New Testament Church – Leadership

After a bit of a blogging break, I want to return to thinking about the New Testament church pattern, and how Restorationism seeks to build churches that are faithful to this. A key text for Restorationist churches is Eph 4:11 which lists what are often referred to as the “Ephesians 4 ministries” – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

Cessationists believe that the first two ministries are no longer in operation in the church, but Restorationists strongly emphasise the need for all of them. The most controversial of these is apostles, but New Frontiers at least are happy to concede that there was something unique and unrepeatable about the original twelve, which puts most people’s fears to rest. Apostles are understood as those who relate to churches (particularly newly planted ones) in a fatherly way, giving direction and advice to the leaders, without having authority over them in an official denominational sense.

As important as these five ministries are, they are not understood to be exhaustive by Restorationists. Indeed, modern ministries such as “worship leader”, “small group leader” and “youth leader” are flourishing in charismatic circles, and supported by a wealth of training materials and courses.

But where do “eders / overseers” and “deacons” fit into the picture? Are these additions to the list of ministries? While I have never heard this explicitly expressed, I believe that the New Frontiers position would be that these are the only two “offices” in the church. In other words, anyone exercising a leadership or authoritative ministry is either an elder or a deacon. Most of the Ephesians 4 ministries would be exercised by the elders of a church, while those with the other “modern” ministries I have mentioned are understood to be deacons (although they would never be called this). I’m pretty sure that all the “apostles” in New Frontiers are also elders in their home churches.

Each local church is understood to be led by a group of elders, often with a senior elder (the pastor) being first amongst equals (theocracy is preferred to democracy in Restorationist church government). The church also would usually relate to someone with an “apostolic” ministry, who would meet with the elders on an occasional basis and provide some guidance, and prophetic direction. However, the elders are understood to be autonomous, and free to refuse the advice given (although this may result in the apostolic relationship being broken).

For complementarian groups such as New Frontiers, eldership is seen as male only, but the “deacon” ministries are open to all. So many female worship leaders, cell group leaders and youth leaders are to be found within these churches.

How faithful is this to the New Testament pattern? Richard Collins understands Eph 4:11 in a very different way. He sees it as expressing the diverse models of leadership that God is pleased to use in different churches. But as with the charismatic gifts, I would place more emphasis on the diversity within an individual church. So not everyone has the gift of prophecy, and not everyone has the ministry of evangelist, but we should desire all gifts and ministries to be operating within the local church.

So it boils down to three main levels of leadership:

1. Apostles – providing ongoing support to new churches, and ensuring they stay faithful to the gospel
2. Elders – initially perhaps only one, but quickly growing to a team of elders as the new church grows
3. Deacons – people given responsibility to lead in different areas of service as the elders see fit (see Acts 6 for an example of how a need was seen and met with the appointment of leaders)

While I don’t believe there is only one possible structure of church leadership, I do think that this general setup is preferable to some of the more complicated structures that exist in other circles. More importantly, I believe that it fits in well with what we see in the New Testament about church leadership.

8 thoughts on “New Testament Church – Leadership

  1. Hi Mark,

    One thought.

    The ‘three-fold’ (how theological!!) distinction of:


    That you highlight (and as described by you), when thought of ‘functionally’, seems to map the early churches structure of:

    Bishop (Overseer)
    Priest (contraction of English word ‘Presbyter’ = Elder)
    Deacon (servant)

    Which has clearly found its way down to us today.

    This would highlight that it’s not ‘names’, per se, that are the key but ‘activity’ or ‘function’ within the wider church that are key.

    Clearly there is ‘nothing new under the Sun’! However I would support a desire to ‘get back’ to function rather than getting fixed on specific ‘titles’ (that goes for some streams where leaders are called ‘Apostle Jim’ etc….).

    However, recovering or re-discovering afresh functional leadership within Christs church doesn’t mean one needs to discard all language!

    I’m fairly convinced that the modern day function of NFI ‘apostles’ matches fairly closely with the function of CofE ‘bishops’ – with some obvious differences both positive and negative in both directions!!


  2. You are right in pointing out some similarities, and I’m no expert on the CofE, but it seems to me that there are a couple of distinctions at least in theory.

    First, Restorationist apostles, unlike Bishops work on the basis of a “relationship” with the elders of the local church. You are not automatically under an apostle like you are under a bishop. Also I believe a number of Anglican churches are in the unfortunate position of having a bishop with whom they share very little common ground theologically. The apostle model would not allow for this scenario.

    Second, an emphasis is made on the plurality of elders, even if there is one who is the “senior pastor”, but as I understand it there is just one priest in a CofE setup. (I haven’t a clue where curates, rectors, vergers and whatever else there is fit into the heirarchy!). However, it is true that a lot of house churches are primarily led by one dominant personality, even if there is officially a leadership “team” of elders.

  3. Mark,
    Thank you for the brief outline of ministry roles within New Frontiers. As a cessationist, far be it from me to encourage you to go beyond the restorationism that you’ve already employed, but whatever happened to prophets in your recapitulation of ministries?

    I find the stress on there being only two offices very valuable and it seems to me that it is best to understand Ephesians 4 in the light of that. Easy enough to see that pastors and teachers are both overseers who are vocal so that the difference is not in office but in officer, some pastor who don’t teach and others teach who don’t pastor, most pastor/teachers do both. Similarly, IMO, evangelists are deacons who having served ‘well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.’ [1Titus 3:13]

    Wrt prophets, the cessationist view is that the separate gift of prophecy ceased along with apostleship. A ‘Word & Spirit’ cessationist must immediately insist, however, that God is not limited in any way by this and that it is not uncommon for the people of God to receive communication from God that can be best described as ‘prophetic’. There is no great conflict about this and I believe that there need be less of a conflict over apostleship than there is as well.

    It is well known, I think, that Terry Virgo was once quite resistant to accepting that the term ‘apostle’ could be applied to him. Perhaps the remnant of that is the acknowledgement from New Frontiers that the twelve apostles were a separate case altogether. There is a general acceptance by the Reformed churches that there is a sense in which someone might be considered an apostle and the separation of any such now-a-days apostleship from the apostleship of the twelve is welcomed. What has done great damage to unity between other Reformed churches and New Frontiers is the concept that present day apostles are ‘apostles like the apostle Paul was an apostle.’ It really needs to be understood within NF why this is seen as denigration of Paul’s ministry.

    It occurs to me that NF would work just as well if your top level of leadership was actually named ‘evangelist’ but be that as it may, a reinstatement of Paul’s apostleship as being special and in a very really way, special in the sense that the apostleship of the twelve was special, is called for.


  4. John,

    It was actually with some reluctance that I made three levels rather than two. Apostles are a special case of elder as they are “trans-local”. All the Eph 4 ministries can be used trans-locally, but apostles always so.

    Eph 4 ministries are functional rather than offices – there might be elders in a church exercising apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral or teaching ministries, but their office is simply “elder”. However, if a person has a notable gift and ministry in one of these areas, we are willing to call them by an appropriate title – apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher. Of course, many (like Paul) operate in more than one of these roles. Calling someone an “apostle” or “prophet” still generates suspicion and misunderstanding from cessationists, so the terms are used very sparingly.

    Paul and the twelve occupied a unique position in salvation history, but Restorationists do not believe that it was simply because they were “apostles”. They had a special role as witnesses to Christ’s bodily resurrection, and some of them were used to write Scripture and had remarkable supernatural gifting. They also all had a special and personal calling from Christ. But the Newfrontiers definition of apostolic does not encompass these elements.

    Paul is hard to categorise because he is not one of the 12, and yet also fulfils a special place in salvation history. He seems happy to accept that others are apostles too, even though he identifies some as false apostles. So I don’t feel that simply believing in apostles for today should “denigrate” Paul’s ministry.

    PS Nice to discover another blogger. I liked reading some of your poetry.

  5. John

    Just to clarify, New Frontiers position on apostleship would be exactly as you say, to place Paul in a category on his own! I’ve heard it said that there are 4 categories of apostleship:

    1) Jesus, the Great Apostle
    2) The twelve, witnesses to the resurrected Christ
    3) Paul, witness to the risen Christ
    4) Others, I guess they would place people like Barnabas in this category, and modern day apostles

  6. Four categories keeps everyone happy! Non-charismatics though would tend to use the fourth category to mean “missionaries”, or anyone who the church sent out on some kind of kingdom work, while Restorationists mean people who are actually providing some oversight to churches. They might therefore allow for a fifth category for the purely etmylogical (“one who is sent”) meaning of apostle.

    I seem to remember that Carson criticises those who reduce “apostle” to mean anyone who is sent in his Exegetical Fallacies book as an example of a false appeal to word root meaning. I don’t have it to hand so I can’t check up on it.

  7. Hi guys,

    Great discussion!

    My own reading of this topic is that the word ‘Apostle’ most probably acquired some slightly different ‘flavours’ dependant on the context and dating. (just think about the use of the word ‘gay’ in the last 100 years as an example of this).

    Within the basic greek the word-for-word translation into english would probably be ‘commissioned one’ or ’emmissary’. With the idea of having been ‘sent from’ something/someone for a purpose.

    Within the greek speaking primitive church this designation was thus used of those who had been actually ‘commissioned’ by Jesus to ‘go into the world and make disciples’ (Matt 28). It is clear from the NT text that this commissioning was wider than just the ’11’ (with Paul recalling that Jesus appeared to 500 at one point!) – and even though Matt 28 recalls the commissioning of the ’11’, Peter in Acts 1 states that Judas’ replacement must come from one of those who has been with the ‘team’ from John the Baptist through to Christs ascension (and there were 120 in the room at the time he was saying this), thus assuming that more than the ’11’ were present at the ascension-commissioning episode. The basic criterion, therefore, probably can be set as: An Apostle was a person who had a) Been part of the Jesus-ministry from the start (and was thus thoroughly ‘traditioned’ in the ‘Jesus tradition’ b) Had seen the risen and ascended Lord and b) Had been directly commissioned by him (either during a post-resurrection appearance (as per Paul) or during the ascension-commissioning episode.

    I thus believe that there were a great number of ‘Apostles’ within the primitive church, within which the ’12’ formed a central (and symbolic) nucleus.

    This clearly makes sense. The work was huge, and needed many hands to undertake it. If the ‘Apostles teaching’ was essentially the oral Jesus tradition then this tradition needed ‘telling’ and ‘performing’ which required ‘bodies’ to undertake this work.

    In fact I see one of the great achievements of Jesus ministry as his ability to ‘tradition’ (train) many people in the ‘core story of the kingdom’ which centered on him and his work, a tradition and traditioning which received its ‘finishing touches’ in the post-resurrection appearances (take the road to Emmaus as an example) such that those appropriately trained (which certainly included the 11 but was not just confined to them) could then ‘go’ with the ‘word’ around the empire calling all to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1).

    Thus we hear about ‘Junia’ in Romans who is ‘noted amongst the Apostles. (and the fact that Junia is a female name raises some issues about female leadership in the early church…).

    Paul (from his own testimony) was one of the last to get in on this specific commission (‘as one untimely born’). I like NT Wright’s visual imagery of this phrase referring to a child born by caesarian section, ahead of its ‘natural’ time, with Paul being brought dragging and kicking into this revelation before such appearances (and commissions) ceased.

    As the church progressed and the ‘Apostles’ died off, it’s interesting to see that the early church refrain from using this term as a designation (although the Didache does mention apostle-Prophets) – and I suspect that where it ‘is’ used, it starts to take on the wider meaning of ‘sent one’ which is cognate with our latin term ‘missio’ from which we get missionary. Clearly the Apostles were the carriers and messengers of the Jesus-tradition, and once these traditions had been passed on (and written down) thus the Apostles ‘became’ the tradition they had passed on.

    Certainly in the post-resurrection appearance/post-‘Apostolic’ period (capital A) it becomes the ‘church’ which commissions and sends (certainly at the will of the Spirit but not via the dramatic revealation of the risen Lord himself). This then forms a ‘second order’ of sending or apostleship.

    This then brings us up to today. Clearly no-one is commissioned by the risen Lord directly, as the original ‘Apostles’ were, but ‘many are sent’ through the actions and agencies of the church (at the will and purpose of the Spirit).

    What one calls such people is fairly neutral to me. Missionaries, apostles, evangelists. I tend to see the term as functional rather than titular so don’t really mind what one uses!!

    In the same vein (and on the other side of the street), the modern day function of ‘Bishop’ is also different from the originial function of a primitive church ‘episkopos’ (supervisor), so the correction goes in both directions!!

    This is why I said previously that the modern ‘supervisory’ function of NFI ‘apostles’ actually functions *more* like the modern ‘supervisory’ function of denominational ‘Bishops’ than either roles function like the originals of both their kinds! Obviously the precise ‘workings’ of NFI Aposlte and Anglican bishop are different and have strengths and weaknesses in both directions, but this is helpful to see when both sides slightly wade in to ‘correct’ each other about the ‘proper’ NT church function of ‘Bishops’ and ‘Apostles’!!


  8. Terry Virgo’s book “Does the future have a church?” provides a thorough statement of this view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *