The New Testament model of church leadership is a collaborative one, rather than the “lone ranger” style proposed by the modern visionary leadership philosophy. In contrast to the Old Testament, where God’s Spirit only rested upon individual anointed leaders, all God’s people are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have direct access to God (1 Pet 2:9). Leadership, while still vital in the New Testament church, is no longer the domain of individual, anointed prophets. Accordingly, the New Testament documents display a gradual evolution in its ecclesiology, culminating in the pastoral epistles which proscribe the appointment of a collaborative team of leaders in each church, comprised of elders and pastors (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23; Titus 1:5). This is the New Testament model for church leadership. This collaborative model provides protection against any single person’s well-meaning but skewed preferences dominating a church. It provides ultimate protection against a single “visionary leader” leading a church into error and heresy. It also protects a church from being “ping-ponged” from one visionary plan to another by the succession of pastors who come and go over the years.
Several terms are used by the New Testament to refer to church leaders, the most common being “elders” (presbyteros) and “overseers” (episkopos). These two terms describe the same office, as is evident by the way in which the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably (Titus 1:5, 7; Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim 3:1-2). A third term is also sometimes used; the Greek word “poimen” (ποιμήν). This word literally means “shepherd” in Greek, the Latin translation of which is “pastor”. The fact that the Latin translation of the word has found its way into many modern English translations is unfortunate because of the connotations of professional office that the term “pastor” has absorbed over the centuries. The New Testament Christians, however, reading this Greek word “shepherd” (centuries before the Latin term “pastor” was applied) would have understood its implications implicitly. The shepherd was one who watched over and cared for God’s flock, with the understanding that Christ is the head shepherd. The Apostle Peter uses all three terms to refer to the leaders of God’s church when he says:
“To the elders (presbyteros) among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds (poimen) of God’s flock that is under your care, overseeing (episkopos) them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Pet 5:1-4)
A swathe of excellent books have been published describing the biblical role of elders. In summary, elders are to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; 1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28); to guard (Acts 20:28-29; Titus 1:9-14); to oversee (1 Peter 5:3; Hebrews 13:7, 17); to give counsel (Acts 21:23); to handle disputes (Acts 15:2ff); to visit and pray for the sick (James 5:14) and to supervise the distribution of money (Acts 11:30). I feel no need to replicate the already existing detailed analysis of these roles, except to make three important points:
1. The leadership of elders / overseers / shepherds is not to be domineering. Peter, in the above passage, portrays a very balanced view of eldership authority. On the one hand, they are not to “lord it over” their flock in an authoritarian, domineering way (verse 3). On the other hand, in the verse that immediately follows on from this passage, Peter urges the church at large to “submit yourselves to your elders” (1 Pet 5:5). Both of these truths need to be held in tension; churches must allow their elderships to lead, and elders must do so with servant-hearted love and humility.
2. The primary function of the shepherd / elder is not to cuddle the sheep, but to keep the church safe. The elder is to ensure that the flock are not led astray by false teaching: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30). Thus, when outlining the essential characteristics of a potential elder, Paul writes that “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). Elsewhere, Paul writes that it is essential that the elder be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). To summarise, the primary role of elders is to ensure the teaching of sound doctrine, to defend the truth and to refute error. This is what is meant by “keep watch over all the flock” (Acts 20:28). The writer to the Hebrews describes the seriousness of this eldership task when he writes, “they keep watch over you as those who must give an account [to God]” (Heb 13:17). Thus, according to the New Testament, everything that is preached and taught within the church must come under the oversight and scrutiny of the entire eldership, for they will ultimately be held to account for it by God. This does not mean that every elder should be a gifted preacher; but it does mean that the entire eldership must be collaboratively involved in formulating and reviewing the church’s preaching and teaching program, including providing ongoing evaluation and feedback for those who do the preaching and teaching. This oversight is not limited to the Sunday sermon, but extends to everything that is taught within the full scope of the church’s various programs. The common tendency of many elderships to “sub-contract” this teaching oversight to paid pastors is an abrogation of their God-given responsibility and a direct contradiction of the teaching of the New Testament.
3. The qualifications for being appointed as an elder require more than simply a godly character. Inherent in the scriptural injunctions for elders to oversee the teaching within a church, is the necessity for elders to be mature in the faith, knowledgeable in God’s Word, with a thorough grasp of sound doctrine. It is not enough for a prospective elder to have a godly character; that is merely the starting point. A prospective elder must also excel in the areas of biblical knowledge, doctrinal comprehension and spiritual wisdom. The elder must be able to articulate sound doctrine, competently evaluate biblical teaching, identify error and refute false or misleading teaching. This is what Paul means when he says that an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). Paul identifies this essential quality of elders even more clearly in Titus 1:9, when he says “the elder is to encourage others with sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” All of this infers not only significant doctrinal knowledge, but also a strength of character that enables the elder to confidently engage in complex dialogue and theological debate if necessary. Sadly, over the years, I have seen many people appointed to eldership who, while exhibiting a godly character, are biblically and doctrinally naive, and who are not qualified at all to guard God’s flock.
ELDERSHIP AS A PLURALITY
Here we come to the crux of the matter. The New Testament never envisages a situation where a church is led by a solo elder / shepherd, even if that shepherd is paid a salary. There is simply no hint in scripture of an individual single-handedly formulating and implementing a church’s preaching program, determining church policy and deciding the “vision” for the church. The Bible does not advocate “sub-contracting” these responsibilities to a single paid pastor. Every instance in the New Testament when a church’s leadership structure is described, it is very clearly a collaborative plurality of elders / shepherds / overseers. This is true even in the initial years of the church when it was led by the Apostles themselves.
I will explore the plurality of eldership further next week.