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Church leadership encompasses the offices that Christ has established to govern the visible church and the qualifications for those offices. It is an aspect of church polity, which addresses the type of government a particular church or denomination follows. Every visible church must make decisions about polity and leadership in order to reflect the Bible’s teaching on the subject and follow the best practices for caring for God’s people, mobilizing them for ministry, and protecting them from error.


From the beginning, God has had a leadership structure for His church. Although the ascended Christ’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost marked a defining moment for the visible church, Reformed theology has generally held that the church began in the garden of Eden. A more informal leadership structure was then in place. Before the fall, the church did not have officers as we understand them today, and it was made up only of one family, the family of Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, leadership was established, as it was given to Adam, who exercised authority in naming the animals and his wife (Gen. 1–2). Had the fall into sin never occurred, Adam presumably would have continued in leadership, perhaps alongside other leaders taken from his descendants.

After the fall, the church existed informally, primarily in the family of Abraham. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the chief leaders of the church in this era. Jacob’s twelve sons became fathers of the tribes of Israel, and the church took on a tribal structure, its leaders consisting of elders in the twelve tribes until the time of Moses (Gen. 12:1–3; 26:1–6; 27; 48–49).

At the time of the exodus, God appointed Moses as the old covenant mediator and leader of Israel (Ex. 3). He led old covenant Israel—the old covenant church—out of bondage, and through him God established the Israelite theocracy and structure of worship. Faced with the burden of having to lead so many people, Moses followed the advice of his father-in-law, Jethro, and appointed “capable men” and delegated some judicial authority to them (Ex. 18). Later, God confirmed the wisdom of Jethro’s advice by having Moses appoint seventy elders in sharing the burden of leadership (Num. 11).

Because of Moses’ unique role as the old covenant mediator, we see administrative, worship, and teaching responsibilities concentrated in one person. He served as a prophet, priest, and king of sorts by giving people the Word of God, offering sacrifices and building the tabernacle, and leading the people in battle against their and God’s enemies (e.g., Ex. 17:8–16; 20; 40). After Moses and the intervening period of the judges, there was a more formal separation of these duties once the monarchy was instituted in the days of Saul. The leadership offices of king, priest, and prophet were generally distinct until the sixth-century-BC exile to Babylon (e.g., 1 Kings 1:32).

After the exile, Israel lost its political independence, and church leadership was more closely associated with worship and teaching matters than with kingly issues. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel were important church leaders right after the exile (Ezra 3:8; Neh. 8:9). As the centuries wore on, church officers continued to include priests and high priests, but localized congregations known as synagogues became important as well. These synagogues provided an opportunity for instruction in Scripture, and they were led by elders made up of laypeople as well as lawyers and scribes trained in the law of Moses. Much of this structure would carry over into the new covenant church, serving as a model for leadership by a plurality of elders.

Christ came in the first century, perfectly embodying the leadership roles of prophet, priest, and king (Heb. 1:1–4). Having accomplished redemption, He ascended to heaven and continues to exercise authority over His church. Initially, the authority was exercised through the Apostolic office, with specific men filling that role who were commissioned to deliver special revelation. Since the death of the last Apostle, Christ exercises His authority through the actions of duly appointed church leaders as they endeavor to accurately teach and apply Apostolic teaching, that is, the Word of God. The authority of the Word of God is primary, and only decisions made that conform to His Word bear Christ’s authority (Gal. 1:8).

The New Testament describes the structure of church leadership in several texts. Ephesians 4:11–13 says that Christ has given Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to equip us for ministry and build us up into Christian maturity. The offices of Apostle and prophet have since passed away (and perhaps evangelist as a formal office as well, though there is some disagreement on this). First Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9 envision a church led by elders and deacons. Those who fill these roles must be of exemplary Christian character, and they are tasked with meeting the spiritual and physical needs of local churches. The account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 features elders coming together with the Apostles to address matters of theology and practice common to all churches. After the first century, the ecumenical councils at Nicaea, Chalcedon, and elsewhere looked to the Jerusalem Council as a model for how churches are to decide matters of common concern.

Following the example of the New Testament, local churches in the earliest decades after the Apostles passed from the scene were led by a plurality of elders. Over time, the office of bishop evolved, first as merely a prominent elder and then later as an office distinct from the office of elder. In time, monoepiscopacy became the norm in the church. In this model, each individual bishop has jurisdictional authority over the churches in a particular area, usually the churches in a specific city. Initially, none of these bishops was regarded as having authority over the other bishops, though the bishop of Rome and later the bishop of Constantinople were regarded as first among equals in the church.

After the fall of Rome to barbarian kingdoms in AD 476, the bishop of Rome increasingly emerged as the de facto civil and religious leader in the Western portion of the former Roman Empire. His power grew and the office of the papacy evolved, wielding its greatest civil and religious power in the medieval period. Today, the bishop of Rome, known more popularly as the pope, is head of the Roman Catholic Church and rules over all its bishops. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to view the patriarchal bishop of Constantinople as first among equals, but he does not have jurisdictional authority over any other Eastern bishop.

The Protestant Reformation also affected church leadership structures. The Reformers generally agreed that church leadership is exercised by two general types of officers, elders and deacons. Some Protestants continue to have bishops, following an organizational pattern similar to the Eastern church (Anglicanism). Others tend to combine episcopal policy with much greater autonomy on the part of local churches (Lutheranism). Some traditions feature rule by multiple elders sitting in courts—the lowest level governing the local church, the next level encompassing all the churches in a particular area, and the highest level encompassing the church as a whole (Presbyterianism). Congregational church leadership structures have no courts of appeal beyond the individual local church. Some of these churches are led by a plurality of elders while others are governed by a single pastor or the congregation. Some churches delineate elders as teaching elders and ruling or lay elders, while others separate the offices into pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. Many other leadership models exist, usually based on some combination of the above principles. Whatever the model of leadership chosen, Reformational Protestantism affirms that a true church is one that preaches the gospel accurately, administers the sacraments properly, and exercises discipline consistently and lovingly.


One of the functions of the leaders of the early church was to equip the laity so that the ministry of the Gospel could be effected through their labors.

R.C. Sproul

Shepherding the Flock

Tabletalk magazine

Although ministers and bishops are called to follow our Lord’s example, we will never have a pastor or elder who cares for our souls anywhere near the degree to which Christ, our Bishop, does.

R.C. Sproul

The Bishop of Our Souls

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What, then, are the criteria by which the church should choose its leaders? The criteria are character and the behavior that reveals character.

Terry Johnson

Character Qualifications

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