The sight of many people without a shepherd caused the Lord Jesus to be “moved with compassion” because they were being scattered (Matt. 9:36). People are often compared to sheep in the Bible, and a verse in Isaiah tells why; “All we like sheep have gone astray. . . ” (53:6). People meeting together in local churches are no different, they tend to get off the path and need to be watched over. Good leadership is not optional; feed and tend and protect the sheep or the church will dwindle and die.
This raises the question about what sort of church leadership God intends for His people. Are we left to whatever seems to work, or to imitate things we see in the business world, or is there a pattern provided in Scripture? No need to labor this point; anyone who has read through the New Testament would know that there is one form of church leadership uniform throughout, a plurality of older, more experienced man called elders or overseers (KJV “bishops”).
Why Trust the Biblical Pattern?
I’ll resist the temptation to call this chapter “What Happened to the Church?” and suggest a few reasons why New Testament churches insist on a Biblical type of leadership.
- “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). No man – regardless of how godly and wise – is qualified to lead the church; there is only one Head of the church. Some churches try to side step the intent of this by surrounding the minister or “Senior Pastor” with a board of advisors, even calling them elders. In some cases, it’s a working plurality, but in many cases, the last word resides with the final single authority.
- In the New Testament, “pastor” is a spiritual gift, never an office, much less a title. Gifts are received at salvation; offices (elder and deacon) are earned through years of work and experience; the Scripture says “Not a novice” (I Tim. 3:6). The NT gives very detailed qualifications for church office in duplicate lists (I Tim. 3; Titus 1). It is unthinkable that no qualifications were provided for what many consider to be the highest office of the church.
- The Lord made it very clear that His followers must refrain from taking religious titles (Matt. 23:8-10). Some insist that the meaning is simply to avoid a superior attitude, but His words refer not to attitude, but to position “one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren.” Even “elder” is not to be used as a title. Ever wonder how many times in the Bible we read of “the Apostle Paul”? The answer is zero; rather we read of “Paul, an apostle.”
- In churches with one man at the helm, one notes an unfortunate but predictable chain of events when he is “called elsewhere” or passes on; there is a flurry of interviewing, “candidating,” and one hears expressions like “empty pulpit.” When the new man is “installed,” the church may surge ahead or begin to dwindle depending on whether he is “as good” as his predecessor or not. With a plurality of elders, there is the calm and untraumatic adding of new elders as older ones move on or go home to be with the Lord.
- In most churches with one man rule, that man must have fairly extensive ecclesiastical training followed by an ordination that sets him apart from regular believers. “Lay people” as they are called, may assist in minor roles, but certain functions (e.g., overseeing the communion; officiating at marriages and funerals etc.), are reserved for the man who is “qualified.” Elders, on the other hand, are ordinary men who usually hold regular jobs in the working world. Repeatedly, in the NT, the expression “among you” is used to emphasize the truth that elders are not religious clergymen, but regular Christians who move among the rest of the flock.
- The above points are weighty, but the best is reserved for last. God knows best! A plurality of elders is best because it’s the plan God designed and caused to be written in His Word! This one fact alone should be sufficient. It is a cause for rejoicing in our nday that numerous churches from all sorts of ecclesiastical backgounds are “transitioning” to elder rule having found that other plans cause more problems than they solve.
The consistent pattern of churches in the New Testament is a plurality of ordinary men; the mature men of the congregation known as elders. No one wrote more about this than Paul the apostle, and we have been thinking about his strong statement in I Cor. 14:37. This forms a reliable test as to our acceptance or rejection of his claim to be bringing us “the commandments of the Lord.” Throughout his life, in various countries and journeys, and in writings to both churches and individuals, he held to one form of church government; “they appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Are we committed to that principle in the churches where we labor?
The fourth characteristic of New Testament churches is the role and relationship of the people