In Scripture, several terms are used to describe leaders. One term, of course, is “leaders” (or the verb form “leading”). (Luke 22:26, Acts 15:22, 1 Thessalonians 5:13, Hebrews 13:7, Hebrews 13:17, Hebrews 13:24). Other terms such as “elders” and “overseers” are also used to refer to those who are leaders among the church. (Acts 14:23, Acts 15:2-6, Acts 15:22-23, Acts 20:17, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:2, 1 Timothy 5:17, Titus 1:5-7, 1 Peter 5:1)
There are other terms that are often associated with leaders among the church. (apostles, teachers, pastors/shepherds) However, these terms are generally related to spiritual gifts, and not necessarily with leading. (Although, anyone exercising any spiritual gift for the purpose of serving others could be said to be leading others as well.)
As we consider what it means to lead from the perspective of Scripture, there are a few points that we should start with. First, the writers of the New Testament never use the term for “ruler” when referring to a follower of Jesus Christ, despite some unfortunate translations especially of Hebrews 13:17. Second, the authors of the New Testament never say that one brother or sister is “over” another brother or sister (or a group), again despite some unfortunate translations especially of 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. Third, in Scripture, leading is never about making decisions for others.
So, what is leading among the church? According to Jesus, there is one overriding trait of any who lead among the church. What trait is that? Service. I’m not talking about “servant-leadership;” I’m talking about service. As Jesus said, “Let the greatest among you be as the youngest and the leader as the servant.” (Luke 22:26) Jesus, as the ultimate leader, said of himself, “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28). It is perhaps most important that these last two statements were made in the context of two of Jesus’ followers jockeying for position among the others.
Thus, if someone wants to be a leader among the church, they must begin (and end) with serving others. When people begin following your example of serving others, then you are a leader in the way that Jesus defined leadership. Also, when you follow someone because they are serving others, then you are following a leader in the manner that Jesus instructed. For the church, leading = serving. Nothing more, and nothing less.
But, what about the importance of the character of leaders? Yes, Paul lays out several characteristics of those whom the church recognizes as leaders (whether they are called “elders” or “overseers” or even something else). You can find these characteristics in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-8. The characteristics listed in these passages are the same as characteristics listed in other sections of Scripture for all believers. Even the famous “able to teach” description refers to all believers, who are responsible for teaching one another. (For example, see Matthew 28:19-20, Colossians 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:14.)
Thus, the church recognizes (some say “appoint”) leaders when they live in a manner that all followers of Jesus Christ should live. What is the purpose for recognizing these leaders? The church does NOT recognize leaders so that the leaders can do all the work or even all the important work. Instead, the church recognizes the leaders so that the church know whose example to follow.
And, this leads me to the final important aspects of leaders among the church. As Scripture points out (especially through Peter in 1 Peter 5:1-3), leaders do not control people nor do they exercise authority over people. Instead, their influence is their the way they live their lives. The way they follow Jesus and trust God is to be an example for other believers, especially those who are immature in the faith.
The importance of example is also seen in Hebrews where the author says, “Remember your leaders, whoever spoke the message of God to you, carefully examining the outcome of their way of life in order to imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)
Again, among the church, leading is not making decisions or controlling others. Leading is serving and living as an example of what it means to follow Jesus Christ and trust God.
(By the way, the image attached to this post is my favorite image related to leading among the church. If we are not serving people – getting our hands dirty – then we are not leading.)