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,