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Say you’re looking for a new church.  But you don’t want to belong to just any church.  You want a biblical church.  You want a church that really does try to follow the Lord in all His ways.

You’ve seen lots of good churches that seem to follow the pastor, or to be savvy in embracing various church trends.  But you’ve also seen both pastors and trends change, or fail, or just plain fizzle out.  You’ve even seen men and ideas turn oppressive.  So, you want to be with a collection of God’s people who recognize that Jesus is the sole, authoritative Head of the church.  Period.  End of story.  Let’s follow Him.

How would you know you’ve found that church?  How would you see Jesus’ headship exercised?

The primary way Jesus exercises His headship in the church is through His word.  So, we want to find a church where the word of God is functionally central and norm-setting in all that’s done.  Which, of course, means we want to find a group of Christians who embrace all that the word commands or commends and rejects all that the word of God forbids.  That will help us avoid wrong conclusions or excuses that effectively undermine the Scripture and Jesus’ headship.

But there is another way Jesus exercises headship in the church.  This second way is not by any means primary or binding in authority the way the Scripture is.  But it is sanctioned in the Scripture and derives its legitimacy from the Scripture.  That second way Jesus exercises headship is through qualified, godly leadership.

We may know that Jesus is the head of the church when the church appoints and follows godly, qualified leaders (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1).  How do church leaders reveal the headship of Christ?

By Mediating His Commands

In our churches, we don’t simply want preachers and teachers.  We want preachers and teachers of the word.  Paul instructs young Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:1-2) and to “command and teach” the apostolic deposit (1 Tim. 4:11).  As the preacher and teacher faithfully explains and applies the word to the hearer, the headship of Christ is exercised for it is the word of Christ being administered.  If Jesus rules by His word, the preacher should be ruled by the word, mediating the commands of God to the people.

By Modeling Jesus’ Word and Life

The leaders of the church are also to be mini-pictures of Christ, or better yet, pointers to Christ.  In their lives they are to model the pattern of sound words and the way of Christ (2 Tim. 1:13).  They are to set the believers an example in all of life (1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Peter 5:3).  As Peter makes plain, such example-setting is not “lording it over” others, but teaching with a life that accompanies and adorns teaching with words.  In our day of anti-joining and anti-authority, of celebrities and heroes fallen and exposed, such straight-forward words as  those in Hebrews 13:7 can make us blush and demur.  But God’s word is clear enough: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”

The example of Christ, recorded for us in His word, leaves for us an authoritative pattern to follow, including His suffering (1 Pet. 2:21).  We are to follow the Lord’s example, but to do that, we sometimes need visible examples of the Lord’s examples.  And this is why the apostle could famously say, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).  Jesus’ life is to be traced out by the life of the leader which is to be traced out–so far as it matches Jesus’ example–by the life of the people.  In that chain of tracing, the headship of Christ gets exercised and embraced  in His church.

By Serving

How did Jesus use His authority while on earth?  In a number of ways, to be sure.  But He came to serve, to give His life as a ransom (Mark 10:45).  This is why the Lord commands those who follow Him in leadership to be servants of all.  And this is why foot washing has become the paradigm for Christian leadership.

It’s not something that our proud age holds together naturally–leadership and service.  It’s not something we do in our flesh.  But in a church with godly, biblical leaders, we’ll see Jesus demonstrate His headship through the active, joyful, humble service of the leaders.

By Leading Itself

Spiritual leadership is a gift from the Lord–both the leadership itself and the ability to lead (Eph. 4:11).  Those so gifted are called to lead with diligence (Rom. 12:8).  God’s people are going somewhere.  There’s a destination in view; namely, Christ himself and the glories of heaven.  The leaders job, motivated by love and grace in the power of the Spirit under the authority of the Lord and his word, is to lead the people safely home.  That means guiding them, casting biblical vision, helping and supplying them, challenging and motivating them, sometimes strengthening and correcting them.  It means, well… leading.

And by the exercise of godly, biblical leadership Jesus exercises His headship in the church.  Men who fail this qualification and this practice ought not be leaders in the Lord’s church.  We’re warned to be careful about those who will seek to draw disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30).  We cannot lay hands on any man hastily, and we must be ready to correct a sinning elder publicly.

But we must love the leadership Jesus provides because through such leaders–their teaching, their example, and their leadership–the Lord reigns in His church.  Submitting to such leadership is for our joy (Heb. 13:17).


Looking for a church where Jesus is Head?  Look for a church where godly, biblical leadership is practiced.  Embrace and support that leadership.  It will be for your joy and the glory of Christ.

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4 thoughts on “How Jesus Exercises Headship in His Church: Leaders”

  1. John says:

    Oustanding! Thank you, brother.

  2. Becky says:

    Great article… the topic is something that has been on my mind recently. I have been reading Ray Barnett’s latest book titled,
    “The Gathering” and have learned so much. Now as I look at churches, I feel that I have the ability to read through the list of activities and ask myself if it was what Jesus had in mind? Indeed, if Jesus or the apostles entered our churches today they would have no idea what we are doing. Our meeting style, our rituals, our dominant orators, even the layout of the rooms in which we meet, bear absolutely no relationship to what the apostles taught us to be and do. So what did they have in mind? THE GATHERING goes back to the beginning and rebuilds our thinking. It is genuinely back to basics.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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