Shared leadership should not be a new concept to a Bible-reading Christian. Shared leadership is rooted in the Old Testament institution of the elders of Israel and in Jesus’ founding of the apostolate. It is a highly significant but often overlooked fact that our Lord did not appoint one man to lead His church. He personally appointed and trained twelve men. Jesus Christ gave the church plurality of leadership. The Twelve comprised the first leadership council of the church and, in the most exemplary way, jointly led and taught the first Christian community. The Twelve provide a marvelous example of unity, humble brotherly love, and shared leadership structure.
Shared leadership is also evidenced by the Seven who were appointed to relieve the Twelve of the responsibility of dispensing funds to the church’s widows (Acts 6:3-6). The Seven were the prototype of later deacons.6 There is no indication that one of the Seven was the chief and the others were his assistants. As a body of servants, they worked on behalf of the church in Jerusalem. Based on all the evidence we have, the deacons—like the elders—formed a collective leadership council.
The New Testament reveals that the pastoral oversight of many of the first churches was committed to a plurality of elders. This was true of the earliest, Jewish-Christian churches in Jerusalem, Judea, and neighboring countries as well as many of the first Gentile churches. Interestingly enough, Protestants don’t challenge the plurality of deacons in an effort to create a singular deacon, yet many challenge the plurality of elders. It is odd that most Christians have no problem accepting a plurality of deacons but are almost irrationally frightened by a plurality of elders that is far more evident in the New Testament. Despite such fears, a plurality of leadership through a council of elders needs to be preserved just as much as a plurality of deacons.
I am convinced that the underlying reason many Christians fear the plurality of elders is that they don’t really understand the New Testament concept of plural elders or its rich benefits to the local church. New Testament eldership is not, as many think, a highstatus, churchboard position that is open to any and all who desire membership. On the contrary, an eldership patterned after the New Testament model requires qualified elder candidates to meet specific moral and spiritual qualifications before they serve (1 Tim. 3:1-7).The qualifications of such elder candidates must be publicly examined by the church (1 Tim. 3:10). The elders selected must be publicly installed into office (1 Tim. 5:22; Acts 14:23). They must be motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do their work (Acts 20:28). Finally, they must be acknowledged, loved, and honored by the entire congregation. This honor given by the congregation includes the provision of financial support to elders who are uniquely gifted at preaching and teaching, which allows some elders to serve the church full or part time (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Thus a team of qualified, dedicated, Spiritplaced elders is not a passive, ineffective committee; it is an effective form of leadership structure that greatly benefits the church family.
Leadership by a council of elders is a form of government found in nearly every society of the ancient Near East. It was the fundamental, governmental structure of the nation of Israel throughout its Old Testament history (Ex. 3:16; Ezra 10:8). For Israel—a tribal, patriarchal society—the eldership was as basic as the family unit. So when the New Testament records that Paul, a Jew who was thoroughly immersed in the Old Testament and Jewish culture, appointed elders for his newly founded churches (Acts 14:23), it means that he established a council of elders in each local church.
By definition, the elder structure of government is a collective leadership in which each elder shares equally the position, authority, and responsibility of the office. There are different names for this type of leadership structure. More formally it is called collective, corporate, or collegiate leadership. In contemporary terms, it is referred to as multiple church leadership, plurality, shared leadership, or team leadership. I use these terms synonymously throughout this booklet. The opposite of collective leadership is unitary leadership, monarchical rule, or one-man leadership.
First Among a Council of Equals—Leaders Among Leaders:
An extremely important but terribly misunderstood aspect of biblical eldership is the principle of “first among equals” (1 Tim. 5:17). Failure to understand this principle has caused some elderships to be tragically ineffective in their pastoral care and leadership. Although elders are to act jointly as a council and share equal authority and responsibility for the leadership of the church, all elders 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 within the leadership body. This is what the Romans called primus inter pares, which means “first among equals,” or primi inter pares, which means “first ones among equals.”
The principle of “first among equals” is observed first in our Lord’s dealings with the twelve apostles. Jesus chose and empowered all of them to preach and heal, but He singled out three for special attention—Peter, James, and John (“first ones among equals”). Among the three, as well as among the Twelve, Peter stood out as the most prominent (“first among equals”).
As the natural leader, the chief speaker, and the man of action, Peter challenged, energized, strengthened, and ignited the group. Without Peter, the group would have been less effective. When surrounded by eleven other apostles who were his equals, Peter became stronger, more balanced, and was protected from his impetuous nature and his fears. In spite of his outstanding leadership and speaking abilities, Peter possessed no legal or official rank or title above the other eleven. They were not his subordinates. They were not his staff or team of assistants. He wasn’t the apostles’ “senior pastor.” He was simply first among his equals, by our Lord’s approval.
The “first-among-equals” leadership relationship can also be observed among the Seven who, as we’ve seen, were chosen to relieve the apostles of certain responsibilities (Acts 6). Philip and Stephen stand out as prominent figures among the five other brothers (Acts 6:8-7:60; 8:5-40; 21:8). Yet, as far as the account records, the two held no special title or status above the others.
The concept of “first among equals” is further evidenced by the relationship of Paul and Barnabas during their first missionary journey. They were both apostles, yet Paul was “first among equals” because he was “the chief speaker” and dynamic leader (Acts 13:13; 14:12). Although clearly the more gifted of the two apostles, Paul held no formal ranking over Barnabas; they labored as partners in the work of the gospel. A similar relationship seems to have existed between Paul and Silas, who was also an apostle (1 Thess. 2:6).
Finally, the “first-among-equals” concept is evidenced by the way in which congregations are to honor their elders. Concerning elders within the church in Ephesus, Paul writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). All elders must be able to teach the Word, but not all of them desire to work fully at preaching and teaching. The local church should properly care for those who are specially gifted in teaching and spend the time to do so. Let us be clear about the fact that it is the spiritual giftedness of the elders that causes the church to grow and prosper spiritually, not just the eldership form of government per se.
This doesn’t mean, however, that elders who are first among their equals do all the thinking and decision making for the group, or that they become the “pastors” while the others are “merely elders.” To call one elder “pastor” and the rest “elders,” or one elder “the clergyman” and the rest “lay elders,” is to act without biblical precedence. To do so will not result in a biblical eldership. It will, at least in practice, create a separate, superior office over the eldership, just as was done during the early second century when the division between “the overseer” and “elders” occurred. The advantage of the principle of “first among equals” is that it allows for functional, giftbased diversity within the eldership team without creating an official, superior office over fellow elders. Just as the leading apostles, such as Peter and John, bore no special title or formal distinctions from the other apostles, elders who receive double honor form no official class or receive no special title. The elders, then, who labor in the Word and exercise good leadership are, in the words of Scripture, “leading men among the brethren” (Acts 15:22).
6 See Alexander Strauch, The New Testament Deacon: The Church’s Minister of Mercy (Littleton: Lewis and Roth, 192), 45-54.