Leadership is important. The Bible repeatedly compares people to sheep (Psalm 100:3, Jeremiah 50:6, Matthew 9:36, John 10:11, etc.). Sheep need guidance, protection, and provision – in short, sheep need shepherding. In John 10:11, Jesus identifies Himself as the “good Shepherd”, the One who lays down His own life for the sake of His sheep – and so Christ is certainly the quintessential shepherd when we consider the Church made up of His people. And yet, I Peter 5 makes very clear that there is another subcategory of shepherd leaders.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
– I Peter 5:1-4 (ESV)
This is where we get the term “undershepherd” from. It means that the duly appointed elders of Christian churches are to serve in a guiding leadership role consistent with, but subservient to, the chief Shepherdship of Jesus Himself. They are to “shepherd the flock of God” that is among them or under their charge. This, of course, carries with it the mirror principle that the non-elders in our congregations are to submit to the ruling leadership of their elders. Picking back up in I Peter 5, we read in verse 5: “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” In a Biblically modeled church, the younger (those who are spiritually less mature) are to humble and subject themselves to the elders of that church. This concept is vital to the health of our flocks (or churches), and we would do well to study our own leadership and shepherding models as we pursue obedience to God’s Word.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that “It is a poor physician who treats the symptoms and complications only and ignores the disease.” His point was that we sometimes are so busy putting “band-aids” and quick fixes on many little problems, that we neglect dealing with the real underlying issue that is causing so many of the various difficulties we suffer from. Every church has its own set of problems due to all the imperfect people involved. In observing my own church and more broadly the churches within my denomination (Progressive Primitive Baptists), I have come to the belief that many of our “little” problems are due in large part to a fundamental deficiency in our church leadership tradition. I believe that our departure from the Biblical model of local churches with a plurality of elders is one of our biggest practical pitfalls.1
Perhaps it seems a bit of a stretch to blame so much of our congregational unrest, discord about church practices, shortage of pastors, rapidly declining church membership logs, and the alarming rate of church closures on something so seemingly insignificant as the question of whether we have one or multiple elders in our churches. Perhaps it also seems counterintuitive to think that if we can barely scrounge up enough men to preach to our people on Sundays, that we could somehow ordain additional undershepherds in these same struggling churches. And maybe my thesis is indeed altogether incorrect, or maybe it truly would be implausible and impossible to move toward a plurality of elders model in our denomination even if that was the root of so many problems. Maybe… But I don’t think so. I believe strongly that single eldership and the perception of deacon-led congregational rule is handicapping our churches. This is obviously a problem that cannot be remedied overnight. But take it from a pharmacist, any good treatment plan begins with a proper diagnosis of the problem. And so in this paper, it is my intention to convince you (or at least encourage you to consider) that a plurality of elders is indeed the wise and Biblical model for a local church. To do that, I want to explore this theme under three major headings (I am a Baptist after all!):
- The Biblical model of the New Testament Church
- Biblical wisdom regarding numbers
- Practical considerations
1.) The Biblical model of the New Testament Church
More has been written on church government than you or I could ever read. There are scores of books arguing each and every position out there regarding just how local churches are to be governed. I couldn’t even name all the different models, much less evaluate them properly. I will say that I don’t think it is possible to get it perfect here on earth, but we can pursue Biblical faithfulness. And so as I am not qualified to evaluate and nitpick all of the existing models out there, I simply want to highlight one common theme throughout the New Testament. In His article, “Elders for the Church”, Phil Newton wrote plainly that “Each reference to local church elders demonstrates plurality as the New Testament practice.” Where does he draw this conclusion? Let’s look at some of the clearest references to local church eldership in the Bible:
“When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” – Acts 14:21-23 (ESV… Emphasis mine)
“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” – Acts 20:17 (ESV)
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you…” – Titus 1:5 (ESV… Emphasis mine)
We can see from these few examples that there is a clear reference to multiple elders in singular towns or churches… Every time. These were not some association gatherings where elders who pastored churches by themselves gathered together, rather it is apparent that as New Testament churches were planted there were multiple men put in place to shepherd them – these men were either appointed from among the local people, or left behind from the missionary group, or both. There is not a complete exposition given in any one place in Bible that tells us why this plurality of elders was the norm, there is just the testimony of a multitude of Scriptures that shows us that it was so.
Therefore, any arguments against the plurality of elders must be practical in nature and not Biblical. When folks explain why the church should not have more than one pastor, the reasoning is most often based around a perceived lack of feasibility (see the Epilogue). You may hear that, “We only have one pastor at our church(es) because we are small in number and only need one.” Or, “We cannot afford to support multiple elders.” Or maybe even, “We have always made it just fine with just one preacher.” So you will certainly encounter practical, financial, and even historical/traditional arguments… But I, for one, have yet to hear a single sound Biblical argument as to why any church has only one elder. Why? Because the ONLY model that we find in the New Testament is that of a plurality of elders in local churches.
2.) Biblical wisdom regarding numbers
I mentioned previously that while the New Testament gives us plenty of examples of multiple elders in singular churches, we do not find any clear explanatory remarks as to why that was the normal model for the Christian Church. Therefore, we are left to deduce the reasons for this by carefully considering the profound Biblical wisdom regarding strength in numbers.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV)
The wisdom in these verses is astounding. This plain truth is the basis for all teamwork and support in our families, businesses, teams, churches, cities, states, and nations. Together we are stronger than we are alone. And yet, most of our churches act as if they believe a pastor is excluded from this rule – that somehow, he is stronger by himself than he would be as part of a leadership/shepherding team. Make no mistake, when you support a model of single eldership, you are denying your pastor much needed support that he could be deriving from and offering to any additional elder(s) at your church. The board of deacons cannot offer that type of support, neither can members of the congregation or even the pastors own wife and family. This is because ultimately the pastor will be blamed for anything that goes wrong and the weight of expectation will be placed on only his shoulders when anything difficult needs doing. Shepherding God’s people can get very cold, and where can a pastor find comforting warmth but from a co-pastor or fellow elder. The church is constantly under fire from the world and the devil, and our pastors fight daily with their own lustful flesh. How much stronger might our elders be, and how much more able they might be to stand up against their enemies, if they enjoyed the support of equal partners in the trenches! A threefold cord is not quickly broken… Perhaps this is why Jesus sent his Apostles and disciples out two-by-two!
“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.” – Luke 10:1 (ESV)
When Jesus sent out missionaries ahead of Him to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, He did not send them alone! While I would not take any liberties by comparing these early missionary disciples to elders of local churches, it is hard to miss the practical wisdom of such a plan. Jesus knew the difficulties that lay before them. He knew that He was sending them as lambs into the dens of wolves (v. 3). And yet He told them not to take moneybags, knapsacks, or sandals on the road; rather, they were to simply go with only the comfort and support of their partner on the journey. Perhaps if we realized how difficult the charge of a pastor was we might be more apt to also realize the strength that can be drawn from having a team or at least a partner. Perhaps if we believed that they too face temptations and need accountability, and that they too get worn down and weary and need support, and that they too are besieged by the enemies of their souls and need defense and strength… Perhaps then we might desire to give them the authoritative and coequal help that they so desperately need.
Please note that neither of these two passages speak directly to the concept of church eldership, but both offer us profound wisdom to use when we consider the best possible way for church leadership to be done. God loves the church, and so should we. And if we too want what is best for the church, if we too want a healthy and growing flock, then our first order of business ought to be to ensure we are doing everything possible to support our shepherds. The US Army has a very complex organizational scheme from Divisions, to Brigades, to Battalions and so on… But do you know what their smallest unit is? It’s a team – made up of no less than 2 men. The army knows that in order to be successful, a soldier ought never to operate alone, for that is when he is at his weakest. Brothers and Sisters, we would do well to remember that in this world the church is at war. We bind ourselves to communities of faith called churches because we know we need help and support in this fight… And yet, we expect our leaders to operate the most dangerous of missions all alone. It ought not to be so.
3.) Practical considerations
Utilizing the wisdom found in the Scriptures regarding the strength that is found in numbers committed to a common cause, I want to close by applying this to some of the real life problems that churches today (in many denominations) are experiencing related to the single eldership models.
Each church experiences its own manifestations of symptoms related to only having one pastor. In larger churches, it can be seen when the pastor gets stretched too thin. He is expected to prepare to preach 2-3 sermons per week, perhaps lead a mid-week Bible study, visit every single member who is shut-in or hospitalized, attend all deacon or church leadership committee meetings, manage his own family well, speak outside of the church to promote the gospel when opportunities arise, provide private counsel to his flock and others, and a multitude of other things that most of us aren’t even aware of. In a church of over 100 active members this simply is not possible to do well. Something (if not everything) is going to suffer. The sermons will lack in substance because sermon prep time is limited and constantly interrupted. The visitation will be spotty due to the number of hours in a day and days in a week. Church discipline and oversight completely disappears. The pastors home life will suffer and we will end up with undisciplined “preacher’s kids” because we have robbed them of a fatherly presence. Unqualified members of the congregation will begin to take on roles that they have no business in because they genuinely just want to help meet the neglected needs of the church and have no real guidance or oversight. Before you know it, we have a bona fide mess on our hands. And who gets the blame? The pastor. But don’t worry, we can always just get rid of him and call a new one to wear out before tossing him aside for the next poor candidate who we think might be able to manage the unmanageable position that we call our “elder”.
In smaller churches, the problems may present more subtly and are more difficult to decisively pin on the issue of only having one elder – and yet, they are there. As with any church, a small church with one elder tends to essentially isolate the man tasked with shepherding them. The pastor suffers mightily under the weight of a seemingly unfruitful ministry as the status quo remains year after year. All of the same things are expected of small church pastors, and so parts of their life and ministry suffer as does the life of the church. While they may be able to handle the smaller visitation schedule, these pastors must deal with their own set of equally difficult situations. Are we to think that they need no support alongside them just because there are less people in the pews? The problems of loneliness and discouragement may be even more problematic for the single pastor of a small church. How much would these men benefit from the warm and prayerful support that might exist among a board of elders or a partnership of 2 men pursuing the same ministry together?
Both of these situations, large churches that rapidly stretch their pastors too thin and small churches that wear down their pastors more slowly subtly, can be remedied by simply implementing a plurality of elders. It may not fix the problems that exist immediately, but it at least puts into place the framework needed to begin the healing process. How?
Adding additional elders in our churches would afford the primary teaching pastor(s) with additional time to devote to the cultivation of their preaching gifts. More time in prayer and more time in study will lead to better expository sermons. Better sermons through the Scriptures will begin to educate the congregation on things that have long caused discord among the people and will bring great unity in the Truth. The more the Word of God is faithfully preached, the more closely aligned a congregation will be to it.
The programs that the church endeavors to undertake will immediately be strengthened because the additional elders can bring authority and stability to these efforts. Family and youth ministry will flourish under sound Biblical teaching and guidance from an authoritative and Biblically qualified voice. Visitation and evangelistic ministries will thrive under the careful direction of an elder who communicates consistently with the other elders and members of the church. Practically speaking, the ability of a church to be the church would be bolstered and augmented immeasurably by the implementation of the Biblical model of church leadership. My heart soars at the very thought of what my church could do under such favorable circumstances! What about yours? What about your church?
In summary, I believe that when you combine the New Testament norm of multiple elders in individual towns and churches with the Biblical wisdom that teaches us that there is great strength in numbers and teamwork, and then you apply that to the practical issues that arise in our churches directly related to the workload and burden placed on our sole elders, then you are left with the very plain conclusion that our churches would be better off if we pursued a model consisting of a plurality of elders. If I am wrong, may God soften my heart and allow me to be convinced otherwise, convicted of my errors, and led toward the truth. But if I am right, then may God bless us with a burning desire to pursue the New Testament model of church eldership.
1 Please first understand that I am not casting blame on my own pastor, the elders in our denomination throughout the years, the deacons of our churches, our congregations, or anyone else in particular. I think the point we have arrived at is the result of slow and steady changes and adaptations over 200+ years. The church tends to “creep” and “slip” away from Biblically orthodox practices when it makes small exceptions due to extenuating circumstances and then carries those special practices out until they become normal.
Epilogue: Interacting with presumed objections
I also would like to take a moment to deal with two of the most common objections that I have heard to the implementation of plurality of elders in the Primitive Baptist Denomination.
The fact is that with all other things being equal, a team of elders will be stronger and more successful than an individual. But the biggest practical consideration is not a dispute against that, rather it is the idea among our people that our churches just can’t possibly support more than one elder (and by that, of course, they mean that they cannot afford it financially). Well, I’m here to present a solution to that argument – Don’t pay all of the elders! While it is true that the Bible insists that these men who give themselves to the vocational ministry surely deserve our support and honor (I Timothy 5:17), even financially speaking, it is not the Biblical mandate that each and every elder be paid for His service. In many of our churches, the deacons essentially function as elders already in terms of how they meet, lead, and make decisions for the church. And yet, none of them are paid staff. Many of these men are even Biblically qualified to be “elders/bishops/overseers” (Titus 1 and I Timothy 3). So why not ordain them as such, invest authority in them, and sanction them to fill the role they are already participating in? Then you have a Biblical board of ELDERS leading the church rather than deacons, which would allow the deacons to return to their primary duty of serving the people of the church in various physical and material ways. In this case, surely only one (or possibly two) of the elders will give the majority of his time to the studying and preaching of the Word – so I would suggest that you financially support him and his family. The others can continue to work in their secular careers and yet still serve the church as an elder, preaching and teaching when needed on a part-time basis, but shepherding the flock full-time in an official and respected capacity. They will also now be on an equal level with the pastor and therefore be able to offer him the support and accountability that only a fellow elder could possibly provide. Friends, is this not possible? Paul preached and worked a separate job for a season when he was with the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 2:9). Many of our Old Line brethren do not “pay” their elders. My point is that there are very practical ways to make plurality of elders work in every church… Not just the ones who have the size and capital to pay multiple full time preachers and elders. It can be done.
While that may be the most common argument against plurality of elders among our people, there is a second and much more sinister argument that lies just under the surface – pride. Many of us do not want plurality of elders because that bolsters the position of the elders as the “rulers” of the church in a sense. They become much more capable as our shepherds and leaders, and if we are honest with ourselves we may find that we do not like that very much! Most of us have been indoctrinated in good ole’ American pride that tells us that our voice matters just as much as the next guy. Therefore, we think democratic congregationalism is the greatest way to run a church. If we think about it, don’t most of our churches look a little bit like the US of A’s democratic republic? We have all of our members/citizens with equal votes. We vote on deacons/representatives to handle most our business for us. And we even vote on a pastor/president to lead us (unless he makes the representatives mad and gets impeached). But ultimately, we hold on to this idea that our voice matters just as much as anyone else’s voice (no matter how spiritually immature and Biblical illiterate we may be). We don’t want a plurality of elders because deep down we do not truly want to submit to Biblical elder oversight! If it is pride that stands between us and a Biblical church model, just remember what Paul wrote in Titus 1:5 – “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” It would surely take authentic and active humility for us to lift up additional godly men as elders over us and to submit ourselves to their leadership and authority…. And it would be very good for our own souls.
There are real and practical hurdles to clear when considering this change… But it can be done. The conversation just needs to begin… With the Word of God lighting and leading the way!