Spiritual Leadership in the Church

Written on: May 31, 2022

Article by: Dave Knutson

In Ephesians 4:11-12, the apostle Paul reminds us that godly leaders are actually a gift given by Jesus to the church and given for a very special purpose.

“And He (Jesus) gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ”.

Now not all of these functions or roles continue to today, and to this short list we could also add the role of ‘servant’ or deacon. The first pair of roles that Paul identifies, is apostles and prophets and the second pair is evangelists and pastor-teachers

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The apostles in the sense of the 12 along with the apostle Paul had a unique role. When they died, no one replaced them, because no one could. These men were personally chosen by Jesus for among other things they were witnesses of all that He did and said during his ministry. They also saw him crucified and then risen from the dead

Jesus gave them a place of authority in the church which was given to no one else. He established his church through them and led them through the Holy Spirit into a knowledge of all that he wanted the church to know.

Only the Apostles had the power to lay their hands on other believers as the means by which Holy Spirit conveyed spiritual gifts. But when they died, one by one, no one replaced them. The apostles had a foundational yet temporary role. Once the church was established and Jesus had finished his revelation to them, their job was done.

Prophets also appear on this list and we understand that their role was to bring a message directly from God to his people. God spoke to them by revelation. He opened their minds to understand what He said and they unfolded that message to the church. In some cases they wrote those things down. What they received by revelation, they also preserved in writing, doing so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a process that we call inspiration.

The New Testament books of James, Jude and Acts along with the gospels of Mark and Luke were written by prophets who were not apostles. The rest are all ascribed to apostolic authorship. In due time, by the end of the first Christian century, direct revelation came to an end and with it, inspired writing. So in this specialized use of the word, we no longer have prophets at work among us.

Yet sometimes, when a person spoke ‘for God’, that person may be said to be prophesying. In this more general sense, we do have prophets today. But those who now proclaim the word of God do so based on their study of inspired writings. None can claim direct revelation from God.

That leaves two other spiritual roles in the list in Ephesians 4, and these are evangelists and pastor-teachers.

Before going on with these, it’s useful to remember why God appointed men to fulfill these functions. His reasons really have to do with the church. He gave these men as gifts to the church to equip it to function as a spiritual body that is able to minister to itself.

The body of Christ – the church has at least three main objectives: the first of which is to truly be the people of God. To function as the body of Christ…we need to do the following things:

  • We need to unite around a single body of truth
  • We must be indwelt and led by the one and only Spirit of God
  • We must be united with our Lord Jesus Christ and share a common faith in him as our saviour
  • We must be called heavenward by a common hope anchored in Christ’s victory over death and his promise of life in the presence of God.
  • And we need to serve, honour, worship and glorify our God and Father

To that end, the church is to grow up and to mature to be like Jesus.

  • Each person ought to become ever more humble & self-controlled,
  • More pure and holy in thought and speech
  • More grounded and blessed by a full knowledge of the whole counsel of God.
  • More faithful in life and more active in service. For when the church knows the word of God and is doing it, it is not blown off course by the winds of change or blown away by false doctrine

And then of course, our job is to proclaim the good news to the whole world.

  • To preach and live the gospel so others might also be saved.

There is no better example of leadership in the New Testament than Jesus. On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus dressed himself as a slave and washed the feet of his disciples. He even washed the feet of the man who was betraying him.

John writes: (in John 13:2-5,12-17)

1 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one anothers’ feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’”

You will notice that I skipped verses 6-11. That’s where Peter didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet.

Jim McGuiggan writes in his book The God of the Towel:

“Peter was embarrassed by the Messiah’s conduct. Leaders don’t act that way! Get on your feet, man, that’s no way for a Messiah to behave. It’s an understandable approach; but unacceptable to God. Then the Master said something very serious to Peter. You see, Peter was refusing to accept a foot-washing messiah. And Jesus said to him…If I don’t wash your feet, you have no part in me” You can’t reject the spirit of service and have any part with me’ Now that is not a threat; it is a fact. There is only one Lord…and he is a serving Lord. If we rejected that Lord…there is no other. We cannot reject the spirit of the Master and claim to follow Him. You see…service is not just God’s way for God. It is God’s way for all those who belong to God”

Jesus turned our usual notion of leaders on it’s head. In the church, leaders do not ‘lord it over’ the flock. Those who lead, do so as servants. They do it in humility, and they do for the good of others. So when we raise the question of church leadership we are really talking about who it is that gets to serve. Or perhaps more accurately, who it is that God has called to serve. It is helpful to think of the church as an extension of the family. By God’s design, a husband is the head of his wife and their family. When families assemble, it’s family leaders who lead in the Lord’s family. God does not cancel out male spiritual leadership, because of a change of venue.

The Evangelist:

An evangelist is a preacher and must be a teacher to do that. He proclaims and he explains. His job is to teach and preach the whole counsel of God. Part of his work is evangelistic and part is directed toward the church and in the New Testament we find men like Stephen, Philip, Timothy & Titus serving in this capacity. In 2nd Tim 4:5, Paul urged Timothy to ‘do the work of an evangelist”.

Timothy was tasked with the ‘ministry of the word’ and is described as:

  • A minister of the gospel (I tim 4:6)
  • The Lord’s servant (I tim 2:24)
  • A man of God (I Tim 6:11)

To be effective, he needed the qualifications set out by Paul in – II Tim 2:23-25

“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth”

An evangelist has to have the disposition of a peacemaker. He must be able to teach and remain patient, especially when he knows that he is in the right and when someone has done him wrong. Sometimes his job is unpleasant. He has to correct and rebuke. Some people will oppose the truth while others will oppose their leaders. But this kind of behaviour cannot be allowed to stand. Invariably some correction must be done yet should be done lovingly and gently. The goal is not to win an argument, but to save a soul. An evangelist must conduct himself with concern for the salvation of others.

In I Tim 6:3-10, the Paul calls out some things that an evangelist should avoid and then in verse 11, Paul adds some things for him to embrace: ” – Flee these you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.”

In short, an evangelist must ‘pay close attention to himself and to his teaching’ I Timothy 4:16

Similarly II Tim 4:2-5 is all about – the job, the man and those he serves.

“…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry”

An evangelist has to be a student of God’s word and a practitioner of it. Jesus hated hypocrisy for it is the undoing of every godly message. So an evangelist must above all else set an example for the believers. God calls these men to a higher standard.

Paul writes to Timothy:

Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. (I Tim 4:12). I suppose we might ask; who then is really adequate to do this work?

Now when an evangelist succeeds and he plants a new church, part of his job is to organize that congregation according to God’s pattern by appointing elders (Titus 1:5). In new congregations, the first building block in its organization is appointing elders.

This role is designated by four Greek words, with each one adding a dimension to our understanding

  1. Presbuteros comes into English as elder and naturally refers to an older Christian
  2. We translate – Episkopos – as overseer
  3. Poimen becomes ‘shepherd’ in English
  4. And Oikonomos is ‘ a steward

It’s worth noting that in the New Testament, elders in the church are always referred to in the plural. Congregations always had more than one. God intended for more than one man to serve by setting a godly example. And the decisions that they take have the advantage of collective wisdom.

The word Bishop was often used for managers, foremen, supervisors and inspectors. Where the word elder emphasized age and experience, the word bishop pointed to the active side of this role. It has to do with oversight and management. And in a spiritual context, oversight includes protection.

Of course, a shepherd takes care of sheep. This word had a long history of metaphorical use both in the Old Testament and in the New. The leaders of Israel were it’s shepherds (Isa 56:11, Jer 23:4, 50:6). Jesus calls himself as the ‘good shepherd’ (John 10)

Spiritual shepherds, lead, feed and protect. They set an example in word and deed. They teach God’s word to mature the flock and they protect it from spiritual harm.

Yet as elders – shepherd and manage, they do so as stewards. A steward manages the household belonging to another. He takes care of the affairs of the owner. He does the will of the owner in a prudent and faithful way. And he does this, knowing that he will have to give an account.

The flock; in this case the church, does not belong to the shepherds. It belongs to the chief shepherd…who is Jesus

There are two main lists of qualifications for these men. One is found in I Tim 3:1-7 and the other in Titus 1:5-9. The lists are similar and say in effect, “this is the kind of man that God wants to lead’.

When choosing leaders, it seems to me that churches need to be careful to avoid two extremes. One is to set the bar so high that pretty much no one qualifies. And the other is to lower or ignore the standards and just choose the best that we have, even when that person is clearly not qualified. Permitting degrees of progress within qualification categories that permit it, may bring balance to this process.

Alexander Strauch, in his Biblical Elders: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (1995), (pp. 72-83) groups the elder’s requirements into three categories:

(1) Moral and Spiritual Character

(2) Personal Abilities

(3) Spirit-given Motivation for the Task:

Starting with the last point first, a man must want to be an elder. Any man who does not aspire to serve, should not serve. He should not ever be pushed or shoved into doing it, but should do so willingly and for the good of God’s people. Motives are important since they go to character. Godly leadership is never self-serving. Since only Jesus is lord, all human leadership takes the form of service and servant-hood.

So each elder is to be:

(1) Above reproach.

An overseer must have a good reputation that is deserved.

His conduct at home and in public is beyond reproach.

He is a man of integrity, who is self-controlled and wise

He is not a lover of money

He treats people gently and is respected for it.

He does not… quote: “sit long at wine”.

He never lets his judgment become impaired by alcohol.

He is a married man with children who are believers. He demonstrates his management skills first in his own home.

(2) He must be skilled in relationships –

He is of sound-mind, and uncontentious.

He never goes looking for a fight. He’s not the sort of man who gets ‘in your face’. But is a peacemaker.

He is not dictatorial or quick-tempered

He is not self-willed, but accepts counsel from others.

He demonstrates his leadership abilities by the way that he manages his own family. And in this way he serves as a model for others to follow;

And perhaps of paramount importance, he is able to teach and defend the faith. This is absolutely non-negotiable. No man can serve as a protector of the flock if he cannot protect against false doctrine.

(3) Each elder is to serve with a positive attitude:

Each one who accepts this position should do so because they desire to serve for the sake of the Lord and his work

Those who say ‘yes’ should do so with the sense that the Holy Spirit has a hand in their appointment. And once appointed, they follow the Master’s example of servant-hood. They manage and protect the flock – which they know belongs to God. And they shepherd as good stewards, ready to give an account for each and every sheep.

Biblical leadership has a service to render, a standard to maintain and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to proclaim.

In return…the congregation has a duty to the men whom they place before the Holy Spirit to serve as their shepherd and overseers

  • A duty to pray for them (2 Cor. 1:10b-11a)
  • A duty to respect them (Rom. 13:7)
  • A duty to treat them with kindness and empathy (1 Thess. 5:15)
  • A duty to render due consideration (Phil. 2:3) & honour (1 Tim. 5:17)
  • A duty to submit to their leadership & obey them (Heb. 13:17)
  • A duty to heed their teaching and imitate their example (Heb. 13:7)

In all of this, members ought to be very careful to allow elders to lead by actually following them (1 Thess. 5:12). And while following, being very reluctant to bring charges against them (1 Tim 5:12). In short, you and I should do what we can to make the work of our leaders a joy and not a burden, for they watch over our souls.

When we follow God’s instructions for leadership, those choices not only bless those within the church but also promote the greater progress of the Gospel


Adapted from a presentation made to the Sault Ste. Marie Ontario congregation – Dave Knutson

Barrie ON