An etymological approach to the biblical definition in the context of its practice in communities of believers (local churches)
We don’t find the word leader in the manuscripts of the biblical texts. It’s one of those terms the church has borrowed from the business, political, and social worlds in order to define a function that exists among us as a community of believers and is clear in Scripture’s teachings.
We may borrow many modern terms to refer to aspects of our life (being) and ministry (doing) in Christ as a community of faith, but those terms often carry definitions that, while good, are incomplete when it comes to describing and shaping our nature and mission as a church or the nature and practice of certain functions within the community of faith.
As with other terms we have borrowed but which are not ours, we find ourselves needing to redefine them according to Scripture so that when we use them, they truly instruct us and the church on how to behave, how to be, and how to act.
The way we define a term shapes the way we act. Team is one of those terms. And it is clear that leader and leadership are other such terms.
The Etymology and Origin of the Words Leader and Leadership
Leader is a word that comes from Old English and has cognates in several languages. It is defined as a person who guides or directs a group. Leadership is the position or function of the leader.
According to Webster, the word leader appeared around the fourteenth century, and leadership came into use around the mid-eighteenth century.
The Bible and the Words Leader and Leadership
In recent versions of the Bible, the word leader is used in the Old Testament for words whose literal translation would be prince, rulers, chiefs, chieftain.
In the New Testament, the word leader is used to translate the Greek words whose literal translation would be guides, rulers, chiefs, bishops, and elders.
To understand and define what we mean when we talk about a leader or refer to leadership in the church, we need to define those words according to the biblical narrative and not the political or business narrative.
To that end, and understanding that this module “is a study and analysis of the biblical foundation and the practical expression of leading the flock of God as the local church,” we must define leader and leading based on the terms used in the New Testament to refer to those charged with presiding over the church.
Those charged to “lead” the church were called:
- Elders (Gk – presbuteros: older in age. The term was borrowed from the Jewish synagogue’s organizational schema. Ex: Acts 14:23)
- Bishops (Gk – episkope: inspection, superintendence, the office thereof. Ex: Acts 1:20; 1 Timothy 3:1)
- Those who rule over (Gk – hegeomai: lead the way, preside, be in charge. Ex: Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24)
Elder (presbuteros) was the Jewish name and bishop (episkope) the Greek name for the same position.
Now, if Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders [presbuteros] in every church” (Acts 14:23, NKJV) and Paul specified that “if a man desires the position of a bishop [episkope], he desires a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1), what did the original readers understand?
The position of elders (presbuteros) among the Jews is defined by two terms in the Gospels and the book of Acts:
- Rulers: Gk – archiereus (S. 749), first in rank or power.
- Chief: Gk – protos (S. 4413), foremost in time, place, order, importance.
“Then the high priest [archiereus] and the chief men [protos] of the Jews informed him against Paul; and they petitioned him.” – Acts 25:2
Then Paul refers to the elders of the church as:
- Those who were “of certain reputation”: Gk – dokeo (S. 1380). That is, others think of them positively as if approving of how they are and what they do.
- Pillars: Gk – stulos (S. 4769), from the root word stuo, to stiffen (to harden or make firm in consistency), thus to sustain, support; hence the word pillar.
“And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation [dokeo]… But from those who seemed to be something [dokeo]—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man—for those who seemed to be something [dokeo] added nothing to me… and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars [stulos], perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”
Galatians 2:2, 6, 9
A Biblical Definition of Leader in Relation to the Local Church
Considering the terms used in the New Testament to refer to those who directed or presided over the church and the qualifiers with which they appear in the texts, we can come up with definitions for leader and leadership that align with Scripture in terms of the position and function of leading in the church.
Dictionaries define a leader as a person who directs or guides a group. But for us, leaders in the church are those who have the office (episkope) of presiding (hegeomai) foremost in rank and authority (presbuteros). This is a place from which:
- They are chief because they are “of reputation” and the community of believers values what they believe and think and pays attention to them.
- They are a pillar because they sustain and support the community of believers.
We must add that the New Testament places these leaders in a space of leadership that is:
- Pluralist – it is always a position with others. When these leaders are named in relation to their position, it is always in the plural and with other leaders. Ex: Acts 15; Galatians 2.
- Reproducible – it is always an office for which they are discipling others.