Many churches today are taking a hard look at the subject of church leadership. Some have been studying the New Testament teachings; others are forced to reconsider because of an “empty pulpit,” and still others have concluded that the conventional system just isn’t working as hoped. To this end, we are beginning a series of articles showing that leadership by a plurality of elders is Biblical, practical and realistic for the church today.
First, why plurality? For many, the simple statements of Scripture and early church practice are sufficient. However, for those who have only known a form of leadership in which the “Pastor” is the both the chief administrator and primary preacher, the question can be “How could things be done any other way?”
There is no question that in the Pastor-centered model of church leadership there are many good men who love the Lord and His people. In many cases, they were raised in denominations knowing no other way. And wherever such men work at spreading the Word, the church can grow.
Without slight on any individual or group, we must consider the possibility that this system of church leadership might actually be the result of spiritual warfare against the truth. Who can name a greater failing within the church throughout history than the multitudes of non-functioning, mute spectators of “religious ministry” called “laity” who look on while the professionally “clergy” carries out the “worship” of the church? How can it be known in such churches that this division into separate classes of “clergy” and “laity” is totally lacking in New Testament support and in fact is opposed to the very heart of the Christian faith — the salvation and maturity and functioning of every true believer?
The Case for Plurality
1. The teaching of Christ: In Matt. 23:8-10, our Lord forbids the taking of religious titles to His followers because “…one is your Teacher, the Christ, and all you are brethren.” The specific mention of the titles Rabbi, father and teacher could well be applied to Jews, Roman Catholics and Protestants, but the point is that ANY title that separates men into a ministerial class is forbidden by the Lord.
2. The example of the early church: The normal configuration of local churches in New Testament days is expressed in Phil. 1:1 “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” The word “bishops” is synonymous to “elders.” Note that the descriptions are plural, yet it is one local church in Philippi (e.g., I Thess 5:12; Heb 13:7,17).
3. The teaching and practice of the apostles: Paul instructed Titus to “… appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.” (Titus 1:5). Revisiting young churches in Galatia, Paul and Barnabas followed a consistent pattern: “So when they had appointed elders in every church …“ (Acts 14:23). Peter gave a special charge to “The elders who are among you….” (I Peter 5:1). There is no hint that without a central figure such as an ordained Minister or Pastor, the church is incomplete. In the letter of James, often thought to be the earliest written epistle, ailing believers were instructed: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church …” (James 5:14). In all cases, there was a plurality.
4. The Biblical teaching regarding safety in a plurality: Prov. 11:14 says: “ Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” No matter how wise and godly any man might be, he is nevertheless subject to being deceived and erring in judgment. Some will object that even a king as supreme can have counselors. But it is one thing to solicit wise counsel while reserving the final decision to oneself, and quite another to seek God’s will by praying and working together in a true team toward unanimity or consensus.
5. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers requires that church leaders be ordinary people and not a separate clergy class. The spirit and intent of numerous passages such as I Peter 2:5, 9; I Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 4:11-16 and Revelation 1:5-6 assume that every Christian believer is a holy priest with spiritual functions to perform in the church, and that these are not limited to peripheral and non- essential duties, but to the very heart of fellowship with God and the issues of the assembly.
6. The confirmation of history: In the many revivals and reformations, a return to the Word of God and a moving of the Spirit of God have always been ac- companied by an increased openness to involvement by ordinary believers. Usually, though, this trend has been partial, and the machinery of organized religious systems has resented intrusion into the “priestly office.”
7. Practical considerations: Where religious persecution is formidable, the clergy style of church government cannot prosper. Believers must meet quietly, often in homes and leadership functions are necessarily the responsibility of ordinary working people. On the other hand, in western evangelicalism, one often sees the disruption caused by a transition in leadership. Contrast the “empty pulpit” with trial sermons preached by candidating applicants imported from afar, with the quiet transition within a leadership team as younger men grow into shepherding and replacing those moving away or going to be with the Lord.
Opposing arguments “from Scripture”:
Probably the passage most often cited in objection is the leadership of James in Acts 15. There is no question that he provided good leadership. But he was never referred to by any religious title, and he only summarized the conclusions to which all had already come, he didn’t make the decision himself (Acts 15:25 lit. “Having come to one accord”). In the letter written by the counsel, his name was not even mentioned. Rather the salutation was sent from “The apostles, the elders and the brethren…” vs. 23.
That James is mentioned with special honor and respect is easily understandable as being the earthly brother of the Lord Jesus. But this no more proves him to be “the Pastor of the Jerusalem church” than the separate mention of “Mary the mother of Jesus” along with “other women” (Acts 1:14) is grounds for supposing that Mary was the president of the women’s guild in the church!
Secondly, Ephesians 4:12 does mention “pastors,” but the context is not church leadership, but spiritual gifts. Scripture never confuses spiritual gifts (received at conversion) with leadership positions (earned through years of experience). In fact the only individual in the entire New Testament identified by the noun “pastor” (or “shepherd “) is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (1 Peter 5:4).
Finally, some teach that the angels of the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are references to church pastors. But church leaders are never elsewhere called angels (messengers) and there are good words both for pastor and elder, neither of which was chosen by the writer John. Why churches have angelic representatives is a valid question, but how frail is a theological position that must seek church Pastors in references to angels!
Practical Objections to Plural Leadership
Objections are usually in two areas; 1) it is more difficult to get decisions made when several persons are involved 2) ordinary men have neither the time nor the training to lead the church.
As to the first, if the primary goal in leading the church was speed in decision making, there is no question that a single person can come to unanimity more quickly. But the church is not the corporate world. Opportunities for spiritual growth, warm fellowship, developing listening and communication skills, and waiting on the Lord together for guidance gives advantages to the team approach that far outweigh any disadvantages.
As to the second objection, one must consider the nature and purpose of the church. It is a place where disciples are made. Men who love the Lord and His people will make time in a busy schedule to study the Word and visit the flock. They are not known and loved because of educational degrees, but simply because of godly wisdom, and sharing with others what they are finding in the Lord personally. Godly men have raised families, held fulltime secular jobs, and nevertheless functioned effectively as church elders. As part of a working team, each one uses his gift and contributes his part, resulting in a healthy, growing church. No wonder a growing number of churches are making the transition to elder-led churches!