A Series on the Question of Elders
1. Many small businesses today are ruled and managed by a single person. What does the Bible say about the
number of leaders that a church may need for its proper function? See
1 Timothy 3:2;
1 Peter 5:1).
More important than the names of church is the number of them. In recent generations, we have
witnessed the appearance of a single pastor as the numerical norm for church leadership. As a result, people
accept the fact that this tradition is a biblical norm. Such is not the case. To the contrary, multiple leadership
was the norm in the early church.
Consider the following careful handling of the subject by Robert Saucy in THE CHURCH IN GOD’S
PROGRAM: "Number of Elders. The evidence of the New Testament points to a plurality of elders in a church. Each
time the term appears it is plural. Paul and Barnabas ordained ‘elders in every church’
cf. Tit 1:5), and it was a group of elders that Paul called
from Ephesus in order to give them his farewell (Acts 20:17).
Again, in addressing the leaders of the church at Philippi, the apostle mentions the ‘bishops and deacons’
(Phil 1:1). If there were deacons (plural) here, there was
also a plurality of elders. James also confirms this, instructing the sick to ‘call for the elders of the church’
cf. Acts 21:18;
I Tim 5:17;
I Pet 5:1).
"The two exceptions to this plural use, upon close examination, do not refute this consistent
pattern. From the singular ‘bishop’ in I Timothy 3:2 and
Titus 1:5-7 some have argued for the possibility of a single
elder or for a third office of a single monarchial episcopate over the elders. The context, however, refutes
Titus is told to ordain ‘elders in every city…. If any be blameless…. For a bishop must be
blameless’ (Tit 1:5-7). The singular is clearly used as a
generic reference to the bishop as a type, and the same is true of
I Timothy 3:1. Proof of this interpretation is seen in the
fact that Timothy was ministering in Ephesus (I Tim 1:3)
where, as has been noted, there was a plurality of elders
(Acts 20:17). The singular use of elder in
2 John 1 and
3 John 1 may be explained by the fact that the early church
took over the Jewish system of teaching or Tannaite elders whereby a famous rabbi such as Hillel was known in
the absolute sense of ‘the elder.’ It is probable that John, author of these letters, had acquired a similar
reputation in Asia and was known simply as ‘the elder.’ This same title of honor continued in the post-apostolic
church. Thus, the reference here is not to a single elder church but, rather, a noted elder. The apostle Peter,
likewise, called himself an elder, but certainly not in the sense of being the single elder in a certain church
(I Pet 5:1).
"It is doubtful also that the ‘angels of the seven churches’
(Rev 1:2Off) are references to the pastors. One of the
churches, Ephesus, is known to have had a plurality of elders
(Acts 20:17). Furthermore, this would exalt the elder above
the congregation in the figure of a star compared with that of a lampstand for the church
(Rev 1:20, NASB). In the New Testament the elder is always
a member of the community of believers. As ‘angels' (angeloi) elsewhere in the Revelation always refer to real
angels, and angels are also represented by stars
(cf. Rev. 9:1, and probably
12:4), the angels of the churches are probably to be
understood as real angels representing the churches, corresponding in some way to the angels that are related
to nations (Dan 10:13, 20-21;
The plurality of elders does not necessitate that all be considered equal
(cf. I Tim 5:17). It does, however, avoid the concept of a
single ruler of a congregation and distributes authority as well as responsibility among several, thus
corresponding to the Jewish community from which the office of elder was adopted."
It seems quite plain that no local church in the New Testament was ruled and managed by one
person. Rather, the plurality of elders appears as the norm. Thus, the "one-man" ministry is a violation of
this important guideline.
In passing, it is interesting to observe that the words "the pastor," which we use so often,
would have been strange to their ears. In fact, the definite article is never used with the term "pastor"
except when referring to Jesus Christ. Truly, He is the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd.
No other single human being has the same unique qualities that can merit the definite article in front of the
I have heard the defense made for the single pastor over the local church on the basis of
the parallel between the church, the body of Christ, and the local church It is certainly a reasonable conclusion
to draw from the comparison. Furthermore, it is certainly more efficient to have rule by one rather than rule
by many. It occurs to me, however, that there are at least two reasons why we have a single divine leader over
the church and the churches, and yet we always need multiple human leaders.
First, Christ is sinless. He always does that which is only the will of the Father. Hence,
there is no need for a further expression of the Father’s will in any issue. It will always be right. Human
leaders, even Christian ones, are sinners and they only accomplish God’s will imperfectly. Multiple leaders,
therefore, will serve as a "check and balance" on each other and serve as a safeguard against the very human
tendency to play God over other people (cf. Mark 10:42-44).
A second factor that breaks the parallel between the divine and human leadership of the
church is the matter of spiritual gifts. Surely Christ manifests all of the gifts that are given for the
edification of the body of Christ, but no human leader possesses all of the gifts. One of the major teachings
of I Corinthians 12 is diversity of the gifts. No one member
is the sole expression of the mind of Christ, the Head of the Body. Thus, if the church is going to have the
advantage of all of the gifts manifested in its leadership, then it must have multiple leadership so that the
leaders’ gifts and talents complement one another and there is a mutuality of ministry.
Now, It must be admitted that such a shared ministry has some functional problems that need
to be resolved, but the assets are far greater than the liabilities in current situations where it is
implemented. Furthermore, in the multiple leadership of churches of the New Testament, such as Ephesus and
Philippi, there were certainly no insurmountable functional problems. In fact, whatever problems they encountered,
were apparently not worthy of mention. Surely men who fulfill the qualifications of an elder/bishop will be able
to provide the kind of mutual leadership whereby they can equip every saint to do the work of the ministry.
One functional question that is frequently raised, however, is the question of the equality
of leadership. Does each elder have equal authority? Scripture does not give specific direction at this point.
It doesn’t demand equality, nor does it set it aside. Thus, this may be another of those areas where God allows
a degree of diversity. I would see no problem with a kind of hierarchical organizational structure among the
elders for purposes of expediting the business of the group so long as it does not in any way inhibit the full
contribution of each of the elders to the decisions that need to be made and the leadership that needs to be
given. It would seem that any ranking of elders, however, should grow out of demonstrated ability among the
elders rather than arbitrary appointment apart from earned recognition
(cf. I Tim. 5:17). Furthermore when responsibilities are
delegated, there must be the delegation of commensurate authority.
Another question that arises relates to unanimity as a basis for action. Some churches
require unanimous consent among the elders before action is taken on any issue. Others feel that this is
unrealistic and require such unanimity only on major issues involving morals or doctrines. Certainly all
would prefer unanimity and, where it is not present, great patience should he exercised to see to it that
greater communication is achieved until the disagreements are resolved and consensus is achieved.