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Part 4.

A Brief Historical Overview of the Church's Understanding

of Itself, Its Mission, and Church Leadership

The Early Church. Church leadership was God's idea, not man's, and Jesus personally trained the Church's first leaders using Master-Disciple pattern relationships. Out of the disciples that followed Jesus around, He chose twelve to live with him on a daily basis. These twelve were appointed by Jesus to be Apostles. The Apostles formed a collective body around which Early Church was structured. They had two primary roles: 1) to preach the good news and bear witness to resurrection of Jesus; 2) to disciple those who responded to gospel and help them find their place of ministry in the church.

As time went on and the church grew, other leadership positions developed. In Acts 6 the Apostles encouraged the believers to choose seven men, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, who could assume administrative responsibilities, thus freeing the Apostles to minister the Word and spend time in prayer. In time a body of elders is mentioned at the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30).

The New Testament does not describe clearly the nature of the leadership that existed in the Early Church. It probably varied over time and also from place to place, being guided by the Holy Spirit. Leaders were basically of two sorts, though there was not a clear division between the two. Some leaders were itinerants who traveled widely, planting churches and giving assistance where it was needed. People in this category include Paul, Timothy, Agabus, and Titus. Many of these had certain spiritual gifts which the Holy Spirit meant to be exercised throughout the church at large. Other leaders were attached to a local church and seem to have only exercised their leadership there. These leaders are collectively referred to as elders (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5). The New Testament also refers to deacons and overseers (bishops) as local church leaders (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-13). Some believe elders and overseers refer to the same persons, but it is more likely that elders is a general term for the group of overseers and deacons in a particular church. In any case, the role of the local church leaders was to keep order and give general direction to the local church. These leaders are always referred to in the plural, implying that at this time there was never just one leader of a local church. Collectively the elders were responsible to disciple, teach, and equip others to do their part in the body of believers (Ephesians 4:12-16). Ministry was not something restricted to the leaders. All believers were to do ministry since each believer was given certain spiritual gifts for the benefit of the entire body of believers (Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 12, 14; Romans 12).

The Rise of Roman Catholicism. After the close of the writing of the New Testament, further development in local church leadership occurred. Concern with persecution and dangerous false teachings led to a strengthening of the authority of local church leaders. A hierarchy developed among the local church leaders and the senior leader of the church in each city became known as the bishop. Early in the fourth century persecution of the church by the Roman government stopped and soon Christianity was declared to be the only official religion in the Roman Empire. This success came at a price, however. The government expected the church to speak with one voice and have a tightly controlled hierarchy that resembled that of the Roman government. Church and State basically became one at great cost to the nature and mission of the Church. The church became focused on governing those who had already accepted Christ and largely forgot about taking the gospel to the lost in the rest of the world. Over time the church gradually changed until it became what is known as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The church became a political organization which saw itself as the only representative of Jesus on earth. To be admitted into the membership of the Roman Catholic Church meant you were saved and would go to heaven. Salvation was based on membership in the Roman Catholic Church and receiving the sacraments, not on faith in Christ. To be expelled from the Roman Catholic Church meant you were lost and going to hell. In the process of all this change, the idea that the church had a mission was lost. The church came to see itself as an institution established and governed by God’s earthly representatives. Concern with fulfilling the Great Commission was all but lost.

The leader of a local church became known as a priest. This change in terminology reflected a change in the understanding of his duties. Instead of a concern for discipleship and equipping people for ministry, the priest saw himself as the only one authorized to perform ministry. His primary duty was serving as the mediator between God and the people. Only he could to celebrate the mass and change the wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ. Only he could administer the sacraments to those which the church had admitted, so that they could go to heaven.

The Protestant Reformation. During the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, many people realized that the Roman Catholic Church needed major reform. When the Roman Catholic Church proved unable to reform itself, a major rebellion against it broke out in northern Europe shortly after 1500, known as the Protestant Reformation. The two prominent figures in the Reformation were Martin Luther and John Calvin. Both were professors in universities where students were being prepared for the priesthood. In essence, the Protestant Reformation was a revolt born in the classroom by certain teachers and their students against the Church in Rome.

Both Luther and Calvin sought to strip away the many traditions that had developed in the Roman Catholic Church and return to the teachings of the New Testament. Salvation by faith in the work of Christ replaced salvation by receiving the sacraments and doing good works. The priesthood of all believers replaced the Catholic belief that a person had to approach God through a priest. Believers were encouraged to read the Bible for themselves instead of blindly accepting what the priest told them it contained. The central focus of a church services shifted from celebrating the mass to the delivery of a sermon prepared by the minister and based on the Bible.

Although great steps were taken in restoring Christianity to its New Testament form, many practices of the Roman Catholic Church continued to be observed. The division of believers into clergy and laity continued. The primary church leader was called a minister instead of a priest, but the congregation continued to view him as living on a higher level of spirituality than their own. The Reformation view of the Church and its mission continued to fall short of what the New Testament taught. While the Reformers taught that the Church was the fellowship of all the saints (those redeemed by God), the primary focus of the church's activities was seen as the correct observance of the Christian ordinances and correct preaching of the Word of God. There was little or no focus on evangelism, as people almost always came into the church through birth and everyone in a given locality belonged to the same church. Church and State continued to be viewed as one. There was no talk about fulfilling the Great Commission or reaching a lost world. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europe was split into Protestants and Catholics, and wars between the two sides were frequent. North and South America were only recently discovered and much of the Old World, tightly controlled by Islam, was antagonistic to Christianity.

Pietism, Revivals, and Protestant Missionaries. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Spain and Portugal dominated the world’s oceans. They spread the Roman Catholic Church wherever they went. There was almost no Protestant missionary activity during this period. The leaders of the Protestant reformation believed that the Great Commission was given only to the Apostles and had been fulfilled by the spread of the Early Church. During the seventeenth century, however, the Pietists and Puritans were stirred by a desire to continue with much needed reforms in the Protestant churches. Their stress on a personal experience with God by every believer led to a renewed interest in the conversion of the lost and the spread of the church to distant lands The spread of Pietism laid the foundation for a major revival that swept across England and North America known as the Great Awakening (1725-1760), which in turn set the stage for the nineteenth century spread of Protestant missionaries to Asia, Africa, and many other parts of the world.

Methodism, Holiness, and Pentecostalism. One of the leaders of the Great Awakening was John Wesley. At first Wesley sought to bring about reform from within the Anglican Church, but eventually the followers of Wesley broke away and formed the Methodist Church. Wesley had been strongly influenced by the Pietists and this was reflected in many Methodist doctrines. The movement was extremely evangelistic and had grown to over one million Methodists by 1840. But by the middle of the nineteenth century Methodism itself was in need of revival, which led to the development of several groups that promoted personal holiness, based on the teachings of John Wesley. The meetings started what became known as the Holiness movement. This movement and its British counterpart, the Keswick Convention, prepared the ground for the rise of the Pentecostal movement of the twentieth century.

A Brief History of Protestant Theological Education. From the time of the Protestant Reformation until the nineteenth century, most churches expected those desiring to become church leaders to obtain a B.A. degree in liberal arts which was followed by a period of theological study under a mature pastor. While many did not achieve this level of education, it was the standard against which everyone was measured. Baptists and Methodists, however, largely depended upon apprenticeships with existing pastors for leadership training. Many of John Wesley's ministers did not have any degree level of education and they were derisively called “unlearned.” Early in the nineteenth century the period of theological study under a mature minister was replaced by three years of study in a seminary. By the 1860s almost all denominations had accepted the idea that ministers should have seven years of post-secondary education before they began pastoring a church.

The Holiness Movement and Keswick Convention brought revival to both sides of the Atlantic during the late 19th century. Many of those saved were mature men and women who desired to serve the Lord in full-time ministry, but were unable to take seven years to get the necessary theological education. A group of people, which included the evangelists A. B. Simpson and Dwight L. Moody, believed these people should receive training as Christian Workers to fill the gap between the well-educated clergy and the laity. This led to the establishment of a handful of Bible institutes and colleges during 1880s to the 1920s. In the early days most Bible colleges focused on courses in Bible, theology, and practical theology. Most originally offered a certificate though many later offered a three-year diploma. At first many were structured as day or evening programs which met the needs of church lay leadership in nearby communities. Most schools had a strong focus on evangelism and missions, both at home and abroad. These schools had a major impact on Protestant foreign missions during the twentieth century, as about half of all North American Protestant missionaries serving in 1960 graduated from a Bible institute or college. Often these missionaries took with them the concept of a Bible college to the foreign field where they built similar institutions. Thus, most theological training in Africa and elsewhere came to be based on the concept of a three-year residential diploma school, following a pattern established in America just over a century ago.


The church today exists in a complex world made up of thousands of cultures that are constantly changing. The church needs to reach all of these with a clear presentation of the Gospel and "make disciples" of all those who choose to respond to God's plan of salvation. These believers need to be formed into viable churches, who in turn can reach others.

To accomplish all this, the church needs to develop hundreds of thousands of new leaders. How can be accomplished? I believe the proper place to start is by returning to the Bible and reminding ourselves what we have been commissioned by Jesus Christ to do. We need to come to grips with what is the Church and what is its mission. Our understanding of the answer to these two crucial questions has been heavily colored by almost two thousand years of traditions and the cultures through which the Gospel has traveled on its way to us today. We cannot erase the effects of church history, but we need to bear them in mind as we eye the situation we face today. There is not going to be one answer to the question of how to train leaders who will take the church forward into the twenty-first century, but many. The thousands of culture will require many different kinds of leaders and many different innovative ways of leadership development. In light of this, our questions need to be:

1. Who are we seeking to reach with the Gospel?

2. What kind of leaders will be needed to reach them for Christ?

3. How will we train them?

This subject will be addressed more fully under the "Questions" subtab.