Anyone who fellowships in a New Testament church with a plurality of elders will face this question sooner or later, often from a well-meaning fellow Christian. Part of the equipping of the saints referred to in Eph. 4:12 is to teach growing believers why we do what we do, and how to defend important truths from Scripture. Otherwise, the impression may be given that this condition is admittedly abnormal, and (hopefully) will soon be rectified.
NT teaching on church leadership
Only a brief survey of the Acts and Epistles is needed to assure us that the earliest Christian churches were led by a plurality of men called elders. Paul instructed both Timothy and Titus about how elders could be recognized and appointed, and he expected this pattern to be followed “in every city” (Titus 1:5). No example can be found of a church with a single “ruling elder” or single “Pastor.”
Even in his instructions to relatively new congregations such as in Thessalonica, Paul assumes that normal church leadership will be plural (I Thess 5:12). The writings of Peter are no different. In addressing those who had been scattered abroad, Peter expects the number of those who lead in the churches to be several, not just a single individual, and calls them elders (I Peter 5:1-2).
This is significant since Peter, about to mention the Chief Shepherd (vs. 4), might have taken the opportunity to address those in leadership as “the shepherds (i.e. pastors) who are among you….” Instead, he specifically calls them elders.
It is beyond the scope of this article to explore all the benefits of God’s design on this subject. Suffice to say that the protection provided by a multitude of counselors or viewpoints in leadership, the different spiritual gifts that make up a leadership team, the training of younger men, the spreading out of the workload, and the smooth transition in replacing elders–all are just a few of the ways in which the wisdom of God is displayed in this extremely practical matter.
Suggestions to help
How then can the truths concerning Biblical leadership be built into the life of the church and the ministry of the Word in a way that both edifies and equips? Here are some suggestions:
- Judge pride. God hates it. No amount of excellence in church order can compensate for an attitude of superiority toward other Christian groups. Each person in the assembly must learn both from Scripture and by the example of those in leadership that every true Christian community is a cause for thanksgiving to God, and a potential opportunity to encourage other brothers and sisters in Christ. Answers to questions, like the one at the head of this article, need to be given in a spirit of love and humility, always remembering that there are doubtless truths that others see more clearly than we do.
- Provide basic instruction from Scripture on significant doctrine of ecclesiology. This includes the Biblical terms used for church leaders, major passages on the subject and clear statements as to how these truths are applied in our particular fellowship. Opportunities for questions and discussion, such as in a small group setting, are invaluable.
- Practice using words correctly. People need training from Scripture as well as credible examples in real life to help them use Biblical words correctly, especially important words. For example, spiritual gifts are not intended to be religious titles. Sometimes I hear church leaders lament, “I wish they wouldn’t call me Pastor, but since they do, I just accept it.” The antidote for misused words is not to avoid them, but to use them correctly. It’s OK to speak about people among us who are pastors (with a small “p”). Help those in the fellowship become comfortable with expressions like “pastoral visit,” “pastoral care,” etc.
- Avoid lumping the terms “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor” together as synonyms. They are not. The first two refer to the office or leadership position whose qualifications are clearly spelled out in several passages, and are available to mature, qualifying men in the assembly. The third is a spiritual gift given to men, women and young people by the sovereign act of God.
- Never say, “We have no pastor.” Instead, explain that we are blessed with a number of people who have the spiritual gift of pastor though none has a title. The short answer is, “Thankfully, we have many pastors!”
- In situations where people are coming into the assembly from denominational backgrounds, it is especially important for the elders to share or delegate functions that are often perceived as “ministerial.” These include conducting marriages and funerals, baptizing, passing out the elements at the Lord’s Supper, and chairing important decision-making meetings.
- Make sure that those who have pastoring gifts are able to function in a Biblical manner, that is, not primarily as administrators but as caregivers.
- Instruct the more mature believers on the weaknesses of unbiblical positions. One of the most compelling arguments against the church “Pastor” position is to observe the verses wrongly used to support it. For example, there is no evidence that James, the brother of our Lord, was singled out as a man of influence in the church in Jerusalem because he was a titled official. He certainly was not its “head” as is sometimes claimed. In every reference to him in Acts he is simply called “James.” Most likely his kinship to the Lord Jesus was recognized (much like the mention of Mary in Acts 1: 14). Some imagine that the angels addressed by the Lord in the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2,3) must be the “Pastors.” But there is no good reason to reject the normal meaning of the word used there as being “messenger.” We must not bypass teaching about church leadership that is abundant and clear in favor of what is at best conjecture.
One of the truly great needs of assemblies today is a vibrant pastoral ministry that reaches out to the new, the hurting and the needy. This good work must not be left to the elders alone! All those gifted must be functioning and encouraged. In an age when many churches acknowledge only one pastor (and he a preacher, administrator and caregiver combined), groups seeking to follow the New Testament example have an opportunity to excel by providing rich shepherding skills from many different points within the fellowship.
Editorial note. This article was first posted in Elder’s Shopnotes in September 2003. It is re-posted with permission from the author.