Given that appointing elders in every town was Paul’s primary directive to Titus (1:5), it is troublesome that so few of us understand the biblical concept of eldership. In fact, thinking about a church’s elders likely conjures up either wizened old men or cultish organizations governed ruthlessly by a handful of men. As you may have already guessed, the biblical idea of church elders is something else altogether. Thus, I will endeavor here to give a brief explanation of biblical eldership and then a three-pronged argumentation for why I believe in churches being led by a plurality of elders.
WHAT IS A CHURCH ELDER?
Biblically, there are only two official offices within each local church: elders and deacons. That answer may be surprising, given the absence of a pastor. Well, allow me to explain. Titus appears to show that elders and overseers are different words for the same office. Paul first writes, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might… appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (v. 5). In verse 6, Paul gives a general overview of the qualifications for being an elder. Verse 7 then continues to give more specific qualifications, but this time Paul uses the word overseer.
There is a similar occurrence within Acts 20:17-38. In this text, Paul is returning to Jerusalem in spite of his probable imprisonment upon arriving, so as he passes into a harbor near Ephesus, he calls for the elders of the Ephesian church to speak with him for the last time. These men are clearly called elders of the church in verse 17, but Paul also refers to them as overseers in verse 28. Thus, it is evident that elders and overseers are simply two words for the same role, but what about pastors?
It may surprise some to know that the title of pastor is found only once in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11); however, the role and activity is certainly present. Pastor means shepherd, so a pastor’s job is shepherding. Pastor’s lead and guide Christ’s flock (the congregation), feeding them the nourishment of God’s Word. Paul uses the verb for shepherding in Acts 20:28 by commanding the overseers to “care for the church of God.” Peter also exhorts church elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2), which is a command that he received from Jesus directly when He said to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:16). Finally, the verb is used negatively in Jude to refer to selfish shepherds who only care for themselves (Jude 12). Elders (or overseers) are, therefore, called to pastor (or shepherd) the church in which God has placed them.
Pastors, elders, and overseers, as described in the New Testament, are different titles for the same office, and those titles are important. Pastor emphasizes the leader’s role in tending to the church, primarily through teaching them the Scriptures. Elder connotes the maturity and wisdom that must mark the man of God. Overseer indicates the governing leadership that elders must possess in order to guide the church toward effectively making disciples. There is no pastor who is not an elder and overseer as well. Likewise, an elder is simultaneously a pastor and overseer, and an overseer is also a pastor and elder. Though various giftings might make one feel more like a pastor than an elder or overseer, you simply cannot divorce the three titles from one another. Each is essential for healthy leading of the church.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?
Elders are pastors, pastors are elders, and overseers are pastors and elders too. Hopefully we now have a better idea of what the Bible means by church elders, especially since elder is used far more frequently than overseer or pastor. Let us, therefore, now address the issue at hand: why does Paul tell Titus to appoint elders (as in plural)?
Most Baptist churches today (which is the immediate context of my discussion) are governed by a three-branch single-pastor system, with deacons and the congregation sharing investments of authority in directing the church. Being led by multiple elders, each of whom has equal authority with the pastor, is an entirely foreign concept. This oligarchical approach is somewhat threatening in comparison to the check-and-balances of the U.S. government-inspired system we commonly use (but we will discuss the three-branch system later). Our authority, however, is based upon the Word of God, and we willingly allow it to dictate how we organize and lead.
I believe that the Bible teaches that local churches are to be governed by elders, meaning more than one of them. The title of elder is used nineteen times in the New Testament in reference to church leaders (beginning in Acts 11:30). Each usage in singular form is specifically about the office in general (1 Tim. 5:19) or a specific elder (1 Peter 5:1); otherwise, it repeatedly refers to the elders of various churches. In Acts 11:30, Paul and Barnabas are sent to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. Acts 14:23 shows Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in every church by prayer and fasting. The first glimpse of the authority of elders is seen in Acts 15, where we find the elders of Jerusalem gathering with the apostles to decide whether Gentiles must be circumcised. In Acts 20:17, Paul meets with the elders of the church in Ephesus one last time. Paul addresses the letter of Philippians to all the believers of the church with special emphasis to the overseers and deacons of the church (Phil. 1:1). In returning to our present text, Paul exhorts Titus to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Each city, therefore, possessed multiple elders.
Allow me to briefly raise a possible question: since each city had a plurality of elders, could they not be the collective pastors of different churches within the city? Throughout the New Testament, the only identification used for local churches is their city of location because there was only one church per city. Jerusalem, Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and all others each had elders for the church that existed in those cities. With multiple congregations coexisting within cities, the logical adaptation of this principle to modern church life is for each church to have its own body of elders. Otherwise, if we wanted a New Testament-minded system, we would need to consider each congregation a piece of one large church per city with each pastor being one of the elders for the city’s church, which, for obvious reasons, would not work very well at least within our social context.
In summary, biblically each church was led, taught, and guided by a group of elders (also called pastors or overseers). There was no one man who led the church with greater authority than the others. Each elder is equal in authority to one another, and together, each reflecting the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, they lead God’s people toward expanding the kingdom of God through making disciples.
WHAT DOES HISTORY SHOW?
As we enter the second category of arguments, I pray that the biblical case was sufficient for guiding our understanding because submitting ourselves to the God’s Word ought to be the highest priority of the Christian. I hope, then, that I have outlined enough of the Scriptures to display what I believe is the most biblical answer to how a church should be governed: a plurality of elders. If the Scriptures do not persuade us, nothing will. Nevertheless, I will present an historical case for elder plurality, and let us center our historical discussion around answering this question: if having a plurality of elders lead the church is biblical, why do most modern churches not follow this model?
The New Testament gives clear indication that local churches were originally led by multiple elders together. One of the earliest Christian writings outside of Scripture, the Didache, urges churches to “appoint therefore for yourselves bishops [overseers] and deacons worthy of the Lord” (15:1). In fact, the first notion of a single pastor system does not arrive until later with the writings of Ignatius, who separated the titles of overseers and elders from one another. In his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius writes, “In like manner, let all men reverence the deacons, and the bishop likewise, even as Jesus Christ who is the Son of the Father; and the presbyters [elders] as the council of God, and as the bond of the Apostles. Without these there is no Church” (3:1). Thus, Ignatius developed the idea of one ruling overseer with a council of elders and a body of deacons. It is possible that this concept derived from a misunderstanding of the usage of elders and overseer in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. As both texts are similar in their usage, let us observe Titus for them both. Paul commands Titus to appoint elders (plural) in every town, but in verse 7, Paul lists the qualifications of an overseer (singular). Ignatius and others may have read these verses as suggesting that each church should be governed by one overseer and multiple elders. Even though some people still appeal to this argument today, it seems highly speculative. Given the interchangeableness of the titles in Acts 20, there is no reason to assume that Paul is meaning different things when speaking of elders and overseers. In fact, the clearest reading of the text is to understand that Paul speaks of overseers in the singular because he is describing the position generally. For example, saying that plumbers should be able to fix a pipe gives no indication as to a number of plumbers; it is simply a general statement meant to apply to all plumbers. Similarly, this is Paul’s meaning in Titus 1:7. He speaks of overseers singularly as a generality that pertains to all overseers.
Regardless of the reasoning behind a single-pastor system, it quickly became commonplace among churches. The Catholic establishment of monarchial bishops who rule over churches became the predominate practice, which has led to a plethora of extra-biblical terms and hierarchies such as archbishops, auxiliary bishops, coadjutor bishops, and cardinals. Quite simply, this shift did not arise from nor was it submissive to the Scriptures, and the trend continued until the Reformation.
As Baptists, we will now approach the history of elder plurality within our denomination. In Elders in the Life of the Church, Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker argue wonderfully for a plurality of elders. The first chapter, written by Newton, presents the historical nature of elders and the Baptist denomination. I whole-heartedly suggest reading the book, which for Baptists the first chapter alone is worth its price. Newton explains that while a plurality of elders was never universal among Baptists it was not uncommon. He cites a few influential Baptist speakers in the 1700-1800s that reshaped the system. Isaac Backus and John Leland led the way. “Both men had been shaped by the developing colonial culture’s emphasis on the individual and had relegated the church to a secondary position relative to the individual” (30). The influence of the newly formed United States three-branch government is impossible to miss as, over time, the Baptists created a three-branch system within churches with authority dispersed to a single pastor, a board of deacons, and the congregation.
Allow me to close this section with Newton’s closing words of the chapter:
The past two hundred years have witnessed the demise in elder plurality among Baptists. Pastors have begun to resemble CEOs rather than humble New Testament shepherds. Their staffs are hired for their business skills. And their churches are run like big businesses, requiring the corporate structures of a successful company.
A candid look at polity in churches at large today raises questions regarding our diligence to conform to Scripture. Specifically, how well are Christians in the West doing in being different than the world around them? Are we acting as salt and light in our communities? Are our “family values” appreciably different from our neighbors? Connected to theses questions regarding the holiness of the church are the polity questions: Are our congregations nurtured and disciplined like their New Testament counterparts? Are our membership rolls inflated, and could this be contributing to our worldliness? Are pastors and staff members held accountable to anyone besides themselves? Might the alarming rate of immoral behavior among ministers be connected to the disconnect between church staff and a plurality of godly elders, both lay and staff? To put it plainly, I believe recent experience teaches what Scripture at least implies—that the holiness of a church is tied to its polity, just as faith is tied to order.
Our Baptist forebears sought to anchor their church structures and practices in the teaching of Holy Scripture. These stalwarts did not conform their churches to the popular designs of the day, but applied the truths of Scripture to forge a path for their heirs. In the end, whether or not Baptists historically practiced plural eldership is secondary. The primary focus for church leaders today must be to understand what God’s Word teaches, and then to order their churches accordingly. History merely serves to affirm the veracity of Scripture (36-37).
WHAT IS THE MOST PRACTICAL?
Having now addressed the biblical and historical arguments for and against a plurality of elders, we will next approach the pragmatics behind this governance. Obviously, the biblical case must be of prime importance with us always ready to submit ourselves to the Bible’s instructions, and though secondary to the biblical arguments, reviewing history is helpful in making informed and confident decisions. With these two in mind, practicalities are also important to consider, and I believe that elder plurality is the most practical form of church governance available. With that being said, here are a few thoughts of pragmatism on multiple elders.
First, it strikes me as odd that many hesitate on a plurality of elders because they fear an abuse of power and authority by the elders. After all, the current model of Baptist churches was created to ward off such mistreatments. The obvious answer though is that if each elder matches the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 the congregation should have little fear that he would abuse his authority. However, if an elder is found to be severely falling short of those standards, Paul gives the actions to take in 1 Timothy 5:19-20. To avoid such scenarios, great care must be taken in ordaining elders to serve the church, which is why Paul goes on to say in verse 22, “Do not be hasty in laying on of hands”. The laying on of hands was the physical action used to signify ordination as an elder or deacon. If elders are wisely chosen, the congregation will be able to confidently trust their leadership, just as a wife trusts her husband to lead her.
Though abuses can (and unfortunately will) happen, the chances and effects of them are decreased with elder plurality, and the reason is accountability. With multiple elders all being equal in position and authority, each elder is more easily accountable to the others. With one person leading the church, accountability is diminished. To find examples you can look at any history books at many bishops during the Middle Ages, but let’s consider false doctrine in particular. In a single-pastor system, the church is far more susceptible to wavering from the truth if the pastor begins to teach heresy; whereas, if one elder among others begins to believe false teachings, his brothers are able to correct and rebuke him while ensuring that the congregation does not follow after him. In short, elder plurality is not subject to great abuse of authority but actually provides greater accountability in preventing it.
Second, growing up in churches traditional for our time, I quickly became accustomed to the virtual parade of pastors that many congregations experience. The church of my youth saw pastors come, stay for a few years, then move on to another church or ministry. Though each pastor struggled to leave the church in a better place than it was when they arrived, I could not help feeling cheated. Most pastors gave little more than a two week notice of their exit, and without fail the vacuum of leadership undid much of their former work. Thus, each subsequent pastor finds himself building upon a partially demolished structure that may be fortunate enough to have a solid foundation rather than improving upon the work done by the pastor before him. The vacuum of leadership does much damage to even the strongest of congregations, so I have never understood why a pastor would claim to love the flock while not preparing for his absence. After all, love of my wife leads me to have life insurance so that she will be relatively provided for should I die. What plans do pastors have for their flock should the Lord take their life next week? Should pastors not be motivated by love to consider how they might care for the congregation even after they are no longer with them?
These are the sort of questions that haunt me as a pastor. I long to care and shepherd the congregation that I am to lead beyond my time with them, whether the Lord takes me elsewhere or to be with Him. Under a single-pastor system, the only solution is for the pastor to establish a meaningful and well-planned transition to his successor. While I think that such transitions are much needed, sometimes they are simply impossible. A plurality of elders is, I believe, a sufficient solution. Though elders are equals, that does not stop a vocational elder from assuming a larger portion of responsibility and work; however, in his absence, the church is not without leadership. The other elders will find themselves with heavier loads and shouldering more responsibility, but the congregation is still being led and loved. Having multiple elders is a pastor’s life insurance for the congregation.
Finally, the third largest practicality for functioning under a plurality of elders is that together the group overcomes the weaknesses of the individuals. If an elder is called to wisely counsel the congregation, provide leading guidance, and administer sound teaching of Scriptures, there is a likeliness that he will excel at one better than the others. Rarely is a pastor ever equally skilled in the three; rather, one or two will be his strength and the others his weakness. Establishing a plural eldership helps to offset the weaknesses of one man. If the vocational elder (the primary preaching pastor) is weak in wise counseling, there will hopefully be at least one other elder who is a stronger counselor than he is. In this way, the diversity of leadership helps to account for a single man’s flaws.
Obviously, the thoughts expressed above are far from extensive; however, I pray that they are a sufficient overview and summary of the essence of the issue. Elder plurality is, I believe, the biblical system of church governance. Regardless of cultural or historical tradition, we must ultimately submit ourselves to the Scriptures, trusting that God’s Word will not lead us astray. For more reading on this topic, I have listed several books that are worth consultation.