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 Issues | Ministry | Women and ordained ministry

Part 1 : The Nature of Christian Leadership

What can we learn from the Bible about the nature of Christian leadership and how does this relate to Anglican ministry today?


In the Old Testament Church leaders were of great importance. Priests, prophets, kings and judges were all of significance in the life of the people of God and the Old Testament draws attention to many particular, and sometimes peculiar, leaders.

It might be thought that in the New Testament Church this would not be so. We have no need for a King because Christ is our King and indeed we are all as Christians equal - Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. We have no need for a Priest because the self-sacrifice of Christ, our High Priest, fulfilled the sacrificial system and now all Christians are priests - a holy priesthood. We have no need for Prophets because the Holy Spirit has been given to all. Nevertheless leadership is a key feature of the New Testament Church.

Jesus chose for himself twelve Apostles. There was a wider group of disciples, men and women, yet the twelve had a special role. Of those twelve there were three, Peter, James and John, who were particularly close, and these three were privileged to be the sole witnesses of Jesus' Transfiguration. Peter and John continued to be key leaders in the post-Pentecost Church and eventually alongside them was James the brother of the Lord. When we turn to the letters of Paul we see that he was recognised by others as a leader (sometimes he had to remind people why!) and he both appointed and nurtured other leaders. Leadership was clearly part of God's plan and purpose for his people. Leadership was not a late or regrettable development.

It is in the pastoral epistles, where the church is moving from first generation to second and third generation believers, that we find guidance on what the continuing pattern of leadership should be. Thus, for example in Titus chapter 1, Titus had been instructed to appoint elders (presbuterous) (verse 5) who are also described as bishops or overseers (episcopos) (verse 7). Within a few more generations, if the writings of Ignatius of Antioch are genuine, then a pattern had developed of a Bishop together with Presbyters and Deacons. Though on the whole such Bishops were the equivalent of the Rector of a thriving market town with perhaps a church plant and a few villages under its care. Ignatius did not oversee a hundred churches and 10,000 members like many modern Bishops.

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The nature of leadership.
There were to be leaders in the Christian Church, but what was the nature of their leadership? The following is not exhaustive, but it covers the main roles.

Leadership is to be modelled on Christ (1 Cor 11.1). This must shape every other facet of Christian leadership.

  • Leaders are to be servants (eg. 2 Ti 2.24). Jesus gave this model particular shape when he washed his disciples feet. Though the leaders of the gentiles lord it over them, that is not to be the way with the leaders of the people of Christ. The leader is to be the servant of all.
  • Leaders are shepherds (Acts 20.28). They are to take heed to the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. Like the Good shepherd himself the leaders must feed and nurture both sheep and lambs.
  • Therefore, the leader is also a teacher (1 Ti 3.2). When Paul lists what is required in a leader it is all personal qualities together with the ability to teach.

The above can be thought of as positive roles but there are two further roles which we might be tempted to think of more negatively.

  • Leaders are to govern as stewards (Tit 1.7), they have authority. It is generally the leaders in the Church who make the decisions (Acts 15.6) though with the whole church (Acts 15.22). Organizational dynamics mean that this must usually be so.
  • Leaders are also to discipline. This can be an area of great difficulty yet they must confront wrong (Acts 5.3, Tit 1.13). Discipline is also part of the ongoing work of teaching the scriptures since in doing so the teacher will necessarily rebuke and correct.

These tasks of leadership are many and diverse and in the scriptures they are not confined to a few. There were then, as there are now, diverse ways in which leadership was exercised. Nevertheless, in the New Testament church and beyond there were particular people - the elders / presbyters - who had a particular role of leadership. As our practice has developed in the Church of England it is priests/presbyters who correspond most closely to the biblical role. Before leaving the nature of leadership it needs to be said that there is one final feature of Christian leadership which is also modelled on Christ - bearing the cost. Whether in small measure or large, leaders will have to drink the cup of Christ (Mt 20.22). Indeed, history shows that when the Church has been persecuted it is often the leaders who have suffered first for the name of Christ.

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Leaders today.
In scripture the primary focus of leadership is not on Church government but on service, pastoring the flock and teaching. At its best in history, that is what Christian ministry, in its many and various forms, has aspired to. There is therefore much to be concerned about today. Many of the models of leadership being promoted today do not have the primary roots in the scriptures. Some seem to treat the Christian minister as the same as a manager in a business, whilst others give all the appearance of seeing ministry as a spiritualised form of Social Work. We are in danger of borrowing too much from the world around us - Jesus warned his disciples about this (Mt 20.25) - when our primary model must be Christ. The temptation is to take on the models of leadership used in professions or in industry. There is much talk today of contracts, appraisal, career paths, remuneration packages. Sometimes when churches advertise for their next minister it sounds more like a specification for a managing director of a company than for a minister of the gospel. If these things are of any importance they must be secondary and those who lead should be more concerned with imitating Christ - being servants, shepherds, teachers.


See also Wider Leadership (Bishops)

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Part 2 : Biblical teaching on gender and ministry – is it still relevant?

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