Submitted to the Word: Church Leadership

A couple weeks ago, I posted about why Christians should base everything they do on the Word of God. Then I posted a case study of what it looks like for a church to base their view of membership on the Scripture. In this post, I’m going to explore what it looks like for a church to do so in regard to church leadership.

Submitted to the Word of God - Church Leadership

You want to get your blood pumping?

Try talking about church leadership structure in a crowd of Christians.

Guaranteed to get the heart rate up.

It seems like the discussion of church leadership is one that is accompanied by equal measures of confusion, terror, and fear.

But I don’t think it needs to be that way. Indeed, I think that it dishonors Christ when his body carries out important conversations over leadership in such a manner. So how do we cut through the clutter and begin to examine these things together with peace, unity, and love?

We go to the Word.

Most of the vitriol inherent to the topic stems from opinions that are based squarely in tradition rather than in the Word. And when my opinion is based on a different tradition than yours, we end up speaking from completely different foundations. Instead of standing together and conversing, we stand apart and argue. Some of those traditions have biblical merit, some of them don’t. But we won’t get anywhere until we are standing on the same foundation, agreeing to the grounds for the discussion.

That must be the Word.

So, in this post, I’m going to look at the Word. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive study of the topic. Nor do I assume that it is automatically the correct one. I think it’s biblical, but I’m open to discussion. (Indeed, I would welcome it! Email me:

Without further ado…

Congregational Authority

The first thing that I see when I look at the Word is that the local congregation is the starting point for discussing church leadership.


Because Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to take church discipline issues to a governing board: he says take it to the church.

And because when an issue arises in the early church in Acts 6, the apostles don’t just appoint men to take care of the problem: they tell the church, “choose from amongst yourselves.”

And because Peter doesn’t tell his audience that some of them are priests in the kingdom of Heaven: he says they all are part of the kingdom of priests.

And one more example. Paul doesn’t tell the leaders of the church at Corinth to confront the sin of one of their members: he says it’s a whole church decision/action.

I know that there are many who would disagree with the idea of congregational authority, and I recognize that I have benefited from their thinking on many subjects. But on this issue, I go where the text leads me.

But recognizing the authority of the congregation doesn’t get me out of the jam entirely. Because Scripture is clear that there is a restricted leadership structure within, among, and under the idea of congregation authority.

Two Offices/Roles

Organizationally and historically, a mass democracy has never succeeded. It should not surprise us that God knows this fact and has taken it into account in his structuring of the church. Instead of pure popular vote driving the decision-making of the church, we see that God calls certain people to function as “under-shepherds” and “servants” within the body life of the church.

Pastor, Elder, Overseer

The first of these roles is that of pastor/elder/overseer. Yes, I am aware that there are three terms there, but they all seem to be used interchangeably in the New Testament, having less of an official character, than a descriptive one.

We see an example of all three descriptions referencing one role in Acts 20:17-28:

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him…Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

The astute reader will say, “Hey! That’s just two of the titles! Where’s pastor?” 

I’m glad you asked. What the ESV has translated as “care for” is the Greek word that we get “pastor” from. The fact that “pastor” means “shepherd” is even more clarifying as we see that Paul’s chosen image for the church is that of “flock” as in a flock of sheep that the elders/overseers were to “pastor.”

What is additionally helpful to know is that all three terms serve very well to highlight different aspects of what I take to be one role: 

  • Elder: Someone who is mature, wise, and dependable in their advice and direction to the church.
  • Pastor: Someone who is capable and compassionate enough to shepherd God’s sheep, to care for their soul’s well-being like a shepherd cares for his sheep’s physical well-being.
  • Overseer: Someone who is gifted in leadership and can help the church achieve God’s purpose for them, and who will be a good steward of the resources God entrusts to them.

For the sake of clarity in this post, I will use “pastor” to refer to this role and assume within it the other titles as well.

Another note of interest: whenever the NT speaks of the role of pastor in the life of the church, it does so in the plural. The only time the term is singular is when a specific pastor is being talked about. Without looking at all the texts (Acts 14:23; 20:28; 21:18; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1-5, etc), suffice it to say that the role seems to have been one that recommended, if not required, at least two per church.

The New Testament is not silent either about the character of those who would fill the role. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 speaks to this:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

As does Titus 1:5-9

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Those are not easy qualifications to meet. Indeed, it could certainly be argued that no man will meet them entirely on this side of sinlessness. Nonetheless, we ought to see them as important guideposts for evaluating a candidate for this office. Why? Because a pastor is someone who is given authority to guide, care for, and steward the church. Not to the exclusion of congregational authority, but as a God-given extension and outworking of it. The role demands a man of character (not open to the charge of debauchery, not arrogant, not quarrelsome, etc.) and competence (able to teach, manage well, etc.). It is not one that can or should be filled by just anybody.

But nor is the other role in church structure:


The qualifications read similarly, though there are some differences to note.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Again, steep requirements. Not a position you put just anybody in. But also not the same kind of position as that of pastor. There are several differences that help us both distinguish the two roles and also help define the role of “deacon”.

The first difference is inherent in the title itself. “Pastor”, “elder”, and “overseer” all carry a certain expectation of authority: a shepherd has authority over his sheep, an overseer has authority over that which he oversees, and an elder has authority by weight of maturity and wisdom

By contrast, “deacon” does not. The word itself is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos, which means “waiter, servant, or administrator”. Starting with the word itself, the role of deacon places an emphasis on service rather than authority.

This is contrary to the practice of many churches today where deacons are seen as an authoritative body over the church. I would argue that the New Testament doesn’t define the position in terms of authority within the church, but in terms of service to the church.

But that doesn’t mean that it is an inferior or second-class role. Indeed, it is clearly an important title, one that Paul uses to distinguish some servants from others in the Body. It is a role that someone must be “tested” in before giving the distinction. So it’s not just a generic thing for all Christians, it’s unique and identifiable. So, in comparing the two roles, we ought not to imagine that the role of a deacon is somehow a lesser one than pastor: it’s a different one.

A practical example of the difference between the two roles is seen in Acts 6:1-4:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Here, we have a prototype situation for both pastors and deacons. The apostles here are serving the first church in Jerusalem as pastors, serving the spiritual and intellectual needs of the congregation. This problem arises and they suggest that the church appoint men who would serve the physical and organizational needs of the church: deacons.

NOTE: These categories are not exclusive! Pastors can meet physical and organizational needs and deacons can meet spiritual and intellectual needs. It’s not about separation of powers but about normative characteristics. So a pastor is not exempt from service or a deacon from being spiritual.

We’ve seen that there is significant overlap in the qualifications for the role of pastor and the role of deacon in 1 Timothy, but there is one final difference to highlight:

“…able to teach…” 1 Timothy 3:2

Again, the role of pastor and deacon are not mutually exclusive. But this difference matters for another question that needs to be addressed in the discussion of leadership in the church: are there gender restrictions for the office of pastor and deacon?

Gender in Leadership

Talk about a hot button topic! This issue has been increasingly under scrutiny as the wider culture embraces modern feminism. So the church needs to engage this issue because it will come up as we carry out our task of making disciples.

But we don’t need to engage it from a culture-first perspective but from a perspective of submitting everything we do to the Word of God.

Male Pastors

When we start with the text, I believe we see clearly that the office of pastor is restricted to men.

Remember, the main differences we saw between the New Testament descriptions of pastors and deacons is in the meaning of their titles (authoritative vs. service-oriented) and the qualification “able to teach.”

We need to consider the context: in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says that women are “not to teach or exercise authority over a man.” He then goes into chapter 3 and talks about “overseers”. Of the three synonymous terms for pastor, that is the most clearly authoritative one. In Titus, he uses “elder”. In Acts, he urges the elders to be “pastors”. But in 1 Timothy he specifically highlights the most authoritative role title he can.


I believe it is because he is making clear that this office is reserved for men. He then says that an “overseer” must be able to teach, something he had just said was not permitted for a woman. So while it may not be culturally popular, and while some traditions within Christianity do not, if we are going to be people who submit in everything to the Word, we need to reserve the role of pastor for men on the basis of the New Testament’s teaching.

Male and Female Deacons

With regard to deacons, however, the gender case is not so cut and dried. We need to recognize that up-front and be willing to explore the evidence even as we consider our own traditions. Some traditions have always had female deacons and others consider the idea heretical. Nonetheless, I would urge both sides to consider the evidence of the text and will myself argue that there is certainly room in the New Testament for both male and female deacons in the life of the church, so long as the role is defined biblically as a service-oriented one.

Translation of Gyne in 1 Timothy 3:11

The first consideration we need to make is that our English language is not the original language of the New Testament. In the Greek, 1 Timothy 3:11 uses a word that can be translated “wives” or “women.” Various English translations have used either option. The ESV renders it this way:

Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

Whereas the NASB renders it this way:

Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.

The trouble is that there is no possessive pronoun (their) in the Greek. It’s just “Wives/Women likewise” in the original.

It’s not conclusive either way.

This translation fact also matters because if Paul is giving the qualifications in verse 11 for “the wives of deacons”, why does he not also give qualifications for “the wives of overseers”? Overseer is a more authoritative role and, it could be argued, one in which a wife who didn’t meet certain criteria could be even more detrimental to the church.

If all we had to go on in the discussion of gender in the role of deacon was 1 Timothy 3:11, I would still say that it is at least possible that Paul, having intentionally restricted the office of pastor/elder/overseer by emphasizing the need for authority and teaching, is here saying or assuming that “women can be deacons too.”

Romans 16:1

However, we also have Romans 16:1 to consider. Here there’s another contested translation:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea. (NASB)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. (NIV)

In the original language, Paul refers to Phoebe as a “diakonos” of the church at Cenchrea. By tying the title of deacon to a particular church, it seems that Paul is implying that Phoebe holds that particular title in the church. Some English translations have translated it, “Servant” while others have transliterated, “deacon”.

Again, it’s not perfectly airtight either way. But between Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:11, I believe that there is room for both male and female deacons in the church that is trying to submit everything to the Word of God.

*For further reading on the role of women as deacons, consider these two articles from either side of the discussion, both written by Southern Baptist pastors.

Also, in case you were wondering, this is an issue the church has disagreed on through the centuries. In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria considered female deacons as obviously supported in the text. He said, “We also know the directions about women deacons which are given by the noble Paul in his letter to Timothy.” Tertullian though, in the same rough timeframe, distinguished the office of deacon from that of widow (1 Timothy 5:9) and implied strongly that women could not and should not serve as deacons.

Conversations over the issue are nothing new. But that simply means we should continue to discuss and wrestle with the texts involved and make a God-honoring, unity-promoting decision in our own contexts.


So ends a case study in submitting our understanding of church leadership to the Bible. We’ve walked through passages that are really clear and some that are not so much. Church leadership is not a necessarily simple topic, but one that bears reflecting on and seeking the Scripture regarding. There’re some things that aren’t clear, there’re others that are clear in the text.

Our task then is to sift and weigh these things, not as an academic exercise, but so that we might be fully submitted to the Word.