We are creatures of habit. There is a certain level of comfort with established custom in humankind. Though we may embrace technological advances at times, most of us prefer a smooth ride—a consistent pattern of what we have learned to expect from life. This has often been labeled as traditionalism and that’s certainly a valid label. At least as far as the secular world, kids often follow in the footsteps of their parents. If the parents are college educated, the kids will most likely be. If the parents are laborers, it’s likely their children will be as well. We all like consistency and the church is no exception. What we have seen from the previous generation is oftentimes “the law” for us, whether it is correct or not. And certainly, one generation may employ a certain practice that is deemed reasonable or even helpful. Yet, history teaches us that the next generation will require such a practice as the Biblical standard, whether Holy Writ bears that out or not. Such is the case with single-led pastorates.
Some number of years ago, I was challenged to study the Biblical pattern of church leadership in the New Testament. It was asked of me whether churches in the New Testament operated under the leadership of a single elder or multiple elders. To be honest, my initial response was to immediately read my context (what I had seen all my life) back into the text of Scripture. Convenience trumped the Bible, in my case. My own personal experience (i.e. tradition) blinded me temporarily from the obvious teaching of the New Testament, even before I began the study. Was it really possible that godly, well-learned men that I had admired and followed all my life had seemingly missed such a basic, fundamental teaching on church leadership in the Lord’s churches? This was difficult for me to swallow. Yet, those same men taught me that the Bible was our only rule of faith and practice. And, if my position (or anybody else’s position) was in contradiction with the Scripture, we must forsake tradition in order to follow God’s Word.
Having come to see the overwhelming proof for a plurality of elders in the New Testament churches, I began to preach on this subject at the church I pastor. This was not an easy task. I knew if my roots of the single-elder-led model ran deep, it certainly did for the group I had pastored for well more than a decade. Yet, there is power in the preached Word. And, as a preacher, I am called to “preach the Word” whether it is “in season” or “out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). It is the work of the Holy Spirit to empower the preached Word and effect change in the hearts and lives of His people individually and corporately. I was more than certain that the New Testament was clear on this issue. I prayed that God would open the church’s eyes to the truth of it as well. Thankfully, He did.
Since that time, God has been gracious to call and equip two men to serve alongside me in the office of elder. I am overjoyed to witness the work of God as He has enabled His men to serve in this capacity. Paul instructed Timothy, “…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2). Second only to the salvation of sinners, watching God raise young men to serve in the office of an elder—men that God has entrusted to my care much the way He entrusted these men into Timothy’s—is, perhaps, the greatest blessing in ministry. And, to know that I have pastors that I can go to for counsel or prayer or strength has been nothing short of a gift of God’s marvelous grace.
This move, however, has not come without some confusion. I’ve received texts and phone calls from honestly concerned individuals that have had questions regarding the direction of the church here—and that is quite understandable. Change should never be entered into without careful consideration—careful Biblical consideration. And, I certainly realize that a plurality of elders is viewed as uncommon in our day. However, that certainly has not been the case historically. In this debate, I’ve felt the burden of proof lies with the accuser, not the accused (to use legal jargon). In other words, it’s far more difficult to prove the single-elder model of church leadership from the New Testament. However, our comfort level in what we have always seen with our own eyes is a strong pull for all of us. Therefore, I thought I would write a defense for the plurality of elders in a local church through a concise, yet methodical, overview of Scripture. And let me say once more, proving a single-elder model from the New Testament is a far more difficult endeavor than proving a plurality of elders in a local New Testament church.
When Jesus ascended into Heaven (Acts 1:9), His church was founded, commissioned (Matthew 28:16-20) and functioning. From the moment Jesus founded His church, there was a plurality of leadership. It began with the apostles. Now, it would be improper to view the apostles as merely elders, as they served in a far more unique role than that. For instance, God would soon breathe out the New Testament through these men and those closely related to them (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Elders today are not receiving extra-Biblical revelation. That said, there was still a measure of cooperation in church leadership among the apostles. When a complaint arose concerning the daily distribution of food in the church at Jerusalem, “the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’” (Acts 6:2). This team of men was leading the church spiritually through the “preaching of the word of God”. Other men were chosen to serve tables—an “office” that appears to have been the model for what later became known as the office of deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-13).
It’s difficult to ascertain precisely how long only the apostles led the church in Jerusalem in spiritual matters. Yet, early in the book of Acts we know the church in Jerusalem had multiple elders in addition to the twelve. When the church in Antioch desired to send monetary relief to the church in Jerusalem, they sent it “to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:30). Later, when a question arose about whether circumcision was required for salvation or not, “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” (Acts 15:2). “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders…” (Acts 15:4). Paul and Barnabas didn’t only bring this case before the apostles, but “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” (Acts 15:6). Once the matter had been completely hashed out, “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.” (Acts 15:22). The salutation of the letter sent along with these men to the confused Gentiles was, “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.” (Acts 15:23). And lest we be left to wonder, the decision of the Jerusalem council “had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.” (Acts 16:4). At this point, we can be certain there was a fully functioning eldership within the church at Jerusalem. This continued throughout the remainder of the book of Acts (Acts 21:18) with no suggestion that this pattern would not continue permanently.
But, what does that say about other churches? Was the model of plurality only for the church at Jerusalem while newly established church plants were led by single elders? Hardly. If the pattern of plurality can be affirmed in the Jerusalem church, it is more easily affirmed in the churches planted by Paul and Barnabas, as well as others. Just before Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch to give a full report of the work they had been “commended to” (Acts 14:26), we are informed that they “had appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). Notice the language here—there were “elders” (plural) in “every church” (singular). There is no hint that a plurality was determined based on the size of the church. A plurality of leaders was the normal practice in churches established during Paul’s first missionary journey, no matter the size.
The church at Ephesus was seemingly founded during Paul’s third missionary journey, though there is some evidence of disciples already there when Paul arrived (Acts 19). He stayed there several years teaching the church and evangelizing the area. After leaving, he later visited Miletus. “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” (Acts 20:17). He gave this group of God-called, God-equipped men strong instructions on how they were to lead the local church there. He told this leadership group, “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.” (Acts 20:28). The group of elders was charged by Paul to oversee the church there and “care for” them by faithfully preaching the Word Paul had preached to them.
Later, Paul writes to Timothy in Ephesus with qualifications for elders as they are added to church leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-7). In the same letter, he later writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:17). As Paul writes to Timothy in Ephesus a second time, he instructed him saying, “…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2). The pattern of leadership that we see clearly in Jerusalem was continued in Ephesus. This information is clear to any student of Scripture desirous to see it.
Yet, this is not nearly all the information we are given on this important subject. Paul writes to Titus explaining that he left him in Crete to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). Do not read your current American Christian landscape back into this passage. Biblical and secular history (at the least) suggest that there was only one church in each town at this time. So, for Titus to appoint “elders in every town” was to have a plurality of elders in every church. And, since this is the pattern established throughout the remainder of the New Testament, Scripture certainly affirms here that this was Paul’s instruction to Titus. There is an argument to be made that this was a major step for Titus to “put what remained in order”. By design, churches function with a plurality of godly men leading them. The church in Crete was no exception.
Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is addressed, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). James wrote to his scattered flock saying, “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.” (James 5:14). Peter wrote, “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: 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.” (1 Peter 5:1-5). The writer of Hebrews wrote, “Remember your leaders [plural, TB], those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:6). And again, “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.” (Hebrews 13:17).
The case for multiple leaders in New Testament churches is well-established. As I said to begin with, the burden of proof lies with the accuser, not the accused. Proving that New Testament churches were established and operated with a plurality of elders is the clear teaching of the New Testament Scriptures. Proving the single-led model from the New Testament, however, will certainly prove to be much more difficult.
In closing, let me be as clear as I possibly can be. I am not in any way charging a church that only has one elder with heresy or even unorthodoxy. I am not “unchurching” anybody. That is not my desire and it certainly is not my duty. The Lord is the Lord of His church, not me. My only goal in writing this brief article is to explain the actions of the church I pastor through the lens of Scripture. Without question, the New Testament model for church leadership is predominantly (if not wholly) that of a plurality of elders. We (by God’s help) are simply striving to follow the well-established Biblical pattern. Such should be the goal of every true, faithful New Testament church.
Todd Bryant is the Lead Elder at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Northport, AL. He has pastored there since 1998. For more more information on the church and links to audio sermons and apps for electronic devices, visit www.sovereigngrace.net