It should not be considered radical to believe that the Bible prescribes certain things regarding church government. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that everything should be done decently and in order. This only makes sense if there are descriptions and prescriptions for decency and order. I’m not implying that there is an exact mandate concerning church polity, but I am saying that the church is not left to draw on a vacuum. There are many things mentioned explicitly and implicitly.
The New Testament speaks of shepherds, bishops, and elders. These three descriptions reveal the three key aspects/functions of the individual spiritual leaders within the church. Additionally, the New Testament illustrates in historical narrative and in apostolic teaching a plurality of leadership where we see one functioning as the primary leader in ecclesial collectives.
When Jesus ascended back into heaven, he did not leave behind a “leaderless” group. Simon Peter was clearly the intended spokesman and John was his associate. Jesus had spent three years, as the primary leader, preparing the disciples to carry out the Great Commission, and equipping Peter to be the leader. When Matthew, Mark, Luke (Acts) and John wrote their gospels, Peter’s name is mentioned dozens of times more often than the other apostles. There is even a preponderance of events involving Peter in contrast to events involving other disciples. In fact, Peter is mentioned in 57 specific occasions compared with his brother Andrew who is mentioned in only eight. One evidence that the Lord intended a leader of the leaders (or shepherd of the shepherds) is the disproportionate focus of Jesus first on Peter as the leader, and second with John as his associate.
When Jesus called Peter to leave his fishing, that Peter was already the leader of this small group of fishermen is certainly implied in the text. Peter’s brother Andrew, James and John are called his “partners” (Luke 5:7, 10). Strategically speaking, that Jesus chose these four men first implies a leadership construct. Andrew, James, and John looked to Peter as their leader, and as other men were added to the group, Peter continued to stand out as the primary leader of the followers.
After His ascensions, when the followers of Christ (120 of them) entered the upper room Acts 1:15 states, “Peter stood up among the believers” and led them in deciding to replace Judas. Jesus had prepared Peter for this moment, and everyone in the room knew it. Although Peter had denied the Lord three times Jesus’ prayers for Peter were answered, and now, he was able to shepherd this group which included his fellow shepherds (Luke 22:21-23). Furthermore, when Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost and explained from the prophet Joel what was happening, not one of the apostles hesitated to follow him. There was never a Christian coup. Even James, John’s older brother, took a backseat to his younger brother who was now assisting Peter. Again, and again we read that “Peter and John” took the lead with Peter being the primary spokesman and John standing by his side affirming and confirming the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Allow me to add one caveat here in case someone would try to create an artificial distinction and say that Peter was an apostle but not an elder. In his appeal to the elders of the various churches, Peter addresses them in his first epistle as “a fellow elder.” (1 Peter 5:1) Yet, even with this authority, Peter did not act unilaterally. In Acts 8:14 when revival came to Samaria the text reads, “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the Word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.” Peter was both the leader, and a man under authority.
As the drama in Acts continues to unfold James, the half-brother of Jesus, emerges as the key leader among the elders in Jerusalem. So, when Peter is released from prison and goes to Mary’s house, he acknowledges James’ leadership (Acts 12:17). Later in Acts 15 during the council where they were resolving the law and grace controversy, Peter represented the apostles (vv. 7-11), and James represented the Jerusalem elders (vv. 13-21). Later when Paul returned to Jerusalem, he went first “to see James, and all the elders were present” (21:18). At this point, James is clearly the lead elder among the Jerusalem elders.
In the relationship that existed between Paul, Timothy, and Titus (as well as Barnabas, John Mark, Luke, Silas) Paul is the leader. This is developed further when Paul sends Timothy and Titus out. Although their position in the various local churches was not permanent, they were instructed to lead in appointing qualified elders in each of the churches.
Finally, although there is something of an absence of exact specificity in the New Testament concerning church government, there is no vacuum. The biblical narrative of Peter leading, followed by James leading, along with Paul’s leadership in the Gentile churches is clearly a prototype for a plurality of elders in the local church under the authority of a leading elder. Herein is the predominant leadership pattern of the New Testament era. Local churches were led by elders who were guided by a lead elder. We desire to emulate this pattern.