ELDERSHIP AS A PLURALITY
Last week I began to examine the concept that the New Testament model of church leadership is a collaborative one, rather than the “lone ranger” style proposed by the modern visionary leadership philosophy.
ELDERSHIP AS A PLURALITY
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:
- In Acts 6 the church was faced with the problem of widows who were being overlooked in the daily administration of food. The apostles came to a collective decision to appoint deacons to oversee this ministry, and their decision found approval by the whole congregation. Importantly, as well as illustrating the collective nature of decision-making, this incident also reveals that providing practical pastoral care to church members was not regarded by the Apostles as the responsibility of those who are in eldership.
- Acts 13 describes the leadership team at Antioch as being comprised of “prophets and teachers”, five of whom are specifically named (Acts 13:1). The next verse describes how the whole team discerned God’s leading to set apart Barnabas and Saul for missionary work. Once again, it is collaborative decision-making that is in evidence.
- Acts 14 records that as Paul and Barnabas travelled on their missionary journey, they “appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Plurality of leadership was essential in ensuring balanced oversight of each church.
- Acts 15 describes a crucial decision facing the early church: What expectations should be placed upon Gentile converts regarding adherence to Judaic Law? The decision was made by the “apostles and elders” in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:4, 6, 22, 23). Even in this early stage in the church’s development, elders had been added to the leadership team in Jerusalem, to work alongside the Apostles. In Luke’s narrative of this event, he particularly points out that the Apostles and elders were “of one mind” regarding their decision (Acts 15:25), indicating that the decision was arrived at via consensus and unity. This passage is very important for our understanding of the role of professional pastors today; even the great Apostle Peter did not have authority to unilaterally make decisions and set policy.
- Acts 20 describes Paul meeting with the elders of the church at Ephesus as Paul was on his way to Rome. Although Timothy, the itinerant preacher and evangelist and Paul’s co-worker, seems to have had a key preaching role at Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3), there remained a wider leadership team of elders who led the church (Acts 20:17-38).
- In Titus 1:5, Paul reminds Titus of the crucial task that he commissioned Titus with: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you would set in order what was unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” The absolute necessity for plurality of leadership in each church was non-negotiable in Paul’s mind (see also Phil 1:1; Jas 5:14).
THE IMPORTANCE OF A PLURALITY OF ELDERS
Now we have reached the heart of the crux of the matter! A plurality of elders within a church is essential for the safety and well-being of God’s flock. Why?
- No one man or woman has all the wisdom and gifts necessary to lead God’s church. The paid pastor needs a team of fellow shepherds to add their gifts and insights to his limited abilities. This will ensure that the church’s ministry is not “lop-sided” and skewed towards one individual’s preferences and gift areas.
- The elders need to hold each other accountable for their lifestyle and their teaching. The paid pastor is not exempt from this; he is just as accountable to his fellow elders as they are to him. This level of mutual accountability is essential if the church is to be protected from drifting into theological error or moral sin. Inherent in this relationship of accountability is the necessity for elders to be willing to correct and even rebuke the paid pastor if necessary, and also for the paid pastor to be willing to submit himself to that level of accountability. The Apostle Paul demonstrated his willingness to correct the teaching of a fellow elder when he confronted the Apostle Peter about his wrong teaching: “But when Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he was in error” (Galatians 2:11).
- A plurality of elders is much more likely to collaboratively discern the will of God. It disconcertingly easy for one person to mistakenly interpret his own inclinations as the leading of God’s Spirit. But when a team of elders prayerfully arrive at a consensus regarding God’s leading in a matter, the church can have considerably more assurance that God’s will has been correctly discerned.
THE NEED TO RESTORE BIBLICAL ELDERSHIP
Now we come to the hook of the heart of the crux of the matter! The modern church has drifted away from the model of Biblical eldership:
- Some churches do not have elders at all, and have granted their professional clergy almost absolute power in determining church policy and practice. In these churches, so long as the pastor doesn’t move the organ, sell the church building or rearrange the sanctuary he can almost do as he likes. He is certainly not held to account regarding the accuracy of his teaching or the godliness of his lifestyle, nor does anyone feel they have the right to challenge his philosophy of ministry. After all, he is the professional!
- Other churches have elderships in name only. Elders are regarded as being little more than glorified deacons, having little authority, no sense of mutual accountability with the paid pastor and very little understanding of their God-ordained mutual responsibility to lead the church. They are often elected because of their caring hearts and their loyalty to the pastor. Pastors often nominate elders who are already “on their side” and who will support them unquestioningly. Consequently, many elderships see their primary role as supporting and protecting the pastor, rather than as leading and guarding God’s church. They certainly don’t understand their responsibility to critique, question, or even challenge the pastor regarding his teaching or policies.
In his classic book, “Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call To Restore Biblical Church Leadership”  Alexander Strauch presents a heartfelt plea for the modern church to abandon its unquestioning trust in the “Pastor-as-CEO” model and return to the biblical roots of leadership via eldership. I whole-heartedly agree!
 Alexander Strauch, “Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call To Restore Biblical Church Leadership”, 1987, Lewis & Roth