What was the job description of Jesus' apostles?

One subject that I keep mulling over is what it means to be a leader and have authority in the church. I saw a comment on a blog a couple of weeks ago where someone wrote that Jesus commissioned the twelve apostles to be the leaders of the church.[1] This seems to be a typical understanding of the role of the Twelve, but something didn’t ring true when I read the comment. So I started to mentally scan the New Testament scriptures to see what Jesus actually said to his disciples.

Did Jesus ever use words like “lead” or “govern” when giving instructions? I can’t think of one example. Jesus mostly used words like “serve” and “witness” when he was giving his disciples their job description (Luke 24:48; John 15:27; Acts 1:8; cf Acts 2:32; 22:15, etc).

Jesus elaborated on the job description of the Twelve (or Eleven.) He told them to preach (i.e. proclaim) that the kingdom was at hand (Matt. 10:7; Mark 3:14). He gave them authority to cast out demons and cure all diseases (Matt. 10:1, 8; Mark 3:15). He told them to make other disciples from all nations (not just Jewish, male disciples.) He told them to baptize and teach (Matt. 28:18-20). And he told Peter to feed and shepherd his sheep.  It is in this passage, in John 21:15-17, that Jesus uses a word that indicates the function, or role, of leading. The noun “shepherd” was used for leaders in Old Testament times; Jesus uses the verb here.[3] Nonetheless, Peter was being commissioned to lead and nurture Jesus’ “sheep”. Importantly, this commissioning was framed with love, and I doubt that Jesus had the usual style of leadership in mind.

Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus plainly tell the disciples that they have the authority to lead, govern, or organise his people, using any of the typical words for leadership.[2] Moreover, Jesus warned his disciples against the common kind of leadership (Matt. 20:25-28), and he warned them about accepting the titles and prestige usually attached to leaders. These titles, and the honour that goes with them, are reserved for Jesus and the other members of the Trinity (Matt. 23:8-11; John 13:13).

The Twelve, as well as other disciples, were authorised by Jesus to preach, teach, heal, deliver. They were given authority over demons, but they were not given authority over people. The Twelve were even given authority to interpret Scripture and define Christian practice, that is, they could “permit and forbid” (Matt.16:19), but this same authority is given to the church as a whole (Matt. 18:18).

The apostles were essentially servants of Jesus and they were servants of people. The word that is often used in this context in the Greek New Testament is doulos which is usually translated as actually “slave” rather than “servant”. Any authority that the Twelve had, and that we have, is a delegated authority from Jesus to be his slaves and agents. It is the authority to function in certain ministries in the name of Jesus, but it is not an authority over any capable, adult. Rather than having authority over another person, we are to be mutually submissive to one another (Eph. 5:21).

I am not saying that leading is wrong. Leading and pastoring, after all, are spiritual gifts – ministry gifts with no preference concerning gender or race (Rom. 12:6-8; Eph. 4:11). Any organisation which consists of more than a few people needs leadership.[4] But history has shown that the church’s emphasis (obsession?) and practice of authority and leadership, which has often emulated the worldly models of authoritarianism and patriarchy, seems to go well beyond the bounds of what Jesus taught and demonstrated (John 13:13-17).

The paradigm of leadership and service that Jesus taught is still not well understood or universally practiced in the church. I know that I haven’t fully grasped it yet, so it is a subject I will continue to mull over as I try to follow his example (John 13:15).


N.B. The Twelve are only infrequently referred to as apostles in the gospels: “only once in Matthew and Mark, not at all in John, and five times in Luke . . . Many scholars [e.g. W. Schmithals (1969:98-110)] in fact argue that Jesus did not at any time call the twelve ‘apostles’ during his lifetime.”  This infrequent use has caused Kevin Giles to pose the question, “Did Luke introduce the title ‘apostle’ in his role as editor of the historical sources he used, or was it already there?”  Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians by Kevin Giles (Collins Dove, 1989) p. 155, 157.

[1] I strongly doubt that Jesus commissioned Judas to be a leader of the church.

[2] It seems from Matthew 19:28 that when Jesus renews everything there will be a new paradigm of ministry for the Twelve.

[3] The frequent criticism of Jeremiah was that Israel’s shepherds (leaders) were careless and self absorbed: Jeremiah 2:8; 12:10; 22:22; 23:1-4.

[4] Leadership in the New Testament church was usually shared by a group of people rather than a solo pastor.

Image credit: Lightstock photo ID 124524

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