What Makes Someone a Christian Leader?


Dennis McCallum

In the New Testament God used human leaders to bring blessing and feeding to the church. From the day of Pentecost, the apostles acted as de facto leaders. They preached, taught, (Acts 2:42) and ruled on issues that came up for debate (Acts 6:1,2). They were able to delegate leadership to others (Acts 6:3,4).

After the period of the Jerusalem church, attention shifts to Paul's missionary journeys. Paul, too, was an apostle, and an obvious leader. He served in Antioch with a group of men who were said to be "prophets and teachers." (Acts 13:1) These were probably the elders in Antioch, though never says that. It does record that "they" [probably the same men] laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off on the first journey." The reason they chose Paul and Barnabas was divine election (see below). On that first journey we see them appointing elders in the new churches they planted. (Acts 14:23) The fasting and prayer that preceded these appointments suggests they were seeking God's choice for leaders. These appointments ware made during their return trip through these cities, indicating that some time had passed (probably only weeks) since their original visit.

During the second journey, Paul added Timothy to his band, likely leading to Timothy's eventual recognition as an apostle. Although this is never actually stated, Timothy acts in the role of an apostle in appointing elders and overseeing elders according to 1 Timothy. (Ch. 3; 5:17ff) The only criteria given in Acts for why Paul chose Timothy is that "The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him." (Acts 16:2) However, in 2 Tim. 1:6 Paul refers to bestowing gifts on Timothy by the laying on of his own hands (most likely the gift of apostleship). This is also referred to in 1 Tim. 4:14 where Paul reminds him of his gift, "which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery." Thus, if a prophetic utterance was the occasion of Timothy's choosing, we again have a case of divine election.

Both Timothy and Titus are given the job of appointing elders. Of interest is the fact that Paul has left them behind to do this work, implying that it was not possible to select elders when he was there. This suggests that they wanted to see these men actually living out leadership roles before making the choice to recognize them as elders. Likewise, Paul cautions Timothy about deacons: "They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons." (1 Timothy 3:10)

Overarching these observations about leadership in the early church, we see evidence of divine election in the selection of leaders. This should be clear for the following reasons.

  • The Apostles were chosen by Christ. The correct context of John 15:16 (You did not chose me, but I chose you) is not unconditional election or irresistible grace, but election to the role of apostle. Likewise, God's choice is evident in the story of Paul's conversion (where God refers to his future ministry) and in the story of the Spirit speaking to the leaders at Antioch in Acts 13 (saying, "Set apart for me Paul and Barnabas..."). Timothy was apparently named an apostle by a prophetic message from God. (1 Timothy 4:14) We find, therefore, that when it comes to the role of leadership in the New Testament, the key is whether or not God has chosen the person.
  • Paul comments on his own credentials for leadership in the book of 2 Corinthians 3:1-3: "Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts..." Here, Paul contrasts human credentials (letters of commendation) to his own credentials, which are nothing less than the marks of divine election. Instead of humans writing his letter, he says the Spirit of God wrote it on human hearts.
  • Notice Paul's reference in 2 Corinthians 10:12 to "the field God has assigned to us." God apparently assigns fields of ministry, and Paul's proof that he was assigned the field in question is that he had done the work there, as the context makes clear.
  • According to Romans 12:8, there is a gift of leadership. Likewise, Ephesians 4:11-12 says, "It was he [God] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up." This is in harmony with the notion that God "has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be." (1 Corinthians 12:18) In other words, these passages seem to say that God chooses who should lead his church. We believe leaders can serve even without a gift of leadership, although we should seek out and include those with such a gift if they have good character.
  • We see in the waiting period between the planting of churches and the selection of elders an apparent effort to discern who God wants to serve as leaders. This is also the best explanation for why deacons are tested before they are ordained. The existing leadership seems to assume that God has certain people whom he wants to lead, and their mission is to discern who those people are. Paul warns Timothy not to be too hasty to lay on hands [i.e. to chose leaders 1 Timothy 5:22 context].
  • Election was evident with Old Testament leaders as well. God often made a personal appearance to choose leaders, as with Abraham and Moses. To David God says, "I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be leader over My people Israel." (1 Chronicles 17:7) Indeed, all the legitimate kings of Israel were anointed by prophets as chosen of God.
  • Mature Christian character is a prerequisite for leadership in all cases. Even highly gifted leaders who lack the needed character qualities may not be named as leaders. This is implied in the requirements for elders and deacons, which focus on character qualities.

We conclude that God, not humans, makes a person a spiritual leader. As existing church leaders, our mission is not to create leaders out of non-leaders by naming them or ordaining them. On the contrary, our mission is to discern whom God has chosen to be a leader, and to ratify, or recognize that choice. In naming leaders we are indicating that we believe God has shown this person is already chosen to be a leader because he or she is already doing the work of a leader and has the character of a leader.


The implications of this perspective on leadership are profound. If we conclude that God chooses leaders, our goal becomes cooperatiaon with the choice of God in assuring that only divinely appointed leaders are recognized. Therefore:

  • We should avoid appointing someone as a leader on any basis other than our belief that God has chosen him or her for that role. This rules out leadership based on seniority, on level of scholarship, degrees earned, prestige in the community, personal friendship, etc.
  • We should exercise caution when giving, or providing ministry to a young Christian. We should provide opportunity to build ministry, but we would not want to install a young worker into a well-developed ministry he or she did not actually build. Otherwise, we might simulate from the human side what God should provide from his side. The result could be that a person appears to be chosen by God, when in fact we have installed the person in their position artificially. Installing a person into a developed ministry will often result in the "turtle on a fence post" syndrome (i.e. the turtle didn't put himself there, someone else placed him there). We may harm both the church and the individual when we interfere with God's election in this way. It makes more sense to offer young workers opportunities to follow up new people and form discipleship relationships than to offer them ready-made leadership roles like existing cell groups or home groups. An exception to this would be cases where a person has proven leadership in one venue, and we call on them to move to a new ministry. This was apparently what Barnabas did when he summoned Paul from Tarsus to Antioch.
  • We should be very reluctant to remove ministry from a young Christian worker. Such removal could result in a subsequent failure to recognize God's choice of the person for leadership because humans have disrupted his or her ministry every time it begins to flourish. There are important exceptions to this rule of thumb warranted in Scripture. The main exception would be the case where the young worker has disqualified him or herself by recent, serious, and objective sin. Scripture teaches the importance of moral character for Christian workers in passages like the requirements for deacons, (which, if violated could result in disqualification). Although young workers are not deacons, the principle would still apply to some extent, that anyone who serves the Lord needs to live up to minimal standards of Christian character. The Bible provides examples of leaders removed from leadership due to sin or false teaching (1 Timothy 1:20; 3 John 9,10). But these passages indicate that such removal should involve serious sin, not minor slip-ups. We would assume the same thing with young workers--they should not be removed from ministry because of minor slip-ups. All the passages warning against hypocrisy also imply that those trying to lead others, should be doing what they preach to a large extent. (Luke 12:1) "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."
  • Whether someone is removed from leadership for disciplinary reasons or removes himself for other reasons, this could be an indication that God has not elected the person for leadership at this time. For this reason, we would not restore one who has been removed from leadership back to leadership unless the signs of divine election are again evident. This usually means the person has returned to the beginning stages of ministry and re-built their following. An exception to this might be situations where leaders have temporarily stepped down due to situations judged to be either outside their control, or unimportant.
  • Only leaders whose ministry is blessed by God are considered for advancement to higher levels of ministry. If we err in putting in leaders whom God has not chosen for that role, we do better to make such errors at lower levels of leadership rather than higher levels.
  • The notion that leaders are chosen by God strongly implies favoring indigenous leadership to imported leadership. Leaders imported from another group cannot be realistically affirmed by the local members and leaders, unless they know those in the former location relatively well. Such imported leaders usually have to depend on external credentials or hearsay for their legitimacy. Although we see the example of Barnabas bringing Paul in from Tarsus to Antioch, Barnabas had personal knowledge of Paul and his ability. Paul had also planted more than one church in Syria and Cilicia before Barnabas came for him. (Acts. 15:36,41)

Even with these principles, the business of determining God's calling remains subjective. We are often reduced to guesswork when naming leaders, because there are so many variables involved. We usually are faced with compromise in at least some areas with every leader we recognize. Pray often that God will clearly indicate his choices for leadership.

Even churches that work toward installing only leaders chosen and manifested by God will sometimes find they have leaders who don't belong. These are usually painful situations that call for grace and firmness. Certainly every church would hope to keep such situations to a minimum. Ideally, we should have all our leaders actually functioning as leaders, all belonging in their roles because God himself has chosen to put them there. Realistically, this will not be the case, because even some who were chosen to be leaders at one time, later act in such a way to discredit themselves, or for other reasons are no longer able to serve (e.g. Paul and Barnabas sent away from Antioch). Therefore, this issue becomes a perpetual area of tension in the church as new leaders are considered, and older leaders are reconsidered. Our best move is to follow principles calculated to maximize the likelihood of chosen leaders holding authority so we have a God-made, not a man-made leadership in the church.