Leadership in the Ancient Church

Over the past two hundred years it has not been uncommon for some historians of the Ancient Church to argue that formal leadership simply did not exist in the early decades of the church’s existence. Rather, they have maintained, things were quite fluid in the decades immediately after the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost. It was a period of charismatic leadership, when people who gave leadership to the church were regarded as leaders not so much due to any official recognition on the part of churches but because of their personal giftedness or because of the force of their personalities. Only with the passage of time did the church begin to have clearly designated offices of leadership like elders or bishops, and this marks a growing institutionalization of the church. From a fairly open fellowship of the Spirit in which all were equal, the church became more rigid and hierarchical. The only problem with this model is that the evidence of the New Testament clearly presents us with a different picture. As we look at the following texts, it will be immediately clear that leadership, ever vital to any group of people, was present from the very origins of the Church:

a. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, for instance, which, apart from possibly James’ letter, is the earliest book in the New Testament, Paul states that the “one who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches” (ESV).

b. Again, in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, also a very early text, Paul encourages his readers: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (ESV).

c. And in Philippians 1:1, Paul and Timothy, greet not only “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi,” but also the “overseersand deacons” (ESV).

The key question for the early Christians was not whether to have leaders or not, but what kind of leaders? Leadership was a given. The key question was: What model of leadership was to be promoted?