written by
Tim Fong

The Core Of Biblical Leadership

24 min read
Photographer: Element5 Digital | Source: Unsplash

“Leadership” is critical to the growth of a church.

Poor leadership can crater a church.

Solid leadership can impact lives.

How, then, do you both evaluate and cultivate leadership in a biblical way?

These two concepts go hand-in-hand: failure to evaluate leadership capability will undermine most efforts to cultivate strong leaders.

The three key ideas this post will cover:

  • Mistaken, yet common, ways to evaluate leaders
  • The critical foundation most teams miss in developing leadership
  • How to start your own journey to becoming or developing leaders

Mistaken leadership characteristics

The understandably common way to evaluate leadership is to look at what someone does. After all, how someone behaves reveals much about the person.

Within a church context, you might be looking at one or more of the following when asking yourself, “Who should be a leader?”

  • The one who volunteers the most
  • The one who knows the most people
  • The one with the most eloquent prayers
  • The one with the most put together life
  • The one who gives the most
  • The one who acts like all the previous leaders
  • The one who has memorized the most verses
  • The one who exhibits a “servant’s heart”
  • The one who displays wisdom

I would argue that, while none of the above are bad or wrong, these external behaviors are actually not foundations to strong leadership. Good leaders within a church — which can range from those leading a small group all the way up to serving as an elder, paid or unpaid — will likely exhibit one or more of these. And any one of these traits can still result in someone who can lead.

But these can’t be the foundational criteria according to Scripture.

Why does the right criteria matter?

You will pick what you look for. You will miss what you don't.

Without defining what to look for based on Scripture, you’ll be inclined to make decisions based on your own wisdom. What may seem reasonable to you could likely be folly.

Here’s an example of how one church leader described his vetting process for a head pastor: “I play basketball with him. And you can tell alot about how they play.”

This approach sounds cool. It seems “deep” while also very “hip.”

But it’s also wrong.

The pastor who was ultimately selected this way saw his church drop from 200 to 20 within a seven years.

While there are many reasons for this unfortunate outcome, one weakness emerged throughout this pastor’s tenure, right up to the time it shut down. So while he passed the “basketball” test, he missed on this one critical foundation which I will share in a moment.

But what’s important to understand is, he’s not alone. In fact, other pastors have made the case that this one skill described in the Bible was not necessary.

Before we get to this, let’s look at areas we should not prioritize in the development or evaluation of leadership.

Traditions aren't good basis

The first and broadest way to set one’s mind on determining leadership is to not rely on traditional practices, conceits, and presumptions of what leadership looks like.

However, this seems like the path that would make sense on the surface.

If one grew up with leaders behaving a particular way, why wouldn’t that, in turn, be cultivated in the next new environment?

But Jesus warned broadly about taking on the traditions of the religious leaders (emphasis added):

“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”‭‭Matthew‬ ‭15:1-6‬ ‭ESV‬‬

For clarity: just because something is a tradition doesn’t invalidate it or make in not Biblical. However, just because something is a tradition also doesn’t guarantee Scriptural adherence.

Jesus then calls out some examples.

Public Prayer

Public prayer isn’t wrong or bad. Praying, whether in private or in public, is good. But consider Jesus’ warning:

When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. (Matthew 6:5)

In other words, not all prayer, no matter how fervent or eloquent, can be the basis for evaluating whether someone is a hypocrite or not. No one can make that determination. No one is in a position to discern whether someone is praying in earnest and doing so for show.

Given that, we cannot therefore use that as a basis for evaluation. Nor should it be the primary focus for cultivating leaders.

Giving and Generosity

Displays of generosity could be a sign of leadership. After all, giving to an organization displays commitment and selflessness.

However, it still cannot be a primary criteria. Jesus says the following about those religious leaders who give:

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. (Matthew 6:3-4)

If Jesus is says that your giving should “be in secret,” it suggests that it can be hard to use that as a means to evaluate leadership potential.

Good behavior

While the pastoral letters do talk about character as a requirement for leadership (as a deacon or an elder), it’s not sufficient.

But it’s an unreliable point of evaluation. Consider this warning:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. (Matthew 23:27)

However, if external behavior, even indicators of quality character, can still belong to a “whitewashed tomb.”

Bible knowledge

Being able to quote Scripture, too, may seem like a good litmus for one’s faithfulness and capacity to lead.

But in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, Satan quotes and misapplies Scripture.

Fervent belief in God

This seems like it should be a good indicator of a leader. Someone who is declaring their belief and faith in God. Whose behavior shows that they believe in God.

But consider James’ warning:

You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. (James 2:19)

Belief and the profession of that belief matters. You would not want a leader who denied the existence of God. But it’s not a critical starting point. It’s not the foundation to leadership.

Displays of wisdom

Shouldn’t someone who is wise, perhaps have demonstrated wisdom in their choice of occupation, be a worthy leader? After all, decision-making is based on those who are wise.

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, “He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness.” (1 Corinthians 3:19j

Does this mean to ignore people with these attributes?

In all of these instances, how often are these the ways we determine eligibility and candidacy for leadership in churches.

For emphasis: I’m not saying to discard them. But I am saying to not elevate them as the primary criteria.

Instead, I would propose we look to Scripture for a recurring and explicit requirement in leaders.

Note: I’m not advocating that something needs to be Biblical before it can be implemented. And I don’t think a plan or proposal must to be discarded if not explicitly mentioned in the Bible.

I don’t think there’s much value in something being deemed “Biblical” for its own sake.

However, given that a) Scripture does explicitly state specific criteria for leaders and b) leadership matters in the growth of the church, at minimum it deserves close inspection.

Foundation to Leadership

Three Pauline letters give us insight into leadership: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Together, they provide guidance on eldership and deaconship.

Let’s see what those letters say.

Titus references directly the qualification of elders:

As God’s steward, an overseer must be above reproach— not self-absorbed, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not greedy for money. Instead, he must be hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the faithful word as it was taught, so that he can encourage others by sound teaching and refute those who contradict it. (Titus 1:7-9)

Behavioral qualifications, many of those the same discussed earlier, are included. Which confirms what I shared earlier: behavior still matters. But this verse also doesn’t not state all the things being “above reproach” are sufficient, just necessary.

Why?

Because the verse also calls out an attribute rarely listed as a litmus for leadership:

so that he can encourage others by sound teaching and refute those who contradict it.

So elders must be able to teach, teach soundly, and counter contradictions to God’s word.

Teaching is expected of Elders.

Philip Towner, write:

“And while there is no need to limit the gift to the overseer (2 Timothy 2:2), it is certainly not unexpected that church leaders would be chosen from among those who display this gift.” (The Letters of Timothy and Titus)

Some may argue that teaching is a subset of elders based on the following passage:

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17)

The argument would go that some are good a “ruling” (another translation for “directing affairs”) and another group are good at preaching and also teaching.

Commentary from David Platt (1 Timothy) counters that a better interpretation of “especially” is as a descriptor “that is” — meaning Paul is elaborating on the characteristics of those who rule well. “In other words, good leaders in the church are those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

Consider the alternative: that some just “rule”; others teach.

Some churches abide by this by exempting some elders as just “administrative” or “executive” — making decisions — while others teach.

This introduces huge complexity: you would have a segment of elders who have been conferred authority but they cannot teach the Word. But authority comes from the Word.

If they are unable to frame, substantiate, and communicate, their decisions based on a teachable exposition on the Word, then here’s the reality: they are making decisions in their own will and in their own minds. Their authority comes from something other than Scripture.

The book of Jeremiah includes a warning about this:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:16)

Another writer who calls attention to the criticality of teaching as a capability for elders writes:

Simply put, the idea of pastor-elders being savvy decision-makers, but not teachers, is foreign to the New Testament.1

If elders are, in fact, to “rule” that authority is both conferred and confirmed through an ability to teach the Word. Doing so without that foundation is to rule from a different authority.

Even still, some may argue against requiring the ability to teach by all elders y citing James:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

This verse sets the bar high for those who teach. So the argument would state that this “greater strictness” means it cannot be applied to all elders because the bar is so high.

But that actually doesn’t contradict the notion that elders or leaders should be teachers. Elders have a higher bar than the rest of the congregation; so do teachers. In fact, this association of a greater level of scrutiny and accountability implies a strong relationships between the two.

We’ve now established teaching is a primary criteria for all elders to be qualified and chosen. In other words, those who cannot teach, cannot be elders; and those who can teach, should be considered for eldership.

So the question is whether Deacons should be able to teach.

The case against Deacons teaching

Perhaps the most cited proof that deacons should be relieved of the requirement to teach is the rewuirement’s absence when talking about deacons. The argument against deacons teaching states that, because the requirement is unstated, deacons have no responsibility to do so.

In other words, according to this argument, omission means negation. If the verse doesn’t explicitly require a capability, you don’t need to exhibit it.

Let’s compare what 1 Timothy 3 says about elders and deacons:

Elder vs Deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-10)

So we see that, in addition to teaching, a few other requirements were listed for elders but not for deacons: temperate, hospitable, not violent, good reputation with outsiders.

If the argument that deacons are relieved of teaching because it was not explicitly listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-10, then they should also be relieved of those other requirements.

That feels weak, and sets a bad precedent for any kind of rhetorical parallelism.

Consider another one of Paul’s epistles which compares and contrasts in a similar fashion — Ephesians 5:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Wives are to “submit.” Husbands are to “love.”

Does the absence of wives needing to love in the text exempt wives from loving?

And does the absence of husbands submitting exempt them from submitting?

To rest an argument for an important expectation on the “omission means exemption” feels tenuous in both examples.

Recap to this point

Here is what we have covered so far:

  1. Common characteristics of leadership are like “traditions” — expectations and beliefs that aren’t substantive
  2. Teaching is required of all elders, not just some of them
  3. The argument that, because teaching is not mentioned in 1 Timothy 3 on the verse on deacons does not exempt deacons from teaching

The question still remains whether deacons should teach.

One way to answer that question is to ask, “should everyone who is a follower be able to teach?”

Should everyone teach?

Do you believe the Great Commission applies to all believers?

Here’s the verse (emphasis added):

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 18:19-20)

Jesus says that “teaching” is part of the call to make disciples.

Does Matthew 18 apply only to Elders because they are the only ones expected to teach?

Or should all followers be expected to follow the Great Commission which, in its very definition, entails teaching?

Let’s continue to explore whether teaching casts a wide or narrow net:

Consider this verse written by Paul in 2 Timothy:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. (2 Timothy 2:24)

The question, then, is whether all followers should be considered “the Lord’s servant” or should only Elders?

While I don’t know the answer definitively, I think a case can be made that “servant,” or in some translations “bond servant,” applies to all who follow Christ because Christ has paid down his debt of sin. The resulting service is then by all those who not just follow but serve Christ as Lord.

While it’s not super explicit, a pretty strong argument can be made that all followers should know how to teach. The Great Commission applies to all Christians — effectively abiding means teaching God’s laws; and all Christians are “bond servants” to Jesus in response to him having paid a debt that kept us enslaved — and the Lord’s servant is to be able to teach.

Okay, so let’s entertain the thought that elders should teach, followers of Christ should teach, but deacons still remain exempt. This premise, already, appears tenuous, but let's roll with it.

Can we find guidance or references to specific deacons to help us gain clarity on who should be a deacon.

Deacons, in Acts, were those freeing up the apostles:

And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.

However, there doesn't appear to be documentation on why these seven were suitable deacons.

Was Timothy a deacon?

If Timothy were, in fact, a deacon, then we could apply the exhortations from Paul to Timothy as applicable to deaconship.

A signal of deaconship, those who referred to as “these men,” occurs in Acts 6:6:

They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

If we believe the pastoral epistles were directed to elders and deacons both, and we know that deacons were appointed through the laying-on of hands, then Timothy is likely a deacon:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:6)

Timothy’s likely a deacon, and he’s expected to teach.

Since Timothy is a deacon and expected to teach, and since those who follow the Great Commission and consider themselves as “servant of the Lord” are also expected to teach, one can make a reasonable assumption that, yes, deacons should be able to teach.

But let’s step back for a second and reason together: is there an upside for allowing deacons who cannot teach?

Conversely, are there any downsides by saying all leaders, both elders and deacons, should nurture and develop their capacity to teach?

In other words, if you’re still undecided, imagine we were to play it forward and expect there to be a good reason for God desiring to exempt deacons.

What’s at stake

Before we look at the upsides versus downsides, let’s consider the context that Paul presented when exhorting Timothy to teach:

preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:2-3)

In giving guidance to Timothy, Paul warns that people will find “teachers to suit their own passions.” And as a result, they will “turn away from listening to the truth.”

False teaching doesn’t seem to be a small concern for Paul.

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. (1 Timothy 6:3)

Given the level of concern, would Paul want to discourage more from being good teachers?

Nevertheless, let’s consider what the downsides would be of requiring teaching from deacons, not just elders.

Benefits of exempting deacons fro teaching

Before I look at the benefits of requiring deacons to teach, let’s consider the benefits of exemption — releasing deacons from this requirement. What could they be?

A lower bar means wider, broader participation in serving the church. Nothing wrong with that.

Now let’s consider the downsides of the stiffer requirement: you’d have fewer in number.

I can’t think of much other benefits of loosening the requirements; in fact, isn’t that typically the primary reason people want to exempt a criterion? That requiring the criterion would make the filters too tight? Too few will pass?

This is a reasonable and practical consideration. After all, what harm could there be in having more workers when the workers are few? Why impossible this hurdle?

A small, but growing, church needs warm bodies who are willing to serve and “wait tables” as they did in the early church from Acts 6.

You could probably imagine church leaders saying, “It’s hard enough to get people to come, not to mention serve. If we now require that deacons need to be able to teach, we won’t have any deacons at all! We have enough teachers, that’s what the staff is for.”

While I believe there could be times when loosening a tight interpretation of Scripture to meet the practical of real life is fine, this is not one of them.

Your church may be filled to the brim with people who are breaking down their doors and you need deacons to help out. The wrong order of operations, unfortunately, is to make people who cannot yet teach, no matter how eager, into deacons.

The right order of operations is to seek out or mentor as many strong teachers as possible. If your church is filled with brand new converts, beg, borrow, and steal people to come who can teach to be deacons, if not elders.

In this case, the practical consideration of having needing more bodies, so therefore removing the qualifications, doesn’t really match God’s economy.

The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ (Judges 7:2)

In other words, while the disadvantage of being under resourced is real, often God permits perceived scarcity to increase real dependency.

Scarcity of qualified workers for the field, unfortunately, does not appear to be a strong or substantiated reason to exempt deacons from teaching.


Final section we will cover:

  • Benefits of leadership (elders and deacons) that can teach
  • Mistaken ideas of teaching that hinder people from teaching
  • How to reframe teaching so it's both important and doable

Ideas benefits, example of teaching, difference beteeen form and function

Benefits of requiring all leaders to be able to teach

Here are the benefits:

  • Stronger pool of elders
  • Better vetting of elders
  • Smaller blast radius

Stronger pool of elders

The best time to start is now. Imagine not requiring deacons to teach.

But you also need to develop your elders.

Elders will be required to teach, and arguably also preach.

Does it not make sense to then begin that processes earlier, rather than later?

Better vetting of elders

It's so much easier to evaluate teaching by someone who has to do it.

The awareness of scripture, the ability to assess clarity and conciseness, all come from being a doer.

Smaller blast radius

What happens when a leader does fail? Which configuration has more impact on the church?

Broader and faster spiritual transformation in the church

What prepares leaders?

“These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.”

This passage about the Bereans has been translated in a few different ways. In NIV, “fair-minded” is translated as “noble character.” NLT is “open-minded.”

“We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.” ‭‭(2 Corinthians‬ ‭10:4-5‬ ‭NLT‬‬)

What is the risk?

There is a legitimate risk to holding Scripture in such high regard.

The risk isn't because of anything wrong with Scripture.

The risk comes from being pedantic. Scripture is not meant to be a version of human wisdom. It's not information.

“These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

‭‭I Corinthians‬ ‭2:13-14‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

But wait: aren't my feelings and intuition spirit of God?

The application of scripture is to treat it as

Arguments against teaching as required for elders (and my response)

“If teaching is the basis of qualification of eldership (in addition to the behavioral/character requirements), we could have way more elders if your entire flock is capable of teaching.”

First, if your entire flock is capable of teaching, that’s a good problem to have.

Where’s your church?

Second, if this is in fact the case (which would be more Biblical than not), then this would actually bolster my argument that 1 Timothy’s verse commending elders as “those whose work is preaching and teaching” means elders — all elders — both preach and teach. This would be one way to separate the teachers, those in the congregation, and elders.

The other way to limit the selection of elders from a church filled with capable teachers is to just raise the expectation in the quality of teaching.

“But we have someone who did go to seminary and he’d be great for a bunch of other non-teaching responsibilities; he’s just not a good teacher.”

Great, there’s nothing wrong with seeking the help and wisdom from someone who can help you or your church but isn’t a teacher. Just don’t make that person an elder. You can call them an advisor, a counselor, a supporter, a consultant — but don’t call the person an elder or confer upon that person attributes that would lead someone to believe that person to be an elder.

Eldership is not the only way someone can help a church in substantive ways.

Why lower the bar, why dilute Scriptural emphasis and urgency, when it’s not necessary?

“Well, there are some people who are teachers who have messed up lives, I can’t imagine them being an elder.”

Then don’t make them an elder.

How to think different about teaching

Teaching can has a loaded term.

We associate the form: someone wearing a tweed jacket standing in front of a chalkboard droning in about history or math or something useless.

Isn't that the negative connotation that makes people not want to be a teacher?

We associate teachers as imparting facts.

But what is teaching really about in the Christian context.

To teach is really about being able to convey to someone the truth.

No one is an expert on the truth.

But if something is true to you, don't you understand the reasoning? Can't you describe why something is true and another thing is false. Don't you try to do it not because it's an interesting tidbit, but because you don't want the other person to continue believing a lie?

Isn't teaching really about sharing the truth?

What is Scripture for?

Now let's dig deeper into the root of teaching.

All along, teaching isn't about imparting facts, like science or history. To be clear: all references to teaching are about teaching the word.

Why?

Because Scripture is meant to be taught:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (2 Timothy 3:16j

What does it mean to be a good teacher?

  • Teaching is a gradually developed capability
  • Some will actually be gifted in Teaching
  • Preaching as well as teaching, together, is worthy and your culture should reflect that

Characteristics of good teachers

  • Correct
  • Correcting
  • Connecting

Cautions about a teaching-based leadership

One potential downfall is allowing teaching to be the same as pedantic.

Pedantry is not the same as the truth.

However, unless a strong ....

Be credible to share the incredible

Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, (Titus 2:7)