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Who Should Run the Church? A Case for the Plurality of Elders

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Many churches today have a pastor and several deacons.  This is based on a model of ecclesiology in which it is assumed that there was one elder in the ancient church.  But even those churches that have more than one elder (the pastor being one of them) usually regard the pastor as the de facto head of the church.  This is due to two basic reasons: (1) he is the one with biblical training, and (2) he is the one who speaks before the entire congregation every Sunday. 

It seems to me that this model (either the philosophical single-elder model or the pragmatic single-leader model) misses the mark of the New Testament teaching on this topic.  The early church had, I believe, multiple elders.  The pastor would have been counted among them, but was not over them.  Indeed, all would have taught, not just one.  If we can get back to this model, I think that churches will be stronger in many ways.  They will be less idiosyncratic, less dependent on one person,1 more accountable.

The case for plurality of elders can be argued along four lines: biblical, historical, theological, and pragmatic.  At bottom, I would say that the reason the scriptures teach multiple eldership is at least twofold: (1) mutual accountability is necessary if leaders are to avoid falling into sin; and (2) a church takes on the personality of its leader/s: if there is just one leader, the church will inevitably take on that man's personality, including his quirks and faults.  But if more than one person leads the church, there is the greater chance that the church will be balanced.2

I. Biblical Arguments

A. For Multiple Elders

The argument from scripture is in fact so strong that most commentators today assume it.  But it is well-articulated in G. W. Knight, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (New International Greek New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 175-77 (the section called "Excursus: Bishops/Presbyters and Deacons: 3:1-13").

The following points are relevant for our discussion:

(1) Presbyters (also translated "elders") and bishops (also translated "overseers") were apparently the same individuals.  That is to say, the two terms were synonymous. 

Note, for example, Titus 1:5 ("appoint elders"), followed by v. 7 ("for a bishop must be blameless").  The very fact that the sentence in v. 7 begins with a "for" shows a connection: bishops are elders.  Otherwise, why would Paul mention the qualifications of a group that were not whom Titus should appoint?  In Acts 20:17 Paul calls the "elders of the church" of Ephesus together for a final meeting.  Then, in v. 28 he addresses them as "overseers" (or bishops).  Thus, any passage that deals with bishop is equally applicable to elders.

(2) The leadership of the church from the earliest period always had elders, even if it did not have deacons.  Young churches only had elders; more mature churches had both elders and deacons. 

This can be seen by a comparison of Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Tim 3:1-13: the Christians in Crete (where Titus was ministering) were relatively new.  The qualifications for deacons is not mentioned because only the top level of leadership needed to be established in such a situation.  But in Ephesus the church was well established (where Timothy was ministering).  Consequently, Paul not only gives instruction to Timothy about both elders and deacons, but also says that the leaders should not be recent converts (cf. 1 Tim 3:6 [for elders] and perhaps implied in 3:10 for deacons).  But no instruction is given to Titus about new converts because that was the only pool from which he could draw.3  Thus, for young (and presumably small) churches, the leaders would do the work of both elders and deacons.4 

In sum, a church must have elders, but not necessarily deacons (at least at first). 

(3) Elder and pastor are not the same thing in the NT. "Elder" refers to the office one holds by virtue of appointment or election; "pastor" is a spiritual gift that one is given by the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 4:11; 1 Cor 12:7-11).  One can have the gift of pastor without being an elder; and one can hold the office of elder without having the gift of pastor.

(4) For elders, the one qualification that is other than moral is the ability to teach.  Note 1 Tim 3:2 ("able to teach" [διδάκτικος, didaktikos]).  Titus 1:9 expands on this: "he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it." 

There is much confusion about what this means. 

This does not mean that an elder must have the gift of teaching, for the NT is very clear that all believers should be able to teach.  Cf. Heb 5:12 (the definition of a spiritual meat-eater is one who is able to teach [5:11-14]; the author indicts his entire audience for not yet being able to do this); Col 3:16; Titus 2:3.5

"Able to teach" does not mean seminary-trained or one skilled in the biblical languages.  This is evident from the fact that Gentile Christians were among the first elders (cf. Titus 1:5-9).  These men would not have known Hebrew.

It is recognized that some elders would be gifted as teachers and would especially exercise this gift (1 Tim 5:17).  Thus, the implication is that not all would teach equally.  (Personally, I see in this text justification for some of the elders to be pastor-teachers.  Further, those especially gifted in this area would want to hone such a gift by learning the scriptures as diligently and rigorously as they could.  Hence, there is justification for having seminary-trained teachers.  But, at the same time, it is evident that not all elders had this gift.)

The basic thrust of this qualification is that elders would hold to pure doctrine in guiding the church.  In other words, they would be mature men who could sniff out heresy and steer the church in the direction it needs to go.  Certainly in some especially delicate matters these leaders would defer to others who had the gift.  But the elders needed to make the final decisions about the direction of the church.

Pragmatically, one of the ways in which such teaching could be accomplished would be for the elders to oversee different home Bible studies.  Nowadays "mini-churches" are very popular.  Such mini-churches are actually very biblical.  The early church met in homes during the week.  Each home would presumably have its own elder. Thus, at least in the context of a small gathering, the elders should be prepared to teach. 

Teaching also occurs in another, less visible context.  When the elders and pastor meet together, the elders should have the freedom to state their opinions freely.  To be sure, the pastor is usually better trained in the scriptures, but this in no way gives him the right to demand allegiance to his viewpoints.  He must demonstrate that his views are biblical and submit them to the leadership.  At times, his case will not convince.  (Each one of us is responsible to know the scriptures and to examine the evidence for our beliefs.)  Further, many if not most issues to be decided by an elder board allow for a great deal of flexibility.  Two positions could equally be in line with scripture.  At that point, the collective wisdom of the leadership needs to reign supreme.6 

(5) The consistent pattern in the NT is that every church had several elders.

Note the following texts (where either elder or bishop is used):

Acts 11:30--elders at the church of Antioch

Acts 14:23--Paul and Barnabas appoint "elders in every church"

Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4--elders at the church in Jerusalem

Acts 20:17, 28--elders/bishops at the church of Ephesus (v. 17--"elders of the church")

Acts 21:18--elders at the church in Jerusalem

Phil 1:1--the church at Philippi has bishops and deacons

1 Tim 5:17--elders at the church of Ephesus

Titus 1:5--Titus is to appoint elders in every town7

Jas 5:14--"the elders of the church"

1 Pet 5:1-2--"the elders among you"8

In every one of these texts the plain implication is that each church had several elders.

Note also that other more generic terms are also used of church leaders.  The pattern once again is that there are several leaders for each church:

1 Thess 5:12, 13--the congregation is to respect its leaders9

Heb 13:7, 17--heed the leaders of the church, "for they are keeping watch over your souls" (v. 17)10

The evidence is overwhelming.  So strong is it that Knight, after carefully evaluating the evidence, can argue:

An analysis of the data seems, therefore, to indicate the existence of oversight by a plurality of church leaders throughout the NT church in virtually every known area and acknowledged or commended by virtually every NT writer who writes about church leadership.   . . . [For example,] Every church in which leadership is referred to in Asia Minor either under Paul and his associates or under Peter's ministry has a plurality of leadership . . .11

B. For Single Elders

If the case is this strong, why then do some argue for a single elder?  The basic argument for this position is theological and historical, rather than biblical.  But biblically, there are five texts which seem to suggest a single elder.  We will look at these not in canonical order but from the weakest arguments to the strongest.

(1) Revelation 2-3--there is one "angel" over each church.  The word angel (ἄγγελος, anggelos) is sometimes translated "messenger" in scripture.  Hence, perhaps the single "angel" over each church is the single elder (pastor), rather than an angel.

The problem with this view is manifold: (1) ἄγγελος (anggelos) is used 67 times in Revelation.  If we exclude the references in chapters 2 and 3 for the sake of argument, we see a remarkable thing: every instance of ἄγγελος [anggelos] refers to an angel.  (Unless of course pastors can fly!  cf. Rev 14:6). (2) Even if Rev 2-3 were an exception, "messenger" is hardly an appropriate term for a pastor.  Pastors were, in NT times, restricted to a certain locale geographically.  But a messenger is one who moves about.  (3) The genre of the Revelation fits what is called "apocalyptic."  In apocalyptic literature there is a strong emphasis on angels.  Among other duties, they are responsible before heaven for groups of godly people.  Thus, when the Lord says, "to the angel of the church at _______, write" we have apocalyptic symbolism and imagery occurring.  Angels are evidently in view, not pastors.

(2) 2 John 1, 3 John 1--the "elder" writes to the elect lady and to Gaius.  Some argue that John describes himself in these two little letters as "the elder" because he is the lone elder at the church.  There are a few problems with this view, however. 

First, the author is writing to two different people at apparently two different churches.  Would he be their elder?  If so, then we have an anomalous situation unparalleled in the rest of the NT: a single elder for at least two churches.  If not, would he perhaps be the elder at the church of Ephesus writing to Christians at other churches?  That too is doubtful, because (a) why would he not mention which church he was elder over? and (b) if he were the elder at the church of Ephesus, what business does he have meddling in other churches' affairs?12

Second, suppose that John is actually writing to one and the same church in 2 John and 3 John.  If so, couldn't he be their elder?  Not only is there, at best, a very slim chance that only one church is being addressed,13 but such a hypothesis produces a very large problem for itself: this lone elder apparently is an absentee elder who gives no certain evidence that he will even visit the church, let alone teach there!  (Although this is clearly his desire, he refrains from absolute certitude.)  Notice 2 John 12: "Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete."  Likewise, 3 John 10 says "if I come [to the church]" and v. 14 says "I hope to see you." 

Third, the apparent meaning of "the elder" in these two little letters seems to be the equivalent of "the old man."  The term used, in fact, can only be given a technical nuance in contexts that seem to demand it.  Πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros) is a word which frequently meant simply "old man" (cf. Acts 2:17; 1 Tim 5:1).  This fits well with the probable authorship of these letters (namely, John the apostle).  By the time he had settled in Asia Minor as the last living apostle, it would be quite appropriate for him to take on a term of endearment and affection: "This letter is from the old man."

(3) 1 Tim 3:2 (cf. Titus 1:7)--"bishop" is singular, while "deacons" (1 Tim 3:8) is plural.  This would seem to argue that there was but one bishop/elder per church, while there would have been several deacons. 

Again, such an argument has very little substance.  First, it is unlikely that only one bishop is in view because otherwise it is difficult to explain 1 Tim 5:17 ("let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor") and Titus 1:5 "appoint elders in every town").14 

Second, it is likely that the "bishop" in 1 Tim 3:2 is generic.  The article is used this way in Greek very frequently.  That is, the singular is used to specify a class as opposed to an individual.  J. W. Roberts, a Greek grammarian, pointed out along these lines: "A case in point where wrong use has been made of the generic article is in reference to 'bishop' in 1 Timothy 3:2.  This has often been used to prove the existence of the monarchal bishop at the time of the writing of the Pastorals.  A majority of the commentators, however, agree that the usage is generic."  Cf. also Matt 12:35; 15:11; 18:17; Luke 10:7; John 2:25.  The generic article is actually used thousands of times in the NT.

Third, further evidence that "bishop" is generic in 1 Tim 3:2 is found in the overall context.  (Keep in mind that the NT had no chapter or verse divisions originally.  These were inventions of later centuries.)  Notice the context in which behavior in the church occurs: 1 Tim 2:8-3:13.  In 2:8 Paul addresses "the men."  In 2:9-10 he addresses "the women."  Then, in 2:11-12 he says that "a woman should learn quietly . . . I do not permit a woman to teach . . . a man."  Paul is not here speaking of a particular woman (otherwise he would surely have mentioned her by name), but women as a class.  In 2:15 he says "but she shall be saved . . . if they continue."  Thus, there is a free exchange of the singular and the plural here.  Immediately after this Paul speaks of "the bishop."  Then, in 3:8 he addresses "the deacons."  The overall context is very clearly dealing with classes of individuals.  The only time it is not, in fact, is when Paul speaks of Adam and Eve (2:13-14), yet even here he quickly gets into the relevance for his readers in v. 15 ("she . . . they").

C. Summary

The biblical evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of multiple elders.  The few passages which might otherwise be interpreted certainly do not have to be so interpreted and, in fact, most likely should not be.  This fact illustrates a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation: do not follow an interpretation which is only possible; instead, base your convictions on what is probable.

The rest of our arguments are presented here very briefly since the basic one, the biblical argument, has been addressed at some length.

II. Historical Arguments

In Ignatius (an early Christian writer who died in c. AD 117), at the beginning of the second century, already a monarchical episcopate exists.  It is interesting that Roman Catholics especially appeal to this as a model for their practices (since they rely on the tradition found in patristic writers like Ignatius far more than on divine revelation).  Those who deny the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles (i.e., 1-2 Timothy and Titus) also see the pastorals as reflecting a one-elder situation (=monarchical episcopate) because they regard the pastorals as having been written during the time of Ignatius.  But evangelicals should not consider arguments from either camp as weighty.  In particular, if we equate either what the early church fathers practiced or believed as totally in line with the New Testament, then we have some significant retooling to do in our churches today.  Some examples:

Didache (c. AD 100-150)--gives several regulations about baptism and fasting, much of which is pure legalism.  (For example, in one place he says, "Let us not fast as the Jews do, who fast on Mondays and Thursdays.  Instead, let us fast on Wednesdays and Fridays."  In his discussions of baptism, he argues that cold water is better than warm, etc.--all arguments that have nothing whatever to do with the biblical revelation). 

Most early church fathers (i.e., 2nd-3rd century AD) didn't have a clue about grace, eternal security, the gospel.  The church very quickly degenerated into basic legalism.  It was not until Augustine that the church recovered some of this.  But then it fell into the dark ages, waiting for a young monk from Germany to nail his protests on the door of the Wittenberg Church.  Dr. Ted Deibler (former chairman of Church History at Dallas Seminary) used to say, "the one thing we can be certain of learning from church history is that we learn nothing from church history."  He meant by this that we are on very dangerous ground if we assume uniformly correct theology from the church fathers.

Allegorical interpretation and eschatology: Origen and his school in particular promoted a view of scripture which was quite fanciful.

In sum, the argument for a single leader of each church is especially persuasive to Roman Catholics because it did occur throughout church history.  Yet, such traditions can never replace the Word of God.  In fact, with the birth of the Reformation came a renewed understanding of the priesthood of the believer which, in turn, moved away from the notion of a single leader at the top. 

III. Theological Arguments

The quirks of personality: a church becomes like its leader (a student becomes like his teacher [cf. Luke 6:40]).

The emphasis in scripture on doing the work of the ministry in company with other believers: e.g., Paul never went on a missionary journey by himself (Barnabas, Silvanus, Sosthenes, Timothy, Luke were especially his traveling companions).  Paul even included his companions' names in the greetings to various churches.  In fact, he regarded them unofficially as apostles (not holding the office, but certainly functioning in that capacity).  Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two.  (This is not to say that individuals are paralyzed and can't do anything--cf. Philip ministering to the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul in prison ministering to Caesar's household, etc.  But the ideal is ministry by community.) 

This same principle is taught in John 13:35.  (Knowledge of Jesus comes through his disciples in a community effort, that is, in their love for one another.)

Accountability and our sin natures (see opening paragraph at the start of this position paper).  Each leader knows that he lacks complete balance, that there are things he continues to struggle with.  Further, even beyond the sin nature factor is the personality factor.  Some pastors are detail men; others are big picture men.  Some love music, others have gotten little from music (C. S. Lewis was one such man).  All of us together contribute to the way the body of Christ works.  But a church that follows in lock-step with the personality and foibles of one man will always be imbalanced.

IV. Pragmatic Arguments

Even if there were no decisive arguments for plurality of elders, the preponderance of evidence is decidely on the side of this view.  Further, in consultation with others (especially church historian, M. James Sawyer at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary), the following principle seems to be true: Churches that have a pastor as an authority above others (thus, in function, a monarchical episcopate) have a disproportionately high number of moral failures at the top level of leadership.  In other words, it is less likely for a pastor to fall into sin if he is primus inter parus ("first among equals" in the sense of his visibility and training, not spirituality) than if he is elevated above the rest of the church leadership.

Thus, the case of multiple elders in the local church is solidly based on biblical, historical, and pragmatic reasons.  By having several leaders, the church is more able to take on the personality of Christ rather than the idiosyncracies of any one man.

1 One of the measures of how mature a church is is what happens to it when the pastor leaves.  If it continues to grow, there is an underlying network of mature leadership.  If it shrinks, this may well suggest that much of the size of the church originally was due to the magnetism of a single person.

2This is actually quite similar to the "checks and balances" in the U.S. Constitution.  This document was written with a heavy input from Christians who understood depravity.  They recognized, I think, that the best form of government was a benevolent dictatorship, and the worst was a malevolent dictatorship.  With dictators, there is no guarantee.  Hence, the second best form of government is one in which no single branch of government and no individual is given too much power.  This Constitution was written after the Articles of Confederation (inspired especially by Deists who believed in the inherent goodness of humanity)--which were very weak on checks and balances--failed.

3That these lists were a bit different on this point (and some others) indicates an extremely important point: Much of the instruction given about church order is ad hoc rather than of universal principle.  It is our duty to discern which is which.  For example, I have no strong opinion about how the leaders of a church are to be appointed, because the NT seems to be flexible in this regard (e.g., some churches did it by congregational vote, others had appointments from apostolic delegates).  The NT is flexible on areas that are not consequential.

4The normal understanding of the difference in function of the two groups is this: elders are primarily concerned with the spiritual welfare of the congregation, while deacons are primarily concerned with the physical welfare of the congregation.  Thus, elders would oversee the direction of the church, work with the pastor (or pastors) on the spiritual needs of the church (what they should be fed, etc.).

5The fundamental principle of discipleship is the passing on of truth in the context of love to faithful individuals, who in turn would do the same thing (2 Tim 2:2).  The ideal is for every member of the church to carry on this task.  It is obvious (from 2 Tim 2:2) that discipleship and a teaching ministry were not to be restricted to just pastors or those with the gift of teaching.

6 One of the first churches I was in that was run by a plurality of elders had a rather mature pastor.  He was one of the brightest and godliest men I've ever known, thoroughly saturated in the Word of God.  Yet, he did not even have a vote on the elder board.  The elders frequently asked his opinion.  But he also respected their leadership.  He told me once that having the elders run the show gave him a greater measure of freedom, for it allowed him more time to work on his messages.  He didn't have to wear several hats and therefore did not get burned out in the ministry.  Further, he noted that the elders had maturity of years over him and collective wisdom that he wanted to learn from.  The man had a Th.M. degree and a Th.D. degree from a leading seminary, yet he eagerly bowed to the leadership and wisdom of the elder board!  That was humility!  In fact, every year he submitted to a rigorous personal evaluation of his life by the elders.  They asked him the tough questions, such as faithfulness to his wife, what he read, saw, participated in, and what he did with his money and his spare time.  This was not a 'big brother is watching you' lynching; it was something this pastor volunteered for.  The church grew quickly and profoundly because of such accountability at the top levels.

7The early church had but one church in each city or town.  Hence, Paul's instruction to Titus is to appoint multiple elders in every church.

8That each church to which Peter is writing had multiple elders is likely from vv. 2-3--"Tend [ποιμάνετε, poimanete--a plural verb; thus, "you elders"] the flock [singular] of God that is your charge . . . by being examples [plural] to the flock."  Thus, multiple elders are linked to a single flock each time. 

9It is most likely that only elders are in view.  The reason for this is that, as we have argued above, young churches did not have deacons but did have elders.  Paul had spent only about three weeks with the Thessalonians.  But he appointed leaders before his departure.  Thus, it is likely that he appointed only elders.  In the least, there is not even a hint in this text that only one elder and several deacons were appointed.

10Since the duties of the leaders are described in this manner, it is obvious that multiple elders are in view (since deacons were not responsible primarily to keep watch over the souls).

11Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 177.

12 Some denominations have a bishop over several churches and an elder at an individual church.  But John is called an elder, not a bishop.  Thus, these denominations have a difficult time basing their view on scripture.

13In fact, many today see three churches addressed: 2 John has one in view; 3 John seems to have Gaius' church and Diotrephes' church in view.  I am presently undecided on this issue (that is, whether two or three churches are envisioned).  One of the fundamental arguments against 2 John and 3 John being addressed to the same church is that the situations are radically different: 2 John addresses the problem of heretics outside the church attempting to get in; 3 John addresses the sin of pride already within the church by an orthodox leader.  Thus, 2 John has to do with doctrine and 3 John is about ethics and holiness.  Hence, in the least two churches are in view in the Johannine letters, and perhaps three.  Is John the elder of all of them?

14Recall that "elder" = "bishop" and that each town had but one church.

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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