Rethinking Leadership in the New Testament

In my book, Reimagining Church (2008), I crafted a detailed exposition on what leadership in the first-century church looked like and the revolutionary principles that were clearly articulated by Jesus and Paul.

The second half of my book is entitled “Who is Your Covering?” (a title I created in the 1990s), and it goes into great depth on the issues of accountability, submission, and authority.

The Appendix of Reimagining Church answers every objection I’ve ever seen about my views on this subject along with my responses.

In this connection, Jon Zens has just released a powerful new book. It’s called 58-0: How Christ Leads Through the One-Anothers


If I had one book by Jon Zens to give to people, it would be this one.

It contains Zens’ best thinking on the subject of leadership from a New Testament perspective, and it also contains chapters by other writers — some past and some contemporary.

Here is the chapter I contributed to the book.

Is the New Testament Hierarchical? 

For centuries, certain texts in the N.T. have been mishandled to support hierarchical/positional leadership structures in the church. This mishandling has caused no small damage to the body of Christ.

The notion of hierarchical/positional authority is partly the result of mistranslations and misinterpretations of certain biblical passages. These mistranslations and misinterpretations have been influenced by cultural biases that have cluttered the original meaning of the biblical language. Such biases have transformed simple words into heavily loaded ecclesiastical titles. As a result, they have eroded the original landscape of the church. Thus a fresh reading of the N.T. in its original language is necessary for properly understanding certain texts. For instance, a look at the original Greek yields the following insights:

  1. “Bishops” are simply guardians (episkopoi), not high-church officials
  2. “Pastors” are caretakers (poimen), not professional pulpiteers
  3. “Ministers” are table-waiters (diakonos), not clergymen
  4. “Elders” are wise old men (presbuteros), not ecclesiastical officers 

Thankfully, a growing number of N.T. scholars are pointing out that the “leadership” terminology of the N.T. possesses descriptive accents denoting special functions rather than formal positions. Caring/serving in N.T. is non-official, non-titular, and non-hierarchical.

Doesn’t Acts 1:20; Romans 11:13; 12:4; and 1 Timothy 3:1, 10, 12 speak of church “officials”?

The word office in these passages is a mistranslation. It has no equivalent in the original Greek. Nowhere in the Greek N.T. do we find the equivalent of office used in connection with any ministry, function, or leader in the church.

The Greek word for office is only used to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ in His high priestly office (Heb. 5-7). It’s also used to refer to the Levitical priesthood (Luke 1:8). The King James Version mistranslates Romans 11:13b to be, “I magnify mine office.” But the Greek word translated “office” means service, not office. So a better translation of Romans 11:13b is “I magnify my service [diakonia].” Similarly, Romans 12:4b is better translated “All the members do not have the same function [praxis].” The Greek word praxis means a doing, a practice, or a function rather than an office or position. The NIV and the NASB reflect this better translation. Finally, 1 Timothy 3:1, says the following in the KJV: “If a man desire the office of a bishop…” But a more accurate translation puts it this way: “If anyone aspires to oversight…”

Doesn’t Acts 20:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:17; and Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24 say that elders have “the rule over” the church?

The words “rule” and “over” in these texts are a poor fit with the rest of the New Testament. And there’s no analog for them in the Greek text. This is yet another case where certain translations have confused the modern reader by employing culturally conditioned religious terminology.

The word “rule” in Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24 is translated from the Greek word hegeomai. It simply means to guide or go before. In his translation of Hebrews, N.T. scholar F. F. Bruce translates hegeomai as “guides.” This word carries the thought of “those who guide you” rather than “those who rule over you.”

Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, the word “over” is translated from the Greek word proistemi. It carries the idea of standing in front of, superintending, guarding, and providing care for. Robert Banks and F. F. Bruce explain that this term doesn’t carry the technical force of an official designation, for it’s used in the participle rather than the noun form. It’s also positioned as the second in the midst of two other non-official participles. Bruce translates 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 as follows: “Now we ask you brethren to know those who work hard among you and care for you in the Lord and instruct you, and esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”

The same word (proistemi) appears in 1 Timothy 5:17. It, too, is incorrectly translated “rule” in the KJV and NASB. In addition, in Acts 20:28, the Greek text says that the elders are “en” (among) the flock rather than “over” them (as the KJV puts it). In a similar vein, Paul’s statement that overseers must “rule [proistemi] their own houses well” in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 doesn’t point to their ability to wield power. It rather points to their capacity to supervise, manage, and nurture others. Incidentally, managing the household didn’t envision managing the nuclear family. It involved much more than that. It involved managing married and unmarried relatives as well as servants.

In all these passages, the basic thought is that of watching rather than bossing; superintending rather than dominating, facilitating rather than dictating, guiding rather than ruling. The Greek text conveys an image of one who stands within the flock, guarding and caring for it (as a leading-servant would). It’s reminiscent of a shepherd who looks out for the sheep—not one who drives them from behind or rules them from above. Again, the thrust of apostolic teaching consistently demonstrates that God’s idea of church leadership is at odds with those conventional leadership roles that are based on top-heavy rule.

Every physical body has a head. Therefore, every local body of believers needs a head. If it doesn’t have one, it will be chaotic. Pastors are the heads of local churches. They are little heads under Christ’s headship.

This idea is born out of the imaginations of fallen humans. There is not a shred of biblical support for such an idea. The Bible never refers to a human being as a “head” of a church. This title exclusively belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the only Head of each local assembly. The church has no head under His own. Therefore, those who claim to be heads of churches supplant the executive headship of Christ.

Doesn’t Hebrews 13:17 command us to obey and submit to our leaders, implying that church leaders possess official authority?

Again, a look at the Greek text proves useful here. The word translated “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 is not the garden-variety Greek word (hupakouo) that’s usually employed in the N.T. for obedience. Rather, it’s the word peitho. Peitho means to persuade or to win over. Because this word appears in the middle-passive form in Hebrews 13:17, the text ought to be translated “Allow yourselves to be persuaded by your leaders.”

This text appears to be an exhortation to give weight to the instruction of local overseers (and possibly apostolic workers). It’s not an exhortation to obey them mindlessly. It implies persuasive power to convince and to win over rather than to coerce, force, or browbeat into submission. In the words of Greek scholar W. E. Vine, “The obedience suggested [in Hebrews 13:17] is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.”

Likewise, the verb translated “submit” in this passage is the word hupeiko. It carries the idea of yielding, retiring, or withdrawing, as in surrendering after battle. Those who occupy themselves with spiritual oversight don’t demand submission. By virtue of their wisdom and spiritual maturity, they are to be accorded with respect. Christians are encouraged to be uncommonly biased toward what they say. Not because of an external office they hold, but because of their godly character, spiritual stature, and sacrificial service to the people of God. In the words of Hebrews 13:7, we are to “imitate their faith” as we “consider the outcome of their life.” By so doing, we make their God-called task of spiritual oversight far easier to carry out (v. 17).

Don’t the seven angels of the seven churches in the book of Revelation represent the presence of a single pastor in each local church?

The first three chapters of Revelation constitute a flimsy basis upon which to construct the doctrine of “single pastor.” First, the reference to the angels of these churches is cryptic. John doesn’t give us any clues about their identity. Scholars are not sure what they symbolize. (Some believe they point to literal angels. Others believe they are human messengers.)

Second, there’s no analog for the idea of a “solo pastor” anywhere in the New Testament. Nor is there any text that likens pastors unto angels. Third, the idea that the seven angels refer to the “pastors” of the seven churches is in direct conflict with other N.T. texts. For instance, Acts 20:17 and 20:28 tell us that the church of Ephesus had multiple shepherds (pastors), not one. This is true for all 1st Century churches that had elders. They were always plural.

Therefore, to hang the “sola pastora” doctrine on one obscure passage in Revelation is sloppy and careless exegesis. The fact is, there is no support for the modern pastor in Revelation or in any other N.T. document.

Note: I answer many more objections in the Appendix of Reimagining Church.

The Mess We Find Ourselves in Today

The primary reason why our ideas on church leadership have strayed so far from God’s will can be traced to our tendency to project Western political notions of government onto the biblical writers—reading them back into the text. When we read words like “pastor,” “overseer,” and “elder,” we immediately think in terms of governmental offices like “president,” “senator,” and “chairman.” So we regard elders, pastors, and overseers as sociological constructs (offices). We view them as vacant slots that possess a reality independent of the persons who populate them. We then ascribe mere men with unquestioned authority simply because they “hold office.”

The N.T. notion of leadership is markedly different. As previously stated, there’s no biblical warrant for the idea that church leadership is official. Neither is there any scriptural backing for the notion that some believers have authority over other believers. The only authority that exists in the church is Jesus Christ. Humans have no authority in themselves. Divine authority is vested only in the Head and expressed through the body. Good leadership, therefore, is never authoritarian. It only displays authority when it’s expressing the mind of Jesus Christ.

The basic tasks of biblical leadership are facilitation, nurture, guidance, and service. To the degree that a member is modeling the will of God in one of those areas, to that degree he or she is leading. It’s no wonder that Paul never chose to use any of the forty-plus common Greek words for “office” and “authority” when discussing leaders. Again, Paul’s favorite word for describing leadership is the opposite of what natural minds would suspect. It’s diakonos, which means a “servant”—a person very low on the social totem pole in the 1st Century.

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  1. Ben says

    Hi frank, I could not locate the area to comment about continuing the podcast. Please do. The messages I have heard on your podcasts have impacted my life in amazing ways.

  2. Vara says

    Hi Frank!
    Very informative! Thanks for sharing. Perhaps you’ve addressed this elsewhere and I missed it, but, to your knowledge, does there exist a bible translation that is more accurate and in line with what you laid out in this post?


  3. says

    Thanks for debunking in a factual way the current authoritarianism of our faux Christian churches. Thank you, thank you. All leaders, church, business or otherwise, need to adopt the same approach as that of Jesus Christ our Savior.

    I am expert at managing people in a business environment. I did not start that way. I started by using the authoritarian (direct and control) approach society teaches us all, society being parents, teachers, churches, media, government, and finally bosses.

    During my first 12 years I was considered one of the very best young leaders. But I had to admit that I could not significantly improve the performance of my middle and lowest performers. I was also wrestling with who the neighbors were I was supposed to love. They were certainly not those who worked for me or who I worked for, right???

    When I finally admitted that everyone is my neighbor, I decided to start showing a little love by really listening to my people, something I had never done before. I found they had complaints, suggestions, and questions most of which had some validity so I went about resolving them, if only to explain why they could not have what they said they wanted. As I did this, their performance started to rise. The more I listened and responded the better they performed. Over an 18 month period their performance rose to a point at least 2 times higher than I had thought humanly possible. In addition,, the better they performed the less I had to direct and control. They eventually became self-directed, self-managed Superstars who loved to come to work and were at least 300% more productive. Peer pressure shifted from “do what you have to do to get by” to “don’t expect us to pick up for you” and they needed little direction and were self-controlled.

    There is one important consideration. I discovered that 95% of all people have been forced by our authoritarian society to be conformists, some more and some less. This means that they waste a huge amount of brainpower conforming and will follow bad leadership just as easily as good leadership. I then learned how to lead them to stop conforming and start being their own person. This change caused performance to rise to a level at least 4 times higher than I had thought humanly possible, not just 2 times.

    Ceasing to be conformists causes the vast majority of personal and behavioral problems to disappear as people take charge of their lives rather than conforming to what they think others want of them. Quality of life goes through the roof and the effect on families is huge. Wives have thanked me for giving them back the man they married. I can’t express the joy it gave me to positively affect the lives of so many people.

    The damage authoritarianism has done to the human psyche is huge, actually massive. It is not God’s way. God made everything perfect for us, but our misuse of the power of choice, of free will, has damaged us sorely. Those who should know the most, the Christian churches, are not leading us out of this morass but deeper into it. Christian churches they are not.

    Thanks again, Ben
    Author “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed”

  4. Gil Linden says

    Frank…I am now retired from a mainstream church. However on the subject of leadership and hierarchy, I support the view that in the New Testament there is no definite hierarchy like biblical Judaism. The New Testament did not set-up the ‘monarchical’ episcopate of the early church. I have asked the question where did it start ? Lietzmann wrote a History of the Early Church and he sees the beginning in the 2nd Century with the Gnostics.. the super spiritual who claimed to have special ‘knowledge’ which went beyond the boundaries of scripture. Would you please comment about the perils of Gnosticism even now ? I have been in groups where some say…the Lord has told me this etc.. without any confirmation etc. Some house groups I have attended are just as hierarchical as the church I retired from? Is Gnosticism still a menace in ‘home church’ etc.

    • says

      You do know that I’m not an advocate of “house church,” right? See the archives on the podcast and the blog. I’ve spoken on my issues with most house churches there.

      • Gil Linden says

        Frank…I appreciate your work. The ‘church’ has to change. Bishops like Ignatius of Antioch took the road of ‘top down’ authority as the ‘simple solution’.. How does ‘the church’ organic and otherwise cope with Gnosticism ?? Is it still a menace ?

        • says

          Every heresy present in the first century is present today. Organic churches aren’t immune . . . they weren’t in Century One and neither are they today. But when God’s people are equipped, they can handle anything that comes their way.

  5. Deen says

    Hi Frank, I was wondering how 1 Timothy 1:3 plays into this. It appears that Paul has the authority to to 1 command Timothy and that Imothy then has the authority to command others not to teach certain things in an assembly? As of late, I feel The Lord has been dealing with me on the issues of heiarchy and the proper structure he desires in his church, yet this has been a question I’ve had throughout the process, and I’m sure I’ll have people who will use this scripture in defense of authoritarian church goverment

    • says

      Deen: That’s an easy one. I address it in detail in “Reimagining Church” – – I’m afraid I don’t have time to answer this or every question on this topic in the comments; hence, why I write books. It keeps me from answering questions on the Web all day long.

      Readers can see my complete and best thinking on this issue with every stone unturned. If anyone is interested in this topic, get Jon’s books and “Reimagining Church.” Every question is answered between the two, plus a full presentation of how the early Christians understood leadership and all the related terms that have often been mistranslated or misunderstood in the New Testament.

  6. says

    Thanks for posting this. So much of the New Testament is more readily understood if we see the leadership as relational one-anothering instead of as hierarchical. For instance church discipline. I find it so freeing to cast off the clerical and programmatic mindset so that we can follow God, engage in real relationships, and interact with our neighborss and communities for the Gospel.

  7. Jamal Jivanjee says


    Thanks for drawing attention to this book. It truly is a needed read for many. I hope all reading this will get a copy of Jon’s latest work. It is certainly well worth the read!

  8. says

    Glad you are posting this here, Frank. I’ve read the chapters Jon wrote (still working on the rest) and it is excellent and needed for any group of Christians meeting together in any format. This is a book that should be wrestled with in all corners of Christianity. He really does a great job of presenting why and how a group of believers should lay down the desire to be a leader/clergy in a way that divides the body into segments (leaders, non-leaders; clergy, laity). Here’s a great quote from Jon:

    “When the brothers and sisters are present together, “leadership” does happen. A group may not have “leaders”, but that does not mean they are not “being led”. The issue is: “Is Christ leading by the Spirit, or are humans leading in the flesh? Jesus’ leadership of the ekklesia will be fluid, floating, and shared – varying each time they come together, as the Lord leads. We might call this phenomenon “leadership in the moment”. We are used to looking to the same person(s) to guide believers’ gatherings. Instead, we should be looking to Christ to lead the sisters and brothers in their expression of Him.”

    I’ve been part of group that functions this way for the last few years and it is hard at times, but nothing short of amazing!

  9. Jesse says

    Thanks for the post :)
    Wondering about when Paul’s tells I believe it’s Titus to go back to the churches in every city and appoint elders. Also wondering about the extensive list of qualifications for elders and deacons that are listed. Seems like the Spirit wanted to emphasis the qualifications for a reason. I agree with so much of what is said here of servant leadership and modern day abuses. I certainly do not believe in the modern day Pastor/ seminary system or one man leading the church. Christ is the Head! However, seems there was leadership appointed and set in place though they are not in any way better just different function than others in the body. Can you help with this Frank?

    • says

      Jesse. I respond to that in several sections of “Reimagining Church.” It’s a detailed explanation of all of this. A lot of this has to do with how we understand “elders” and the translation in some versions for “appoint” and “ordain.” It’s all explained in the book as I said at the front of this post and at the end:

      You’ll enjoy it.

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