This post is the last of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.
I’m going to wrap up this series by discussing the remaining common challenges to the idea of each church being led by a team of elders.
The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear model. We have freedom to structure our church leadership in a way that works best for us.
Some people claim that the Bible is so ambiguous or inconsistent about leadership structures that we can simply use whatever works for our particular situation. It’s true that the New Testament doesn’t provide us with elaborate instructions on the minute details of church leadership. And this does give us great flexibility in applying scriptural principles to different cultures and contexts. But there is actually amazing consistency in how the New Testament describes the pastoral leadership of the original churches. James, Paul, Peter and Luke all describe the churches as being led by a plurality of elders.
James’ letter is most likely the earliest letter included in the New Testament, dating from the early to mid 40s AD. He refers to church leadership by elders in James 5:14. On the other hand, Peter’s teaching on elders comes late in his life (1 Peter 5:1-4). In the book of Acts, Luke recounts how Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church during their very first missionary trip (Acts 14:23). Years later, Paul is still following the same pattern, directing Titus to appoint elders in each town in Crete, and writing fairly detailed instructions to Timothy regarding the appointment and ministry of the elders of the church. We see this leadership structure for the churches consistently utilized and taught throughout Paul’s apostolic ministry.
As I noted in a previous post, we have accounts of elders being appointed, qualifications listed for elders, and instructions addressed directly to the elders of a church (with no mention anywhere of a sole, primary or senior pastor). Not only do we see this impressive consistency regarding the pastoral leadership of the churches throughout the New Testament, we have much more biblical teaching regarding church elders than we do for such important practices as baptism and communion. We can’t simply pretend that God hasn’t provided this pattern for us. And we shouldn’t introduce another form of church leadership unless it has clear biblical precedent.
The church can’t be led by a committee, it needs a primary leader.
It’s unfortunate that this challenge is heard as often as it is, because it’s really kind of a cheap shot. This is what, in logic, is called a “straw man argument.” It’s trying to cause your point to seem stronger by making your opponent’s view sound silly and easily torn apart (hence “straw man”). Why would I describe this challenge as a straw man argument? Because no pastor or Bible scholar who teaches about the church being led by a plurality of pastoral elders ever advocates for the church being led by a “committee.” They may use terms such as ‘council of elders’ or ‘pastoral team,’ but they don’t refer to committees. Committees don’t have a very good connotation for many of us, so using this kind of pejorative term is a way of stacking the deck against one’s opponent. We should never use a description for our opponents’ viewpoint that they wouldn’t use themselves.
Of course, the real problem with this challenge is that it’s not accurate. The implication here is that no one elder can ever exercise significant leadership beyond that of the other elders. They all have to be equally involved in every decision or ministry. But this just isn’t the way biblical elderships operate. For example, if the church is beginning a construction project, and one of the elders has considerable expertise in construction, then his leadership will be respected and probably followed (as the other elders consider and approve his ideas). If an elder has vast experience and wisdom in financial matters, then his voice will carry much greater weight when approaching fiscal decisions, and the other elders will respect his leadership.
Leadership by a council of co-equal elders doesn’t prevent God from using one man in a special, dynamic way. If one of the elders has a tremendous teaching or evangelistic gift, then the other elders will strive to give him ample opportunity to fulfill this ministry. What this model does resist is trying to see one elder as the primary leader in each and every situation, and formalizing this primary leadership into a ‘senior pastor’ role that is absent from the New Testament. In many churches, the plural leadership model serves to free a gifted pastor/teacher to pursue the ministry that best suits his gifting without the need for him to try to be all things to all people.
The famous Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers was reputed to have argued: “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” I would agree. But just who is the head of the body of Christ? Isn’t that Christ himself? If the church has a primary or senior pastor who is viewed as the head of the church (as Rogers was advocating), doesn’t Rogers’ axiom actually argue against such a senior pastor model? Wouldn’t this constitute two heads of the body—Christ and the senior pastor? According to Rogers’ own argument, shouldn’t we view such a leadership structure as a freakish anomaly? The elders are not the heads of the body; they lead the body in seeking the will and direction of our Head. And they resist the temptation to assign that primary role to one of their own.
But we’ve never done it that way before! And what about all the churches that have senior pastors? Are they all wrong?
In many discussions about church eldership, it eventually becomes obvious that this is the underlying objection. Most of us prefer the familiar. We don’t like change, especially when it seems to go against the norm. Of course, whether a practice is familiar or not is ultimately irrelevant. The real question for us must be: What does the Bible teach? And we can see in our history, and in Scripture itself, that the majority can be very wrong. Even if churches follow an unscriptural model of ministry for 1000 years, it doesn’t somehow sanctify it and make it healthy.
When Martin Luther opposed unbiblical practices in the church of his day, he was faced with these same kinds of challenges. How could he think he was right and everyone else wrong? (Although many others had opposed the same unbiblical practices.) How could he have the audacity to oppose the established tradition of the church? His response was simple; it was bold, yet humble. If anyone could show him in Scripture where he was in error, he would repent. But if they could not, he could do nothing else but accept the witness of God’s Word over accepted, traditional practice, no matter how well established. Those of us who are proponents of what we see as a biblical form of eldership—the pastoring of the church by a group of co-equal elders with no elder elevated above the rest—would invite the same correction and take the same stand.
Encouragingly, there have been many throughout the history of the church who have called us back to this scriptural model. Today, there are more churches who follow such a biblical structure than most people realize. And more and more churches are returning to these New Testament principles of pastoral leadership. It can be helpful to learn about real churches who follow such a model. If you’d like to check out some examples,
just email me [see here].
Many wonderful people of God are serving as senior pastors, or serving in churches that have senior pastors. We would never want to dismiss them or ignore the good that God is doing through them. Still, we must continue to strive to be as biblical in our church practices as we can be, and to lovingly challenge our brothers and sisters where we feel they are diverting from what is scripturally normative. The more we follow God’s plan for the church, the more our churches will be healthy and thriving, the more of a vibrant witness we’ll be to the world around us, and the more we will glorify and honor the One whose church it actually is anyway.
Elders and pastoral leadership series:
A few remaining challenges [see above]