While many people today would argue that the plural elder model of church government is not demanded by the teaching of the New Testament, I think, it nonetheless represents the clear teaching of the NT. To hear this argument see my article How Should Our Churches Be Led 1/3. In this post, I want to address how a plurality of elders is the best model for the spiritual growth of our churches.
Let’s be honest, most baptist churches today do not have a plurality of elders, so I know that there is likely an immediate knee-jerk reaction to a young seminary student like myself who claims that the NT model of church leadership is clearly marked by a plurality of elders. Understanding my lack of long-term experience in church ministry, I hope to humbly show how an elder’s biblical function lends itself best to plural elder model.
In my previous post, I looked at the role of elders in shepherding the flock. I think shepherding the flock means caring for the spiritual needs of the congregation as well as providing biblical vision for spiritual growth of the church. Shepherding the flock is closely tied to the second distinguishing function of elders–to teach.
If you read the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, the clear distinction between a deacon and an elder is that an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:9). Titus 1:9 gives more explanation as to what this involves as Paul says an elder/overseer must be “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Thus an elder must be able both to teach sound doctrine and recognize and correct false doctrine. Thus Paul commands Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). I think teaching the Bible implies responsibility and authority–not authority inherent in the elder, but as one given authority by the church to teach God’s authoritative Word. Thus the connection between shepherding the flock and teaching becomes more clear.
Protecting the flock against false doctrine is tied to shepherding in that a shepherd would see it his job to protect his sheep from various dangers. This is an authoritative function, an elder is not merely to teach but also to protect the flock from false teaching. Thus it would seem that Paul had in mind for NT to churches to trust their elders and follow their teaching.
As mentioned in my previous post where I looked at 1 Peter’s teaching on elders, “shepherding the flock” involves “exercising oversight” and seems to indicate that elders are given the authority to set the vision and direction of the church (1 Peter 3:2). It makes sense that the same people in the church who are given the authority to set the biblical vision and direction are also given the authority to teach. If a church hopes to move in a biblical direction it must be teaching the Bible well.
This is where the typical single elder model (functioning with a “pastor as CEO with vice president deacons”) runs into problems. In such a model deacons tend to function as quasi-elders. When the head pastor of a church is the sole elder/overseer of the church, the deacons typically function as checks/balances and advisers to the head pastor. I see three significant problems with such a model:
1. In the single elder model, deacons are typically given authority and often are not focused on fulfilling a servant role in the church. As I said in my first post on church leadership, a deacon’s job by definition is to serve. In fact, deacons were appointed in Acts 6 because the apostles said, “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). The verb “to serve tables” in Greek is diakoneo which is the verb that gives definition to the function of deacons–to serve. In contrast to the deacons, the apostles determine to “devote [themselves] to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Thus it seems clear that a deacon’s role is more generally to serve in the church rather than specifically to teach or lead the church.
2. The “pastor as CEO model” often gives authority in overseeing the church to men who are not involved in the teaching ministry of the church. The role of an elder is both to teach and to shepherd the flock by exercising oversight. This single elder model involves casting the biblical vision for the spiritual growth of the church. The single elder model typically gives deacons authority in counseling and advising the pastor as he casts the biblical vision of the church but typically this model does not warrant them the same authority to teach. It ought to go without saying that the primary way that elders set the biblical vision is by preaching and teaching the Bible. Deacons are servants and not those accorded authority to teach–thus the ought not be accorded similar authority to cast the biblical vision for the church.
3. The “pastor as CEO model” fails to adequately recognize the importance of service in the body. Because this model confuses the biblical role of deacons, it fails to adequately recognize those who give of themselves to serve the body when it extends deacons role beyond that of service.
I also think that the “pastor as CEO model” lends itself more readily to failure upon the failure of the senior pastor. While this can happen in a church with a plurality of elders as well, the plural elder model spreads the responsibility to teach, preach, and cast the biblical vision to multiple pastors/elders such that when a pastor falls into disrepute or leaves the church, the church already has recognized men able to teach and preach the Bible in the pastor’s absence.
While I do not think that single elder churches are necessarily in sin, I think the NT clearly points to a plural elder model. Thus, if our churches want to promote faithfulness to the Bible’s clear teaching and spiritual growth, they would do well to consider carefully the Bible’s teaching about how our churches should be led.
While this has not been a comprehensive look at the roles of elders in the local church, I hope it has been helpful to you in thinking about the Bible’s teaching on church leadership and maybe even challenged you to think about how your church ought to be structured to best display the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!