Making the Case for a Plurality of Elders: A Study in Church Polity

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  Ephesians 4:1-6 ESV

In the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul made it abundantly clear that the unity of the church was, and is, of the utmost importance.  In the aforementioned verse of Scripture, the body of Christ is called to humbly, gently, eagerly, peacefully, and lovingly maintain, not simply strive for, but instructed to maintain unity among its members.  However, these instructions often fall on deaf ears, since the body of Christ is made up of sinful humans that are easily tempted by pride, power, and money (among many other things).  The constant human struggle with the temptation of fleshly desires has torn apart many congregations throughout the history of the church, and will doubtlessly continue to cause division where such idolatry is allowed to continue to run rampant.  It is for this very reason that God calls specific men to be elders in the church; to lead, oversee, and pastor the flock.  The position of the elder is one of utmost importance.  Aside from the responsibilities of teaching and edifying the body through the ministering and guarding of God’s Word, the elder is also called to care for and shepherd the flock, as well as lead the church, ensuring Christ is kept as the head and that unity is maintained.  The problem is, the elders called to lead the church are as human as any other member of the body.  They are born into sin, battle the flesh, and can just as easily give in to temptation as any other child of God.  However, it is for this reason that God did not intend to leave his people in the hands of any one human, born of sinful flesh, to be solely responsible for pastoring and overseeing the flock.   On the contrary, God specifically intended for each local congregation of believers to be led and pastored by a plurality of elders in order to maintain peace and unity within the body of Christ.

Polity in the Church

For centuries, the church has debated the proper way to govern the local body of Christ.  For the most part, Christians would agree that the church is to be led by men (although the issue of the women’s role in church leadership is one that is continuing to grow), called specifically by God as elders, or overseers of the local church.  However, the issue to be debated is the one that lies within the determining of the order and number of men in which the local congregation is to be governed.  In his book, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Wayne Grudem lists three major forms of church government:  Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational.[1]  While there are many various forms of church governments, all forms can generally be referred to as one of these three types of polity.

While the Episcopalian and Presbyterian systems tend to be more uniform and less likely to contain variations, the Congregational form of polity contains many variations within a broad system.  In general, the Episcopalian system is set up with an archbishop as the authority over multiple bishops, who, in turn, have authority over multiple congregations, which are led by a single rector (or priest).[2]  In the Presbyterian system, the congregation elects a body of elders, one of which serves as the pastor, and some, or all, of the elders are members of a presbytery, which governs multiple churches within a given area.[3]  Furthermore, some members of the presbytery will serve on a general assembly, which governs all of the congregations in a region.[4]  Finally, the congregational form of government contains multiple variations of polity, including a single elder congregation, a plural elder congregation, a congregation with a corporate church board, direct democracy, and, ironically, a congregation without a specified form of government falls under the umbrella of the Congregational form of government.[5]  While each of these variations have distinct differences, the one thing that unites them as a Congregational form of church polity is that the local church is autonomous in its governing nature.  While there is much to be said about the difference between the Episcopalian or Presbyterian forms of polity and the Congregational forms of polity, it is under the umbrella of Congregationalism that this study will be conducted, as it is the most common form within the Baptist denomination.

Overview of Congregationalism

The Baptist denomination was formed as a part of what is called the “free church” tradition.[6]  While the vast majority of Baptists would agree that the church is to be autonomous in its polity, many would disagree with the manor in which that polity is to be organized.  This is not to say that Baptist churches do not believe in cooperation among local congregations (e.g. the Southern Baptist Convention, etc.), but that the local church does not answer to a governing body outside of its own congregation.[7]  However, it is not the autonomy of the local church that is the point of separation among Baptists and other Congregationalist denominations.  The differentiation among Congregationalists and Baptists is that some (Southern Baptists in particular) would affirm that the local church is to not only be governed autonomously, but also democratically.[8]  It is the issue of just how democratic the polity of the church is that is the major dividing factor among Congregationalists.[9]  The issue of democracy in the church poses the question of how much authority belongs to the lay congregation in the decision-making process, and more pertinent to this study, how the congregational leadership is organized.  As stated earlier, the variations of Congregationalism include a single elder congregation usually led by a single pastor and a board of deacons, a plural elder congregation usually led by multiple elders with one elder serving as the lead pastor but equal in decision-making authority, a congregation with a corporate church board which has decision-making authority over a single pastor, a direct democracy in which all members are equal in the decision-making process, as well as the “No Government but the Holy Spirit” congregation, which lacks any recognizable form of government whatsoever.  This has become a popular form of polity in the emerging church movement.[10]  However, the scope the study at hand will be limited to single elder congregation and the congregation led by a plurality of elders.

Congregationalism with a Single Elder

While the position of this author is that a plurality of elders is the biblical method of church polity set forth in Scripture, it is not to say that the argument for a single elder is completely indefensible.  There are several convincing arguments that can be made in an effort to defend the use of a single elder.

Paige Patterson, identifies four major arguments for a single elder government in the church.  To begin, Patterson looks to demonstrate the establishment of a pattern of leadership in which God calls a single elder to lead his people.  He cites the leadership of Moses during the Exodus, the Judges who were called by God one at a time, Peter’s apparent leadership among the disciples, and James’ apparent leadership in Jerusalem among the elders.[11]  Next, Patterson appeals to the use of single elder polity by various leaders in the history of the church, including John Chrysostom in Antioch and Constantinople, and Jonathan Edwards in Northampton.[12]  Patterson also cites the use of a single leader in the synogogue, as well as references to the biblical order of leadership in the home and of civil authorities.[13]  Finally, Patterson uses the “angel of the church” in which the various letters to the churches in John’s Revelation are addressed.[14]  Since the term “angel” is unlikely to mean an angel in its normative sense, Patterson assumes that these letters were written to a pastor of the highest authority in the church.[15]

Daniel Akin offers an argument similar to Patterson’s, in that he also references Moses as the leader of God’s people, and therefore uses Moses as a biblical example as well.[16]  On top of his biblical support, Akin also provides multiple theological considerations.  Akin draws attention to the focus of the pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, which focus on the qualifications of the called man of God, and not the number of called men that are required to lead the church.[17]  Secondly, Akin references 1 Timothy 5:17, which states, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (ESV).  Here, Akin argues that the special gifts that are apparent in certain elders in their ability to lead and shepherd the church call for “a special leader, a senior-pastor, a pastor-teacher.”[18]

A Response to the Single Elder Congregation Argument

While it has been admitted that there is a case for the single-elder-led congregation, as seen in the above arguments, the argument for such a form of church polity is not the most consistent pattern that is seen in Scripture.  Furthermore, while Patterson’s argument stands on Scriptural interpretations that are not entirely accurate, Akin’s argument actually moves to support multiple elders, but advocates for a senior pastor or leader to lead the church.  As it will soon be explained, this is not so far from the position being supported in this study.

Patterson’s use of Moses as an example of a single elder is not entirely true.  Yes, Moses clearly led the Israelites out of Epypt.  However, Moses was not the only man used as a leader of God’s people in this account.  Moses himself stated that he lacked eloquence in speaking (Ex. 4:10) and asked God to send someone who was better suited for tasks that required speaking (Ex. 4:13).  Aaron, who was called by God to speak God’s Word (Ex. 4:14), was clearly a leader of the Israelites as well.  Daniel Akin, in his citation of Moses as a single elder, cites Exodus 18:19-21, in which Jethro instructs Moses to choose God-fearing men to help him lead the Israelites.[19]  Akin points out that Moses remained the leader and main teacher of the Israelites, but acknowledges that Moses was, in fact, accompanied by others (elders) is his leadership responsibilities.  While Akin is accurate in asserting that Moses remained, in effect, the lead pastor, his acknowledgement of the chosen leaders around Moses provides more support for a plurality of elders than a single elder.  A second biblical example used by Patterson was the apparent leadership role of Peter among the apostles.  It should be known that the issue of some leaders to be more blessed in certain spiritual gifts and talent, and therefore emerge as a lead teacher, is not being refuted.  Clearly, Moses had a special role in leading the Israelites during the Exodus.  Clearly, Peter had a special role among the apostles.  However, it is also clear that neither man was alone in their ministries.  Both had God-fearing men around them, helping and assisting them in leading the church.

Patterson also cites several historical figures that were known for being the lone elder of their respective congregations.  However, this does not necessarily demonstrate that biblically prescribed form of polity is a single-elder-led congregation, as there are many other well-known, God-fearing men who would argue otherwise.  More importantly, many of the earliest writers of the church understood the biblically prescribed form of polity was a plurality of elders.  In particular, one could look to the writings of Clement of Rome, Polycarp, or the Didache to see an evident teaching of multiple elders leading the local congregation.[20]

Finally, Patterson’s arguments for the letters of John’s Revelation of the Apocalypse are vague at best.  Patterson is right to assume that the “angel” the letters were addressed to is likely not to be understood in its normative sense of an angel.  However, it is merely an assumption that this reference is to an elder or pastor of the church and does little to profit his argument.  He stated, “If this reading of these ‘messengers’ as pastors is correct, then the evidence that each of these churches had a single elder with highest authority becomes clear.”  However, it is Patterson’s assuming if  that cause this piece of Scripture to be weak evidence for supporting a single-elder-led church.

Akin’s theological arguments also lack a firm foundation for supporting the argument for a single-elder congregation.  Akin argues that the pastoral epistles focus on the qualifications of the elder, and not the number of elders.  However, this is not to say that lack of focus on the number of elders means that one elder per congregation is the default biblically prescribed method.  Furthermore, Akin’s arguments for specially gifted elders are, by all accounts, absolutely true.  It is apparent that some elders are doubly blessed in the spiritual gifts they have been given, and are likely to become the lead, or main teaching elder in a church.  However, that does not automatically mean they are to be given a special place of authority in polity.  Admittedly, Akin understands that this position lacks a great deal of biblical warrant and humbly admits that his position is not easily defended.  He states, “My second suspicion was this: a defense of a single elder (pastor) leading a local congregation probably did not have as much scriptural warrant as is popularly thought, at least in Southern Baptist life.  Again, I discovered my intuition to be correct.  The argument for a plurality of elders, pastors, overseers, leaders is easier to make based upon biblical evidence.”[21]  It is by Akins own admission that Scripture has much more support for a plurality of elders than a single-elder congregation.

Congregationalism with a Plurality of Elders

Before proceeding, it should be known that no matter what form of church polity one might prescribe to, there is only one who has supreme authority in the church.  In the epistle to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul wrote, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23 ESV).  He continues in Eph. 4:15, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (ESV).  And finally, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:23 ESV).  The Bible makes it abundantly clear that Christ is the supreme authority over the church in all matters, including polity.  In his book Vintage Church, Mark Driscoll writes,

“Jesus Christ is the head of the church, the apostle who plants a church, the leader who builds the church, and the senior pastor and Chief Shepherd who rules the church.  It is ultimately Jesus who closes down churches when they become faithless or fruitless.  Therefore, it is absolutely vital that a church loves Jesus, obeys Jesus, imitates Jesus, and follows Jesus at all times and in all ways, according to the teaching of his Word.”[22]

Driscoll rightly places Jesus at the top of any form of church polity, regardless of Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregational convictions.

The best place to start with all matters of the body of Christ is with Christ’s own example.  In his ministry, Jesus was, and is, the perfect prophet, priest, and king of his people.  Darrin Patrick properly correlates Jesus’ example of leadership with the role of the elder in the local church:  “Functionally, elders in the local church do three main things:  1. Guard the teaching ministry of the church.  2. Ensure the spiritual care of the church.  3. Oversee the direction of the church.”[23]  Jesus provides us with the perfect example of each.  However, although Jesus provided the perfect example, we are all imperfect people.  Elders and pastors are no different.  It is not a shameful thing for an elder to be a great teacher, but to be lacking in his abilities as a counselor or be inexperienced in church administration and oversight.  As imperfect humans, none are perfect in each of these three aspects of ministry.  Multiple leaders (although no combination of leaders will come close to the example given by Jesus) help account for the human deficiencies of imperfect elders.  A plurality also helps elders carry the enormous amount of responsibilities that come with ministry (e.g. visiting the sick, praying, decision making, teaching, pastoral counseling). [24] It is no coincidence, then, that the Bible always refers to elders of the church in the plural.[25]  In his book Elders and Leaders, Gene Getz lists the appearance of churches in the New Testament while pointing out the plural use of the word elders in each: the Jerusalem elders in Acts 11, 15, and 21, the called elders of James 5:14, elders appointed in each church by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:23, the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, Paul leaving Titus in Crete to set the church in order and appoint elders in each town, and the list continues.[26]  It was a continuing part of the apostles’ mission to establish churches and appoint elders in those churches.[27]  Furthermore, for all of these churches that are known to have multiple elders, there is not one that is known to have a single elder.[28]  This is not to say, however, that certain elders may not have a more influential role in certain areas of ministry due to the spiritual gifts allotted to them by God.  It does not rule out that a lead, or senior pastor/teacher who serves as a first among equals is unbiblical.  It does, however, demonstrate that a single-elder-led church lacks biblical warrant, and that a plurality of elders is clearly outlined as a biblical mode of polity in the church.  In reference to the plurality of elders and the use of a senior pastor, Alexander Strauch wrote

“Failure to understand the concept of ‘first among equals’ (or 1 Timothy 5:17) has caused some elderships to be tragically ineffective in their pastoral care and leadership.  Although elders act jointly as a council and share equal authority and  responsibility for the leadership of the church, all are not equal in their giftedness, biblical knowledge, leadership ability, experience, or dedication.  Therefore, those among the elders who are particularly gifted leaders and/or teachers will naturally stand out among the other elders as leaders and teachers with the leadership body.”[29]

While there is much less Scriptural basis for the “first among equals” concept as there is for a plurality of elders in general, a plain reading of Paul’s letter to Timothy teaches that special honor is to be given to those elders who “rule well…especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17 ESV).

Conclusion

Despite the many forms and variations of polity in the church, there are several aspects of polity that Scripture has identified and made abundantly clear.  First, Jesus Christ is the supreme authority of all matters of the church.  Churches were established in local congregations.  God calls certain men to serve him and lead those local congregations in submission to God’s own will.  And finally, the human authority in the church was given to multiple elders.  The numerous amount of references to multiple elders in the local church, and the lack of any mention of a single elder leading a church, demonstrates God’s will for his local congregations to be led by a plurality of elders; multiple men, called by God to guard the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, to care for and minister to the spiritual needs of the congregation, and to oversee the administration of the church in order to maintain peace and unity.  And, in order to carry out these responsibilities despite the inability of man to be the perfect priest, prophet, and king, the Lord’s churches are to be overseen and governed by a plurality of elders.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  Acts 20:28 ESV

Bibliography

Akin, Daniel L. “The Single-Elder-Led Church: The Bible’s Witness to a Congregational Single-Elder-Led Polity.” Pages 25-74 in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity. Edited by Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman. Nashville: Broadman & Homan, 2004.

Allison, Gregg R. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011

Carson, D.A. “Church, Authority in.” Pages 249-251 in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.

Driscoll, Mark and Gerry Breshears. Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010.

Driscoll, Mark and Gerry Breshears. Vintage Church. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008.

Equizabal, Orbelina and Kevin E. Lawson. “Leading Ministry Teams, Part I: Theological Reflection on Ministry Teams.” Christian Education Journal 6, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 250-264.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.

Getz, Gene A. Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Patrick, Darrin. Church Planter. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010.

Patterson, Paige. “Single-Elder Congregationalism.” Pages 133-152 in Who Runs the Church? Four Views on Church Government. Edited by Peter Toon and Steven B. Cowan. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

Shults, F. Leron. “Reforming Ecclesiology in Emerging Churches.” Theology Today 65 (2009): 425-438.

Strauch, Alexander. Biblical Eldership. Littleton, Colorado: Lewis and Roth, 1995.

Waldron, Samuel E. “Plural-Elder Congregationalism.” Pages 187-221-152 in Who Runs the Church? Four Views on Church Government. Edited by Peter Toon and Steven B. Cowan. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

White, James R.. “The Plural-Elder-Led Church: Sufficient as Established— The Plurality of Elders as Christ’s Ordained Means of Church Governance.” Pages 255-284 in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity.Edited by Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman. Nashvill: Broadman & Homan, 2004.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), 923.

[2] Ibid., 923-924.

[3] Ibid., 926.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 928-937.

[6] Daniel Akin, “The Single-Elder-Led Church: The Bible’s Witness to a congregational Single-Elder-Led Polity” in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, (Nashville, Broadman & Homan, 2004), 57.

[7] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 1090.

[8] Akin, 62.

[9] Carson, 250.

[10] F. Leron Shults, “Reforming Ecclesiology in Emerging Churches,” Theology Today 65 (2009): 433.

[11] Paige Patterson, “Single-Elder Congregationalism” in Who Runs the Church? Four Views on Church Government (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 150-151.

[12] Ibid., 151.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 152.

[16] Akin, “The Single-Elder-Led Church,” 66.

[17] Ibid., 67.

[18] Ibid., 68.

[19] Ibid., 66.

[20] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2011), 589.

[21] Akin, “The Single-Elder-Led Church, 64.

[22] Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Vintage Church (Wheaton, Crossway, 2008), 64-65.

[23] Darrin Patrick, Church Planter (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010), 69.

[24] Oreblina Equizabal and Kevin Lawson, “Leading Ministry Teams, Part I: Theological Reflection on Ministry Teams,” Christian Education Journal 6, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 260.

[25] Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010), 320.

[26] Gene A. Getz, Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church (Chiciago, Moody, 2003), 209-210.

[27] James R. White, “The Plural-Elder-Led Church: Sufficient as Established – The Plurality of Elders as Christ’s Ordained Means of Church Governance” in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity (Nashville, Broadman & Homan, 2004) 271.

[28] Samuel E. Waldron, “Plural-Elder Congregationalism” in Who Runs the Church? Four Views on Church Government (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 212.

[29] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Littleton, Lewis and Roth, 1995), 45.

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One response to “Making the Case for a Plurality of Elders: A Study in Church Polity”

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_2OfUyBz5U says :

    Hello, I read your new stuff regularly. Your story-telling style is awesome, keep up the good work!

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