Ministry and Leadership in Early Christianity
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

During his earthly life and ministry, Jesus gathered many "disciples" around himself, some of whom he also called "apostles," sending them out to preach, teach, and heal others (acc. to the Synoptic Gospels). These apostles, especially Peter and a core group known as "the Twelve," would seem to have been the natural leaders of those who continued to believe in Jesus after his death and resurrection. Yet his "brothers" James and Jude, members of Jesus' own family, evidently also became influential leaders of the early Church, as did Barnabas and Paul and several others who also came to be called "apostles." (Click the links above for more about the disciples, apostles, and family of Jesus).

Soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, however, the early Christians also began using a variety of other titles for those who led and served the community of believers, as seen in various texts of the New Testament. Some of these titles were used for itinerant preachers who spread the Christian message throughout the Roman empire, while others designated the resident leaders of local communities. At first, the most prominent leaders seem to have been called apostles, prophets, and teachers, among various other titles. Yet by the mid-second century, the church had developed a fairly uniform structure of leadership, consisting of three different "orders" called bishops (overseers), presbyters (elders), and deacons (ministers), despite some ongoing regional variations. In all of this, however, the emphasis was not on the authority or status of the leaders as rulers, but remained on their responsibilities to serve and care for the people in their communities.

Some Foundational NT Texts:

In 1 Corinthians 12:4-31, Paul stresses that the unity of the Christian community (the one "body of Christ") is served by a variety of spiritual gifts and activities, including the speaking of wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues, and interpretation of tongues (12:8-10). He continues by rank-ordering some leadership roles: "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?" (12:28-30).

In Romans 12:6-8, Paul again stresses the unity of the community, despite the variety of roles and activities of its leaders and members: "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness."

Acts 13:1 names five "prophets and teachers" as leaders of the Christian community in Antioch. Several other Christians are also called "prophets" in Acts 11:27, 15:32, and 21:10.

The Letter to the Ephesians uses architectural imagery to describe the church "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone" (2:20; cf. 3:5). It also stresses both the importance of church unity and the diversity of ministries: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift... The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ." (Eph 4:4-7, 11-13).

Acts 6:1-6 tells of how the apostles "appoint" and "lay hands on" seven men "to serve" (Gk. diakoneo) the practical needs of the community; these men (Stephen, Philip, and five others) are generally regarded as the first "deacons," even though Acts does not directly use the noun "diakonos" in this text, but only the related verb. This list includes Stephen, who becomes the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7), and Philip, who is later also called an "evangelist" (Acts 21:8).

Paul begins his letter to the Christian community in Philippi by greeting "all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Phil 1:1). Yet interestingly, the only individual explicitly called a "deacon" (diakonos) in the entire NT is not Stephen or Philip (read Acts 6-7 again carefully), but a woman named Phoebe (Rom 16:1, where she is called a "deacon," not a "deaconess")!

The deutero-Pauline First Letter to Timothy further expands upon this basic two-tiered structure of local Christian community leadership: the qualifications and responsibilities of bishops are discussed first (1 Tim 3:1-7; cf. Titus 1:7-9), followed by a very similar passage focusing on deacons (1 Tim 3:8-13). This letter also describes some community leadership responsibilities of elder women or widows (5:3-10) as well as elder men or presbyters (5:17-22).

The closely related Letter to Titus also discusses the appointment of elders (1:5-6) and the qualities required of bishops (1:7-9; possibly referring to the same leaders?), as well as the role of the widows in teaching and being good role models for the younger women of the Christian community (2:3-5).

The Letter of James also mentions the role of the elders or presbyters in leading community prayer: "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven" (James 5:14-15).

The First Letter of Peter uses pastoral imagery to describe the leadership of the presbyter-bishops: "I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight (episkopountes), not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it--not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders." (5:1b-5a)

The Christian Concept of Ministry:

Ministry - This English word derives etymologically from Latin ministerium, which is equivalent to Greek διακονία/diakonia. Both are often also translated as "service." The word diakonia is used only once in the Gospels (Luke 10:40), but 33 times in the rest of the NT, referring to a wide variety of practical and spiritual tasks that many different people, not just the first apostles of Jesus, do in service to the Christian communities. Paul stresses that "there are varieties of services (diakonion), but the same Lord" (1 Cor 12:5); he continues by listing a substantial number of examples of different ministries (see the full text of 1 Cor 12:4-31).

Minister / Deacon - Gk. διάκονος/diakonos (< diakoneo = "to serve," esp. "serve at table") - Used 29 times in the NT, only rarely for community leaders who were officially ordained as "deacons," but mostly for people who performed ordinary types of work as "servants." Interesting, the masculine noun diakonos is used not only for men, but also for women (e.g. Phoebe, a deacon in Cenchrae; Rom 16:1)

To Serve; To Minister - Gk. διακονέω/diakoneo - occurs 37 times in the NT, most often in the Gospels, where Jesus stresses that he himself "came not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28), his followers must also do the same (Luke 22:26-27; John 12:26; etc.). In the early community of believers in Jerusalem, seven Hellenistic Jews (Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus) were appointed to assist with the daily distribution of food to the widows (Acts 6:1-6); although they are not explicit called "deacons" in this text, both the noun diakonia and the verb diakoneo are used to describe their service.

Related Verbs: to shepherd, pastor, teach, preach, exhort, care for, pray for, assist, administer, etc.

Analysis of other Leadership Titles in Early Christian:

Apostle - Gk. ἀπόστολος/apostolos = "missionary, ambassador, one who is sent out" (< apo = "out, away, forth" + stello = "to send") - see the separate webpage on Disciples and Apostles in the NT

Prophet - Gk. προφήτης/prophētēs = "spokesperson" (< pro = "for, on behalf of" + phemi = "to speak") - Used 144 times in the NT, 116 of which are in the Gospels and Acts. Most of the NT references are to the OT prophets, either generically as a group or often explicitly naming individual prophets (esp. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Elijah, but sometimes also Jonah, Daniel, Elisha, Joel, Moses, Samuel, and even King David!). Some NT passages speak of the role of prophets in general (e.g. "Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward"; Matt 10:41). All four Gospels use "prophet" to refer to John the Baptist (Mark 11:32; Matt 21:46; Luke 1:76; 7:26; 20:6; cf. John 1:21) as well as Jesus (Mark 6:15; 8:28; Matt 14:5; 16:14; 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16, 39; 9:19; 24:19; John 4:19; 6:14; 7:40; 9:17). Paul mentions "prophets" immediately after "apostles" in his listing of early Christian leadership categories (1 Cor 12:28-29; cf. 14:29-37). Acts names five men as "prophets and teachers" of the church in Antioch (13:1), mentions Christian prophets named Judas and Silas (15:32) and Agabus (21:10), and asserts that the four daughters of the evangelist Philip "had the gift of prophesying" (21:8). Finally, several passages of the Book of Revelation mention saints, apostles, and/or prophets together (11:18; 16:6; 18:20-24, where the references are most likely not (or not only) to OT prophets but mostly to early Christian leaders (esp. clear in 22:9).

Prophetess (n) - Gk. προφῆτις/prophetis - The equivalent feminine noun occurs only twice in the NT: an old "prophetess" named Anna encounters the Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:36); and a woman named Jezebel is denounced as a false "prophetess" in the letter to the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:20).
Prophecy (n) - Gk. προφητεία/propheteia - In several letters, Paul speaks of "prophecy" as one of the gifts given to some Christians for the benefit of the community (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10; 13:2, 8; 14:6, 22; 1 Thess 5:20; cf. 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14)
Prophesy (v) - Gk. προφητεύω/propheteuo - Paul also refers to praying and "prophesying" and other spiritual practices as normal parts of the worship services of his early Christian communities (1 Cor 11:4-5; 13:9; 14:1-40).

Teacher - Gk. διδάσκαλος/didaskalos (< didasko = "to teach") - The word "teacher" is used 49 times in the Gospels (almost always as a title for Jesus), and 10 times in the rest of the NT (mostly in reference to Christian leaders). Acts 13:1 names five men as "prophets and teachers" of the church in Antioch; Rom 2:20 warns that "a teacher of children" should also teach himself; 1 Cor 12:28-29 and Eph 4:11 mention "teachers" after apostles and prophets (see above) as community leaders; Heb 5:12 asserts that the readers "by this time ought to be teachers," while James 3:1 warns, "Not many of you should become teachers," due to the great responsibility they have; and the Pastoral Epistles refer to Paul as "a herald and an apostle and a teacher" (1 Time 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11).

Evangelist / Preacher - Gk. εὐαγγελιστής/euangelistes = "messenger of good news" (< eu = "good" + angelos = "messenger") - The noun "evangelist" is used only 3 times in the NT, in reference to the deacon Philip (Acts 21:8), to Paul's assistant Timothy (2 Tim 4:5), and to Christian leaders in general (Eph 4:11; see "prophets" above). Only later, after the NT period, are the authors of the four canonical gospels also referred to as the four "Evangelists."

Herald - Gk. κῆρυξ/keryx (< kerysso = "to announce, proclaim"; cf. kerygma = "proclamation, message") - The noun "herald" is used in the NT only twice for Paul (1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 2:7) and once for Noah (2 Pet 2:5), while the related noun "proclamation" is applied to the preaching of the OT prophet Jonah ( Matt 12:41; Luke 11:32) and to Paul and his companions (Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 1:21; 2:4; 15:14; 2 Tim 4:17; Titus 1:3). The verb kerysso is used 61 times in the NT for the "proclaiming" activity of John the Baptist, Jesus, the disciples of Jesus, and Paul and his missionary associates.

Pastor / Shepherd - Gk. ποιμήν/poimen (lit. "one who cares for sheep") - In the Gospels, "shepherd" either refers literally or metaphorically to someone who pastures sheep, or to Jesus himself ("I am the good shepherd"; John 10:11); similarly, Hebrews 13:20 calls Jesus "the great shepherd of the sheep," while 1 Peter 2:25 calls him "the shepherd and guardian of your souls." Only once is the title "shepherd" (or "pastor") used for a category of Christian leaders: "The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11). Yet this later became one of the most common titles for Christian leaders, esp. because of Jesus' repeated charge to Peter at the end of John's Gospel: "Feed my lambs... Tend my sheep... Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17).

Bishop / Overseer - Gk. ἐπίσκοπος/episkopos = "overseer, supervisor" (< epi = "over, above" + skopeo = "to look, watch, see") - In the second century, "bishop" becomes the most widely used term for the one main leader of the whole Christian church in a particular city or region. In the first-century NT writings, however, the word "episkopos / bishop" occurs only 5 times. Bishops and deacons are mentioned together twice (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-13). Interestingly, when 1 Peter 2:25 mentions "the shepherd and guardian (episkopos) of your souls," it refers to Jesus!

More significantly, the term "episkopoi / bishops" often seems to refer to the same people who are also called "presbyteroi / elders," and shepherding imagery is applied to both. Speaking to all the elders (presbyteroi) of the church of Ephesus, Paul says, "Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopoi), to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son." (Acts 20:17, 28). Similarly, Titus 1:7-9 mentions the blameless life a bishop (episkopos) should lead, yet this short passage begins with Paul instructing Titus to "appoint elders (presbyteroi) in every town," choosing men of blameless character (1:5-6).

Moreover, the related verb episkopeo is also used in connection with elders in some texts of 1 Peter 5:1-2: "Now as an elder myself,... I exhort the elders (presbyteroi) among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight (episkopountes), not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it..." (see above for more of the text of 5:1-5)

Position of Overseer / Office of Bishop - These two phrases are used once each in the NRSV translation of the NT for the related Greek noun ἐπισκοπή/episkope; the first refers to the selection of Matthias to replace Judas as an apostle: "Let another take his position of overseer" (Acts 1:20, quoting from Psalm 109:8); in the second, Paul tells Timothy, "The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task" (1 Tim 3:1).


[More coming some day on the following terms]:

Presbyter / Elder - Gk. πρεσβύτερος/presbyteros = "older respected men"; they teach & preach, and sometimes formed a type of "community council" (1 Tim 5:1, 17-22; cf. Titus 1:5)

Widow - Gk. χήρα/cheira = "older women who do not remarry"; younger widows normally remarried, while older widows were often cared for by the churches, yet they in turn also helped care for their communities, esp. teaching the younger women (1 Tim 5:3-16; cf. Titus 2:3-5)

Orders -

Appoint / Ordain / Lay on Hands -

Father -

Slave / Servant -

Priest - Gk. ἱερεύς/hiereus = "cultic officials, those who offer sacrifices" - In the NT, the word "priests" refers only to the Jewish priests (members of the tribe of Levi who offered the sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple); no Christians are called "priests" in the entire NT; only in the Letter to the Hebrews is Jesus himself called a "great high priest" (even though he did not belong to the tribe of Levi)! The term "priest" was applied to Christian leaders only later, beginning in the 2nd century.

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