#tbt 6 – The Early Church Leadership Structure

Throwback Thursdays (#tbt), a look back at the story of the Christian Church, seeing what we can learn.

As time went on, the early church felt that they needed some kind of structure and organisation.

Around 60AD three titles were beginning to be used for leaders within the church. They didn't invent words. They simply used titles that were already used for similar roles outside of the church. Let's learn some Greek shall we?

Episkopos – nowadays we have use the name 'bishop'. The word meant 'overseer' or something like a 'foreman'. These people would oversee a few churches, most of which being under 100 people.

Diakonos – what we now call 'deacon', simply meaning 'servant'.

Presbuteros – what we now call an Elder. This originally was the name of 'a man of standing' in the community.

Giving people names and titles can be dodgy. Some let it go to their head and it can become a bit of an ego trip. But when you see what these roles looked like in the early church, you quickly see that they were hugely interchangeable. In reality, no matter what the title of the person was, there as a strong sense and attitude in them that all roles were servants, meeting the needs of others. Part of the bishops role early on was to look after the poor and needy, including ensuring that these people have somewhere to sit! If there wasn't a seat available the bishop would give up his seat. In reality however the roles of the bishops and deacons were very interchangeable. Not just the bishops would do this, but many would. There was a sense of all getting “stuck in”, and just cracking on with what needed doing. The modern equivalent would be anyone who spots a dirty toilet in the church grabs some rubber gloves and gets it sorted, regardless of title, position, salary or length of time serving.

No sense of a celebrity leadership culture here.

In fact, far from a celebrity culture, many people had trouble leading the church to take any notice of the bishops at all! There actually seemed to be a lack of respect and honour of the overseers. One of the early books (called the 'Didache') advising the early followers of Jesus urged Christians not to dishonour and ignore them, but treat them with honour as they would the prophets and teachers of the time.

So what can we learn from this? In some sense the church had it right by not putting leaders on some kind of celebrity or 'know-it-all' pedestal. Titles are not everything. No matter what position you may hold, no matter what name or job title you are given, you are called to serve. The early church seemed to get this. It's not about trying to look great or get 'promoted through the ranks'.

However, the early church weren't perfect. Dishonouring and not listening or following our leaders is no way to help grow the Kingdom of God. Sometimes we can be put off by structure and organisation, as if it is somehow against the movement of the Holy Spirit in church. The reality is, we need leadership, leaders that serve in the right attitude, but lead nonetheless. Taking the reins, paving the way, pioneering new ideas, helping keep priorities in the right place and giving direction to directionless groups, not being afraid to make decisions, big and small. We need leaders who can lead us in living in step with the Holy Spirit.

What can you do today to honour your leaders? What can you do in your role/title/position in the church to serve where is needed? What does it look like for you to 'do what is necessary' for those you lead? The church doesn't need positions and titles, it needs servants.



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