Leadership in the local church has received renewed interest in recent days, thanks in part to ministries such as 9 Marks. It seems like more and more pastors are seeking to transition their churches from a single pastor model of leadership to that of a plurality of elders (while this is a encouraging development–pastors who are making this transition should do so very carefully and patiently). By a plurality of elders I simply mean multiple pastors, elders, or overseers (these terms are essentially synonymous in the NT). We ought to rejoice in this renewed interest in plural eldership as such a model reflects the clear teaching of the New Testament.
Despite this renewed interest in plural eldership that I have seen in many churches recently, the majority of Baptist churches do not possess a plural elder model. Thus, the leadership model of the New Testament is worth thinking about. So in my next three posts, I will do my best to discuss the model of church leadership found in the New Testament. Thoroughly tracing the New Testament model of leadership in the local church would be a task too vast for this blog, however, I will do my best in this post, to briefly highlight some significant teaching in the NT on plural eldership. In two follow-up posts, I will address what biblical elders ought to be doing in our churches and why understanding the role of elders is important to all members of the church!
First, we should note that the church or churches in Jerusalem had elders (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 21:18). Acts 14:23 indicates that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in all the churches they visited on Paul’s first missionary journey. Further 1 Timothy 5:17 indicates that the church at Ephesus had a plural leadership model and in Titus 1:5 Paul commands Titus to appoint elders in the churches of Crete.
1 Peter gives some of the strongest evidence for the presence of plural eldership in the New Testament churches. Peter’s first epistle is addressed to churches in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” We don’t know exactly how many churches the epistle of 1 Peter was circulated to, but it was likely at least dozens, possibly even hundreds or thousands of churches in Asia Minor. Peter challenges “the elders” of these churches to “shepherd the flock of God among them.” Thus we can deduce from this that plural eldership was the pattern for all of the many churches that Peter’s letter is addressed to. Further, it should be noted that there is no verse in the NT that describes one person as the single elder of a church. Although the New Testament’s teaching on elders is generally directed at churches in general, Philippians 1:1 is directed to a specific church and the model for leadership is clearly one of a plurality of elders.
While other models of leadership in Baptist churches have been espoused, the burden of proof rests on them to prove the pattern of leadership in the NT is different from that of a plural elder model.
I should mention that I believe local churches are to be led by a plurality of elders rather than ruled by them. I think that NT pattern is one of congregational rule. For instance, in Galatians 1:8-9, Paul tells the churches of Galatia to reject false teaching. Thus it was the congregation’s responsibility to preserve doctrinal purity. Further, it was the congregation that ultimately holds authority in issues of church discipline (Matt 18:15-17; 2 Cor 2:6). Thus if elders are not to rule the church, what is their role?
With the plural nature of leadership in the church established, we ought to give thought to what an elder’s function in the local church is. Thus my next two posts will address the two unique functions of biblical elders—teaching and shepherding. In the list of qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy 1:6-9 and Titus 1:6-9, we see the unique qualification of elders is that they be “able to teach.” 1 Peter 5:1-4 indicates that elders are to “shepherd the flock of God.”
While there is significant overlap in these two functions— I do think they are distinct and each is worthy of our attention. Thus, in my next two posts I will address the two unique responsibilities of elders in the local church—to teach and to shepherd the flock.
For a more thorough discussion on the plural elder model and Baptist church polity see John S. Hammett’s book Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches.