing for a missional movement, so we must dare to rediscover the contents of the apostolic function and gift. We can’t throw away this important gift that Jesus has given to His church because some people in some contexts have used this to collect more power to a single individual. I am persuaded that we need many, many more apostles, prophets and evangelists.

Photo by Lawrence OP


Hi. Thanks for your article. Cruz’s comment, though (in my opinion), is unnecessary. The truth is we don’t need more apostles (especially since no one can qualify according to Acts 1:20b-22), nor do we need more prophets according to Hebrews 1 (especially 1:1-2) – at least in the meaning used in the Bible. Like you, it makes more sense to stay as close to the scriptural patterns as possible because when man starts adding to God’s patterns, and when man starts “adjusting” things to fit the times or sensitivities, they have begun their downward spiral away from God…and that is never a good plan.

Hi Christine, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure either of those verses would rule out an ongoing function for apostles and prophets. Acts goes on to mention several others as apostles who would also not have qualified according to Acts 1. Apollos, Barnabas and Silas for instance…and there are others. Antioch for example received the ministry of prophets from Jerusalem. I think a strong case can be made for that at the very least in the New Testament we see apostles beyond the 12 and prophets (as fulfilment of Joel 2 as Peter explained), so we should perhaps at least give thought to whether in that regard there has also been a drift away from God’s blueprint for the church, which, like you, I agree is never good. Thanks again for the comment.

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