The Old Testament. In the earliest days of the Old Testament, leadership of the people of God was by the family head or patriarch, to whom God spoke his messages.
Civil Leaders. By the time of the exodus, tribal elders were on the scene. We're not told how they were appointed. They served as representatives for the whole nation ( Exod 3:16 ; 4:29 ; 12:21 ), but without any apparent initiative or governing power. On occasion Moses was told by God to assemble them to impart to them, and through them to the people, God's message ( Exod 3:16 ; 4:29 ; 12:21 ; 19:7 ; Joshua 24:1 ). They accompanied Moses and Joshua following the sins of Dathan and Abiram ( Num 16:25 ) and Achan ( Joshua 7:6 ). Moses selected seventy of them to be specially endued with God's Spirit to help share the burden of the people ( Num 11:16-17 ). By the time of the judges and the monarchy there were elders of Israel who met for common decisions, such as the appointment of a king. There were elders in the individual towns ( Judges 11:3-11 ; 1 Sam 16:4 ; 30:26-31 ; 1 Kings 21:8 1 Kings 21:11 ). First Samuel 30:26-31 indicates that the elders of Judah were comprised of the elders of the individual towns, though later Ezekiel speaks of "seventy elders of Israel" ( 8:11-12 ). The local elders were responsible for legal action at the city gate ( Deut 22:15 ; 25:7 ; Ruth 4:1-11 ) in cases of murder ( Deut 19:11-13 ; 21:1-9 ) and in cases dealing with family matters ( 21:18-21 ; 22:13-21 ; 25:5-10 ).
During the exile there were still elders in Judah ( Eze 8:11-12 ). They opposed Jehoiakim, and pled with the people on Jeremiah's behalf ( Jer 26:17 ). In exile also there were elders heading up the community ( Jer 29:1 ; Ezek 8:1 ; 14:1 ; Ezekiel 20:1 Ezekiel 20:3 ). The elders stood at the head of the people in the rebuilding of the temple and even in dealings with the Persian government ( Ezra 5:9 ; Ezra 6:7 Ezra 6:8 Ezra 6:14 ). The system of city elders is evidenced with Ezra resolved to excommunicate those who had married foreign wives ( Ezra 10:8 Ezra 10:14 ). By Nehemiah's time the elders are referred to as the nobility ( Neh 2:16 ; Nehemiah 4:14 Nehemiah 4:19 ; 5:7 ; 7:5 ).
The call for a king came from the people toward the end of Samuel's judgeship. The people were no longer satisfied to have God as their King, and God viewed their request as a rejection of himself ( 1 Sam 8:7 ; 12:12 ). In the end God told Samuel to listen to the people. He anointed Saul and told him that he was anointed by the Lord ( 10:1 ; cf. 12:13 ). Three subsequent errors on Saul's part (chaps. 13, 14, 15) showed that his heart had become proud ( 15:17 ) and he no longer fully obeyed the Lord. The Lord regretted having made him king, and Saul's kingdom was not established forever as it might otherwise have been ( 13:13 ).
In Saul's place God had Samuel anoint David, a man whose perspective was in line with God's ( 13:14 ). With him God made a covenant forever that forecast that any well-being would be by his appointment, and that any necessary correction he would accomplish through their enemies ( 2 Sam 7:9-16 ). Care had been taken already in Deuteronomy to warn future kings against self-indulgence, against lifting themselves up above their fellow countrymen. Pride spelled ruin. On the positive side faith, along with obedience, was determinative for success ( Deut 17:14-20 ). These were the terms of the theocracy. David's son, Solomon, began to rule following his father's footsteps, but in the course of his reign he multiplied for himself horses, wives, and silver and goldall three areas against which Deuteronomy had sounded a warning. His foreign wives turned him away from trusting in God, and for this the Lord said he would tear from him the kingdom and give it to his servant, leaving him but one tribe for his father's sake ( 1 Kings 11:1-13 ; cf. chap. 12 ).
The chronicler is especially careful to point out how the successors in David's line failed to meet the terms of the theocracy. For example, through a prophet Asa was told that if he sought the Lord, he would let him find him; but if he forsook God, God would forsake him ( 2 Chron 15:2 ). Hezekiah sought the Lord with all his heart and prospered ( 31:21 )until he became proud ( 32:25 ). Subsequent humbling postponed God's wrath during Hezekiah's time ( 32:26 ), as it did again near the end of Manasseh's wicked reign ( 33:9-19 ). In summary, God warned the kings again and again for their unfaithfulness, sending them his messengers, the prophets, but they did not listen until finally God moved in wrath to judge them at the hands of the Babylonians ( 36:12-16 ).
When the ten northern tribes seceded from Judah the Davidic covenant did not apply to their kings, but the issue of obedience as outlined in Deuteronomy still obtained. Jeroboam, their first king, set up the calf cult at Dan and Bethel. For this his own family line was blotted off the face of the earth ( 1 Kings 13:33-34 ), and for this eventually the whole kingdom went into captivity ( 2 Kings 17:16-18 ). The kings who followed Jeroboam persisted in his ungodly direction.
After Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, Judah was ruled by governors chosen by Babylon and then Persia, some at least from Judean royal blood (Gedaliah, 1 Kings 25:22 ; Zerubbabel 1 Chron 3:10-19 ). Not that this was so different from the situation just prior to Jerusalem's fallthe kings then, too, sere set up and removed at the will of foreign powers, Jehoiakim favored over his brother by Egypt and Zedekiah over his nephew by Babylon ( 2 Chronicles 36:3 2 Chronicles 36:10 ). Nehemiah's lineage is not recorded. He was recognized by the Persian king for his faithful service as his cupbearer and for his concern for his own people back in Jerusalem. Faith and obedience were still integral to God's blessing on leadership.
Charismatic Leaders. The Old Testament leader par excellence was Moses. Unlike others, God spoke mouth to mouth to him ( Num 12:6-8 ). At the age of forty he expected that his people would recognize him as God's appointed leader to bring their deliverance, but this first initiative was prematurely aborted and he fled the country ( Acts 7:23-29 ). Forty years later he was clearly called of God, and this time he returned to Egypt and first gained the support of the elders of Israel ( Exod 4:29-31 ). Through signs and wonders his own people and also the people of Egypt came to recognize him as God's man. At Sinai the Law and the tabernacle instructions were given to Moses to pass along to the people. He acted on behalf of God at the installation of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. On occasion God needed to vindicate Moses' leadership before the people (Exod 16; Num 12-13). God viewed their grumbling against Moses as grumbling against himself ( Exod 16:7-8 ). Conversely, Moses was held accountable when he broke faith and did not represent God as holy in the sight of the people ( Num 20:12 ). For this he was disallowed entrance into the promised land. He did actively prepare a successor, Joshua, and the people to accept him as their leader under God ( Deut 31:2-8 ).
Joshua began his term of leadership with a challenge from God to take courage. If he obeyed carefully God would grant him success in taking over the land of the Canaanites ( Joshua 1:2-9 ). Having accomplished that goal by the end of his life, he apparently did not see a need to prepare a successor.
The judges were charismatic leaders raised up by God ( Judges 2:16 ) to deliver his people. Their work was both military and supervisory in kind, and though not all were involved in the military, this is the aspect that comprises much of the biblical record and therefore for which they are best known. Likely their supervisory activities normally resulted from their military success (Deborah is an exception). The judges seem to have been engaged in supervisory activity; no military involvement is mentioned for four of them. Their area of jurisdiction was local, sometimes extending to several tribes, and their judgeships apparently overlapped (e.g., Jephthah and Samson, Judges 10:7 ). Though the law did not prescribe the office of judge, it was approved by God for Scripture regularly states that he raised up the judge ( Judges 3:9 Judges 3:15 , etc. ), and at least four were specially enabled by the Holy Spirit ( 3:10 ; 6:34 ; 11:29 ; 13:25 ; Judges 14:6 Judges 14:19 ; 15:14 ). None of them appointed successors to carry on their work. In the two instances where sons attempted to carry on in their father's footsteps, they did not succeed (Gideon's son, Abimelech; Samuel's sons).
Jeremiah 18:18 speaks of the priests, the prophets, and the counselors. At David's court there were permanent counselors ( 1 Chron 27:32-33 ). These men were recognized and chosen for their wisdom. It was said of Ahithophel that his advice was as if one inquired of the word of God.
The prophets/prophetesses were God's mouth to the people similarly as Aaron was Moses' mouth ( Exod 4:16 ). They spoke out to kings, princes, priests, false prophets, and people, and even to the nations. Elisha took God's message to Syria ( 2 Kings 8 ), Jonah to Nineveh, and Ezekiel preached among the exiles in Babylon. But most of their attention was focused on Israel. God sent prophets to sound a warning before the northern kingdom fell to Assyria (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah) and before Babylon took Judah (Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). Since these recorded their messages future generations had to take notice that they had been warned.
How the prophets were received was in direct proportion to the Godward bent of their audience, the rulers in particular. Samuel's influence with the people was strong enough that Saul didn't think of harming him. David bowed to Nathan's condemnation. Isaiah and Hezekiah worked well together, Jeremiah mourned Josiah's death, and Haggai and Zechariah collaborated with Zerubbabel to get the temple rebuilt. But others fared worse, for example, Elijah with Ahab and Jezebel, Amos with Jeroboam and Amaziah, priest of the Bethel calf cult, and Jeremiah with Josiah's three reigning sons and grandson. It's difficult to be a leader if the people are unwilling to follow.
Religious Leaders. The official leaders in Israel were the priests, headed by the high priest. Their office was hereditary, with the eldest living son of the high priest continuing his father's position. While God charged all Israel to be a people that functioned in a priestly ministry to the world ( Exod 19:6 ), it was Aaron and his family who were consecrated to do the service at the tabernacle ( Lev 8 ). Their ordination ceremony was repeated on seven successive dayssurely an indication to all that they were specially set apart for their priestly ministry.
The functions of the priests were several. Primarily they were to mediate between God and man. By officiating in the offerings God had prescribed, they led the people in acquiring atonement for their sin. Second, in their person and in their dress they were to represent the holiness of God to the people. Their garments were "for glory and for beauty, " the high priest's especially, and on his mitre was a gold band engraved "holiness to Yahweh" ( Exodus 28:2 Exodus 28:36 ). Conversely when he represented the people to God on the Day of Atonement, he donned plain white garments. Physical wholeness and exemplary conduct were requisites for the priesthood ( Lev 21-22:9 ). Third, the priests were to render the will of God by means of the Urim and Thummim worn by the high priest in his breastplate ( Num 27:21 ). Finally, it was their responsibility to instruct the laity in the distinction between holy and profane, clean and unclean ( Lev 10:10-11 ).
From the day of the first Passover in Egypt the firstborn of every household specially belonged to God. After the golden calf incident it was the tribe of Levi who stood out to count themselves on the Lord's side ( Exod 32:26 ), and thereafter they took the place of the firstborn ( Num 8:14-19 ). At their induction they were sprinkled and offered as a wave offeringa kind of living sacrifice.
Their function was twofold. They were to assist their brothers, the priests, in the service of the tabernacle from age thirty to fifty ( 4:3 ). Second, they were to keep watch over the tabernaclethat is, in effect, to do guard duty from the age of one month old and upward by living around the tabernacle. Their dwellings thus formed the buffer zone to prevent others from incurring God's wrath by approaching too nearly to this holy spot ( 1:53 ; 3:28 ; 8:19 ).
The New Testament. In New Testament times there were no longer the civil leaders of the Old Testament theocracy. There were official religious leaders, but their office was no longer hereditary. And there were charismatic religious leaders, though none of these bore the prominence of the prophet-statesmen of the Old Testament. This may be explained by the fact that the official leaders were to be chosen on recognition of their godliness and gifts, quite a different system than the Old Testament priesthood. The Jewish priesthood continued in New Testament times, but the church and its government evolved outside the purview of Judaism. In fact, the New Testament seems to have resisted using clerical words for their ministers.
Religious Leaders. The twelve apostles were chosen not in recognition of special spiritual endowment but solely on Jesus' initiative. Their purpose was to be with him and then to go out to preach ( Mark 3:14 ) and to do miracles ( Matt 10:7 ). After the ascension those Twelve who had been closest to Jesus during his life now became his representatives, assuming an authoritative position in the company of Christians. New converts early came under their teaching ministry ( Acts 2:42 ). They continued to do miracles of healing and exorcism of demons ( Acts 5:12 ; 2 Cor 12:12 ). Administratively they oversaw the common fund ( Acts 4:37 until the job was too big and was transferred to others [ 2 Cor 6:1-6 ]). They exercised discipline on occasion ( 5:1-11 ) and likely led in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. When problems arose they took the lead in their resolution, including the elders in the process. With the church expanding to other areas their attention involved the oversight of those groups also ( 8:14 ; 9:32 ). Galatians 1:19 assumes that most of them are out of town (Jerusalem), presumably on missionary endeavors. Their commitment was to the congregation of believers, not to Peter.
The substitute for Judas was chosen by lot under the direction of the Holy Spirit and also with the qualification of being an eyewitness from John's baptism till the ascension ( Acts 1:21-22 ). After this no effort was made to select successors for those who died ( 12:2 ).
As the apostles and missionary prophets and teachers died off or moved on, there was left a need for someone or some persons to be the focal point for the community life of the local group of believers. These leaders were referred to as presbuteroi [presbutevrion] (elders) and episkopoi [ejpivskopo"] (overseers/bishops). Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders to shepherd the flock over which God's Spirit had made them overseers ( Acts 20:28 ), yet in verse 17 they are called elders. Their status was "elder" and their Job was to oversee.
The elders are first mentioned in Acts 11:30. In the narrative concerning the Council in Jerusalem they are always named in conjunction with the apostles as the decision makers ( Acts 15:2 Acts 15:4 Acts 15:6 Acts 15:22-23 ). They functioned as a supreme court for the entire church. Out beyond Jerusalem elders were appointed in the churches founded by Paul and Barnabas already on their first missionary journey ( 14:23 ; cf. Titus 1:5-9 ).
The episcopate was a distinct office that one might seek ( 1 Tim 3:1 ) and that was to be done voluntarily and eagerly, not for gain. The qualifications were listed, though not the duties. Moral reliability came firstthe overseer needed to live an honorable and exemplary life, avoiding excesses. Then there must be proof in his own home of his ability to lead the life of the congregationhigh value was placed on a well-ordered and hospitable home. The overseer should be an apt teacher. He must be mature and not susceptible to pride, which comes all too naturally to those who do well. Finally, he must be without reproach according to the standards of the non-Christian world so as to be kept away from scandal.
In the first mention of persons called deacons ( Php 1:1 ), we find them linked with the overseers and mentioned after them. Their qualifications are listed in 1 Timothy 3 after those of the overseer. The second listing is evidence that the two are distinct offices. While many qualifications are the same for both, the deacons need not be apt to teach, but are not to be double-tongued or greedyqualities very apt for those who visit in many homes and who have the administration of funds. Their capacity to serve as deacons was a gift from God ( 1 Cor 12:28 ). Their function seems to carry through the original meaning of their name (didaskein, "to wait at table") as it is used in Acts 6:2. There the Twelve led the congregation to select seven men for that Job (though Stephen and Philip at least were also known as preachers and teachers of the Word). The church seems to use this term to express generally the same love and care of others. In the early Jerusalem church the apostles yet carried out the functions that would be taken up by the overseers/elders, and accordingly the need for deacons became the first obvious vacancy in church community leadership.
Along with the deacons there were also deaconessesthe first mentioned is Phoebe ( Rom 16:1 ). The question is open whether she served in the office of deaconess or whether her service to the church community is simply being referred to. Likewise it is not clear whether 1 Timothy 3:11 refers to deaconesses or to the wives of deacons.
Charismatic Leaders. In the New Testament there is not a clear delineation between official leaders and charismatic leaders for the office was by the very nature of it intended for persons who were recognized for, among other qualifications, their spiritual gifts.
Though prophets ranked in importance second only to the apostles ( 1 Cor 12:28-31 ; Eph 4:11 ), none carried the role of statesmen as did Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The prophets' ministry included revelation ( 1 Cor 14:29-32 ), prediction, identifying individuals for specific ministry ( Acts 13:1-3 ), and bestowing on them the spiritual gifts that would enable them to carry out these tasks ( 1 Tim 4:14 ). Prophecy was intended for the edification, exhortation, and consolation of the church community ( 1 Cor 14:3 ; cf. Acts 15:32 ).
Theological Dimensions of Leadership in the Bible. The Scriptures indicate that there is no authority except what has been established by God ( Rom 13:1 ). He sets over the realm of humankind whomever he wishes ( Dan 4:32 ; 5:21 ) to be his minister to us for good. Moses and Joshua were assigned their leadership by God ( Exod 4 ; Joshua 1 ); Aaron and his sons were singled out for the priesthood ( Exod 28:1 ); the judges were raised up by God ( Judges 2:16 ). Saul was anointed by the Lord ( 1 Sam 10:1 ); David and his line were chosen by God ( 13:14 ; 2 Sam 7 ); the prophets were called of God, like the apostles. The capacity to serve in the church is described as a gift from God ( 1 Cor 12:28 ). Promotion, and by inference the absence of it, comes neither from the east nor from the west but from the Lord ( Psalm 75:6-7 ).
The role of leadership was not intended for self-advantage but for service ( Luke 22:26 ). Accordingly Israel's kings were not to lift themselves up above their countrymen ( Deut 17:20 ). Paul saw his apostleship as a call to sacrificial labor rather than an occasion for glorying in the office ( 1 Cor 15:9-10 ). The elders were to shepherd the flockto care self-sacrificially for the souls of the faithful, giving account to God ( Heb 13:17 ; 1 Peter 5:2-3 ). Gifts were to be used in serving one another as good stewards of God's grace (4:10). When Korah was not content to serve in the secondary role of leadership appointed him, he was rebuked and judged ( Num 16:9-33 ). James and John likewise needed to learn the humility of serving ( Mark 10:35-45 ).
Leaders are accountable to God ( Heb 13:17 ). The maxim "to whom much has been given will much be required" ( Luke 12:48 ) is nowhere more evident than in Moses' disobedience at Meribah ( Num 20:12 ). The same maxim was applied to teachers in the New Testament ( James 3:1 ).
Bibliography. H. W. Beyer, TDNT, 2:81-93, 599-622; K. O. Gangel, Chr Ed Jour 12 (1991): 13-31; E. F. Harrison, EDT, pp. 70-72; G. W. Knight, Cov Sem Rev. 1 (1975): 111-16; A. Lamorte and G. F. Hawthorne, EDT, 2:86-87; W. H. Mare, JETS13(1970): 229-39.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Leadership'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".