Roots (Plurality of Leadership)

Leadership among Christians was initially vested in Jesus’ handpicked apostles, and it was the apostles who had authority as eyewitnesses of Jesus to proclaim Jesus’ message to the world (aka the Great Commission). But there was a shift in the way Christians understood leadership that Luke records in Acts. As you read Acts, leadership starts out with the “apostles,” then shifts to “apostles and elders,” and ends with simply “elders.”

The difference between an apostle and an elder

The apostles were appointed by Jesus himself to be the authoritative eyewitnesses of himself beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up…as a witness of his resurrection.[1] The apostles had a unique role as being the authority on Jesus from the beginning, something they still have today and that is contained in their writings. This is the sole reason why the New Testament is considered authoritative, it was written by men who were appointed by God to bring the message of Jesus to the world.

An elder, on the other hand, is someone appointed as a leader among Christians who is a mature Christian and one who can lead by example. When Paul wrote Timothy, he gave him qualifications for an elder, or overseer, who was to be a part of a team of elders who helped “take care of God’s church” in their local area.

The main point is that an elder is not authoritative in the same way the original apostles were. This is why it was a practice to have a team of elders who shared the responsibility of leading the church in a local area. This is evident in Acts 20 when all the elders from Ephesus meet up with Paul before he heads back to Jerusalem.

Where did we go wrong?

Somewhere along the way, it became a practice of appointing one single man over the body of leaders for an area. This practice is seen today within all Christian denominations in the form of a “High Priest,” “Senior Pastor,” “Leading Elder,” “Pope,” and a range of other names given to the head honcho of a local congregation of believers.

But this was not the way of leadership from the beginning and as with everything Jesus instituted for us to follow, there are good reasons for not appointing a single person as the de facto “head” of a group of believers. For the sake of moving on with the rest of the distinctives of early Christianity, I will leave you to research the potential reasons for this.

[1] Acts 1:22

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