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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 Greek word apostolos, transliterated as “apostle” in English New Testaments, means “messenger, ambassador, envoy.” The Twelve are referred to as “apostles” (apostoloi) only a few times in the Gospels: once in Matthew, once in Mark (twice in the Textus Receptus), five times in Luke, and never in John. (See Matt. 10:2; Mark 3:14 TR; Mark 6:30; Luke 6:13; 9:10; 17:5; 22:14; 24:10.)
“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. . . . 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.
The word “apostles” is used many times in Acts, also written by Luke, where it sometimes includes, or refers to, more than the Twelve (e.g., Acts 14:14). I’ve included a list of all the New Testament people called apostolos in a postscript, here.

[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 may well be 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 and Luke 22:29–39, 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  (cf. Rev. 21:12, 14).

[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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33 thoughts on “What was the job description of Jesus’ apostles?

  1. We just finished studying 1 Timothy, which was written by Apostle Paul to the man he sent to pastor the church at Ephesus. It was a letter written in response to the false teaching so prevalent in that city which had infiltrated the church. It’s interesting to note how Paul instructs Timothy to respond: fight the good fight “keeping faith and a good conscience,”(1:19) pointing out these things to the brethren (4:6)pay close attention to yourself and your teaching (4:16), not sharply rebuking, but rather appealing as members of his family (5:1-2), flee from those things and pursue righteousness, godliness,faith, love, perseverance and gentleness (6:12).

    This attitude of foremost leading by example goes along with Peter’s command to leadership: to not lord it over those allotted to your charge, but prove to be examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:3)

    I’m wondering where the leadership models prevalent today originated. Here in the States Bill Gothard instructed millions since the seventies with his seminars on the hierarchy of authority. It’s where many in my generation get their model, both in their homes and churches. Not to blame it all on one man, but that concept with all of its legalistic tendencies has stuck. It is used to validate unhealthy relationships in marriages and churches to this day.

    You’ve struck the nail on the head when it comes to Jesus’ teaching on leading. Paul certainly follows that attitude and instructs others to do the same. I’m blessed to be in a church where the elders and pastor follow God’s lead and lead by example, not dictatorship. It works. We have a healthy, thriving body, largely due to the attitude from the top on down.

    1. 1 Timothy 5:1-2 and 1 Peter 5:3 are great verses to add to this discussion. Thanks, Julie.

      Let me add 2 Corinthians 1:24 where we read that Paul and his colleagues did not want to “lord it over” (kurieúō) the Christians in Corinth, but wanted to work together with them in a partnership.

      1. Marg, I am wondering about that translation. I know that BLB’s lexicon gives kyrieuo as meaning “lord over, dominion over, rule and be lord of”, as does Thayers. However, scripture4all.com shows that the word is kyrieuomen (pl), and interprets it as ‘mastering’. Then in Matthew 20, the word used as “exercising dominion over” is katakyrieuo”, which on BLB is given the meaning of bringing another under one’s power, subjecting, etc.. On Scripture4all the Greek is katakurieuousin (pl. and tense right?).

        All that to wonder about the full meaning of kyrieuo as not being about lording it OVER which Jesus already clarified with katakurieuo, but perhaps being about an attitude of the position of mastering as in a master or land owner being the master of a slave, and thinking the one he is master of works for the kyrieuo. Often church leaders and pastors get this idea that the church is theirs and the members are working for them and their goals. Katakyrieuo is an expansion on the basic meaning of kyrieuo. They are not the same. But that still points to your suggestion that Paul wanted them to work in partnership.

        And also I think kyrieuo is used in a positive way of affectionate guardianship. Jesus is our kyrieuo. He is our Teacher and points us toward all Truth.

        So, can you give a more fine tuned look at the differences of meanings here?

        1. Kurieuō is the lexical form. (It is a common convention to use the lexical form unless there is something significant about the particular tense used in a certain passage.) The lexical form of verbs is the first person, singular, present active indicative form.

          Kurieuomen is the first person, plural, present active indicative of kurieuō and can be translated as “we rule/master”.

          Thayer gives the definition of kurieuōas “to be lord of, to rule over, have dominion over.”

          The words in Matthew 20:25-28 are intensified with the kata prefix and can be translated as “rule over.” (More on this in a footnote here.)

          Verbs and related nouns don’t always have a direct correspondence in meaning. Kurios can be used simply as a term of respect, but it is also used for masters. Jesus is our Lord and Master, so the term suits him perfectly. There are other words which relate an aspect of guardianship, I don’t think that kurios necessarily conveys that nuance, though it can have a nuance of ownership.

          Kurios is used to translate YHWH. So there is a lot of meaning behind that word in many verses (cf. Phil. 2:11)

          1. Thanks. Yes, I get the verbs and nouns don’t always have a direct correspondence. But what I’m wondering about is the amount of difference between katakyreiuo and kyreiuo (kurios).
            It would seem to me that they cannot both mean lording over. what IYO is the difference and how much of a difference is there.

  2. Marg, I’m really appreciating this today! If we could deconstruct the worldly paradigm of leadership from our church governance practices, I think it would really open up opportunities for service for the WHOLE body of Christ, but especially for women.

    1. I agree. There are lots of man-made rules and traditions that hinder the acceptance of women in ministry which have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus or the apostles.

  3. Thank you for this approach to re-examine how Jesus desires “leadership” if at all is what He was calling his disciples to do. The concept of servanthood leadership rings naturally for many sisters I’ve served alongside with in the church. Often times, they’re ready to serve the church in such a way, it’s leading many to Christ. I think the traditional concept of leadership (wide range of what that looks like) we’re accustomed to naturally segregates women from it. Therefore, putting a challenge for women to be leaders since the concept is almost in some form contradictory. But as influencers like yourself continually ask the question of what is leadership that honors the calling Christ given us; or to follow His example since He often told his disciples to follow Him, I believe there will be more equity in the church for both servanthood and leadership. When we’re truly sincere in washing one another’s feet (great picture by the way) as a way to lead others to Christ, then there will be space for restorative work between men and women, generation to generation, racial conflicts, etc.
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Manni.

      Being a servant (or slave) is necessary for all followers of Jesus who truly want to become more like their master.

      Since we are all servants I don’t think it is necessary to use the term “servant leadership”. We don’t add the word “servant” to other ministry descriptions: we don’t say “servant evangelist” or servant teacher”, etc, so I see no reason to say “servant leader”.

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

    I’ve been wondering about this lately. Usually, when people say this they think of modern democracy where a group votes and the group vote is followed. This is not a foolproof method to bring righteousness. Get enough people who wrongly interpret Scripture and they will control the church their way.

    And then there are the many references to solo leaders. The church that meets in Chloe’s household, Lydia, Priscilla and Acquila, Gaius (I think), and also Timothy definitely led an area by himself even if not one group. Like Timothy sometimes there is one shepherd who is desperately trying to draw a group of people toward more godly attitudes that left to themselves would go another way.

    So, I suspect that it is more complicated than first glance.

    Great words on leadership. 🙂

    1. There is no doubt that whole groups can be mistaken. We see it all the time. 🙁

      I’m not sure about solo leaders. I think doing ministry alone is unwise, unhealthy, and unbiblical. Paul always ministered with at least one coworker and sometimes he travelled and ministered with a group. One of the first duties of Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete was to appoint leaders and ministers.

      I think there was a difference to the leadership a house church and the leadership of the church of a city. In Corinth, for example, there were probably a few small house churches (including, perhaps, one that met in Chloe’s house.) These were connected by some kind of network which was administered by a group of ministers who provided cohesion, oversight, and possibly counsel.

      It may have been the same thing for other large cities such as Rome, Antioch, Philippi and Ephesus.

      There does seem to have been a several solo pastors at the house church level (e.g. the Chosen Lady in 2 John 1, and Gaius in 3 John 1). But the Chosen Lady and Gaius seem to have been cared for by John.

      Other pastors may have worked as couples or as small teams (e.g. Priscilla and Aquila; Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus in Philemon 1:1-2). But these ministers were part of Paul’s network.

      I still have trouble trying to envisage how the New Testament churches operated and how they networked.

      1. I really agree about the need, especially in our era, of co-workers. Paul calls everyone who serves a co-worker. So, there could still be one person or a pair who served as shepherds but had a team of co-workers in other capacities. I envision the fivefold ministries as a team, not an hierarchy. I envision a pastor being the steerer of a group of fellow workers including: anointed teachers, preachers, ministers (deacons), oversee-era, etc. Not all churches are big enough to have more than one shepherd.

        I think I’m agreeing with you but coming from a different angle. 🙂

  5. I started to chuckle when I read that Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep…

    And to think of the years we women have been feeding the sheep!…obviously we have our roles reversed 🙂

  6. Another thought that comes up is the one where the disciples laid hands on Matthias and made him the replacement for Judas AND THEN WE NEVER HEAR ABOUT HIM AGAIN…have you ever wondered why?

    I have…and then I realized that God ignored their actions and just replaced Judas Himself with the apostle Paul WHOM HE CALLED HIMSELF.

    This is very rarely taught and I believe it puts an end to man calling men and teaches that God will raise up His leaders and when we hear them we will know them by the power He gives them as they knew Paul by the evidence of God’s power on him.

    I think we have erred in the teaching of men laying hands on other men as having any efficacy for installing leadership…and ignoring God’s leadership in this matter. The laying on of hands, if at all, should follow the observation that God has ALREADY called a person for the job and we confirm His call.

    Finally I have heard a hundred prayers for God to send the MAN of his choosing…we err here by not leaving the choice up to God instead…we need to pray “Lord send us your choice for us”…and then wait for His response….that is how I see it anyway…it is highly presumptuous to tell God we don’t want any women He might send…

    1. Judy, I totally agree that the laying on of hands should be AFTER God has called and is equipping a person for ministry. It should be about the believers showing God that we recognize His calling on the person.

      1. I totally agree too.

    2. After Pentecost, we only hear about Peter, John and James. We don’t hear about any of the other Twelve. That’s because Luke was only interested in showing the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome in the book of Acts. He was not interested in relating what the other apostles and ministers were doing or where they were going with the gospel.

      I think that at least part the Twelve’s function was symbolic and that this symbolic function was fulfilled once Pentecost took the Jesus’ followers, multiplied them, and led them in new directions with new power.

      I don’t believe that Paul was Judas’s replacement. There were many years between the death of Judas and the beginning of Paul’s ministry (Gal. 1:15-24). Paul never saw himself as one of the Twelve and carefully makes the distinction between them and himself (1 Cor. 15:3-9). I have written about that here:

      1. I agree that Paul was not Judah’s replacement. Paul’s calling as an apostle was different than the twelve. The twelve IMO were a bridge of leadership from the chosen people of Israel, carrying Israel from the Old Covenant into the New Covenant in the Messiah. This way we cannot divorce Israel from Christianity, in the ways that Israel divorced gentiles from Judaism. The Twelve’s job was laying certain foundations of fellowship and ministry. Paul was an expansion of their ministry, building upon their ministries.

        something like that anyway. Early morning thinking. 🙂

  7. Julie, I got your book in the mail! I’m looking forward to reading it, once this week’s sermon is better organised.


    1. I’m so glad it arrived! I’ll look forward to your feedback.

  8. TL, The Greek word for “rule has a similar range of meanings as the English word “rule”. It can refer to a benevolent rule or a despotic, harsh rule . . . and everything in between.

    When the Greek word has the prefix kata the word is intensified so as to mean total dominion. There may also be a top-down dynamic inferred here. The same intensified verb is used in the Septuagint in Genesis 1:28 for people ruling the earth. (See here.)

    I truly believe mankind – both men and women – were created to “rule over” the earth, in a good way, but we were not created to “rule over” other human beings.

    1. “I truly believe mankind – both men and women – were created to “rule over” the earth, in a good way, but we were not created to “rule over” other human beings.”

      I quite agree with that. 🙂

  9. That is a great explanation of the Apostle’s roles, and I always agree with the type of leadership you describe regarding the church. Spiritual leadership is quite different than the regular type of leadership in society.

    1. Thanks, Curious Thinker. 🙂

  10. Interesting post. I am a non practicing french speaking catholic, immensely curious in all matters (physics,philosophy,metaphysics). I respect your expertise and you may en-light me.
    An american democrat politician, Trump hater, has used the Christmas holy celebration to imply that the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt because of warning by the Mages that Herod wanted to kill Jesus…so it was a good thing that the Egyptians didn’t have a WALL ( re: Trump promised of a wall against Mexicans migrant) . Of course this is shameful to use Jesus as a political tool against his opponent.
    This made me curious and knowing my Gospels well ( Jesuit school) i made an ‘amateurish study of this period and you will of course think that my questions to you are trivial but they are honest.- Being a lawyer I can read the Gospels as a lawyer and can take written affirmation as proof. – The Mages gave the Holy family gold…etc. – Wouldn’t that mean that the Holy family was rich when leaving for Egypt, came back after Herod died and Joseph started a business? This is really plausible. Then we hear nothing about the Holy family save when Jesus reaches the age of 12 where he says to his mother who asks him ‘ your FATHER and I were looking for you’ – And Jesus replies – Did you not know that I have to care about my FATHER’S business( or house)? – QUESTION: Christians interpret the word FATHER as meaning God. I am of the opinion that since Mary was realistically talking about her husband Joseph that her son Jesus must have answered her mother respectfully and we must construe the word ‘father’ used by Jesus as meaning his earthly father Joseph- Mary could not have meant that ‘father’ was God as we and she knows that God ( a personal God in Jesus time) knew the whereabouts of Jesus. This sounds so logical and so clear unless we have partial agenda ( respectfully of course) . More so from age 12 to 30 we have not heard anything about Jesus life.

    This of course does not take anything out of Jesus – on the contrary – wanting to change his life of material wealth for a better one i.e. a life dedicated to – loving thy neighbor is much more inspiring and compatible with what the Gospels tells us about Jesus from his birth to 12 years old.
    What is your objective opinion about my observations. Thank you.

    My opinion of Jesus would certainly be much more inspiring then portraying the Holy family as poor people…knowing that many pseudo preachers from a poor background use the Gospels for personal power and money.

    1. Hi Jean,

      You pose some interesting questions. Here are some quick reponses.

      ~ I am dismayed, even appalled, at how the biblical story of the Flight to Egypt has been misused for political purposes by some Americans.

      ~ I don’t think Jesus was ever poor. As you point out, the Holy Family received expensive gifts from the magi. This would have helped the family greatly when they were refugees in Egypt. They didn’t stay in Egypt long (Matt. 2:19-23), and Joseph may well have begun, or continued, a business as a builder or some kind of craftsman (Greek: téktōn) in Nazareth(Matt:13:55; Mark 6:3).

      I write about whether Jesus was poor and about Joseph’s work here: https://margmowczko.com/was-jesus-poor/ Take a look at the endnotes too.

      ~ Mary was indeed talking about Joseph as Jesus’ father. Jesus replied, however, by talking about his heavenly Father, but his parents didn’t understand (Luke 2:49-50).

      Luke 2:49 is frequently translated to include either the word “house” or “business” but these words do not occur in any Greek text of the verse. The text literally reads as, “It is necessary for me to be en tois (‘with those’ or ‘among the things’) of my Father.” The words “house” and “business” have been added in English translations to help it make sense. Note that “business” in this verse doesn’t have the meaning of a person’s profession or commercial activity, rather it refers to a person’s concern. Jesus’ concern was his heavenly Father not Joseph’s building business. The context is Jesus staying behind in the temple courts for three days, listening and asking questions of the teachers (Luke 2:46).

      I hope this helps.

  11. Excellent as usual. I think its significant that Jesus sent people out in equal pairs. I think there were several reasons for this, but one is plural leadership and accountability. If I were making the rules, I would outlaw singular leadership and “head” pastors or elders in the church including ministries and para-church organizations. Of course there are always exceptions, including someone who always operates in teams but a team member suddenly dies, but if we made it the culture and expectation I think things would be better.

    One of the most incredible missions stories ever told, Bruchko, a 19 year old kid goes alone into the jungle and the first thing God does is give him an equal partner indigenous brother, who basically led the whole tribe to the Lord.

  12. Great stuff as usual. The gift of Greek insights is evidenced through you.

    My background is Psychology and Organizational Development. A former President of the APA, an agnostic, said to me that, “The early Christian Church was the most powerful therapeutic community that ever existed. I never heard any theologian or therapist suggest such a wonderful situation before.
    It set me on the trail of studying Tx Communities and I have tried to learn what makes a community therapeutic, and how can we promote it in churches.

    There are two elements to build these communities: Communitas and Healing Charisma. The first is All are accepted with love, mercy and grace. Once in, that love, mercy, and, grace will be shown by all members of the community to bring healing and growth to the wounded.
    Your insights about leadership are a profound part of the Tx equation. The Healing Charisma lie primarily with the members not just the “leaders”. We trained almost 500 of our members with these charisma.
    I then ran two units in a Psych Hospital. We had Psychiatrists, Psychologists, etc but trained all the Patients how to care with the charisma of love, truth and grace for each other. Our outcomes were better than the other units.

    1. That’s wonderful! I know a little about mental health and ministering in psych hopsitals. And about Soteria houses. There’s also a newer book out called A Church Called Tov. It makes my day to hear about what you saw.

  13. My sentiments exactly. I think it’s plain from history that the later form of church government was adopted from the Roman Empire, and we still do the same today in one form or another.

  14. […] Jesus called the Twelve to be his witnesses and to be servants of his people. Moreover, the number twelve corresponds with the twelve tribes of Israel, and one of the functions of the Twelve was symbolic. […]

  15. […] What was the job description of Jesus’s apostles? […]

  16. […] What was the Job Description of Jesus’ Apostles? […]

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