Church History for Kids: What Did the First Church Leaders Do?

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The Church is more than the building we go to on Sundays or Wednesdays, it’s the people inside. We know families are having to embrace this now more than ever- from living room worship to online services. Though this season of separation is hard, this is a great time to teach our kids about the early church, which often met in homes. Over the next several weeks on #MinnoLife we’re discussing the history of the church—and how it looked a lot like what we are experiencing today.

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There isn’t really a how-to guide in the Bible that spells out how a church should be run. The Bible doesn’t reveal every detail of how the early church ran their churches or what their leadership structure looked like. But from piecing together different descriptions and prescriptions from Acts and the Epistles (the pastoral letters), we see a pattern emerge for different leadership roles in the church. Though we have a lot of variations of leadership in churches today, there were really only three main leadership roles in the early church: apostles, elders, and deacons.

Apostles

The word apostle means “messenger,” so in some sense, all of us who share the good news of Jesus are apostles of Jesus Christ! But there was also an official leadership role in the early church called “apostle.” We see the term “apostle” used for the twelve disciples who were with Jesus originally during His ministry on earth (Acts 1:12,26; 2:37,42-43), of the apostle Paul who was individually and directly called by Jesus to be His messenger to the Gentiles (Acts 9), and of James, the brother (or cousin) of Jesus who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the first council of the church (Galatians 1:19; Acts 15). But we also see it used for other church leaders who were not as well known. In Romans 16:7, Paul says that Andronicus and Junia are apostles, so we know that there were others beyond the twelve and Paul who fulfilled this leadership role in the church. This is what we know about apostles:

  • Apostle was the role of highest authority in the church (1 Thessalonians 2:6). The Apostles were the “pillars” (Galatians 2:9) and “foundation” of the church (Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14).
  • The books of the New Testament were all written by apostles. A book would not be accepted into the canon by the church if it was not written by an apostle (Council of Nicea, 325 AD).
  • The apostles’ teaching set the doctrine of the church and was passed down to all other teachers and believers (Acts 2:42). Apostles had the responsibility of correcting false teaching when they heard it in the churches (1 Timothy 1:1-7; 2 Timothy 3).
  • Apostleship was a gift of the Holy Spirit, separate from being a teacher or prophet or working miracles, though an apostle could also do those things (1 Corinthians 12:28).
  • The marks of a true apostle were not only sound teaching and leadership, but signs, wonders, and miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12).
  • Apostles were commissioned as messengers—they were sent out to share the good news of Jesus with people who had never heard it before, often traveling all over the world, preaching and converting people to the faith, and planting new churches as they went (Acts 1:8).
  • Apostles could be paid by churches for their ministry, but some, like Paul, refused to accept money so that people would be sure they had pure motives (2 Corinthians 11:7-15).

Apostles would typically share the gospel in a new place, plant a new church, get it started and establish local leadership there, and then move on to a new place to start a new church. But they would stay in touch with the churches they had planted to make sure they were loving each other well and teaching sound doctrine. If they saw or heard of any problems in those churches, they would write a letter and/or send someone back to that church to help them fix their problems, like when Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3).

Apostles were not assigned to a local church body; they had a more authoritative role over all of the churches. Within each local church body, there were two basic leadership roles: elder and deacon.

Elders

A lot of churches today have a pastor who is hired by the church and a board of elders who are volunteers from the congregation. But in the Bible, the roles of “pastor” and “elder/overseer” were one and the same, and it was done by a group of elders, not just one pastor. Both Paul and Peter use all three descriptions to describe the same role – elder/overseer/pastor (Acts 20:17-28; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Peter 5:1-2).

  • The elders were the top leadership of a local church—the “overseers” (1 Timothy 3:4; 5:17).
  • They were to lead by example (1 Peter 5:3) and there were very high standards of character and godliness for being an elder (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).
  • The elders were responsible for preaching/teaching (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17), spiritual leadership (1 Timothy 3:4-5; 5:17), pastoral care (1 Peter 5:2; Ephesians 4:11-12), healing prayer (James 5:14), and handling conflict and church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
  • The apostles appointed the elders in each church at first (Acts 14:23), though later churches may have had to appoint their own according to standards given by Paul (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1).
  • Elders could be paid for their ministry (1 Timothy 5:17-21; 1 Corinthians 9:1-12).

Deacons

The word deacon literally means “servant,” so, in one way, we are all “deacons” because we are all servants of Jesus Christ. But that word was also used as a title for an official leadership role in the church. Deacons first appeared at the beginning of Acts, when the church first started. At that time, the church was only in Jerusalem; it hadn’t started spreading out yet and the apostles were running the whole church by themselves. There were not yet any elders or deacons. But as the Church grew, there was a conflict. The Church distributed food to the widows and the poor every day and the Greek Jews were complaining that their widows weren’t getting the same amount as the Hebraic Jews. This is when the apostles decided that they couldn’t handle all of the preaching/teaching, prayer, leadership, and spiritual care of the people and do the more administrative tasks of distributing food and other tangible physical needs (Acts 6:1-6). So when the apostles outside of Jerusalem started planting new churches and appointing local elders, they also appointed deacons in each church, so that the elders could focus on leadership, preaching/teaching, prayer, and spiritual care.

  • The deacons were a “lower” level of leadership of the church – the “servants” rather than the “overseers,” but their role wasn’t any less important and the standards of character and godliness weren’t any lower to be a deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-12).
  • The deacons were responsible for distributing food and caring for other physical needs of the church (Acts 6); they may have had other responsibilities too, it is unclear.
  • There were still just as high standards of character for deacons as there were for elders (1 Timothy 3:8-12; Titus 1:7).
  • When the apostles chose the first deacons, they chose believers who “were known to be full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:3). 
  • They laid hands on them and prayed for them to establish their leadership role just as they would for elders and other apostles (Acts 6:6).

Their role was different from the apostles and elders, but not any less important. The biblical standard of spiritual maturity was just as high, even though it was a “lower” office. 

Why It Matters to Us Today

There are all different kinds of roles in the church, and all of them are important (1 Corinthians 12). No matter what role we have, we must all work together in the body of Christ. Our churches do have organized leadership structures and there are people who are chosen to lead based on their character, their spiritual maturity, and their gifting. And yet, whether you are in a leadership role at your church or not, every single member of the church is a “minister.” Paul writes that we have all been given the “ministry of reconciliation” to share the message of reconciliation to God through Christ with the world (2 Corinthians 5:18). 

Reconciliation means to fix a broken relationship, to bring people back together again. When we accept Jesus as our Savior, it fixes our broken relationship with God. It brings us back into relationship with Him. Paul says that once we have been reconciled to God, it is our job to help other people become reconciled to God, by telling them about Jesus. 

We are all “apostles”—we have all been given the message to share with the world around us (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Romans 10:14-15). Peter writes that we are all “priests”—we are all mediators between God and the world when we share the Gospel with others (1 Peter 2:5-9). We are all “deacons”—we are all servants of Christ (Mark 9:35; Philippians 2:6-7).  

Family Conversation Starters About Early Church Leaders

  • In what ways are we like apostles and deacons even if we don’t hold the official role in our church?
  • Why do you think it was and is important for churches to have elders?
  • What do you think it means to work together as the body of Christ?

Next Post: Early Church Prayers (coming next week)

Check out the rest of the posts in our series Church History for Kids for more topics and stories. 

For great videos about church history for kids, check out The Pirate’s Guide to Church History or The Torchlighters on Minno!