Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

What was the ‘job description’ of Jesus’ apostles?

What was the job description of Jesus' apostles?

One subject that I keep mulling over is what it means to be a leader and have authority in the church. I saw a comment on a blog a couple of weeks ago where someone wrote that Jesus commissioned the twelve apostles to be the leaders of the church.[1] This seems to be a typical understanding of the role of the Twelve, but something didn’t ring true when I read the comment. So I started to mentally scan the New Testament scriptures to see what Jesus actually said to his disciples.

Did Jesus ever use words like “lead” or “govern” when giving instructions? I can’t think of one example. Jesus mostly used words like “serve” and “witness” when he was giving his disciples their job description (Luke 24:48; John 15:27; Acts 1:8; cf Acts 2:32; 22:15, etc).

Jesus elaborated on the job description of the Twelve (or Eleven.) He told them to preach (i.e. proclaim) that the kingdom was at hand (Matt. 10:7; Mark 3:14). He gave them authority to cast out demons and cure all diseases (Matt. 10:1, 8; Mark 3:15). He told them to make other disciples from all nations (not just Jewish, male disciples.) He told them to baptize and teach (Matt. 28:18-20). And he told Peter to feed and shepherd his sheep.  It is in this passage, in John 21:15-17, that Jesus uses a word that indicates the function, or role, of leading. The noun “shepherd” was used for leaders in Old Testament times; Jesus uses the verb here.[3] Nonetheless, Peter was being commissioned to lead and nurture Jesus’ “sheep”. Importantly, this commissioning was framed with love, and I doubt that Jesus had the usual style of leadership in mind.

Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus plainly tell the disciples that they have the authority to lead, govern, or organise his people, using any of the typical words for leadership.[2] Moreover, Jesus warned his disciples against the common kind of leadership (Matt. 20:25-28), and he warned them about accepting the titles and prestige usually attached to leaders. These titles, and the honour that goes with them, are reserved for Jesus and the other members of the Trinity (Matt. 23:8-11; John 13:13).

The Twelve, as well as other disciples, were authorised by Jesus to preach, teach, heal, deliver. They were given authority over demons, but they were not given authority over people. The Twelve were even given authority to interpret Scripture and define Christian practice, that is, they could “permit and forbid” (Matt.16:19), but this same authority is given to the church as a whole (Matt. 18:18).

The apostles were essentially servants of Jesus and they were servants of people. The word that is often used in this context in the Greek New Testament is doulos which is usually translated as actually “slave” rather than “servant”. Any authority that the Twelve had, and that we have, is a delegated authority from Jesus to be his slaves and agents. It is the authority to function in certain ministries in the name of Jesus, but it is not an authority over any capable, adult. Rather than having authority over another person, we are to be mutually submissive to one another (Eph. 5:21).

I am not saying that leading is wrong. Leading and pastoring, after all, are spiritual gifts – ministry gifts with no preference concerning gender or race (Rom. 12:6-8; Eph. 4:11). Any organisation which consists of more than a few people needs leadership.[4] But history has shown that the church’s emphasis (obsession?) and practice of authority and leadership, which has often emulated the worldly models of authoritarianism and patriarchy, seems to go well beyond the bounds of what Jesus taught and demonstrated (John 13:13-17).

The paradigm of leadership and service that Jesus taught is still not well understood or universally practiced in the church. I know that I haven’t fully grasped it yet, so it is a subject I will continue to mull over as I try to follow his example (John 13:15).


N.B. The Twelve are only infrequently referred to as apostles in the gospels: “only once in Matthew and Mark, not at all in John, and five times in Luke . . . Many scholars [e.g. W. Schmithals (1969:98-110)] in fact argue that Jesus did not at any time call the twelve ‘apostles’ during his lifetime.”  This infrequent use has caused Kevin Giles to pose the question, “Did Luke introduce the title ‘apostle’ in his role as editor of the historical sources he used, or was it already there?”  Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians by Kevin Giles (Collins Dove, 1989) p. 155, 157.

[1] I strongly doubt that Jesus commissioned Judas to be a leader of the church.

[2] It seems from Matthew 19:28 that when Jesus renews everything there will be a new paradigm of ministry for the Twelve.

[3] The frequent criticism of Jeremiah was that Israel’s shepherds (leaders) were careless and self absorbed: Jeremiah 2:8; 12:10; 22:22; 23:1-4.

[4] Leadership in the New Testament church was usually shared by a group of people rather than a solo pastor.

Image credit: Lightstock photo ID 124524

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Posted August 29th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Christian Living, Church History, Equality and Gender Issues, , ,

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30 comments on “What was the ‘job description’ of Jesus’ apostles?

  1. We just finished studying 1 Timothy, which was written by Apostle Paul to the man he sent to pastor the church at Ephesus. It was a letter written in response to the false teaching so prevalent in that city which had infiltrated the church. It’s interesting to note how Paul instructs Timothy to respond: fight the good fight “keeping faith and a good conscience,”(1:19) pointing out these things to the brethren (4:6)pay close attention to yourself and your teaching (4:16), not sharply rebuking, but rather appealing as members of his family (5:1-2), flee from those things and pursue righteousness, godliness,faith, love, perseverance and gentleness (6:12).

    This attitude of foremost leading by example goes along with Peter’s command to leadership: to not lord it over those allotted to your charge, but prove to be examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:3)

    I’m wondering where the leadership models prevalent today originated. Here in the States Bill Gothard instructed millions since the seventies with his seminars on the hierarchy of authority. It’s where many in my generation get their model, both in their homes and churches. Not to blame it all on one man, but that concept with all of its legalistic tendencies has stuck. It is used to validate unhealthy relationships in marriages and churches to this day.

    You’ve struck the nail on the head when it comes to Jesus’ teaching on leading. Paul certainly follows that attitude and instructs others to do the same. I’m blessed to be in a church where the elders and pastor follow God’s lead and lead by example, not dictatorship. It works. We have a healthy, thriving body, largely due to the attitude from the top on down.

    • Marg says:

      1 Timothy 5:1-2 and 1 Peter 5:3 are great verses to add to this discussion. Thanks, Julie.

      Let me add 2 Corinthians 1:24 where we read that Paul and his colleagues did not want to “lord it over” (kurieúō) the Christians in Corinth, but wanted to work together with them in a partnership.

      • TL says:

        Marg, I am wondering about that translation. I know that BLB’s lexicon gives kyrieuo as meaning “lord over, dominion over, rule and be lord of”, as does Thayers. However, scripture4all.com shows that the word is kyrieuomen (pl), and interprets it as ‘mastering’. Then in Matthew 20, the word used as “exercising dominion over” is katakyrieuo”, which on BLB is given the meaning of bringing another under one’s power, subjecting, etc.. On Scripture4all the Greek is katakurieuousin (pl. and tense right?).

        All that to wonder about the full meaning of kyrieuo as not being about lording it OVER which Jesus already clarified with katakurieuo, but perhaps being about an attitude of the position of mastering as in a master or land owner being the master of a slave, and thinking the one he is master of works for the kyrieuo. Often church leaders and pastors get this idea that the church is theirs and the members are working for them and their goals. Katakyrieuo is an expansion on the basic meaning of kyrieuo. They are not the same. But that still points to your suggestion that Paul wanted them to work in partnership.

        And also I think kyrieuo is used in a positive way of affectionate guardianship. Jesus is our kyrieuo. He is our Teacher and points us toward all Truth.

        So, can you give a more fine tuned look at the differences of meanings here?

        • Marg says:

          Kurieuo is the lexical form. (It is a common convention to use the lexical form unless there is something significant about the particular tense used in a certain passage.) Kurieuo is the first person, singular, present active indicative, verb. Kurieuomen is the 1st person, plural, present active indicative of kurieuo and can be translated as “we rule/master”.

          The words in Matthew 20:25-28 are intensified with the kata prefix and can be translated as “rule over”. (More on this in endnote 2 here.)

          Verbs and related nouns don’t always have a direct correspondence in meaning. Kurios can be used simply as a term of respect, but it is also used for masters. Jesus is our Lord and Master, so the term suits him perfectly. There are other words which relate an aspect of guardianship, I don’t think that kurios conveys that nuance. However, kurios is used to translate YHWH in the Old Testament. So there is a lot of meaning behind that simple word in many verses (cf Phil. 2:11)

          • TL says:

            Thanks. Yes, I get the verbs and nouns don’t always have a direct correspondence. But what I’m wondering about is the amount of difference between katakyreiuo and kyreiuo (kurios).
            It would seem to me that they cannot both mean lording over. what IYO is the difference and how much of a difference is there.

  2. Gail says:

    Marg, I’m really appreciating this today! If we could deconstruct the worldly paradigm of leadership from our church governance practices, I think it would really open up opportunities for service for the WHOLE body of Christ, but especially for women.

    • Marg says:

      I agree. There are lots of man-made rules and traditions that hinder the acceptance of women in ministry which have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus or the apostles.

  3. Manni says:

    Thank you for this approach to re-examine how Jesus desires “leadership” if at all is what He was calling his disciples to do. The concept of servanthood leadership rings naturally for many sisters I’ve served alongside with in the church. Often times, they’re ready to serve the church in such a way, it’s leading many to Christ. I think the traditional concept of leadership (wide range of what that looks like) we’re accustomed to naturally segregates women from it. Therefore, putting a challenge for women to be leaders since the concept is almost in some form contradictory. But as influencers like yourself continually ask the question of what is leadership that honors the calling Christ given us; or to follow His example since He often told his disciples to follow Him, I believe there will be more equity in the church for both servanthood and leadership. When we’re truly sincere in washing one another’s feet (great picture by the way) as a way to lead others to Christ, then there will be space for restorative work between men and women, generation to generation, racial conflicts, etc.
    Thank you!

    • Marg says:

      Thanks for your comment, Manni.

      Being a servant (or slave) is necessary for all followers of Jesus who truly want to become more like their master.

      Since we are all servants I don’t think it is necessary to use the term “servant leadership”. We don’t add the word “servant” to other ministry descriptions: we don’t say “servant evangelist” or servant teacher”, etc, so I see no reason to say “servant leader”.

  4. TL says:

    “[4] Leadership in the New Testament church was usually shared by a group of people rather than a solo pastor.

    I’ve been wondering about this lately. Usually, when people say this they think of modern democracy where a group votes and the group vote is followed. This is not a foolproof method to bring righteousness. Get enough people who wrongly interpret Scripture and they will control the church their way.

    And then there are the many references to solo leaders. The church that meets in Chloe’s household, Lydia, Priscilla and Acquila, Gaius (I think), and also Timothy definitely led an area by himself even if not one group. Like Timothy sometimes there is one shepherd who is desperately trying to draw a group of people toward more godly attitudes that left to themselves would go another way.

    So, I suspect that it is more complicated than first glance.

    Great words on leadership. 🙂

    • Marg says:

      There is no doubt that whole groups can be mistaken. We see it all the time. 🙁

      I’m not sure about solo leaders. I think doing ministry alone is unwise, unhealthy, and unbiblical. Paul always ministered with at least one coworker and sometimes he travelled and ministered with a group. One of the first duties of Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete was to appoint leaders and ministers.

      I think there was a difference to the leadership a house church and the leadership of the church of a city. In Corinth, for example, there were probably a few small house churches (including, perhaps, one that met in Chloe’s house.) These were connected by some kind of network which was administered by a group of ministers who provided cohesion, oversight, and possibly counsel.

      It may have been the same thing for other large cities such as Rome, Antioch, Philippi and Ephesus.

      There does seem to have been a several solo pastors at the house church level (e.g. the Chosen Lady in 2 John 1, and Gaius in 3 John 1). But the Chosen Lady and Gaius seem to have been cared for by John.

      Other pastors may have worked as couples or as small teams (e.g. Priscilla and Aquila; Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus in Philemon 1:1-2). But these ministers were part of Paul’s network.

      I still have trouble trying to envisage how the New Testament churches operated and how they networked.

      • TL says:

        I really agree about the need, especially in our era, of co-workers. Paul calls everyone who serves a co-worker. So, there could still be one person or a pair who served as shepherds but had a team of co-workers in other capacities. I envision the fivefold ministries as a team, not an hierarchy. I envision a pastor being the steerer of a group of fellow workers including: anointed teachers, preachers, ministers (deacons), oversee-era, etc. Not all churches are big enough to have more than one shepherd.

        I think I’m agreeing with you but coming from a different angle. 🙂

  5. judy says:

    I started to chuckle when I read that Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep…

    And to think of the years we women have been feeding the sheep!…obviously we have our roles reversed 🙂

  6. judy says:

    Another thought that comes up is the one where the disciples laid hands on Matthias and made him the replacement for Judas AND THEN WE NEVER HEAR ABOUT HIM AGAIN…have you ever wondered why?

    I have…and then I realized that God ignored their actions and just replaced Judas Himself with the apostle Paul WHOM HE CALLED HIMSELF.

    This is very rarely taught and I believe it puts an end to man calling men and teaches that God will raise up His leaders and when we hear them we will know them by the power He gives them as they knew Paul by the evidence of God’s power on him.

    I think we have erred in the teaching of men laying hands on other men as having any efficacy for installing leadership…and ignoring God’s leadership in this matter. The laying on of hands, if at all, should follow the observation that God has ALREADY called a person for the job and we confirm His call.

    Finally I have heard a hundred prayers for God to send the MAN of his choosing…we err here by not leaving the choice up to God instead…we need to pray “Lord send us your choice for us”…and then wait for His response….that is how I see it anyway…it is highly presumptuous to tell God we don’t want any women He might send…

    • TL says:

      Judy, I totally agree that the laying on of hands should be AFTER God has called and is equipping a person for ministry. It should be about the believers showing God that we recognize His calling on the person.

    • Marg says:

      After Pentecost, we only hear about Peter, John and James. We don’t hear about any of the other Twelve. That’s because Luke was only interested in showing the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome in the book of Acts. He was not interested in relating what the other apostles and ministers were doing or where they were going with the gospel.

      I think that at least part the Twelve’s function was symbolic and that this symbolic function was fulfilled once Pentecost took the Jesus’ followers, multiplied them, and led them in new directions with new power.

      I don’t believe that Paul was Judas’s replacement. There were many years between the death of Judas and the beginning of Paul’s ministry (Gal. 1:15-24). Paul never saw himself as one of the Twelve and carefully makes the distinction between them and himself (1 Cor. 15:3-9). I have written about that here:

      • TL says:

        I agree that Paul was not Judah’s replacement. Paul’s calling as an apostle was different than the twelve. The twelve IMO were a bridge of leadership from the chosen people of Israel, carrying Israel from the Old Covenant into the New Covenant in the Messiah. This way we cannot divorce Israel from Christianity, in the ways that Israel divorced gentiles from Judaism. The Twelve’s job was laying certain foundations of fellowship and ministry. Paul was an expansion of their ministry, building upon their ministries.

        something like that anyway. Early morning thinking. 🙂

  7. Marg says:

    Julie, I got your book in the mail! I’m looking forward to reading it, once this week’s sermon is better organised.


  8. Marg says:

    TL, The Greek word for “rule has a similar range of meanings as the English word “rule”. It can refer to a benevolent rule or a despotic, harsh rule . . . and everything in between.

    When the Greek word has the prefix kata the word is intensified so as to mean total dominion. There may also be a top-down dynamic inferred here. The same intensified verb is used in the Septuagint in Genesis 1:28 for people ruling the earth. (See here.)

    I truly believe mankind – both men and women – were created to “rule over” the earth, in a good way, but we were not created to “rule over” other human beings.

    • TL says:

      “I truly believe mankind – both men and women – were created to “rule over” the earth, in a good way, but we were not created to “rule over” other human beings.”

      I quite agree with that. 🙂

  9. That is a great explanation of the Apostle’s roles, and I always agree with the type of leadership you describe regarding the church. Spiritual leadership is quite different than the regular type of leadership in society.

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