The Plurality of Elders in New Testament Churches

I have always been fascinated by how divided the church is when it comes to church government. I only say this to point out that churches are composed of sinners, like us, who can be blinded by tradition to the clear truths of Scripture. The model of church government laid down in the New Testament is Plural-Elder Congregationalism. That’s a mouthful to say, but it means that each local church must have multiple pastors, overseers, or elders (the terms are interchangeable in Scripture: Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Peter 5:1-5) and that the entire church gathered corporately together is the ultimate ecclesiastical authority of the local church under Christ’s authority. No ecclesiastical or church authority exists above the local church that can tell the church what to do or what to believe because Christ alone is the head of the church – not a denomination, board of elders, or bishop. Each church is independent in the sense that all the members are the highest authority for the local church (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-13; 2 Cor 2:6). For a defense of the congregational view, see Alexander Carson’s famous work Reasons for Separating from the General Synod of Ulster.

An explicit reference to the plurality of elders in the New Testament is James 5:14: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Notice that “elders” is plural and “church” is singular. James is working with the assumption that each church has multiple elders. To not have multiple elders is to go against the pattern laid down and practiced by every church in the New Testament. The words of Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account,” make no sense if each church only has one leader or pastor. What do churches that do not believe in having a plurality of elders do when they come across a verse that uses the word “elders” in it? I could go through every verse in the New Testament that uses the term or alludes to the practice, but I want to spare you that. I will simply give a list: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17, 28; 21:18; Phil 1:1; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:17; Tit 1:5; Heb 13:7, 17; Jam 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1-5. A plurality of elders is also the pattern seen throughout 1 and 2 Clement and the Didache in the decades of the early church after the close of the canon.

The reason why so many Baptist churches do not have a plurality of elders is because the system for hiring pastors is set up in such a way that pastors are encouraged to only stay a few years and then move on to a bigger church that pays better. Big churches only want pastors with multiple years of experience in multiple settings with a proven track-record of growth. As a result, the deacons of the church are the only ones who are there permanently so they have to take on the additional role of an elder because of the leadership vaccum created when the pastor leaves even though the deacons may not be called or qualified to serve in such a position. The deacons then function as elders and rule the church in the absence of a plurality of elders. When the deacons act like elders, the church ceases to have an office of deacon. Pastors often do a poor job of mentoring leaders and teaching others to preach in their absence and to one day take their place (2 Tim 2:2). But with a plurality of pastors, if one pastor leaves, there is at least one person in the church who is trained to continue the work of pastoral ministry.

Multiple elders provide protection against false teaching since the pastors check on one another and keep each other accountable to accurately teach God’s Word. When one pastor steps out of line morally or doctrinally, the others can call him to account. It can be difficult for the congregation to do this because they often do not view themselves as being on the same level as a pastor and are afraid to offer words of rebuke. A single pastor who wields great power can lead a church down a cultic path or fall into great sin because no one can call him to account. Elders also provide personal accountability for one another while a single-pastor system leads to him being out on an island all by himself with no one else he can honestly talk to about his sins or be held accountabe by.

This is why elder parity or equality (though not all elders are equally gifted) is also critical or else a plurality of elders will turn into a three-tiered system of church governance as in Anglicanism where the senior pastor functions as a bishop over lower pastors and cannot be held accountable by them because they fear they may be fired for speaking up. Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling does a great job of explaining the dangers of a lack of accountability in pastoral ministry. For more information on elders in the local church, I recommend Mark Dever’s book By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life.

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