“So I exhort the elders among you…” (1 Peter 5:1)
Oftentimes when I mention that we have a plurality of elders at our church, people look at me like a mule looking at a new gate (my father always said that). It’s somewhat of a rare idea today. The tradition of our day (I’m struggling for another description here) is to have a single-pastor-led church. It’s so much the norm in our churches that suggesting that plurality may be a better pattern is often received with marked criticism—or even an accusation of liberalism and modernism. However, that is an incorrect accusation.
The matter of a plurality in church leadership really isn’t a matter for debate. It is the Biblical pattern. Therefore, the issue is whether we truly desire the Bible to be the sole authority for life in the church or not. Churches in the New Testament consistently had plurality in leadership. There is no hint that a congregation is given liberty to have plurality or not based on the number of members or of some other supposed need. It is simply the consistent pattern in every mention of elders in every New Testament church.
Even before the Jerusalem council, we find plurality in leadership in the Jerusalem church. As the church in Jerusalem struggled financially, other churches sent them aid. One such church was the church at Antioch. “And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:30). In the church that Jesus founded…in the church where the apostles were clearly leaders…even in that very church, a plurality of elders was set up to lead the church. And, oddly enough, Paul and Barnabas didn’t send the money to the apostles, but to the elders of the church.
This was a pattern in the ministry of Paul as he and his assistants established churches on the mission field. It appears that one of the most important things they did was appoint “elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). Yes, even in these new mission works, Paul and Barnabas (under the direction of the Lord, no doubt) “appointed elders for them in every church”. Notice clearly—“elders” (plural) were appointed in “every church” (singular). This pattern has not developed over the centuries. No, this is the New Testament pattern from the beginning. Single led pastorates are the newer fad.
When the Jerusalem council occurred, we find this pattern of a plurality of elders in action again. The question arose over whether the Gentiles were required to keep the Mosaic Law or not—whether they were required to be circumcised or not. And though that’s a question for another blog, this matter was brought before the elders in the Jerusalem church. Notice clearly, “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, 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). And again, “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them” (Acts 15:4). And once more, “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). There was a distinct difference between the office of the apostle and the office of elder. The office of the apostle was established to build up the early church by clarifying the teachings of Jesus—primarily through the giving of the New Testament. The office of apostle was a temporary office given to a handful of men. After they died, the church was left with a permanent office—elders.
Later on in Paul’s ministry, he was passing near Ephesus where he had established a church. And, though he wasn’t able to visit the city, he was able to have one last visit with the group of men that he had appointed (by the leadership of the Spirit, no doubt) to lead that church. Notice, “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17). He gave these men instructions for the future—instructions on how they, as a group, were to lead the Lord’s church there in Ephesus. He said to them, “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). This group of men was given instructions by Paul on how they were to lead and equip that church. This was still the pattern when Timothy was at the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 5:17).
If we carefully search the Scriptures out on this subject, we will find that every clear instance of leadership in the capacity of the local church shows a plurality of leaders—elders. This is God’s plan for a local church and He gifts men to fill such an office (Ephesians 4:11-12). It is a good pattern because it is God’s pattern. It is a good pattern because it is the Scriptural pattern. It is a good pattern because it disallows a man from becoming a dictator over God’s flock. It is a good pattern because it keeps men in check, Biblically. It is a good pattern because caring for a congregation is too much for one man to do. It is a good pattern because it focuses on the Scripture, and not on a man.
In the last few generations, this Biblical pattern of elder plurality has been set aside. I honestly don’t have an answer as to why—and, that really doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is that we are willing to see the Biblical pattern and that we are willing to seek to conform to it. Now, it would be a mistake to stick an ungifted and unqualified man into the eldership just to meet a standard. However, as we pastors see that God has gifted men for leadership, we need to follow the same instructions that Paul gave to Timothy—“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and 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 2:1-2)
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