A few remaining challenges

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:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges [see above]

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

5 thoughts on “A few remaining challenges

  1. Had to chime in on this Curt, I hope this will be short…..

    The example for individual NT leadership is JESUS.
    How did HE respond to the people around HIM?
    If that seed or pattern of JESUS is in us, through the Holy Spirit, won’t the same work happen?
    If not then it really doesn’t matter what the structure because if my flesh is in contol then I’ll be a Sr. Tyrant or be part of a group of Tyrants trying to push our agendas with JESUS as a mascot. But if Christ JESUS is the HEAD of HIS gathering, won’t the H.S. rule with love, by the believers submitting one to another, serving one another, with gifts organically flowing without an “order of service”?

    Just some thoughts

    Gregory

  2. “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.”

    I can’t seem to find your e-mail contact information but I’d love to discuss this more by e-mail.

  3. Gregory: If we were all perfectly spiritually mature, then perhaps everything could flow beautifully, organically and naturally without any human organization. I say ‘perhaps’ because we would all still be different parts of the body with differing functions, gifting and even priorities. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, I think it’s the way God intended it.

    The hands are going to be especially focused on hand-related issues, while the knees are focused on knee-stuff, and the internal organs are doing something entirely different. Some of us are especially focused on passionately expressing praise and worship to God, others are driven to understand the depths of the Word, and still others are more geared to ‘getting out there and actually doing something.’ Each of these are vital, but they also need to be balanced and emphasized at the appropriate times in appropriate ways. So, even under ideal conditions of optimum spiritual maturity, I think we would have need of body members to lead and guide in this process. I don’t think it’s an accident that God gives leaders to the church. Apparently, he’s not intending for all leadership to come directly from the Holy Spirit.

    Of course, every church fellowship must also deal with those who are not spiritually mature (even if they’re growing, they don’t mature overnight) and also visiting unbelievers. If God has given us gifts of leadership, and placed us in the body as leaders, then it’s our responsibility to lead. I’ve learned from experience that it’s very easy to have too much freedom in a church gathering. I see in Scripture that God desires for us to be actively involved in our own spiritual lives, both individual and corporate. He doesn’t seem interested in doing everything for us. He calls us to pray for people when he’s already aware of their problems, give to needs that he could instantly alleviate, evangelize when the Holy Spirit could easily draw people without our help, encourage and comfort when we’re far less encouraging and comforting than the Spirit could be directly, etc. I know I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, but God seems to desire to work through us to accomplish tasks that he could do perfectly himself without our involvement. And I would say that this includes teaching and leading his people.

    We should all strive to be mature, loving and sensitive to one another. But I don’t think a gathering of loving, sensitive, mature believers will be automatically harmonious and productive. The Spirit guides and inspires us as we study and prepare to teach. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t have to order our thoughts and arrange them into a cohesive delivery. (Indeed, the Spirit enables us to do this very work of ordering and arranging.) In the same way, the Spirit guides and inspires his people. But we still must intentionally plan and implement a gathering that is done “decently and in order.” The proper exercise of that leadership is no less spiritual than any other aspect of the service. The wisdom comes in providing the necessary leadership without seeking dictatorial control over everything that happens. The extremes of chaos and tyranny are both easy choices; seeking a wise balance is the most difficult approach, but also the healthiest.

    Eric: I emailed you my contact information. Hopefully, you received the email. If not, my email address is:

    curt@withoutwallspr.org

  4. Thanks for writing, Curt. I think I’m insubstantial agreement on plurality.

    The last challenge you list is:
    “But we’ve never done it that way before! And what about all the churches that have senior pastors? Are they all wrong?”

    Your response is a call to obey Scripture regardless of what most people do. Great.
    I think it would be of benefit to contemplate why so many churches have gone to the model of a Head Pastor, a few Assistant Pastors, and a board of some sort leading the church.

    – Ignatius in the late first century is the first to write to “the bishop of [insert city].” Prior to him, plural bishops are the rule for addressing letters.
    – Modern congregationalists have: Head Pastor – [perhaps Assistant Pastors] – Deacons – Flock.
    – Modern Presbyterians may have: Minister – [perhaps assistant ministers] – Ruling Elders – Deacons/Flock
    – Even many Brethren congregations have moved toward such a model with a Head Pastor.

    There are historical attempts to enact no-head-pastor plurality in churches, none long lived.
    I have an idea of why. But before I influence you, what is your experience? What are the difficulties of plurality as you practice it? Why do you think you tend to face those difficulties? What steps do you take as a group of elders to mitigate them?
    Thanks in advance,
    Dan

  5. Hi Dan,

    Thank you for your kind words! I’m really sorry it’s taken so long to respond to your comment. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time for blogging right now. I hope that changes in the near future.

    You ask some very good questions. I do have a couple of other posts that I think address much of what you’re asking:

    Why do so few churches today have a truly biblical eldership?

    Follow-up to “Why do so few churches today have a truly biblical eldership?”

    Let me know what you think.

    Blessings!
    Curt

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