Christians who profess the Bible to be God’s infallible, all-sufficient Word agree that they must establish their church practices and doctrines on the teachings of the Bible. Many contemporary scholars say, however, that the New Testament is ambiguous or silent regarding the topic of church government and conclude that no one can insist upon a biblical model of church government (by elders or anyone else) for all churches because the Bible doesn’t. George Eldon Ladd, author of A Theology of the New Testament and former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, expresses this view most concisely: “It appears likely that there was no normative pattern of church government in the apostolic age, and that the organizational structure of the church is no essential element in the theology of the church.”12 Although this is a widely held view among scholars today, it must be challenged because it simply does not fit biblical evidence.
In its major features, local church leadership (or government) by the plurality of elders is plainly and amply set forth by the New Testament writers. J. Alec Motyer, former principal of Trinity College in Bristol, England, captures the true spirit of the New Testament when he writes, “. . . it is not as much as hinted in the New Testament that the church would ever need—or indeed should ever want or tolerate—any other local leadership than that of the eldership group.”13
Not only does the New Testament record the existence of elders in numerous churches, it also gives instruction about elders and to elders. In fact, the New Testament offers more instruction regarding elders than it does regarding such important church subjects as the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Day, baptism, and spiritual gifts. When you consider the New Testament’s characteristic avoidance of detailed regulation and church procedures (when it is compared to the Old Testament), the attention given to elders is amazing. “This is why,” writes Jon Zens, editor of the journal Searching Together, “we need to seriously consider the doctrine of eldership; it jumps out at us from the pages of the New Testament, yet it has fallen into disrepute and is not being practiced as a whole in local churches.”14
A Consistent, New Testament Pattern
To hear some scholars speak, you would think that the Bible doesn’t say one word about church elders or church government. But that is not true. The New Testament records evidence of pastoral oversight by a council of elders in nearly all the first churches. These local churches were spread over a wide geographical and culturally diverse area—from Jerusalem to Rome.
Examples of Eldership: Consider, as recorded in the New Testament, the consistent pattern of plural leadership by elders that existed among the first Christian churches.
- Elders are found in the churches of Judea and the surrounding area (Acts 11:30; James 5:14-15).
- Elders governed the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15, 21).
- Among the Pauline churches, leadership by the plurality of elders was established in the churches in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:20-23); in the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17-25); in the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:1);
and in the churches on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5).
- According to the well-traveled letter of 1 Peter, elders existed in churches throughout northwestern Asia Minor: Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1; 5:1).
- There are strong indications that elders existed in churches in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:12) and Rome (Heb. 13:17).
Instruction About Elders: Not only does the New Testament provide examples of elder-led churches, it includes explicit instructions to churches about how to care for, protect, discipline, select, restore, and call the elders. The apostles intended these instructions to be obeyed, and they should be regarded as normative teaching for all Christian churches at all times.
- James instructs those who are sick to call for the elders of the church (James 5:14).
- Paul instructs the Ephesian church to financially support elders who labor “at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17, 18).
- Paul instructs the local church about protecting elders from false accusation, disciplining elders who sin, and restoring fallen elders (1 Tim. 5:19-22).
- Paul instructs the church regarding the proper qualifications for eldership (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
- To the church in Ephesus, Paul states that anyone who desires to be an elder desires a “fine work” (1 Tim. 3:1).
- Paul instructs the church to examine the qualifications of prospective elders (1 Tim. 3:10; 5:24-25).
- Peter instructs the young men of the church to submit to church elders (1 Peter 5:5).
- Paul teaches that elders are the household stewards, leaders, instructors, and teachers of the local church (Titus 1:7, 9; 1 Thess. 5:12).
Instruction and Exhortation to Elders: Besides giving instruction to churches about elders, Paul, Peter, and James give these instructions directly to elders:
- James tells elders to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14).
- Peter directly charges elders to willingly pastor and oversee the local congregation (1 Peter 5:1-2).
- Peter warns elders not to be domineering (1 Peter 5:3).
- Peter promises elders that when the Lord Jesus returns they will receive “the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).
- Peter exhorts elders to be clothed in humility (1 Peter 5:5).
- Paul reminds the Ephesians elders that the Holy Spirit placed them in the church to be overseers and pastor the church of God (Acts 20:28).
- Paul exhorts elders to guard the church from false teachers (Acts 20:28) and to be alert to the constant threat of false doctrine (Acts 20:31).
- Paul reminds elders to work hard, help the needy, and be generous like the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:35).
Promotes the True Nature of the New Testament-Style Local Church
The local church’s structure of government makes a profound statement about the nature of the local church and its philosophy of ministry. The local church is not an undefined mass of people; it is a particular group of people that has a unique character, mission, and purpose. I am convinced that the elder structure of government best harmonizes with and promotes the true nature of the local church as revealed in the New Testament. We will consider four ways in which the elder structure of government complements the nature and theology of the local church.
The Church Is a Close-knit Family of Brothers and Sisters: Of the different New Testament terms used to describe the nature of the church—the body, the bride, the temple, the flock—the one most frequently used is the family, particularly the fraternal aspect of the family—brothers and sisters. Robert Banks, a prominent leader in the worldwide, home-church movement, makes this observation in his book, Paul’s Idea of Community:
Although in recent years Paul’s metaphors for community have been subjected to quite intense study, especially his description of it as a “body,” his application to it of “household” or “family” terminology has all too often been overlooked or only mentioned in passing.15
Banks further comments on the frequency and significance of these familial expressions:
So numerous are these, and so frequently do they appear, that the comparison of the Christian community with a “family” must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all. . . . More than any of the other images utilized by Paul, it reveals the essence of his thinking about community.16
The local Christian church, then, is to be a close-knit family of brothers and sisters. Brotherliness also provided a key guiding principle for the management of relationships between Christians (Rom. 14:15, 21; 1 Cor. 6:8; 8:11-13; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; Philemon 15-16; James 4:11). Jesus insisted that His followers were true brothers and sisters and that none among them should act like the rabbis of His day who elevated themselves above their fellow countrymen:
But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers (Matt. 23:5-8; italics added).
In complete obedience to Christ’s teaching on humility and brotherhood, the first Christians resisted special titles, sacred clothing, chief seats, and lordly terminology to highlight their community leaders. They also chose an appropriate leadership structure for their local congregations—leadership by a council of elders. The first Christians found within their biblical heritage a structure of government that was compatible with their new, spiritual family and their theological beliefs. Israel was a great family, composed of many individual families. The nation found leadership by a plurality of elders to be a suitable form of self-government that provided fair representation to its members. The same is true of the local Christian church. The elder structure of government suits an extended family organization like the local church. It allows any brother in the community who desires it and qualifies for it to share fully in the leadership of the community.
The Church Is a Non-clerical Community: The local church is not only an intimate, loving family of redeemed brothers and sisters, it is a non-clerical family. Unlike Israel, which was divided into sacred priestly members and lay members, the first-century, Christian church was a people’s movement. The distinguishing mark of Christianity was not found in a clerical hierarchy but in the fact that God’s Spirit came to dwell within ordinary, common people and that through them the Spirit manifested Jesus’ life to the believing community and the world.
It is an immensely profound truth that no special priestly or clerical class that is distinct from the whole people of God appears in the New Testament. Under the new covenant ratified by the blood of Christ, every member of the church of Jesus Christ is a holy saint, a royal priest, and a Spirit-gifted member of the body of Christ. Paul teaches that a wide diversity of gifts and services exists within the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12), but he says nothing about a mystical gap between sacred clergy and common laity. If it exists, surely something as fundamental to the Church as a clergy-laity division should at least be mentioned in the New Testament. The New Testament, however, stresses the oneness of the people of God (Eph. 2:13-19) and the dismantling of the sacred-secular concept that existed between priest and people under the old covenant (1 Peter 2:5-10; Rev. 1:6).
Clericalism does not represent biblical, apostolic Christianity. Indeed, the real error to be contended with is not simply that one man provides leadership for the congregation, but that one person in the holy brotherhood has been sacralized apart from the brotherhood to an unscriptural status. In practice, the ordained clergyman—the minister, the reverend—is the Protestant priest.
Biblical eldership cannot exist in an environment of clericalism. Paul’s employment of the elder structure of government for the local church is clear, practical evidence against clericalism because the eldership is non-clerical in nature. The elders are always viewed in the Bible as “elders of the people” or “elders of the congregation,” never “elders of God.” The elders represent the people as leading members from among the people.
When establishing churches, Paul never ordains a priest or cleric to perform the church’s ministry. When he establishes a church, he leaves behind a council of elders chosen from among the believers to jointly oversee the local community (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Obviously that was all he believed that a local church needed. Since the local congregation of his day was composed of saints, priests, and Spirit-empowered servants, and since Christ was present with each congregation through the person of the Holy Spirit, none of the traditional, religious trappings such as sacred sites, sacred buildings, or sacred personnel (priests, clerics, or holy men) were needed. Nor could such be tolerated. To meet the need for community leadership and protection, Paul provides the non-clerical, elder structure of government—a form of government that would not demean the lordship of Christ over His people or the glorious status of a priestly, saintly body of people in which every member ministered.
The Church Is a Humble-Servant Community: I am convinced that one reason the apostles chose the elder system of government was because it enhanced the loving, humble-servant character of the Christian family. The New Testament offers a consistent example of shared leadership as the ideal structure of leadership in a congregation where love, humility, and servanthood are paramount. When it functions properly, shared leadership requires a greater exercise of humble servanthood than does unitary leadership. In order for an eldership to operate effectively, the elders must show mutual regard for one another, submit themselves one to another, patiently wait upon one another, genuinely consider one another’s interests and perspectives, and defer to one another. Eldership, then, enhances brotherly love, humility, mutuality, patience, and loving interdependence—qualities that are to mark the servant church.
Furthermore, shared leadership is often more trying than unitary leadership. It exposes our impatience with one another, our stubborn pride, our bullheadedness, our selfish immaturity, our domineering disposition, our lack of love and understanding of one another, and our prayerlessness. It also shows how underdeveloped and immature we really are in humility, brotherly love, and the true servant spirit. Like the saints at Corinth, we are quick to develop our knowledge and public gifts but slow to mature in love and humility.
I believe that churches today desperately need a revival of love, humility, and the servant spirit. Such a revival must begin with our leaders, and biblical eldership provides the structure through which leaders learn to work together in mutual love and humility. Since the eldership represents a microcosm of the entire church, it provides a living model of loving relationships and servanthood for the entire body. Thus, leadership by a plurality of elders ideally suits the humble-servant church.
The Church Is Under Christ’s Headship: Most important, biblical eldership guards and promotes the preeminence and position of Christ over the local church. Jesus left His disciples with the precious promise that “where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matt. 18:20). Because the apostles knew that Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, was uniquely present with them as Ruler, Head, Lord, Pastor, Master, Overseer, High Priest, and King, they chose a form of government that reflected this distinctive, fundamental, Christian truth. This truth was not a theoretical idea to the early Christians—it was reality. The first churches were truly Christ centered and Christ dependent. Christ alone provided all they needed in order to be in full fellowship with God and one another. Christ’s person and work was so infinitely great, final, and complete that nothing—even in appearance—could diminish the centrality of His presence among and sufficiency for His people.
So, during the first century no Christian would have dared to take the position or title of sole ruler, overseer, or pastor of the church. We Christians today, however, are so accustomed to speaking of “the pastor” that we do not stop to realize that the New Testament does not. This fact is profoundly significant, and we must not permit our customary practice to shield our minds from this important truth. There is only one flock and one Pastor (John 10:16), one body and one Head (Col. 1:18), one holy priesthood and one great High Priest (Heb. 4:14), one brotherhood and one Elder Brother (Rom. 8:29), one building and one Cornerstone (1 Peter 2:5), one Mediator, and one Lord. Jesus Christ is the “Senior Pastor,” and all others are His under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:4).
To symbolize the reality of Christ’s leadership and presence over the local church and its leaders, one church places an empty chair at the table next to the chairman during all elders’ meetings. This is a visual reminder to the elders of Christ’s presence and lordship, of their position as His under-shepherds, and of their dependence on Him through prayer and the Word.
Promotes the Protection and Sanctification of Spiritual Leaders
We come now to two, extremely significant reasons for and benefits of pastoral leadership by a council of qualified elders. First, the shared leadership structure of eldership provides necessary accountability protection from the particular sins that plague spiritual leaders. In turn, this protects the spiritual character of the local church and the testimony of the Lord’s name. Second, the eldership structure provides peer relationships to help balance elders’ weaknesses and correct their character, an essential component in the sanctification process of spiritual leaders.
Leadership Accountability: English historian Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Because of our biblical beliefs in the dreadful realities of sin, the curse, Satan, and human depravity, we should understand well why people in positions of power are easily corrupted. In fact, the better we understand the exceeding sinfulness and deceitfulness of sin, the stronger our commitment to accountability will be. The collective leadership of a biblical eldership provides a formal structure for genuine accountability.
Shared, brotherly leadership provides needed restraint concerning such sins as pride, greed, and “playing god.” Earl D. Radmacher, chancellor of a Baptist seminary in America, writes, “Human leaders, even Christian ones, are sinners and they only accomplish God’s will imperfectly. Multiple leaders, therefore, will serve as a ‘check and balance’ on each other and serve as a safeguard against the very human tendency to play God over other people.”17
It was never our Lord’s will for one individual to control the local church. The concept of the pastor as the lonely, trained professional—the sacred person presiding over the church who can never really become a part of the congregation—is utterly unscriptural. Not only is this concept unscriptural, it is psychologically and spiritually unhealthy. Radmacher goes on to contrast the deficiencies of a church leadership that is placed primarily in the hands of one pastor to the wholesomeness of leadership when it is shared by multiple pastors:
Laymen . . . are indifferent because they are so busy. They have no time to bother with church matters. Church administration is left, therefore, largely in the hands of the pastor. This is bad for him, and it is bad also for the church. It makes it easier for the minister to build up in himself a dictatorial disposition and to nourish in his heart the love of autocratic power.
It is my conviction that God has provided a hedge against these powerful temptations by the concept of multiple elders. The check and balance that is provided by men of equal authority is most wholesome and helps to bring about the desired attitude expressed by Peter to the plurality of elders: “. . . shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3).”18
In addition to providing close accountability, genuine partnership, and peer relationships—the very things most imperial pastors shrink from at all costs—shared leadership provides the local church shepherd with accountability for his work. Church leaders (like all of us) can be lazy, forgetful, fearful, or too busy to fulfill their responsibilities. Thus they need colleagues in ministry to whom they are answerable for their work. Coaches know that athletes who train together push one another to greater achievement. When someone else is running alongside him or her, a runner will push a little harder and go a little faster. The same is true in the Lord’s work. That is one reason why the Lord sent out His disciples in twos.
Peer Relationships: One of the deep joys of my life has been to share the pastoral leadership of a church with a team of dedicated pastor elders. As partners in the work of shepherding God’s precious, blood-bought people, we have sharpened, balanced, comforted, protected, and strengthened one another through nearly every conceivable life situation. I do not hesitate to say that the relationship with my fellow elders has been the most important tool God has used, outside of my marriage relationship, for the spiritual development of my Christian character, leadership abilities, and teaching ministry. The eldership has played a major role in the sanctification process of my Christian life.
Shared leadership can provide a church leader with critically needed recognition of his faults and deficiencies and can help to offset them. We all have blind spots, eccentricities, and deficiencies. We all have what C. S. Lewis called “a fatal flaw.”19 We can see these fatal flaws so clearly in others but not in ourselves. These fatal flaws or blind spots distort our judgment. They deceive us. They can even destroy us. This is particularly true of multi-talented, charismatic leaders. Blind to their flaws and extreme views, some talented leaders have destroyed themselves because they had no peers who could confront and balance them and, in fact, wanted none.
When a single leader is atop a pyramidal structure of organization, the important balancing of one another’s weaknesses and strengths normally does not occur. Note the strong language Robert Greenleaf, author of the book Servant Leadership, uses to convey his observations:
To be a lone chief atop a pyramid is abnormal and corrupting. None of us are perfect by ourselves, and all of us need the help and correcting influence of close colleagues. When someone is moved atop a pyramid, that person no longer has colleagues, only subordinates. Even the frankest and bravest of subordinates do not talk with their boss in the same way that they talk with colleagues who are equals, and normal communication patterns become warped.20
I believe that traditional, single-church pastors would improve their character and ministry if they had genuine peers to whom they were regularly accountable and with whom they worked jointly.
12 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 534.
13 J.A. Motyer, The Message of James, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1985), 189.
14 Jon Zens, “The Major Concepts of Eldership in the New Testament,” Baptist Reformation Review 7 (Summer, 1978): 28.
15 Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 53.
16 Ibid., 53,54.
17 Earl D. Radmacher, The Question of Elders (Portland: Western Baptist, 1977), 7.
18 Ibid., 11.
19 C. S, Lewis, “How to Get Along with Difficult People,” Eternity 16 (August, 1965): 14.
20 Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (New York: Paulist, 1977), 63.