The subject of the “one presiding pastor model” for church government has become (at least in some circles) a popular and controversial subject. A “plurality of elders/bishops” is certainly seen in the Bible (Philippians 1:1, Acts 20:17). In a former article, I called attention to the lack of respect for aged men in churches. But I must confess, I do not think that “aged men” fully satisfies the meaning of “elders” in many of these Scriptures. I appreciate the feedback from readers. It appears that, at times, there was more than one ordained “elder” (the office) serving in churches. Yet, there are two questions that must be asked here:
1. Was this at all transitional (like many other things in Acts)?
2. Was there a head-elder/senior pastor who managed the church, even though assisted by assistant/associate elders?
If a doctrinal tree is grounded in truth, it should be able to show forth its own fruit. While many dear brethren are sincerely seeking truth on these matters; there is also a larger rebellious movement, energized by Satan that is seeking to destroy godly order. The Bible plainly teaches that authority, in all its realms, will be attacked in the last days. A spirit of antichrist is gaining ground, as it exalts itself above God’s order, and seeks to destroy godly organization. Against this spirit of rebellion (those who seek to draw Christians out from godly, local churches), we will continue to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears…” (2 Timothy 4:2-3).
Notice the heaping of “teachers” (plural) in 2 Timothy 4:3. This heaping of teachers is not for the purpose of Christian growth. It is for the purpose of escaping accountability. This movement against accountability has resulted in broken homes and broken churches. The many warnings to the saints in the Bible have been despised by too many 20th century Christians. And along with these warnings, God’s commandments and order have been despised:
“[Pastoral authority] proved to be cumbersome in the post-World War II emphasis upon acceptance, nonjudgment, and ethical relativity. The minister who wished to be person-centered was the first to deny that he had authority.”(1)
This was at the same time that the authority of the “man of the house” was being despised in preparation for the “teenager movement,” which would result in the sexual revolution and rock groups like “The Who” singing, “Why don’t you all just fade away…Talkin’ bout my generation…I hope I die before I get old.” The Bible warns that authority (in all its realms) will be despised in these last days:
2 Peter 2:10 But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and DESPISE GOVERNMENT. Presumptuous are they, selfwilled, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities.
18 For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error.
19 While they PROMISE THEM LIBERTY, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage.
Government (or authority) will be despised in the marriage, in the home (2 Timothy 3:1-2 “disobedient to parents”), in the government, and in the churches. It is one thing to properly and Biblically stand against an abuse of authority. It is another thing to rebel against and despise a God-ordained authority. This rebellious movement will expose itself in time. It will not lead many souls to Christ. It will not bring deliverance from the power of sin. It will, in fact, lead to a WITHERING of fruit:
Jude 1:8 Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, DESPISE DOMINION, and speak evil of dignities.
12 …trees whose fruit withereth…
16 These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage.
19 These be they who SEPARATE THEMSELVES, sensual, having not the Spirit.
Notice, that as God’s ordained authorities are despised and reproached, these little cliques are characterized by complaining and murmuring. They “separate themselves.” While it was godly for Reformers to separate themselves from Rome’s totalitarian system; and while it was likewise proper for Separatists, Methodists and Plymouth Brethren to separate from, and protest against Anglicanism (with its Romish tendencies), the crafty Serpent is now swinging Christians to the other extreme in fulfillment of the prophecies. It is possible to run so far from ungodly Popery and Nicolaitanism, that we fall off the other side of the boat into LAODICEANISM (“rights of the people”), which also makes Jesus vomit (Revelation 3:14-16). It is never any Christian’s “right” to despise godly order and authority.
We see professing Christians every week on their way to bars on the streets. They say:
“We are having church now. This is church. We are always in church. For women to be silent in church would mean that they can never talk at all, since we are always in church.”
To such people, we ask, “Who are your elected deacons? When was your last baptism?” Paul plainly distinguishes the “church” (assembly) from the “home” and “houses” (1 Corinthians 14:35, 11:22), unless a particular house happened to be the set meeting place for the church (Romans 16:5).
The day when Christians can no longer meet in open assemblies due to persecution is fast approaching in America. And it is obvious that it is getting harder and harder for people to find a godly church. But will the Lord Jesus pity American Christians at the Judgment Seat who have nice, air-conditioned automobiles and highways, who maintain they cannot find a godly church – when earlier generations of Christians crossed the entire ocean in feeble ships, and endured sickness and storms, in order to worship? A good church is worth driving to, or even moving to, in order to attend. God should be loved above Mammon. But many are using the abuses and evils in many modern churches to justify an attack on the whole, Biblical “church order.” And the Devil knows that if he can attack the head pastor/bishop (the appointed under-shepherd to Jesus), he can hopefully scatter the flock.
Local churches and their pastors in these last days are under a tremendous amount of pressure to compromise or bail out; and many are doing so. In these days when so many will not endure sound doctrine, and many pastors are under attack, the Devil is launching what he hopes will be his fatal dart. He is raising up a movement that says, “The whole idea of a local church is wrong. And this idea of a head pastor leading a flock is certainly wrong.” Therefore, just when a disciple is growing, putting off sin, surviving attacks on his or her marriage, and about to really overcome some Satanic strongholds, some disgruntled person says, “Hey…why are you even going to church? Jesus hates the local church concept. It is really Roman Catholic. And this idea of a pastor leading the church is really Satanic. Come have a picnic with us.” The end result of this poison is often scattered sheep, with no local church accountability, left prey to the Devil.
While it is true that God is not calling for a stale, man-centered PROGRAM without POWER, He is also not calling us to a rebellious, self-absorbed PASSIVITY without any DIVINE PROGRAM or order:
1 Corinthians 14:40 Let all things be done decently and in order.
There is certainly a great need to constantly watch against mistaken views of pastoral ministry, authority, etc. A godly pastor rules primarily by example and pulpit teaching, reproof and exhortation. Therefore, hopefully the reader will forgive a brief digression and disclaimer.
Every area of authority has its ordained realm and limits. To “lord over the flock” is certainly to sin. But it is also sin for an ordained leader to be passive in building and “taking care” of the house of God. Leaders who will not lead (even under the banner of “humility”) should sit down. There is also the erroneous view that sees the pastor as the ONLY one called to do evangelistic (or visitation) work. Associated with this idea is that missionaries are “hired” to witness on foreign fields, and the pastor is “hired” to witness at home! And once everyone has been “paid,” the individual church member thinks that his/her responsibility in regard to the Great Commission has been fulfilled. May God indeed convict and shake up any churches that hold such views.
There is a Biblical balance between the mistaken, extreme ideas about the pastor on one side, and the unstructured, unmanaged, disorderly ideas on the other side. I believe that this proper balance has been achieved in thousands of godly churches throughout history. And in this regard, we should not “meddle” with them who are given to change (Proverbs 24:21). For example, we should examine Charles Spurgeon’s church in the 19th century. Spurgeon allegedly had other “elders” appointed to help him assist in the managing of the church. And as will be seen, he also believed in the active involvement of every member in evangelism and prayer. He taught the Baptist truth that every member is a priest, and that pastors must not get “big-headed”:
“Our office, as pastors, deserves to be respected, and will be if properly carried out; but I have observed that some who are very anxious to magnify their office, really try to magnify themselves.”
However, he also preached against those who would decry the “one man” system:
“The outcry against a ‘one man ministry’ cometh not of God, but of proud self-deceit. [Some] will not submit themselves to the authorities which God Himself appointed….He says, ‘Obey them which have the rule over you.’ Brethren, I warn you, there is a spirit abroad which would pull down the men whom God Himself has appointed….WE ENTER OUR SOLEMN PROTEST AGAINST THAT SPIRIT WHICH, UNDER PRETENSE OF LIBERTY TO ALL, SETS ASIDE THE INSTRUMENTALITY BY WHICH THE LORD WORKS….Where is there a single church which has existed for fifty years where God’s chosen instrumentality of ministry has been despised or rejected. ‘Ichabod’ is written upon their walls. God rejects them because they reject God’s chosen way of working…”
(C. H. Spurgeon, 1881)
It is clear that the whole church assembly has authority in calling and removing members, etc. (i.e. Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, etc.). The God-called pastor is given to teach and train the church to make godly decisions, and to lead and manage the flock toward Biblical procedures and goals. A church is free to elect as many elders/bishops as it needs to assist the pastor. Yet, the wisdom of Scripture would teach that each church be managed (with all its officers) by the presiding elder (in submission to Jesus):
“The attempt to secure a plurality of elders at Haldane’s Tabernacle ‘did not succeed’ and Robert Haldane was to say in 1821 that ‘the system did not work.’….It is far too simple to claim, as the modern upholders of ‘body ministry’ have done, that the move away from regular, appointed ministers of the Word is the result of a new spiritual understanding and liberty. The claim might not be made with such confidence if its promoters knew a little more church history….It seems to be a mistaken view of the New Testament which supposes the leadership of one individual in a congregation is unlawful.”
(Ian Murray, “The Problem of Eldership and its Wider Implications”)
Many are the reports of contractors who will no longer even deal with Christian churches! They say the whole process of approval is absurd. The slightest decision must pass through five committees, then to the deacons, and then to the women’s board for final approval! The modern pastor is there to tell jokes so no one will get frustrated during all this red tape. And once everyone has given their opinion on how many lightbulbs to buy, one elderly man pouts because his counsel was not followed by the deacons. Six women are in a fight over the color of the bulbs, and soon the whole church splits. The pastor gets the final blame since he obviously did not tell enough jokes to keep everyone lighthearted and “loving”!
I believe the proper balance has also been maintained in the following book by J.E. Conan, from which I will quote extensively below.
J.C. Massee (pastor of Tremont Baptist Temple) wrote in the introduction to J.E. Conant’s, “Every-Member Evangelism” (1922):
“Surely no right conception of the Christian ministry can degenerate into an itching ear for entertainment….[Without intense evangelistic activity] the ministry becomes formal, the church cold, the world indifferent….The Christian church today needs a revival of praying, preaching, and personal testimony to the intent of reaching and winning the lost to a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2)
The author, J.E. Conant, writes:
“[Evangelism] is generally understood to consist principally of formal, public Gospel discourses, delivered in some meeting-place….The New Testament, however, as illustrated by the events of Pentecost…makes public and formal witnessing the CLIMAX and CULMINATION of…private and informal witnessing….We can never be kept at work very long without a program….The Great Commission absolutely demands that the soul-winning work of the Church be organized and carried on according to a program….[The pastor] is to feed his people and give them such watch-care as will make them strong and vigorous for their service of soul-winning, and he is to be their overseer, or superintendent, in that service, seeing that they do that work and guiding them wherever they may need it, that they may do it successfully….Christian people will go out of a service saying they cannot possibly understand how it is that the lost do not yield under such preaching as their pastor does. But the reason is very simple. A sermon to the lost is to be the climax of something that has preceded, and if that something has not preceded [if people do not pray and do the individual, private witnessing] there is not likely to be any climax, no matter how earnestly the appeal of the preacher. The pastor has failed simply because the people have failed behind him. If we do not systematize our witnessing and carry out the Program the Holy Spirit has laid down for us we must expect defeat and failure in our work….[Satan, in history] worked the witnessing out of the hands of the ‘laity,’ until it was finally regarded as the exclusive right of the ‘clergy.’ Then came the Devil’s Millennium which history calls the Dark Ages!….No wholesale house could ever be run on such a program, and no more can the church of the living God! Suppose it should be considered the duty of the sales manager…to go out and do all the selling…while the salesmen support him by their encouragement and their faithful attendance on his weekly lectures….How long do you think that house would last?….The pastor is not ‘employed’ by a church, for he is not the church’s ‘hired man.’ He is ‘employed’ by God, the Owner of the business, and taken care of out of his own treasury, the funds which are administered by the church. No pastor is ever ‘paid a salary’ out of the pockets of the people while he does their witnessing and soul-winning work for them; he is given a ‘support’ out of the treasury of the Lord, while he gives his whole time to perfecting the members in the art of witnessing and soul-winning…”(3)
In regard to Spurgeon, Conant writes:
“We have all marveled at the great numbers brought to Christ under Spurgeon’s wonderful ministry, and the most of us have supposed that of course it was Spurgeon’s preaching. But that was only a part of the secret. The other part of it was the fact that once a year, for many years, three thousand and more of his members came forward in a church service, and, in a most solemn pledge, took his hand in token that for another year, they would together give themselves to the work of taking Christ to the lost. The result was that Spurgeon never stood up to preach without looking into the faces of scores of unsaved people to whom his own members had been witnessing to Christ in their own homes….Like Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Spurgeon’s sermons were the climax of the witnessing to Christ that had preceded…”(4)
Some have also written of the great dedication Spurgeon’s church members had in praying for the lost and for the sermons before each Sunday. In short, Spurgeon had an active church. And this should be the goal and continual prayer of every pastor.
But let us return to the question of plural eldership in early churches. It cannot be debated that in post-Apostolic times, there was a head bishop that managed the local church together with other elders and deacons. We know that this system was later perverted into the extremes of Romanism. But is there not also a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Was the problem that the whole concept of a head-elder is wrong, or is it that the true framework was perverted to unbiblical extremes? I believe that Rome perverted a true framework (just as she also erroneously corrupted the truths concerning the Judgment Seat of Christ and Millennial exclusion into Purgatory).
But let us now go back to Apostolic times (i.e. Biblical times). The last book of the Bible to be written was the Book of Revelation. And by this time, at least, we plainly have a head-elder system. If we study the Book of Acts, concerning James, it could be argued that this system was in place earlier (see Acts 21:18, 15:19). This view, of the one-head pastor, does not at all preclude the possibility of plural eldership. Multitudes of fruitful, mature churches have soon discovered the need to elect visitation pastors/elders, assistant pastors, etc. Therefore, the existence of multiple elders is not an argument against a head-elder managing the church. But let us notice the teaching of our Lord Jesus in the Book of Revelation:
Revelation 2:1 Unto THE ANGEL of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the SEVEN STARS IN HIS RIGHT HAND, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
The seven stars are the seven angels:
Revelation 1:20 The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. THE SEVEN STARS ARE THE ANGELS OF THE SEVEN CHURCHES: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.
Whatever prophetic pictures are observed in these churches, we should never forget that they were seven, literal, historic churches, and each had a literal angel. The “star” is the figure. Therefore, the “angel” (which is the answer to the symbol) cannot be a symbol itself. The word “angel” means “messenger”:
“A human messenger with a divine commission; a pastor or bishop; as ‘the angel of the church,’ Rev. 1.”
(Standard Dictionary of the English Language, 1895)
“Literally, a messenger…A minister of the gospel, or pastor; as the angel of the church at Ephesus.”
(Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1956)
“Title of pastor or minister of the church.”
“Literally, a messenger; one employed to communicate news…A minister of the gospel, who is an ambassador of God. Rev. ii. and iii.”
Many commentators hold that Epaphroditus was the senior pastor of the Philippian church. He is referred to as their “messenger” (Philippians 2:25).
Indeed, God has heavenly messengers AND earthly messengers. The things addressed to the angels of the seven churches can only apply to one who has authority and responsibility ON EARTH, in regard to the church:
Revelation 2:3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
The things Jesus says to these angels could not be said of any heavenly being. We must also remember that this Book of Revelation was a coded book to Christians, written during a time of Christian persecution. In 1865, Joseph Seiss writes:
“….we find all addressed to the MINISTERS in charge of the churches. Each epistle is written to the ‘angel’ of the church….It shows that there is a ministry – an official order – in the Christian church, which assigns one angel to each congregation, and makes him its representative and head….A special ministerial appointment is recognized…which no power on earth may disturb without insurrection against God, and invasion of the dignity of our Lord.”(5)
D.M. Panton, in 1925, also sees the “angel” as the pastor of the church:
“Very solemnly our Lord rebukes a CHURCH OFFICER for neglecting to enforce this rule [i.e. in 1Corinthians 14:34, that women must be silent in mixed assemblies of the church]…(Rev.2:20). They alone hold the true custody of woman’s honour who counsel her to obey her God.”(6)
Robert Govett, in 1861, writes concerning the seven angels (or pastors):
“They [the angels] are dependent on him, and accountable to him. The charge concerning the state of each church is given to them, as though he held them responsible. But His power over them is supreme. He holds them in His hand. As one has well said,- ‘If they be faithful, none can pluck them out of His hand: if unfaithful, none can deliver them out of it.’….The angels are stars: He is the sun. Stars, lamps, and sun give light….John the Baptist and our Lord are by Malachi called by the Hebrew word which signifies ‘angel.’ [Malachi 3:1]…The priest and the prophet are sometimes called by this name [Malachi 2:7, Haggai 1:13, Isaiah 44:26]….They are entitled ‘angels of the churches,’ as Hengstenberg remarks, because they were sent of God to the churches, to be guardians of them….As the angel of the little one [Matthew 18:10] is he to whom he is committed by God, so is the angel of the church that overseer to whose presidency the church is by our Lord committed….Some regard them as angelic beings presiding over churches….But this cannot be; for the angel of Smyrna is required to be faithful unto death…And angels do not die….THE ONLY EXPLANATION WHICH MEETS WITH EASE ALL THE CONDITIONS OF THE CASE, IS THAT WHICH SUPPOSES THEM TO BE PRESIDENTS, SUPERINTENDENTS, OR CHIEF MINISTERS OF THE CHURCHES. They were bishops, not of diocese, but of a city-church….One scheme of government appears to run through the various arrangements of God. In the civil history of Israel in the wilderness, under the Jewish monarchy, in the hierarchy of the temple of Solomon, and in the hierarchy of the heavenly sanctuary….There was, I believe, a divinely-appointed form of church government….Each church has its angel: THERE IS BUT ONE ANGEL TO EACH CHURCH. Each angel is independent of the other. There is no epistle to the ‘angel of the seven churches.’ Each ruled the one church found in each of the seven cities….That there was one organization of the same kind, in each church which had arrived at its completeness, may, I think, be fairly deduced from the case of Ephesus, the first of the seven….That church began by Paul’s reasoning in the synagogue, and persuading some. Acts 18:19-21. Apollos comes tither soon after, and he builds up the disciples (24-28)….Paul visits Ephesus a second time…he separates the disciples, and the church in Ephesus is formed. Acts 19:1-10. He stays there two years, during which time officers would be needed, and were certainly appointed….That we are not deceived in this, the next mention of Ephesus proves; for when the apostle goes up to Jerusalem and takes leave of the church, he sends for ‘the elders’ of Ephesus. Acts 20:16-17….Then comes the final step. One was set by Christ, as the president, or apostle, or ruler of the whole – ‘the angel of the church in Ephesus.’ The organization was complete.” (7)
The arguments against the seven angels being the head-pastors of each of these churches appear to be shallow. The argument that there is not enough said about the head pastor could also be made about many other doctrines. I believe the passages concerning a plural eldership are easily answered without removing the senior-pastor model. And, as we have seen, evidence for this model is found in the last, Biblical address to the churches (the words of Jesus in the Book of Revelation). This teaching is also implied in Paul’s later Epistles to Timothy and Titus. And the AV’s notes concur with the same:
“The second epistle unto Timotheus, ordained the first bishop of the church of the Ephesians…”
Concerning the apparent plurality of elders in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we must remember that this epistle was not addressed to a single church, but to “Hebrews” in general:
Hebrews 13:17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
There were multiple churches in Judaea (Galatians 1:22). Therefore, Hebrews is addressed to multiple churches. The same thing applies to 1st Peter (see 1:1, 5:1). There are therefore only three or four texts which clearly speak of a plurality of elders in ONE local church (Philippians 1:1, James 5:14, Acts 20:17, etc.). Yet, we have already seen that a plurality of elders does not preclude the possibility of a head-elder in each local church. Along with this is the fact that churches are in a state of growth. History and experience reveals many churches that were planted years before a consistent, senior pastor was called.
In conclusion, if it isn’t broke, let’s not try to fix it. Let’s beware of trying to reinvent the wheel. It is my view that the Plymouth Brethren would have done better to leave the Anglican churches and join themselves to Baptist churches, or follow the Baptistic model followed by Robert Govett (who also left the Church of England). They were never symbolized with Rome or any of Rome’s daughters. We do not need a new church government. We need revival in those who have been called to pastor the flock. We need a revival in every church member to see the individual responsibility each Christian has in relation to evangelism and private exhortation, encouragement, etc. Pastors need an awareness that they are called by Jesus Christ. We are in His hands. And He will preserve us, or CRUSH us, at His own will, as we deserve. Let us tremble before Him and get busy training up disciples to be soul winners! We need men to not neglect the ministry that they have been called and sent out to fulfill. Satanic distractions and excuses abound. But they will not profit us one bit at the Judgment Seat of Christ. No pastor who has buried his talent in the earth will be able to say to the Lord Jesus, “I was too humble to pastor. I therefore buried my ministry in the heart of the earth.” They just might soon find THEMSELVES in the heart of the earth!
1. Samuel Southard, “Pastoral Authority in Personal Relationships,” (1969).
2. J.E. Conant, “Every-Member Evangelism” (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1922).
5. J.A. Seiss, “Lectures on the Apocalypse” (1865).
6. D.M. Panton, “Marriage and the Women’s Movement” (London: Chas J. Thynne & Jarvis, 1925).
7. Robert Govett, “Govett on Revelation” (Hayesville, N.C.: Reprinted by Schoettle).
(By Joey Faust)