What Does the Bible Teach about God’s Design for a Plurality of Eldership to Lead the Local Church?
Imagine a group of men of various personalties, ethnicities, and spiritual gifts seeking to lead alongside one another within a relational context of mutual respect and godly commitment for the progress of the gospel in and through a given local church family. This is what the church in Antioch, Syria in the first century possessed, which God used to take His glorious gospel to the far reaches of their known world in the first century (Acts 13:1-3). It is still happening today. The church planting network I am a part of, Crossway Chapel, is committed to this kind of leadership that existed in Antioch.
The Crossway Chapel Network is made up of churches that embrace God’s design for plurality of pastors and leaders. There is recognition that God’s desire is to manifest His grace upon a plurality of interdependent leaders (Acts 14:21-23). As pastors, these men are mutually accountable to one another in love, functioning within their given areas of giftedness and emphasis. We believe that humble men can and should serve together with equal authority and in submission to one another but with freedom to identify God given roles and gifting on the team. For example, while titles are not our emphasis, these biblical gifts can lead to identifiers on a team such as teaching pastor, counseling pastor, shepherding pastor, or lead pastor.
Crossway Chapel churches understand that one of the single best predictors of long-term success and gospel effectiveness of a church is its leadership. In a day and age when many pastors struggle with the load of ministry, God’s design of a plurality of leaders (more than one elder/pastor) should come as a breath of fresh-air.
A theology of elders functioning in plurality is a work in progress, but this post, written collaboratively by the Crossway Servant Team provides a biblical framework for plurality of elders serving as leaders of a local church (it assumes all pastors are elders). It will also explain what plurality in eldership means and what it does not mean; and it will conclude with addressing a few of the most common questions that arise when considering a plurality of elders.
Local Church Leadership | What the Bible Teaches
- Under the Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, a plurality of elders (more than one) have primary responsibility for the oversight and care of the local church family (Acts 14:22-23, 15:6, 20:17, 28-29; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-2). In some passages of the Bible, these elders are referred to as pastors, bishops, overseers or leaders. Yet, the Scriptures convey the most common title of elders for those who have primary responsibility for the care and leadership of the congregation.
- These elders are to serve in this role in plurality not in singularity. Even though there are unique circumstances that may prevent this, it should be the goal (Acts 14:23, 15:2-6, 22-23, 20:17-18; Philippians 1:1; Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14).
- Elders are to be qualified men who are in a regular process of maturing and not new converts to the faith (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9).
- Elders are to serve interdependently with one another, with complementing gifting, mutual love, and respect (Acts 13:1-4; 15:22, 36-41; 1 Corinthians 3:1-7; 12; 13:4-8; Galatians 2:11; Ephesians 4:11-14; Philippians 2:1-4; 1 Peter 5:1-4).
- Elders are to recognize, embrace, and celebrate God-given distinctions among themselves within the plurality in calling, giftedness, maturity and experience (Acts 1:15; 15:13-21, 36-41; 1 Corinthians 4:15; Galatians 2:9).
Plurality | What the Bible Does Not Teach
- The Bible does not teach that elders of a local church are to all serve with equal load and responsibilities, as if all of them are exactly the same in calling, giftedness, maturity, experience, and availability (Galatians 2:9, Peter, James and John are referred to as “pillars”; 1 Timothy 5:17, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” NASB; 1 Corinthians 4:5 planter). Plurality does not mean “sameness.”
- The Bible does not teach that one is an elder simply because he possesses the title of elder or pastor. The church family and ultimately, the elder team confirm God’s call upon a man’s life for serving as an elder. That aspiring elder is qualified based on God’s gracious work in his life (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9 qualifications; Ephesians 4:11-13, elders serving in different capacities – apostles, prophets, evangelist, shepherds/pastors and teachers).
- The Bible does not teach that all elders serve at the same level of God-given influence and recognition within the church body (Act 1:15, 15:6-11, Peter’s role in the early church; Acts 15:13-21, James at the Jerusalem Council; 1 Timothy 5:17, teaching/preaching elders).
- The Bible does not teach that authority or recognition within the body are based on the various pastors’ vocational status as they function in plurality. For example, 1 Timothy 5:17 certainly indicates that a man who “rules well” and “labors in preaching and teaching” should be compensated in a way that is “doubly-honoring,” but it does not insinuate greater pastoral authority. Simply put, paid pastors will hold different and more time-demanding roles but do not hold a higher degree of biblical authority or recognition within the body because it is their vocation. At Crossway, we seek to mutually empower and affirm every pastor regardless of official ministry compensation.
What are the obstacles in establishing and sustaining a healthy plurality of eldership? The primary obstacles are all within our own selves, our flesh (Galatians 5:19-25). Pride fuels bitterness, failure to biblically love one another and dissension. It is a plurality buster! Yet, as we walk in the Spirit, it is a wonderful experience to see brothers, humbly deferring to one another in love for the greater cause of Christ’s great name and the precious souls of people (Philippians 2:1-4). It is important to note that plurality is not achieved overnight nor is it easily sustained.
- Is there a difference between unity and uniformity in eldership? There is a significant difference between unity and uniformity. First and foremost, unity is established upon the truth we profess in Jesus and His Scriptures (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 4:1-6, 11-16; 1 Timothy 3:15-4:1, 6, 11-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 4:1-5). Secondly, it is a commitment of our hearts to hear collectively among elders as to what God is saying or how He is leading.
Uniformity, on the other hand, means that all involved are required to see all issues the same way and agree. This is not how plurality is to function. This perspective fails to recognize the difference in giftedness, maturity and experience among elders. Based on these differences among elders, specific men will tend to carry more weight on a given subject or discussion. One elder who is gifted as visionary leader may not be inclined to provide much input on discussions that are geared more to building maintenance or in-depth shepherding needs as one gifted more as a shepherd/pastor who also comes from a background in the marketplace with building management (James 1:19-20; Philippians 2:1-4; 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11). Therefore, there will be times when elders should joyfully defer to one another in an atmosphere of mutual love, trust, and respect. In this way the church will be strengthened through plurality to see it progress in greater gospel influence (Romans 12:9-11).
- Practically, how are strong visionary elders to function on an elder board? The real essence of the question is how do gifted visionary leaders function in plurality with other elders who may not be gifted in the same way or to the same degree? Visionary, apostolic type elders are to function in humility and freedom within the team. In humility, with the recognition that God has placed other men with different and valuable gifting around him to hear from the Lord and help direct the ministry (Acts 13:1-4; 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11, Philippians 2:1-4). A leader of leaders must value the leaders who are with him as gifted and qualified by he Lord.
Likewise, visionary apostolic-type elders need to function in freedom. Other elders need to leverage the gifting of those visionary leaders to see the ministry move forward. Those unique elders need to sense the freedom and support of other elders who are not gifted the same way and may not hold the same key leadership responsibilities. Within an environment of gospel grace, it is important that there is a commitment to a leadership culture of interdependence with another (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:14-31; Ephesians 2:10; Psalm 139:16; Acts 13:1-4).