What Does Spiritual Leadership in a Movement Look Like? Elders, Bishops, Deacons and So On

leadership in movements

Countless questions and controversies happen around the topic of Biblical eldership in churches. Denominations split over these issues and the divisions caused. Twitter and other social media recently blew up with angry posts about whether women could serve as elders. A prominent female Bible teacher I know of recently left her fellowship over this issue. She joined another group leaving a wake of debate behind.

The intention of this article is not to stir up controversy. Nor do I want to engage in heated theological debates on this.

Many people shy away from this topic because it can cause strong reactions. When I surveyed various leaders about this, many were silent. David Watson responded and said he will be writing about this in his next book. I’ll look forward to reading it.

For Whom Will These Articles Be Most Helpful

In this blog series, I will seek to provide insights by looking at scripture (apostolic instructions and practices). I will also relate what leaders of large movements (and those who train them) are saying about eldership.

While I’m open to limited dialogue with DMM practitioners on what I write, every movement will need to prayerfully weigh these matters. They should be free to decide what is best in their particular context as the Spirit leads them. Some input or guidance, however, is needed for many.

This series will be most helpful to those who already have started a disciple-making group or two. It will be even more useful if you are starting to see accelerated multiplication. If you are not yet there, keep reading and bookmark these so you can refer to them at a future point. Stay focused though on finding Persons of Peace and don’t worry about this too much yet. Do what you need to do now to move forward.

Appointing Leaders is Clearly Biblical

As a movement grows, servant-hearted leaders must emerge, be appointed, and recognized. This needs to happen in a way that leads to sustained organic, multiplicative growth rather than a structure of control. Mistakes in this area can damage rather than speed up the movement.

The New Testament practice of appointing leaders is clear. As the Gospel spread across the Roman world, the apostles selected leaders to serve the growing churches. They also instructed those they trained to do the same. Paul tells Titus to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5) and gives guidelines and qualifications for those elders.

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

Titus 1:5 NIV.

We observe in Scripture, the apostolic practice of appointing deacons to serve widows (Acts 6). This enabled the apostles to focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word. We also read in the epistles about bishops and overseers. It is interesting to note that we do not see the appointment of pastors as an apostolic practice in the New Testament. Instead, we see that the word pastor is listed as a spiritual gift to be used, not a role to be played.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a number of articles in this series. Below are the topics I intend to address. Some will need an entire article, others a few paragraphs.

8 Important Things to Consider as We Look at Leadership Development in Movements

  1. Biblical leaders serve, inspire, and develop others
  2. A warning about the use of titles and creating heavy-handed structures
  3. The 5-fold ministry gifts
  4. Elders- What do they do and how do we appoint them?
  5. Deacons, Bishops/Overseers
  6. Practical examples and input from well-known movement leaders and trainers
  7. The issue of women in leadership roles (a review of apostolic practice and scripture)
  8. The priesthood of all believers and how that continues as leaders are appointed and begin to serve

The Difference Between Jesus’ Commands, Apostles Practice, and Human Traditions

Here’s a reminder for those who regularly read my blogs. If this is new for you, please read this article where I describe this further.

There is a big difference between:
1) things Jesus commanded us to do,
2) practices of the apostles in the New Testament and
3) human traditions we developed in our own contexts.

When we look at roles like elder, deacon, pastor, bishop, or overseer, none of these are mentioned by Christ himself.

There are some clear apostolic practices and instructions we need to study. And yes, there are many, many varied human traditions that have developed around the world and in various denominations.

The basic principle for DMMs is this. If Jesus instructed us to do something, we must focus on that. His commands are universal and timeless. If it was an apostolic instruction or practice, we must consider if it was contextual (for that time and culture), or universal. Anything we see done in the New Testament is permissible for us to also do. Not everything they did has to be done in exactly the same way, however. Some things done in the New Testament were definitely contextual (for that time and culture).

Remember. If it is not found in Scripture but is a denominational or cultural preference, we are free to do things differently. Church practices must be evaluated in light of Jesus’ commands, and in light of the vision to multiply disciples. Many long-established church practices are no longer helpful when we look at starting “rabbit churches,” though they work fine for “elephant churches.”

Having said this, we honor and respect the human traditions of the churches and denominations we are a part of. If we are part of that church, we have chosen to submit to them.

As my friend Fred says, “If you don’t like it, and don’t believe in it, leave.” If you choose to stay within that structure, do your best to honor it.

Those working in new frontier missions contexts among the unreached are often given more freedom to experiment. We try various things, providing it doesn’t violate scripture. This is also needful in reaching immigrant communities. We don’t recommend trying to absorb MBBs and HBBs (Muslim Background Believers and Hindu Background Believers) into existing churches.

Instead, start new groups with them and their oikos. Those groups can grow into a movement. Your church can pray with you for this, and encourage it. If it is too attached to an existing church structure, it can be hard to be contextual and relevant to the needs of that group.

Our job is not to confront our pastors and leaders, nor to stir up trouble. You can, however, ask polite questions and cast vision for multiplication. You can share about what it might take to see disciples who make disciples raised up and multiplying new groups. If the hunger for that is strong enough, leaders and even denominations may consider a change.

Most movements that grow exponentially, happen outside existing church structures and traditions.

Pray for Wisdom

We need God’s Spirit to guide and lead us in these important matters. He promises to do that! When Jesus was about to leave, He told His disciples to wait for the promised Holy Spirit. A short time later Pentecost happened. Jesus gave us the Great Commission. He said, “I will be with you always.” God is with us and He will show us the unique way forward for the emerging movement in our area.

Let’s ask Him for guidance as we prayerfully consider this issue in the coming weeks.

What questions do you have about leadership in movements?

Post them in the comments below or on the DMMs Frontier Missions Facebook group. I’ll be sure to include a response to them in the upcoming blogs.


  1. Brian Mallalieu

    Cindy, I congratulate & commend you on the gracious, gentle, sensitive & respectful way you have handled this ‘hot potato’, and like you (I think?) wish many in the past had handled it similarly. Very well done! I also especially like and concur with your respectful allegiance to scriptural authority, and our need to obey it’s commands. I have the following two comments regarding that:

    1. I was surprised you didn’t group shepherds(Pastors)/Bishops(overseers)/Elders all together as the NT seems to: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-role-of-the-elder-bishop-pastor/

    2. It is very long overdue that we allow, respect & honour the inspirer & interpreter of the scriptures – the Holy Spirit – by using the actual word he gave for the Body of Christ ‘Ekklesia’ (& used by Jesus in Matth. 16:18) & stop using the wrong word ‘church’, insisted upon politically by Constantine & James 1! This is especially needed in places like here in UK & elsewhere, where the wrong word has a bad image in the media/public & is a real sharing/witness ‘killer’! Furthermore, the non-religious, right word is richly significant in historic origin & meaning, and quite different to the wrong one — & of course, correctly Biblical.

  2. Mark A Naylor

    I appreciate your articles and focus on disciple making. I have received a lot of help from your experience and insights. If I might suggest, one area that may require some adjustment is the hermeneutic that you suggest.You make a distinction between the authority of Jesus’ instructions (universal) and the view that the apostles instructions are contextual.

    This is problematic since it challenges the cultural implication of the incarnation that Jesus became an individual within a particular cultural context. Jesus revealed the Father and spoke the truth within the concepts and constructs that would resonate with the people he addressed. Therefore, it seems that to put Jesus’ instructions (universal and timeless) on a different plane than the apostles (consider the contextual dynamic) seems inconsistent.

    This hermeneutic also seems simplistic by stating that “anything we see done in the New Testament is permissible for us to also do.” Such thinking could possibly reduce God’s word as revelation to an algorithm or manual. In some cultures it may be very inappropriate to do what we see done in the NT. For example, in Acts 15 James forbids the eating of blood. This does not automatically make it “permissible” for a leader to condemn the eating of blood pudding in England.

    I suggest that a more appropriate and consistent hermeneutic would be to view Jesus himself as the gospel message (I am the way, the truth and the life), and his spoken word and instructions as contextually shaped reflections of that message. It is Jesus we must focus on, and his contextually shaped instructions and commands are given to reveal Jesus to us (who reveals the Father).

    Perhaps it might be better to focus on the NT as a revelation of the good news about Jesus. The Gospels reveal that good news in the contextually shaped actions and speech of Jesus. From Acts on that revelation of the gospel about Jesus is revealed and expressed as the apostles work out the significance of the gospel within their particular context. Similarly with us today we continue the tradition of the book of Acts and work out this gospel about Jesus in our own particular contexts. This guides us into seeing the whole NT as a revelation using the contextual shaped perspectives of that time to guide us into eternal life which is “to know you the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ, the one you sent” (Jn 17.3).

    1. Post
      C. Anderson

      Thanks for sharing these insights and your perspective on this. I do agree that some of these issues are more nuanced than can easily be described in a short blog. My goal is not to be a theologian but to encourage practitioners to elevate the commands of Jesus above all else…a needed correction in our church praxis today. We squabble about details while neglecting His command to love our neighbor, make disciples, etc. I’m sure you would agree.

      Blessings and thanks for taking the time to help me and others see some areas where further thought and development of these ideas is needed.

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