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. 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 to see what Jesus actually said to his disciples.[1]

Did Jesus ever use words like “lead” or “govern” when giving instructions to the Twelve? I can’t think of one example. Instead, Jesus mostly used words like “serve” and “witness” when he was giving his disciples their job description.

Jesus sent the Twelve to preach (proclaim) that the kingdom was at hand (Matt. 10:7; Mark 3:14). He authorised them to cast out demons and cure diseases (Matt. 10:1, 8; Mark 3:15). He told them to make other disciples from all nations (not just Jewish disciples) by teaching and baptising (Matt. 28:18-20). He said they would be his witnesses (e.g., Acts 1:8).[2]

Furthermore, Jesus told Peter to feed and shepherd his sheep (John 21:15-17). Jesus uses the verb “shepherd” here. There is an allusion to leadership in this verb, as “shepherd” was used for leaders in the Hebrew Bible.[3] Peter was commissioned and authorised to nurture Jesus’ “sheep.” Importantly, this commissioning was framed with references to love. I doubt that Jesus had the usual style of leadership in mind.

There’s little doubt that the Twelve (minus Judas) did become leaders in the Christian community, but nowhere in the four 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.[4] Moreover, Jesus warned his disciples against the usual kind of leadership (Matt. 20:25-28). And he warned them about accepting the titles and prestige often attached to leaders. These titles, and the honour that goes with them, are to be reserved for Jesus and the other members of the Trinity (Matt. 23:8-11; John 13:13).

The Twelve, as well as the other disciples, were authorised by Jesus to preach, teach, heal, deliver. They were given authority over demons, but there is no verse where they are given authority over people. The Twelve were even given authority to interpret Scripture and define Christian practice; they could “permit and forbid.” (See Matthew 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 his people. The word that is often used in this context in the Greek New Testament is doulos, which more precisely means “slave” rather than “servant.” Importantly, any authority that the Twelve had, and that we have, is a delegated authority from Jesus to be his slaves and his agents. It is an authority to function in certain ministries in the name of Jesus, but it is not an authority over any capable fellow believer. Rather than having authority over another brother or sister, we are to mutually submit to one another (Eph. 5:21: 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV).

I am not saying that leading is wrong. Leading and being a shepherd (pastor), after all, are spiritual gifts, ministry gifts with no stipulation concerning the gender or race of the minister (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). Any organisation that consists of more than a dozen or so people needs some kind of leadership.[5] But history has shown that the church’s emphasis (obsession?) with authority and its practice of leadership, which has often emulated worldly models of authoritarianism and patriarchy, goes 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 practised 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 Jesus’ teaching and his example (John 13:15).


[1] 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?” Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Collins Dove, 1989),155 & 157.

[2] The Twelve are most often associated with being witnesses of Jesus, of his ministry, death and resurrection. (See Luke 24:48; John 15:27; Acts 1:8; 2:32; 4:20, 33ff; 5:32, 22:15, etc). Women, sadly, were not considered to be credible witnesses in the first century. This is one reason why women were not included among the Twelve. More on this here.

[3] The frequent criticism of Jeremiah was that Israel’s shepherds (leaders) were careless and self-absorbed (Jer. 2:8; 12:10; 22:22; 23:1-4). Also, God told David to shepherd (lead) his people (2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7; 1 Chron. 11:2).

[4] However, in Matthew 19:28, Jesus reveals that when he renews everything there will be a new kind of ministry for the Twelve; they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel.

[5] Leadership and ministry in New Testament churches was usually shared by a group of people rather than undertaken by a solo pastor.

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