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"Plurality of Elders": The Preeminent Structure for Church Leadership

In the previous article "Elder": The Preeminent Term for Church Leaders," we learned that the term "elder" is by far the most frequently used term for church leaders in the New Testament.  As was previously noted, this doesn't mean that we should no longer call church leaders "pastor/shepherd" or bishop/overseer." But I did suggest that the preeminence of the term "elder" might affect our understanding of how decision-making ought to happen in the local church.  I said this because the contexts in which the term "elder" occur reveals a lot about the leadership structure of the early church.

Today I will be noting the three main church leadership structures that have been employed over the last two thousand years and try to determine which one gives Christ the most preeminence, especially as it obeys Scripture the closest.

1.  Episcopal:  The Episcopal form of leadership has been the most used form since at least Ignatius of Antioch and was practically undisputed until the Reformation.  This remains the form of church leadership in the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican/Episcopalian churches.

2.  Presbyterian:  The Presbyterian form of leadership has been common in Presbyterian and Reformed churches and is commonly described as elder-rule.  A plurality of elders are elected by the congregation or the drawing of lots.  These elders also serve as leaders in the regional body of churches (classis), and the classis will send a chosen few to a broader body of leadership known as a Synod.  These broader bodies do not have a higher authority except only in so far as authority has been delegated to them.

3.  Congregational:  The Congregational form of leadership is founded on the principle of each local congregation being an independent, self-governing body of Christ.  Congregational churches may be involved in associations of other local churches and conventions of churches across a wide geographical area, but congregational churches remain autonomous—that is self-regulated.  If you have been a long-time Baptist then you will understand this form of leadership the best.  But you might be surprised to learn that there are two main forms of Congregationalism:

a)  Single elder-led/Congregational-rule:  This is when the congregation elects a single man to serve as the elder of the church.  While the elder is sought for council and leadership, the congregation makes nearly all of the decisions.

b)  Plural elder-led/Congregational-rule:  This is when the congregation elects a body of elders to serve as a plurality of leadership.  They will not all be paid staff of the church but they all will be responsible for shepherding, teaching, equipping, and being examples to the congregation.  Usually there will be a “first-among-equals” that does the majority of the public teaching and may be the only paid staff.

In some cases, the elders are sought for council and leadership, yet the congregation makes nearly all of the decisions.  In other cases, the congregation is free to take opinions or concerns to the elders, yet the majority of decisions are made by the elder body.  Usually the only decisions that the congregation actually vote on include an annual budget, appointment of elders or deacons, major building programs, or the admission/dismissal of a member.  The congregation elects the elders and trust that they will shepherd the flock faithfully.  If they have issues with any of the elders’ decisions or an elder himself, then they simply talk with the elders about it.

It is my conviction from Scripture that a plural elder-led/ congregational-rule best reflects the New Testament evidence of what local church leadership ought to look like.

a.  Evidence of a plurality of elder-led leadership:  There is ample evidence in the New Testament of a plurality of elder-led leadership.

Acts 11:29-30—So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.  30 And they  did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

Acts 14:23—And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Acts 15:22-23—Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.  They sent Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leading men among the brothers,

Acts 20:17, 28—Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. . . . Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.

Philippians 1:1—Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints of Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.

1 Thessalonians 5:12—We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.  Be at peace among yourselves.

James 5:14—Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

Hebrews 13:7, 17—Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.  Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. . . .  Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

b.  Strengths of a plurality of elder-led leadership:  Not only is there biblical evidence for a plurality of elder-led leadership, but there are lots of common sense reasons why it is a better system.  The following seven strengths are drawn from Mark Dever's The Deliberate Church.

1)  It curbs the exaltation of one man above others

2)  It balances the strengths and weaknesses of the leaders (1 Cor. 12:27-30)

3)  It gives greater pastoral wisdom (assurance in knowing and doing God’s will; Acts 6; 15:25; Matt. 18:18-20)

4)  It indigenizes leadership

5)  It enables corrective discipline

6)  It reduces congregation criticism

7)  It reduces “us vs. him” thinking

c.  Weaknesses of a single elder-led leadership:  There are also lots of common sense reasons that a single elder-led, congregational-rule system is quite weaker.

1)  It is easier for a few influential people to manipulate a congregation than it is to manipulate a plurality of elders.

2)  It is easier for a congregation to bulldoze a single pastor than a plurality of elders.

3)  It is easier for a congregation to idolize a single pastor to the point that he becomes an autocratic leader that is “above the law.”

4)  It is easier for dissension to grow in the congregation because everyone considers himself a decision maker in the church.

5)  Most single elder-led congregations have adopted an elder-led structure by default:  We see this in congregations where the body of deacons is looked to as the decision makers in the church.  While the deacons must have the congre-gation’s vote to make it official, everyone knows that it is mainly a formality.  The problem with this system is that deacons are not qualified to serve as elders.  Therefore, it would be best to simply adopt the most biblically sound leadership structure—a plurality of elders that are entrusted to lead the congregation.

While there is certainly some room for debate on the issue of church leadership structures, it  seems that the weight of New Testament evidence points to a plurality of elders who lead the local congregation.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta
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"Elder": The Preeminent Term for Church Leaders

Who are the leaders in the local church?  That's a simple enough question, but it sometimes proves difficult to answer.  Really, there is only one leader of the local church--Jesus Christ, Son of God.  Paul teaches us this in Colossians 1:15-20:

Colossians 1:15-20—He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

From these verses we learn two crucial truths about Jesus. 1) Jesus is preeminent over all creation (vv.15-18).  2) Jesus is preeminent over the Church (vv.18-20)

While this answer is obvious, we often give lip-service to this truth with little real life application.  So its important for the local Church to look to Jesus as its authority in all things.  And one of those things has to do with who He has appointed to lead His local churches.

While there are several structures used by various denominations and churches that are adequate enough, we are in search for something more than adequate. We are in search for the leadership structure that gives Jesus the most preeminence.  And our search must begin with Scripture and not simply our own traditions.

The first step is to define the terms used for Church leaders in the New Testament.  I believe the best text to start with on this issue is Acts 20:17-29.

Acts 20:17, 28-29—Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. . . . 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;

1.  Three terms: There are two terms for Church leaders used in these verses (elders/overseers), and the third term (pastor) is indirectly alluded to with the use of the word flock.  We will also look at a fourth term (deacons) that the New Testament mentions as well.

a.  Elder (presbuteros):   This term is used 16 times in the New Testament in reference to local Church leaders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:1, 5).  The word elder is best defined as an official within a group and is sometimes translated presbytery.

b.  Overseer (episkopos/episkopein):   The term is used in reference to local Church leaders 4 times (Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1, 2; Tit. 1:7).  The word overseer is best defined as one who is engaged in oversight or supervision of a group of people and can also be translated as bishop.

 c.  Pastor (poimein):  The term is used in reference to local Church leaders only 1 time (Eph. 4:11) The verb form of the word is used 2 times (Acts 20:28; 1 Pt.5:2) in reference to local church leaders.  The term is literally translated shepherd (or the verb form, shepherding), which highlights the pastor’s role as a leader and protector of Jesus’ sheep

  d.  Deacon (diakonos):  The term is used in reference to local Church leaders 3 times (Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12).  It is best defined in two ways: 1) an agent or courier who serves as an intermediary in a transaction; 2) an assistant who gets something done at the request or command of a superior. Based on the meaning of the word itself and the evidence in the New Testament, the office of deacon is a servant body, NOT A DECISION-MAKING BODY.

This is where many churches (including many Baptists) have erred the most.  No where in Scripture do we see deacons as the primary decision makers in the Church.  Rather, the deacons exist for the purpose of meeting the physical needs of the congregation so that pastors can be freed up for prayer, study, and teaching of God’s Word.

2.  One office: While there is debate among Christians, the biblical evidence is most in favor of these three words being used in an over-lapping sense.

a.  Scripture confirms this:  The Scripture that we read today, Acts 20:17, 28-29, is most convincing, but two others clearly support this understanding as well.

Titus 1:5, 7a—This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you . . . 7a  For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach . . .

In Titus, Paul tells Titus to appoint elders, and then he goes on to describe the qualifications of an overseer (1 Tim.3:1-7).  If the words elder and overseer are not being used in an overlapping sense here, then Paul is indeed confusing.

1 Peter 5:1-2—So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder   and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed; 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.

This time it's Peter using the terms in an overlapping sense.  He commands the elders to shepherd (i.e. pastor) the Church by exercising oversight (i.e. overseeing/bishoping).

b.  Scripture never lists separate qualifications for the three terms:  This is proven by looking at Titus 1:5, 7a again and cross-referencing it with 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  Therefore, we can conclude that the three words refer to one office in which qualified men have the same function (primarily that of teaching and leading the flock).

3.  The preeminent term of "elder":  As we have seen, the word elder is used 4 times the frequency of overseer, and the word elder is used 16 times the frequency of pastor.  Therefore, the preeminent term for a church leader in the New Testament is elder.

4.  Plurality of elders:  While it doesn't really matter which of the three terms we call the ministers in the local Church, the fact that the term elder is the most prominent does affect our understanding of how a Church is led.  Over the years, I have been convinced from Scripture that a plurality of elders is what God intends for the local Church.  I still whole-heartedly affirm congregationalism, but I have come to believe that a Church should have more than one elder/overseer/pastor.  And that will be the next topic on The Threshing Floor . . .

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta
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