Alexander Strauch in “Biblical Eldership” argues:
“…when Paul and Peter directly exhort the elders to do their duty, they both employ shepherding imagery. It should be observed that these two giant apostles assign the task of shepherding the local church to no other group or single person but the elders. Paul reminds the Asian elders that God the Holy Spirit placed them in the flock as overseers for the purpose of shepherding the church of God (Acts 20:28).”(1)
This type of argumentation uses language to create a straw man. The argument is often phrased this way: “Do you not admit that churches had plural elders in the New Testament? Where do you find evidence for ‘single-elder congregationalism’ in the Bible?” The Christian is then directed to such passages as Acts 20 where multiple elders are seen in the church. The argument is then considered to be over. The question has been decided! But wait just a moment. It is easy to win a debate if you start out by asking the wrong questions.
This method of debate was used against Paige Patterson (Southern Baptist) in a book titled, “Who Runs The Church?”.(2) The book is a debate between four men. Each contributor defends either Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, Plural-Elder Congregationalism, or Single-Elder Congregationalism (i.e. Patterson). Patterson (perhaps not foreseeing the trap) was chosen to defend “SINGLE-elder congregationalism.” After his opponent (a plural elder advocate named Samuel E. Waldron) took advantage of the language to create a straw man, Patterson wrote:
“Even when multiple elders were necessary, one of the elders remained the decisive spiritual leader of the flock….There are few cases of prospering congregations not led ultimately by a primary pastor figure….Waldron mistakenly says, ‘As noted previously, it is gratifying to see that Patterson has given up any attempt to defend single-elder congregationalism. He has chosen rather to defend primary-elder congregationalism. In so far as this reflects movement toward plural-elder congregationalism, this is, from my perspective, encouraging.’ Waldron here falsely assumes that there has been some alteration in my position. This is understandable in that the editor may not have made it clear to him what I took to be my assignment in the book. I have no problem with multiple elders in a congregation when necessary. Clearly churches in the New Testament era often had more than one elder. It was my agreement with the editor that I could support single-elder congregationalism only if it was understood to denominate what Waldron calls primary-elder congregationalism. Therefore, Waldron’s hope that I have changed is destined to disappointment, and he will be sad to learn that I remain quite unconvinced by his arguments….it is important to me because some want to make plurality of elders mandatory when there is no such command. Waldron is exhibiting the trait that makes this position an issue for me.”(3)
Most of the churches with primary pastors define any other pastors as assistants (i.e. associate pastor, etc.). Therefore, it would seem that many plural-elder advocates are taking advantage of the language that is used in our culture. Among modern Christians (especially in America), the Biblical words “overseer,” “bishop,” “elder,” have taken a backseat to the word “pastor.” This is why it can be confusing to some Christians when someone approaches them with Bible verses that mention plural “elders.” A plural-elder advocate might ask, “Does your church have elders?” An informed Christian might answer, “We are thankful that we DO have many, wise, aged-men in our church.” The plural-elder advocate would then respond by saying, “No, I mean do you have men who are functioning in the office of an elder?” Again, the informed Christian would answer, “Yes, our church has a pastor, bishop, elder, or whatever Biblical word you would like to call him. And we have recently ordained two other assistant pastors in our growing church.” However, a young Christian (unaware that “elders,” “bishops,” “pastors” all refer to the same thing) might easily be confused by a plural-elder advocate. He might see his thriving church with a senior pastor, assistant pastors, and music minister, and ask, “Where ARE the elders?” He would be unaware that the ordained pastors in his church are functioning as elders (or bishops) under a different name.
Plural elder advocates have not been able to establish that having only one elder (pastor) in a church (especially a smaller one) is wrong. Unable to find any direct commandments on the issue, they simply utilize what they deem to be the New Testament pattern (i.e. churches in the New Testament have multiple elders, therefore, every church in every age needs multiple elders). One problem with this argument is that they can only establish that EVERY church in the New Testament had plural elders by beginning with great assumptions. They must assume that the grammar in certain Bible verses demands plurality in every church. However, some passages do not demand this reading. For example, notice the following verse:
Acts 14:23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
First of all, notice that in this verse, the churches were considered churches before they had elders. They were simply in an undeveloped stage. If we are to assume that the above verse must mean that each church had plural elders, we must then ask whether or not there is not also a stage of development after the appointing of these plural elders. In other words, we must ask whether or not the next or final stage of development would be to appoint a primary elder among the other elders. Many commentators believe that this progress in church government is indeed seen in the Bible, reaching its final stage of development in the primary elders (i.e. angels) of Revelation chapters 2 and 3, and other passages (Govett, Panton, etc.). It cannot be denied that there are many transitional elements in the Book of Acts and in other Epistles. On one hand, we can make too much of these transitional elements; but on the other hand, we might also fail to notice them. For example, some might erroneously conclude that since Apostles are seen throughout the Book of Acts, we must possess them today, etc. Others might conclude that certain words must be said at baptism (other than the phrase in Matthew 28:19) because of Acts 8:16. Others might argue that all offices in the church should be decided on the basis of drawing lots (as in Acts 1:26). And still others might argue that private ownership is sinful on the basis of Acts 2:44-45. There are obviously numerous examples that could be mentioned. While I certainly do not deny that some early patterns revealed in the Book of Acts teach enduring truth for this age (e.g. the disciples meeting on the first day of the week in Acts 20:7, etc.), there are other patterns that are amended or changed in later Epistles.
Yet, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Acts 14:23 represents churches in a completed stage of government. There are still two major assumptions that are made by plural elder advocates. First, they assume that simply because there are plural elders, this must mean that there is no distinction among them (i.e. that one is not a primary elder). We will deal more with this issue below. Next, they assume that the grammar in Acts 14:23 demands plural elders. However, the phrase “ordained them elders in every church” does not demand this view. One elder in every church would still meet the grammatical demands of the plural. For example, notice the following verses:
1 Timothy 3:12 Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
This does not mean that there should be plural deacons for every singular wife.
Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
This does not mean that each husband should have multiple wives.
1 Corinthians 1:2 Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with ALL that in EVERY PLACE call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:
“All” are not in “every place” in the sense that if there were a million Christians, EACH PLACE would have one million. No, the “all in every place” means that the million are divided among these various places.
Acts 26:11 And I punished THEM oft in EVERY SYNAGOGUE…(see also 22:19)
The plural “them” does not mean that every individual synagogue necessarily had multiple Christians. Some synagogues may have had only one Christian. In the same manner, the language in Acts 14:23 (and other verses), does not necessarily demand that there is more than one elder in each church. We might argue that the “elders” are in “every church” because each church has at least one. Patterson writes:
“…uncertainty about who is being addressed in Hebrews and James opens just as much the possibility that the plural ‘elders’ accords to the plurality of churches addressed and not to the number of elders in any given congregation. This is surely the case in Acts 14:23 where Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe are all in view, and in Titus 1:5 where new churches on the island of Crete needed an elder for each of these congregations.” (4)
It appears that the plural elder advocates (defined here as meaning that every church MUST have plural elders with no primary elder leading them) have simply pounced upon the plurality in passages such as Acts 20, and have used this to read plurality in every other verse, regardless of how much they have to overcome to do so (i.e. trying to make the “angel” of Revelation 2 and 3 represent a plurality of leadership).
Primary elder advocates do not believe that assistant elders (pastors) are an absolute necessity for every church. But the issue here is that if plural elder advocates will seize upon the plurality is some verses to argue their case, we might just as easily do the same with the verses that reveal (or appear to reveal) singularity. The example of the angels in Revelation 2 and 3 will be dealt with in greater detail in another article. The “angel” of each church certainly argues for a single (or primary) elder. But there are other cases of singularity. Notice that in Timothy and Titus, the bishop is always singular, while the deacons are always plural:
1 Timothy 3:1 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of A BISHOP, he desireth a good work.
2 A BISHOP then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
4 One that ruleth well HIS OWN HOUSE, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
5 (For if A MAN know not how to rule his own house, how shall HE take care of the church of God?)
8 Likewise must THE DEACONS be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;
10 And let THESE also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.
13 For THEY that have used the office of a deacon well…
Titus 1:7 For A BISHOP must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;
It is certainly just as legitimate to argue that the Bible in these verses is demanding that plural deacons be managed by a singular bishop than it is to use plurality in other verses to argue that each church must be led by a plurality of elders, who are equal in authority. I fail to see the logic that would demand that plurality be used as an enduring pattern, but that singularity must be explained away as simply a grammatical quirk.
Notice another case of singularity:
1 Peter 5:5 Likewise, YE younger, submit yourselves unto THE elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.
Here the younger is designated by the plural “ye,” but the elder is singular. We know that Peter (like Paul in Hebrews 13) is not just writing to one church:
1 Peter 1:1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,
There is also the example of the multiple singulars in Revelation 2 and 3:
Revelation 3:1 And unto THE ANGEL of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know THY works, that THOU hast a name that THOU livest, and art dead.
Plural elder advocates do their best to argue that the Book of Revelation is symbolic and mysterious, and therefore it should not be used to establish doctrine, etc. Waldron appears to make this argument. But this is exactly what amillennialists tell us about the “thousand years” in Revelation 20. They say that the book is so symbolic and mysterious that this evidence for a millennial reign of Christ should not be used to correct the rest of the Bible concerning the eternal kingdom. However, we do not maintain that Revelation 20 corrects the Bible. But it does provide us with added details. The angels in Revelation 2 and 3 do the same thing in regard to the debate concerning primary elders that Revelation 20 does concerning millennialism. It is a great error to argue that “angels” is Revelation 2 and 3 are symbolic. They are not symbolic. They are the literal interpretation of the symbol (stars). The only question is whether or not the word “angel” can ever be used for earthly rulers, ministers, etc. The context establishes that these are earthly rulers, who bear responsibility for their congregations. And there is abundant evidence that the word “angel” can be used in this manner (which will be examined in a future article).
The real question is whether or not it is right to have a primary leader among any other leaders. Plural elder advocates will argue that we have no right to take a passage that reveals plural elders in one church and conclude that some are assistants and that one is the primary leader. As already noted, they assume that the government of such churches is in its final stage of organization (even though Timothy is found in Ephesus after Paul meets with its elders in Acts 20). They also assume that words such as “elders” or “bishops” necessarily demand equality without distinctions. However, Paul writes that children should obey their PARENTS (Colossians 3:20). Both father and mother hold the same office of “parent.” However, this does not mean that one is not the head. In the same manner, the high priest and the priests together are sometimes referred to as simply “priests.” And as we have already shown elsewhere, one may address a letter to “the pastors” of a certain church without concluding that such language demands that all pastors are equal in authority or leadership in that church.
Gene A. Getz (senior pastor of Fellowship Bible Church North in Plano, Texas) authored a book titled, “Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan For Leading the Church” (2003). While there are a couple of things that I, as a fundamentalist Christian, would disagree with in this book, the testimony of Getz is very enlightening concerning this issue of plural elders. Getz began as a radical anti-head pastor advocate. He later learned that he had overreacted:
“The year was 1968….as I faced the ‘winds of change’ that were whirling and swirling across our nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my students challenged me to take a fresh look at what God intended the church to be. One of the great principles that grabbed my attention during this process was ‘plurality in leadership.’….Let me be perfectly honest. I was initially so committed to the principle of plurality in leadership that I, at times, downplayed and, in some respects, denied how important it is to have a strong primary leader….James, the half brother of Jesus, was the primary leader of the elders in Jerusalem. This will become increasingly clear as we continue to unfold this Biblical story….The New Testament definitely teaches and illustrates that when there is a plurality of leadership, someone needs to function as the primary leader of the team….It’s God’s design – from the time He chose men like Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and Nehemiah in the Old Testament, and Peter, Paul, and Timothy, and Titus in the New Testament – to always have a key leader in place to lead His people. Why would we think differently when it involves elders/overseers in a local church?….For years, I served with a very dedicated and qualified pastor on our staff who previously had served in another church as ‘senior pastor.’ Unfortunately, many of his elders were not godly leaders. Several men particularly thwarted my friend’s sincere desires to lead the church to become a community of love and witness in the world. Sadly, this man used to come home after board meetings literally sick to his stomach….Unfortunately, as Paul warned the Ephesian elders, some ‘wolves’ had become a part of the leadership in the church, and the ‘primary shepherd’ was their target….A team that supports each other will strengthen the ministry of a primary leader. Clearly an unsupportive team can undermine his ministry….It’s clear from the total biblical story in the New Testament that God did not intend for a group of men to function without a primary leader. Neither did He plan for a church to have coleaders….Though utilizing coleaders may appear to work initially, it normally leads to serious inefficiency and potential conflict….Frankly, in my early years…I attempted to practice a co-leadership approach….In terms of our own roles, the other leader and I found ourselves tentative in leading for fear we were being inconsiderate of each other….Recently, I received the following letter…: ‘…Even in a co-leadership situation that works well, like the one I’m in, where the two of us share a similar philosophy on ministry, we still have different ideas and slightly different views on where the church needs to go strategically. This means that both pastors are held back from really leading the church forward. There is no primary visionary leader, and I believe our church has suffered because of that….the pendulum has swung too far the other way, to where the idea of teamwork and co-leading is so overemphasized that no one can give primary leadership to the church…’.”(5)
Getz goes on to give an analogy of a full-time pastor being invited to rule on a board at a banking corporation where the CEO must report to him. He shows how unrealistic and cumbersome this would be to the CEO. Yet, he notices that this is how many pastors, out of some sense of necessity or humility, have entangled themselves:
“I’ve never met a pastor who operates under these circumstances who isn’t terribly discouraged….Unfortunately, some primary pastors have orchestrated themselves into this position. They believe so firmly in being servant-leaders that they unknowingly have given up their authority.”(6)
I have made the same point a few years ago in my book, “The Biblical Husband.” Fathers and husbands who use the humble-servant commands to passively ignore the responsibility to lead in their homes have gone off the deep-end on the other side of the boat! It is the same way in regard to head pastors (1 Timothy 3:5).
There appears to be some variations among the views of the advocates of plural-eldership. Some hold that the whole congregation has authority to dismiss or accept members, and appoint people to offices in the church. Others hold that the elders have total authority in such matters. Yet, all would decry congregational rule to some degree. It is here where I will call the reader’s attention to one last argument. There is much heat generated by plural elder advocates against the (supposedly) horrible, shameful, popish idea that one elder lead and pastor the others (i.e. a head-pastor leading his assistant pastors). But they do not think it is at all horrible or popish that three men (plural elders) rule a church and decide every issue! A promise of “liberty” does not always lead to greater liberty (2 Peter 2:19).
The claim that some pastors with the primary elder model might abuse their authority is no argument against the model. The same claim is being made today in regard to husbands and fathers. Yet, such abuses do not disprove the ordained right for husbands and parents to rule in their homes. Excesses and abuses should never be made the grounds for accepting opposite errors. Plural elder advocates often ask what rights or means congregations have to deliver themselves from abusive head-pastors. But before answering, we might ask what rights or means do elder-rule churches have to deliver themselves from three men who have decided to “swap wives” or otherwise abuse their authority? As already noted, often, congregations have more authority in primary pastor-led churches than they do in elder churches. Therefore, the question is no real objection at all.
The most important question is whether or not the Bible teaches that a church should have a primary pastor/leader. I believe that there is more evidence for primary pastors than there is to the contrary. The example of James in Acts, the singular angels of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, the singulars in other passages, and the over-all teaching throughout the whole Bible (i.e. God raising up single leaders to accomplish His will), all argue for the truth of primary pastors. And this is before looking at the history of Christian churches barely a decade removed from the time John wrote the Book of Revelation.
The response of plural elder advocates to the fact that Ignatius writes to so many churches with primary pastors (not long after these churches are addressed by the Lord Jesus Himself) only reveals what a great obstacle this history is for them to overcome. Like the “angels” of Revelation 2 and 3, the history (at so early a date) stands as a great obstacle to their view. In response to the epistles of Ignatius, Waldron (a plural elder advocate) writes:
“It may be that the churches in Asia had ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) systems and that Ignatius assumed that they were ‘primus’ systems…Such a mistake would be easy for the passionate Ignatius to make.” (7).
I find it easier to conclude that the passionate plural-elder advocates are the ones making the assumptions.
1. Alexander Strauch, “Biblical Eldership: Restoring the Eldership to Its Rightful Place in the Church”
2. Paul E. Engle and Steven B. Cowan, “Who Runs The Church? Four Views On Church Government” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
3. Ibid., p. 134, 283-285.
4. Ibid., p. 284.
5. Gene A. Getz, “Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan For Leading the Church” (Chicago: Moody, 2003), p. 17-18, 60, 217, 223, 242-243, 252-254, 256.
6. Ibid., p. 258-259.
7.Paul E. Engle and Steven B. Cowan, “Who Runs The Church? Four Views On Church Government” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 197.
(Joey Faust, Jan. 8, 2005)