Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

As promised, this week we begin looking at our historical sources for the life and teachings of Jesus. Which ones do we trust, and which ones should we reject? To help us understand why followers of Christ refused to accept some gospels we need to understand why they embraced the ones they did. Once we’re familiar with the standards they used in evaluating the Gospels that became part of the New Testament, we’ll be able to better consider why they rejected the “alternative” gospels.

(A good preliminary question is: How can we even know we’re reading what they originally wrote in these Gospels? I’ve addressed this previously in the post: The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote? The New Testament is actually the most well-attested document we have from antiquity.)

Historical context
You may have heard the claim that the Roman emperor Constantine is the one who decided which books would be included in the Bible and which ones would not. This idea may have spiced up a fictional novel or two, but it has no basis in reality. The truth is by the second century church leaders were already listing the books they considered to be Scripture. These lists aren’t exactly the same, but they’re strikingly similar. Christians immediately accepted most of the New Testament books as divinely inspired, including the letters of Paul and—most relevant to our current study—the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Now we’re not yet trying to determine whether these Gospels were actually divinely produced or not, just that the early Christians accepted them as the definitive accounts of Jesus. I should clarify there were a few books (especially 2 Peter and 3 John) that had to be discussed awhile before they were universally accepted. This hesitation seemed to be mostly due to a lack of familiarity with certain books in some geographical regions. By the fourth century there was widespread agreement among church leaders as to which books were authentically biblical. When leaders later agreed in various councils on a list of scriptural books, they were simply affirming what had been commonly accepted for a long time. Most important for our discussion is the observation that the four biblical Gospels were never in doubt and were accepted from the very beginning.

So why were these books embraced by Christian believers? What criteria were used to evaluate the authenticity of Gospel accounts of Jesus?

When was it written?
The early Christians wanted to rely on the earliest, most reliable accounts of Jesus. This makes perfect sense to us today. The four biblical Gospels were all written in the first century. Everyone agrees that John’s Gospel was the last written. Most scholars believe Mark’s was first, with Matthew and Luke following soon after. There is compelling evidence suggesting Mark’s Gospel was written as early as the 40s AD, which would have been very soon after Jesus’ death and the early spread of the Christian faith. Many scholars don’t accept this date, but most feel Mark was written by the 60s and all agree his Gospel was finished by the 70s AD. If an alleged account of Jesus was written too late to be credible, it would have been viewed with suspicion. The New Testament Gospels passed the test of being written early enough to be authentic.

Who wrote it?
The early Christians were very concerned with how apostolic the writings were. Remember the apostles were men Jesus had personally commissioned to be his formal representatives or ambassadors. They were to speak his words with his authority. We know this understanding of the prominent role of the apostles of Christ goes back to the earliest followers of Jesus after his death and resurrection. So these believers wanted to accept only Gospel accounts and letters written by the apostles or people closely associated with them. And the content had to have the ring of authenticity as apostolic writing.

This doesn’t mean they were desiring only books written by the “superstars.” They weren’t demanding the sensational, but the authentic. We can see this by looking at the accepted authors for the four biblical Gospels. Only John was well-known as an apostle, although he had nothing like the notoriety of a Peter. Matthew was also an apostle (and both he and John were eyewitnesses of the events of which they wrote), but he was neither famous nor prominent. He didn’t have the name recognition that someone would want if they were marketing a Gospel of Christ. And Mark and Luke were not widely known at all. They were both closely associated with apostles, and were known by the churches where they had ministered, but their names were definitely not sensational attention-getters.

The relative obscurity of these Gospel authors testify to their authenticity. There would have been no reason to attribute these writings to these little-known authors unless they actually wrote these Gospels. And one of the fastest ways to get your writing rejected was to attribute it to another (usually famous) author. These kinds of writing are called “pseudonymous,” and were considered acceptable by most people in the first few centuries after Christ—but not by Christians considering whether a writing should be accepted as definitive Scripture. If they became suspicious a writing was not really written by the alleged author, it would be immediately disqualified.

This doesn’t mean a letter or gospel written in someone else’s name couldn’t be produced with good intentions (possibly to honor an admired apostle), or that it couldn’t contain any material that might be spiritually helpful. But these early believers refused to accept pseudonymous writings as part of the New Testament Scriptures. The biblical Gospels were not only written early enough to be authentic, but the early Christians verified them as being written by men who were either apostles or closely associated with the apostles.

Had it been widely accepted and used by the churches?
Were many churches, over a broad geographical span, actually using this writing? Were church leaders universally accepting this writing as apostolic? Were pastoral leaders invested in studying and teaching this writing? Did it have the ring of apostolic truth to them? Was there general agreement that the content of this writing was in harmony with other accepted apostolic teaching?

These questions were commonly asked. While some books, such as 2 Peter and Revelation, took longer to reach this kind of universal usage (which is why their inclusion in the New Testament was discussed longer than the rest), the four Gospels were widely used and accepted from extremely early in the history of the Christian faith. There was never any controversy among Christians as to whether Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should be accepted as authentic, reliable (even inspired) accounts of Jesus Christ.

We haven’t established yet whether we should accept these New Testament Gospels as historically reliable accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. But we have seen the reasons why the early Christians accepted the four biblical Gospels as genuine. So why didn’t they accept other writings that claimed to be gospel accounts of Jesus? What were the problems with these “alternative” gospels? We’ll look at this next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels? [see above]

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

Why we can trust the Bible

If I asked you, “Why do you believe the Bible?” some of you might respond by sharing your personal experiences, how the Holy Spirit confirmed the truth of God’s Word within your spirit. You might describe how he helped you to just know that the Scriptures are the infallible Word of God. I have no interest in challenging this kind of assurance because I know the Spirit does work like this in our hearts and minds. But is this the only reason for trusting the Bible?

Imagine if you were talking with a Mormon. He asks you why you believe the Bible is the Word of God, and so you share your Spirit-given assurance. He responds by telling you about how he prayed to God to let him know if the Book of Mormon was really true, and how he felt a “burning in his bosom” from God that assured him the Book of Mormon was indeed the Word of God. What now? Do your spiritual experiences cancel out each other? Are both conclusions true (even though they contradict each other)? It seems we need some objective criteria in seeking to determine the validity of the Bible.

Start with Jesus
In establishing the authority of Scripture in the life of the believer, I don’t begin with the Bible itself, but with Jesus. The historic Christian faith is based on the person of Jesus Christ. And even without an inerrant Bible, we can have complete faith in Christ. For instance, we have very convincing historical evidence confirming not only the existence of Jesus, but the historical events of his ministry, crucifixion, burial and physical resurrection. [For more on this, you can see my series on the historical Jesus, beginning with In search of Jesus. I’ve neglected this series for too long, but hope to add to it soon.]

Many scholars who study Jesus and early Christianity don’t believe the New Testament is divinely inspired or infallible, but most of them still accept the New Testament Gospels as generally reliable historical sources. Not only do we know historically that the earliest Christians worshiped Jesus as God, but we’re also challenged by Jesus’ own teachings as recorded by people who heard him. These statements are so striking they’ve caused people such as CS Lewis to make observations like this one:

I am trying here to prevent the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis later concluded: “Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

[I realize I’ve just barely scratched the surface regarding the historical evidence for Jesus, and that I haven’t addressed here any of the counter arguments. This is why I’m devoting an entire series to this topic. I would encourage you to be clear about what you believe about Jesus before tackling the exact nature of Scripture. I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus, not the other way around.]

I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus.

But how is this emphasis on Jesus relevant to our current questions regarding the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture? Well, if we accept the New Testament Gospels as generally historically reliable (as most scholars do), and if we’re convinced by the historical evidence concerning who Jesus was and what he did, and if we want to follow Jesus and pattern our lives after him, then what Jesus believed and taught about the Scriptures becomes incredibly important. And we get a clear picture of his views on the pages of the New Testament Gospels.

Jesus’ view of Scripture
It doesn’t take long in our reading of the Gospels before we see how Jesus consistently relied on and appealed to the Scriptures. When he is tempted repeatedly by Satan in the wilderness, each time he responds with the words of Scripture (Matthew 4:1-11).  We see this appeal to the authority of Scripture in his frequent challenge “Have you not read . . . [e.g. Matthew 12:3; 22:31; Mark 12:10].”

When Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees, he responds by telling them, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures [Matthew 12:29].” He goes on to quote a specific passage of Scripture and use this passage to teach definitively about the resurrection from the dead and the nature of God. In Matthew 15:1-9, Jesus challenges an unbiblical practice of the Pharisees, saying, “You cancel the Word of God for the sake of your own tradition.” In other words, he uses the Scriptures to determine the validity of someone else’s spiritual practice. In John 10:22-42, Jesus quotes a certain passage of Scripture, emphasizes a single, specific word, and then insists that “the Scriptures cannot be altered.”

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he spoke to two disciples who didn’t realize who he was. Finally, Jesus lovingly rebuked their hopelessness:

“You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24:25-27 

Over and over again, we see the place of absolute trustworthiness and authority the Scriptures held in the life and ministry of Jesus. One could be excused for describing Jesus’ view of the Scriptures as “evangelical.” It seems apparent that we should follow him in his devotion to the Scriptures.

Jesus’ apostles
In Matthew 10:1 (and parallel passages), Jesus chooses 12 of his followers to be his apostles. Later, Paul and James are also described as apostles of Christ. What does it mean to be an apostle? One aspect of their ministry is fairly common to us today. We’re very familiar with someone representing and speaking for another person or group, and even exercising authority in their name. If a US ambassador or the Secretary of State speaks to a foreign government in an official capacity, everyone understands they speak with the authority of the US president.

This is what the apostles were; they were official, personally-commissioned represent-atives of Jesus Christ. They taught and wrote his words with his authority. This is intrinsic to the role of the apostle, and it was universally understood in the 1st century church. This is why, in their letters, both Paul and Peter identify themselves as apostles of Christ. This is why they write with authority, instructing the believers regarding salvation and the Christian life.

This is why Paul could remind the Corinthians that what he wrote was a command from the Lord himself (1 Corinthians 14:37). This is why he explains how God was revealing his eternal plan through his apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:1-5). This is why they could make demands in the name of Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:6; Philemon 1:8). This is why, though Paul sought to lead in humility and gentleness, he makes clear that he will exercise his apostolic authority for the sake of the flock (2 Corinthians 13:2-10). This is why they could decisively and authoritatively correct false teaching (for a clear example of this, see the entire letter to the Galatians). And this why they could praise the Thessalonians with these words:

Therefore, we never stop thanking God that when you received his message from us, you didn’t think of our words as mere human ideas. You accepted what we said as the very word of God—which, of course, it is. And this word continues to work in you who believe.

1 Thessalonians 1:13

And the Thessalonians weren’t alone in this. From the very beginning, the followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [Acts 2:42].” Years later, Peter would write this about the letters of Paul:

This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.

2 Peter 3:15-16

Did you notice how Peter includes Paul’s letters with “other parts of Scripture”? The earliest believers universally followed this devotion to, and adherence of, these apostolic writings, viewing them as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture.

The Bible’s claims about itself
The Old Testament is filled with strong claims about its own authority. But let’s look at two claims from the New Testament:

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, these prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.

2 Peter 1:20-21

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

Now, don’t misunderstand. We’re not saying we have to believe the Bible is the Word of God because it says it’s the Word of God. We don’t want to return to the circular reasoning we discussed a few weeks ago. But the Bible does make some very strong claims about itself. These claims challenge us just as the statements of Jesus challenge us. These claims demand that we make a tough choice: Is the Bible what it claims to be, or not?

If these claims are wrong, they’re either the diabolical rantings of 1st century charlatans, or the grandiose fantasies of well-intentioned, but self-deluded, fanatics. The idea that the Scriptures are not truly the inspired, inerrant Word of God, but that they’re still somehow spiritually beneficial to us and even authoritative for the church is ultimately incoherent and nonsensical. To paraphrase Lewis, the biblical authors have not left that open to us. They did not intend to.

If the Scriptures are neither evil spiritual manipulation
nor wide-eyed fairy tales,
then they must be what they claim to be—the Word of God.

The internal consistency of the Scriptures
Imagine trying to compile writings on a single theological subject from a 100-year span, all by authors who were native English-speakers and who were educated at Oxford. Would anyone mistake these writings for the work of a single author? Would these works even fit well within a single compilation?

The Bible was written in three different languages; on three different continents; by more than 40 authors of incredibly varying educational, social and cultural backgrounds; over a period of 1,500 years. And yet it uncannily seems to be the product of a single, unifying mind. And this perception isn’t diminished by in-depth study. No, the more one digs below the surface in the Scriptural texts, the more the cohesive nature of Scripture is hard to deny. Though there were many human authors responsible for the biblical books, it’s difficult to escape the guiding hand of a divine Author who stands behind the whole. The more one studies, the more unavoidable the conclusion that the Author of Genesis is also the Author of Revelation.

But what about things in Scripture that do seem inconsistent? What about passages that appear to be problematic? We’ll look at some of these issues next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible [see above]

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

Review: “The Biblical Role of Elders for Today’s Church” by Larry Kreider, Ron Myer, Steve Prokopchak, and Brian Sauder

This book was written by leaders of a specific church movement: Dove Christian Fellowship International. They write from a somewhat Pentecostal/Charismatic viewpoint (expecting elders to have experienced a distinct baptism of the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation, etc.), although this perspective doesn’t overwhelm the book. They caution against the abuse of prophetic utterances, and these warnings could be helpful for some churches. They have quite a bit to say about “five-fold ministry.” And they include their insights on current apostolic ministry, but without clarifying how, or if, apostles today are to be distinguished from 1st century Apostles of Jesus Christ. This could easily become problematic.

The bulk of their work, however, is devoted to the ministry of church elders. The authors provide insights that can be helpful for many readers. Very quickly, they establish their position as that of a plurality of elders for each church. (Curiously, this view contradicts that of C. Peter Wagner, who they approvingly quote in the same chapter.) They discuss the co-equality of these elders. They explain how they prefer to use terminology that will accurately describe biblical church leadership.

But then, in the first few pages, the authors interject the role of “senior elder”—a role not taught or even mentioned in Scripture. And, unfortunately, this principle is foundational to much of the rest of their leadership model, and referred to throughout the book. It would have been helpful for them to have provided us with the exegetical reasoning that led them to such a conclusion. Instead we’re given a few brief examples such as leadership within the Godhead, and King David in the Old Testament. Other than this, their assertion is supported only by conjecture—and not much of that.

We’re told that: “There is no such thing as a leaderless group. On a team, there must be one who leads; otherwise chaos occurs.” I would readily agree. But who should be this one who leads the elders? Should this primary leadership come from a solitary elder in distinction to his fellow elders, or from Christ? It’s compelling to me that the only place where the Bible uses the Greek word for a senior pastor/shepherd (archepoimēn) it is referring specifically to Christ (1 Peter 5:4). As far as I can see, the body has only one Head, and the kingdom has only one King. Just who should be the “primary leader” of the church? Are the elders to be led by Christ himself, or some intermediating “senior elder?”

The Scriptures give us a rich number of references describing the appointment and ministry of elders, qualifications of elders, and instructions given directly to elders—but not one mention of the role of a “senior elder.” It’s one thing to respect the ministry of one or more elders who are noted expositors, or leaders, or shepherds, etc. Because elders are not uniform, but uniquely gifted, there will be ‘first ones among equals’ in different areas of ministry. But to formalize this, focusing on only one specific leader in each congregation, and then to teach this as normative for the church, is to go far beyond the clear teaching of Scripture. If someone is going to teach the normative nature of such a distinct role, the burden of biblical evidence is on them to establish that such a distinction is scripturally warranted. I fail to see where the authors have made their case.

The pervasive assumption, unsupported by Scripture, of the distinct role of a “senior elder” makes this book unreliable for churches seeking to follow a biblical pattern of church leadership.

Review: “Shepherds & Sheep: A Biblical View of Leading & Following” by Jerram Barrs

This book is pleasantly concise (98 pages including endnotes), but ably provides a solid overview of biblical church leadership. The book was written in 1983, and Barrs seems to be especially responding to ministries that stress a controlling “shepherding” or “covering,” and also churches that overemphasize a directing type of prophecy with no checks or safeguards—both of which were prevalent at the time. He also shows the danger of a licentious, anything-goes kind of approach, but doesn’t spend as much time exploring this side of the imbalance. Along the way, Barrs reveals some of the unhealthy extremes in the teachings of Watchman Nee, as well as troubling practices in Witness Lee’s Local Church movement.

But the relevance of this book isn’t limited to specific church movements. Both a libertarian lack of control and a legalistic authoritarianism are both potential dangers for churches at all times. The author focuses on the biblical principles of church leadership and shows how a consistently scriptural leadership model will protect us from falling into either extreme. When we neglect scriptural principles or enforce our own extra-biblical standards, we fall out of the balance described in the New Testament. I particularly appreciated Barrs’ insightful comments about the ‘upside down pyramid’ approach, having been part of a church that followed this kind of structure.

Some readers may quibble with details of the author’s views on apostles, elders, prophecy, etc. But even if you disagree with certain aspects of Barrs’ positions on these issues, you can still benefit from the main points on which he focuses attention. For instance, along with Howard Snyder (in the book’s foreword) I would disagree with Barrs’ assertion that the office of Apostle of Christ was limited to the 11 plus Paul. But his warning about leaders today claiming to be Apostles, with no or inadequate clarification of what they mean by the term, is spot on and necessary. His understanding of prophecy generally compares well with those of Wayne Grudem (Prophecy in the New Testament and Today) and DA Carson (Showing the Spirit). One may not agree with every nuance, but still appreciate the way he seeks to guard against the abuse of supposed prophetic utterances used to control others and direct their lives in very detailed ways. He brings out the biblical principles of a plurality of pastoral leaders in each church and the ministry of each part of the body, but in a book of this brevity it’s understandable if he doesn’t explore the application of these principles in greater depth.

This is a brief, but very helpful, book on a healthy, biblically balanced model of church leadership that leads to liberty in the life and ministry of churches, and on the necessity of guarding against the extremes of both license and legalism.

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

In the New Testament, we find what are often referred to as “the pastoral epistles.” These letters do, in fact, cover a number of issues that are particularly pastoral in nature. Two of these letters were written from Paul to Timothy, and the third was written from Paul to Titus. Does that mean these two leaders were pastors? It’s not hard to find books or articles that refer to Timothy as “the pastor” of the church in Ephesus. And since all would agree that Paul instructed him to exercise leadership of the elders of the Ephesian church, wouldn’t that make him a kind of senior pastor? We need to look more closely at the ministry roles of these two men.

Timothy’s name comes up frequently in accounts of Paul’s ministry or in his letters to the churches. Timothy was obviously an integral part of the ministry work of Paul (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22). In Romans 16:21, Paul refers to him as “my fellow worker.” While most would agree that Timothy wasn’t an Apostle of Jesus Christ in the same sense that Paul was, many references show that he shared in Paul’s apostolic ministry. In
2 Corinthians 5:20, he and Paul are both referred to as “Christ’s ambassadors.” In
1 Thessalonians 2:6, Paul refers to himself, Silas and Timothy as apostles of Christ. In
1 Corinthians 16:10, Paul says that Timothy was “doing the Lord’s work, just as I am.”

What is even more significant is that Paul shared his writing credit with Timothy no less than six times and wrote two epistles directly to him. This is an amazing public recognition of the fact that Timothy shared in Paul’s ministry. Only two other men were acknowledged in this manner: Silas (twice) and Sosthenes (once).

1 Corinthians 16:5-12 is an interesting portion of Scripture that shows the way Paul and those who worked with him were frequently on the move. Timothy was often left for a time in one place or sent ahead to another (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:19-24; 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 6). The places where Timothy ministered were consistently places where Paul had just been or to which he was on the way. This going ahead or staying behind was a distinctive characteristic of Timothy’s ministry.

So, when Paul sent Timothy ahead, or left him behind, what exactly was Timothy to do?
I Corinthians 4:17 says that he was sent to Corinth to remind the people there of Paul’s ways and teachings. 1 Thessalonians 3:2 tells us that Timothy was sent to Thessalonica to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. So why was Timothy left in Ephesus? According to 1 Timothy 1:3 it was to “stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth.” He wasn’t left to pastor the church; he was left to correct problems with the church’s pastors. And according to 1 Timothy 3:14, Paul was intending to be there soon himself.

There is no solid reason to assume that Timothy was still in Ephesus when Paul wrote
2 Timothy. The wording in 2 Timothy 1:18 and 4:12 seem to indicate that he was in some location other than Ephesus. Wherever he was, he was preparing to leave (2 Timothy 4:21). Of course, we almost expect this kind of temporary stay when we see the itinerant nature of his ministry throughout much of the New Testament. Although he was probably in a different location, the purpose of his ministry as expressed in 2 Timothy compares well with what we saw in 1 Timothy. The things that Paul had taught Timothy, Timothy was to “teach . . . to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” Timothy faithfully shared in this apostolic ministry of training church leaders who would be able to carry on the local work. There’s nothing in the New Testament indicating that Timothy had a regular pastoral role in a local church.

We actually have less reason to assume a pastoral role for Titus. In Titus 1:5, Paul gives Titus very clear instructions: “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you.” Since Titus was sent to towns all over Crete, this is obviously not describing the role of a senior pastor. Just as we saw with Timothy, Titus was sent to further and complete the apostolic work of Paul.

The only reason people assume a senior pastor role for these men is that they appointed and/or worked with the elders of various churches. But we’ve seen that this was actually a primary aspect of their work as Paul’s apostolic delegates.

The only other defense for the idea that Timothy—or Paul for that matter—was a church pastor is the length of time that he stayed in place. For either one, this was usually a matter of months or even weeks, occasionally longer for Paul (his three-year stay in Ephesus being the exception rather than the rule). This fits an itinerant, apostolic ministry of planting and strengthening churches much better than it does that of a senior pastor.

Timothy was highly valued by Paul, a great blessing to those to whom he ministered, and a wonderful example to us. However there is no scriptural support for the claim that Timothy was the pastor of the church of Ephesus, or that he or Titus were pastors of any other congregation.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus? [see above]

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

Some people think the ministries of Peter and James show a senior pastor role in the New Testament churches. Let’s consider each of these key leaders.

Most evangelical Christians reject the idea that Peter was the “Pope” of the New Testament church—and for good reason, since this is not taught anywhere in Scripture. But I find it curious that many of these same people accept the idea that Peter was in leadership over his fellow apostles, a kind of “senior apostle,” even though this idea relies on some of the very same assumptions! Of course, the most important question is: What does Scripture say? What role does the Bible show Peter filling?

Since our current topic is primarily an in-house debate among evangelical believers, I’m going to skip the peculiarly Roman Catholic claims about what Scripture says about Peter, such as him being the rock on which the church is built, receiving the keys of the kingdom, etc. I don’t mean to seem dismissive of any Catholic readers of this blog, but exploring these claims would take us too far afield from the issue at hand.

Something we should notice when examining the biblical references to Peter is that he’s never given a title that is distinct from that of the other apostles, and he’s never instructed to serve in a role that is distinct from theirs. Everything he is called to do, the other apostles are called to do as well. We also see events in Peter’s ministry that don’t fit easily into a senior pastor model. When Peter returns to Jerusalem after evangelizing and baptizing the Gentile Cornelius and his household, he is criticized for his actions and has to give an accounting (Acts 11:1-18). Earlier, when the apostles heard about the conversion of Samaritans, “they sent Peter and John” to Samaria to check things out (Acts 8:14). There is no indication at all that Peter initiated this mission; the apostles evaluated the situation together, made their decision as a group, and exercised their collective leadership by sending two of their number, Peter and John, to Samaria.

Of course, as we continue reading these passages, we can’t help but notice how prominent Peter seemed to be among the apostles. Almost from the beginning, if someone is going to say something, it’s likely to be Peter! He serves as a kind of spokesman for the group. And he continues to be prominent through the birth of the church and into the first part of the book of Acts. The question is: Does this prominence mean that Peter exercised a leadership over the other apostles and a role distinct from theirs? The answer is: Not by itself. We need to know more.

If a football player gains greater recognition and attention than his teammates, does that mean he has an official leadership role over them? Maybe; maybe not. We understand that sometimes prominence is just that—prominence. This gives us an opportunity to clear up a common misunderstanding regarding church leadership by a council of elders. Sometimes people assume this requires each elder to minister in exactly the same way and to have the exact same prominence. But it doesn’t mean this at all! Elders are going to have different strengths and different mixes of spiritual gifting. Some will be gifted teachers, and their teaching should be appreciated and respected. Others will be better leaders than teachers. Some will thrive in a very public leadership role; others will prefer more behind-the-scenes administration. Still others will be better at pastoring as counselors or in informal discipling. But they still all lead and pastor the church as a group.

There is nothing about leadership by elders that would preclude God from using one of the elders in a very public, prominent ministry. But this doesn’t mean that this elder is now the pastor of the church (or the ‘senior pastor’). It simply means that his ministry is more public and well-known than his fellow pastors. Just because I’m currently the only elder supported full-time, and so do most of the adult teaching, doesn’t mean that I’m the pastor of the church. It just means that I’m serving in a different capacity than my fellow elders. But we still lead and pastor the church as a group.

There is nothing in the biblical accounts of Peter that contradict the New Testament pattern of church leadership I described in my original post. On the contrary, Peter fits this model of shared, plural pastoral leadership of the churches very well.

James is also sometimes mentioned as a biblical example of a senior pastor. There are a couple of reasons for this. First we notice that he seems to be distinguished by name from the other elders in one passage (Acts 21:18), and possibly a second (Acts 12:17). What do we make of this? It could be the same kind of prominence we saw with Peter. But there’s something else we have to consider. In Galatians 1:19, Paul seems to indicate that James is an apostle. If this is so, doesn’t it make sense that, as an apostle, he would be distinguished from the other elders?

The only other passage that might show a senior pastor role for James is found in the account of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. After many other leaders speak, James gives his krino (verse 19). Some Bible versions translate this as James giving his “judgment,” which seems to imply that James is formally leading the council and thus declares his final judgment. But this isn’t the only way to translate this Greek word, and other translations read that James is giving his “opinion” or telling the others that “I think that . . .” The problem is that this one word is just not conclusive enough to establish, by itself, such an authoritative role for James in the Jerusalem council. Indeed, it can easily lean the other direction, which seems to me to better fit the context of Acts 15.

The most that one could say, based on the examples of Peter and James, is that sometimes one (or more) of the elders may become more prominent in their service than the other elders. Of course, this doesn’t contradict the New Testament pattern of shared, plural pastoral leadership of the churches. And this is a far cry from expecting that each church will have one—and only one—of these prominent leaders, and formalizing this prominence into a church office that is distinct from that of the other elders, and a leadership role that isn’t mentioned anywhere else in Scripture.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James? [see above]

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges

So what exactly do elders do?