When Christ returned to the Father after his passion, he left no mandate for a church order. Rather, he promised to send the Holy Spirit who would direct the disciples and remind them of all he had taught them (Jn. 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7, 13-15). Hence, leadership in the early Christian communities evolved by a process guided by God. Tracing this development is a matter of piecing together small hints and incidental mentions that are scattered throughout the New Testament.
While Jesus left no mandate for church order, the disciples of Jesus were not without patterns of religious leadership from their Jewish background. Such leadership was to be found in four primary areas, the temple, the Sanhedrin, the synagogue and the less formally structured special interest groups and community settings. The temple was regulated by the priesthood. The office of high priest theoretically was supposed to be inherited (Nu. 25:10-13), but during the Hellenistic period, and later, during the Roman period, this office was often achieved by simony or political favor so that dissident Jewish groups considered the high priesthood to be corrupt. In addition to the high priest and the large numbers of ordinary priests there were “chief priests,” either the permanent staff of priestly officials in Jerusalem or the aggregate of former high priests and their family members.
The Sanhedrin was the supreme religious, political and legal council in Jerusalem. Its roots went back to the post-exilic period when Joshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, the governor, ruled the community along with a council of priestly nobility (Ezr. 3:8; Hg. 1:1; Zec. 3-4; Ne. 2:16; 5:7). Seventy in number, the council was presided over by the high priest, making the total number seventy-one. Most of its members were priests, though it also included scribes (copyists of Scripture) and elders (powerful laypersons and dignitaries).
The synagogue was the place of prayer and assembly for local Jewish communities. It was the center of community life, both religious and social, and it served as a school, a place of worship, a site for general assembly, and a venue for community discipline. Wherever there were a minimum of ten Jewish males, a synagogue could be started, and within the synagogue, any Jewish male could read Scripture, translate, preach or lead prayers. Women were restricted, however. They were allowed to attend the synagogue service, but lattice barriers or galleries were constructed to segregate the women from the men. They, along with children and slaves, were forbidden to teach or to publicly read the Torah. During the service, they could only listen. Leadership in the synagogue consisted of a ruler or head of the assembly, who presided over services and designated those to perform the functions of the liturgy. Scholars called rabbis (= teachers) were often associated with synagogues, though they also functioned independently as they drew on the ancient traditions and modified or reshaped them for contemporary relevance.
Besides the more familiar religious structures of temple, Sanhedrin and synagogue, local Jewish communities had various forms of authority that belonged to the assembly of men of the city. Older males served as a council of leaders called “the elders,” a kind of local Sanhedrin with general oversight for community affairs. Also, there were special interest groups, like the Qumran community or the various zealot groups, with their own indigenous leaders. At Qumran, for instance, there was a supreme council and an overseer who examined candidates for membership, directed the treasury and divided the labor. Members were examined annually and assigned a rank in accord with their spiritual progress.
It is not apparent that the disciples of Jesus followed completely any one of these preexisting structures. The temple hierarchy had limited application to church life, since the Christians looked back to the older ideal that the entire community was a priesthood (He. 10:19-22; 1 Pe. 2:9; cf. Ex. 19:6). The function of high priestly service, at least in a sacerdotal way, had been performed once and for all by Christ Jesus (He. 9:23-26; 10:11-14, 18; 1 Ti. 2:5-6). The Sanhedrin, likewise, had little to offer as a model for Christian church government.
The synagogue, however, was more fruitful for leadership paradigms, and there were both similarities and dissimilarities to the Christian churches. Titles like “elder” and descriptions like “synagogue” were used by the Christians (Ja. 2:2). The general pattern of Christian worship, with Scripture reading, prayers and a homily, was generally similar to the Jewish synagogue liturgy. When Paul and Barnabas took a gift from Antioch, Syria to the Jerusalem church and presented it to the “elders” (Ac. 11:30), there seems little doubt that the title functioned for the Christians more or less like it did in the broader Jewish communities. Later, Paul and Barnabas would appoint “elders” in all the new Christian congregations in Asia Minor (Ac. 14:23).
There were some marked differences, however, especially for slaves and women, who were welcomed as full members of the Christian assemblies and allowed to publicly participate (1 Co. 11:5) and engage in theological dialogue (Ac. 18:26). The distinction of carrying a church letter, which generally included reading the letter publicly and explaining its contents, was a high honor indeed that Paul conferred upon Phoebe (Ro. 16:1-2). Quartus and Tertius, both probably slaves, are reckoned with the Christian brothers as fully as Erastus, the Director of Public Works in Corinth, and Tertius served as Paul’s amanuensis (Ro. 16:22-23b). Paul had no hesitation in recommending the slave Onesimus as a full brother in Christ (Philmn 15-16). Thus, it is to be expected that the early Christians drew some of their ideas about leadership from familiar patterns in the Jewish community. At the same time, because they were a new community bound to the teachings and ethics of Jesus, they were free to reshape these traditions to conform to Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit.