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The Question of Elders
Part 2: How many leaders does a church need?
(E. Radmacher)

Author's Bias: Interpretation: conservative
Inclination: dispensational
Seminary: Dallas Theological

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 Acts 14:23; 20:17; 21:18; Philippians 1:1; James 5:14; 1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:5-7; 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’ (Acts 14:23, 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’ (Jam 5:14; 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 this.

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; 12:1).

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 title.

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.

Dr. Earl Radmacher was born some seventy years ago in Portland, Oregon just a couple of miles from Western Seminary where, in the providence of God, he would later serve on the theological faculty for thirty-three years (1962-1995) and in administrative positions as Dean of the Faculty (1964-1965), President (1965-1990), and Chancellor (1990-1995). In 1995 he was designated President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus.

His parents, who were immigrants from Romania and Austria, settled in Portland in 1913 where they brought eight children into this world, Earl being the last. The whole family was very active in local churches so every Sunday found Earl spending all day in church-Sunday school, morning worship, potluck lunch at the church, recreation break, youth service, evening service, and after service. Even though he heard the gospel preached Sunday after Sunday, he did not personally receive Christ as his Savior until he was fourteen years of age. He has often stated that sitting in church Sunday after Sunday doesn't make one a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes a car…

At that juncture in his life, Earl came in contact with another Earl-Earl Gile-a faithful Sunday school teacher who lived right across the street from the grade school he had attended, and he opened up his home as an outreach to boys from the school. Mr. Gile's church rented the school gymnasium on Thursday nights and made it available for boys to play basketball if they came to Sunday school on Sundays. That sounded like a good deal, so he went. Shortly after that, the teacher announced a forthcoming boys camps at Twin Rocks Beach, Oregon. He decided to go; and there, at fourteen years of age, he accepted Christ as his Savior.

Although the church preached the gospel faithfully, they didn't go beyond the gospel to build up believers in the faith. He has often said, "As a believer, I didn't need a birth message, but I did need a growth message. That being absent, I tended to flounder, and my growth in Christ was stunted. Thus, the high school years were a disaster as far as the things of Christ and spiritual growth were concerned."

As graduation time neared, he took the normal batch of tests to determine which line of work he should pursue. The tests indicated mathematics or mechanics, so he decided to go the route of mathematics and join it with money by starting a career in a savings and loan institution. He started as a file clerk and worked up to an investment statistician that year.

His plans in the investment business were dramatically interrupted, however, by a visit to Portland of a new evangelist on the scene, Billy Graham, in August of 1950. A friend invited him to go to the meeting and although he had little spiritual appetite at that time, God seemed to press him toward the affirmative. As the poet Francis Thompson has written: "He tracked me down the corridors of time." As it turned out, Earl not only went that night but every night thereafter for six weeks. The only meeting he missed was the women's meeting (they wouldn't let him in!).

After listening to the powerful preaching of Billy Graham for six weeks, at the conclusion of the last service, he found himself standing on his feet, going forward, grabbing Cliff Barrow's hand, and telling him that God called him to preach. His next question was, "What do I do now?" Cliff said, "You go to college to prepare" and he recommended his alma mater in South Carolina.

Once again, god had a man prepared to help him take the next step. As the tabernacle cleared out, he saw a man he hadn't seen since grade school. In the beautiful providence of God, this man, Jerry Burleson, was going to the same college in South Carolina that Cliff Barrows had recommended, and he was looking for one more rider. Although it was just two weeks before Fall semester, Jerry assured him that they would accept him on probation through his recommendation. He worked nights for two weeks training another person for his job so that he could leave with the good graces of his employer.

Twelve years and four degrees later (together with broad opportunities of experience in preaching and teaching, overseas missions and military chaplainry, local church pastor and parachurch ministries, rural and urban outreaches), he ended up not in the pastorate, but in the training of evangelists, pastors, and teachers at Western Seminary. His years there involved traveling over ten million miles and preaching and teaching over twenty thousand hours in over a thousand Bible conferences and thousands of churches.

Among the numerous books and articles that Dr. Radmacher has authored or edited are the following books: You and your thoughts (1977), The Nature of the Church (1978, 1995), Can We Trust the Bible (1979), What to Expect from the Holy Spirit (1983), Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (1984), The NIV Reconsidered (1990), The Nelson Study Bible (1997), Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Commentary (1999), and Salvation (2000).

Dr. Radmacher has often stated, "In my wildest dreams fifty years ago, I could never have imagined the exciting plans that God, in His sovereign grace, had for me." His life mission is found in 2 Timothy 2:15, "Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." His personal life verse is 2 Corinthians 3:18, "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord."


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