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

Businessman Looking to SunsetThroughout the New Testament, we find a clear and consistent model of each church being pastored by a team of elders, with never so much as a mention of a senior or lead pastor. (If this is new to you, you might want to read Why we don’t have a senior pastor.) I recently reviewed a very helpful book by Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons. Merkle notes that while most evangelical scholars and pastors agree on what the New Testament teaches about elders/overseers, these biblical teachings are too rarely applied today in local churches. He writes, “The organizational structure of many churches today bears almost no resemblance to the pattern found among the New Testament churches.” We could probably strengthen this statement to refer to most churches today. Someone commenting on my review asked a very important question:

Why is this such a foreign concept in the church today, when it seems so clear . . . ?

Now I should point out that it’s not all bad news today. We do see more churches being planted with a biblical leadership structure, established churches transitioning into elder-leadership, and a growing number of books propounding a scriptural form of eldership. This is all encouraging but, when we look at the vast number of churches, the relative few who have a genuinely biblical eldership still constitute a tiny minority. This naturally triggers the question: Why? I don’t have all the answers, of course, but here are some factors that tend to bind us to the status quo:

A separation of theology and ministry
For too many Christians, theology has become something utilized only when discussing doctrines such as the nature of God or views on predestination. Even far too many church leaders give little thought to the biblical reasons why we do what we do as the church. Why do we worship the way we do? Why do we structure our services the way we do? Many people just follow what was modeled for them by others without any real theological reflection.

A preference for the familiar
When most of us move to another town, what kind of church do we look for? We usually try to find the kind of church we’re already accustomed to, don’t we? We’re usually seeking similar music and teaching styles and ways of doing things. It’s all comfortably familiar with no challenging learning curve. For many evangelical Christians, a church led by a team of elders with no designated senior or lead pastor would just be odd. Whenever church leaders discuss the idea of transitioning to a biblical eldership, there are inevitably those who resist—not because they think it’s not biblical, but because they think it’s too different. They’ve never done it this way before, they haven’t seen any one else do it this way before, so they don’t like it.

A priority for the pragmatic
Even those who spend a lot of time reading, thinking and talking about how to do church often focus less on what’s scriptural and more on what “works”: what’s working in a particular context or demographic, what’s working in other churches, what’s working now as opposed to 5 or 10 years ago, etc. Now, I’m not suggesting we ignore practical realities, and these can be valid questions to consider. But wise, practical application must always come after we clearly understand the relevant biblical principles. If we neglect scriptural teaching on the church for the sake of what we think “works,” we’ve just become another kind of Pharisee nullifying the Word of God for the sake of our tradition (cf. Matthew 15:6). To rely on our pragmatism rather than the biblical pattern is an incredibly dangerous precedent.

A self-perpetuating problem
Not only is the status quo a familiar, comfortable norm, but it’s become ingrained in churches in ways we might not have anticipated. First, we’ve given the senior pastor an elevated role, with a certain power and prestige, and then traditionally described (and even taught about) this unique role as a sacred duty to which a man is specially called by God. Who is going to voluntarily walk away from that?

dff77e1e-af83-4a53-b44b-db8d2da6a18a.imgAnd even if one is willing to step back from this unbiblically elevated role, who is he going to find to shepherd alongside him? Year after year we’ve implicitly taught the men in our congregations that pastoral ministry is done by the professionals. There’s rarely any encouragement and challenge for ordinary Christian men to grow and mature to the point they can share in the pastoral leadership of the church body. And then we wonder why we have passive men in our churches! We worry they don’t lead their families spiritually. Well, why should they? That’s the pastors’ job. Certainly none of these “laymen” are expected to be pastors! And so the status quo creates spiritually passive men in the church . . . which perpetuates the status quo.

Elders who don’t pastor
There’s an expectation in many churches that only “the pastor” can do certain things. No one can do ‘this’ or do ‘that’ the way he does. It’s so easy for a pastor to take on all the pastoral ministry for the church, convinced that only he can do it. And it’s so easy for other leaders to sit back and let him. This again becomes a vicious cycle. People don’t see the elders as pastors because they don’t do anything pastoral. An elder who doesn’t pastor should be an oxymoron. This doesn’t mean the elders must all serve in identical ways with no variations in the way they minister. But a man who doesn’t actively share in the shepherding leadership of the church should not be an elder. You might have to start with a smaller team of elders, but if all your elders function in truly pastoral ways, over time this will change the perception of the people and they’ll recognize multiple pastors for the church.

Churches with a pseudo-eldership
Some of you reading this post might be thinking, “What’s the problem? I know of a lot of elder-led churches.” It’s become very common for churches to describe themselves as “elder-led,” this is true. But a considerable majority of these churches distinguish one man from the elders and designate him as the senior or lead pastor of the church. He’s the one responsible for leading the elders and the staff, and for “casting vision” for the church. These church leaders confusingly use the terminology of “biblical eldership” and “plural leadership” while perpetuating a church polity that undermines and ultimately destroys real plurality in leadership. Ironically, they often recommend and refer to works by people such as Alexander Strauch and Benjamin Merkle, even though these authors strongly warn against the very leadership model these churches are following!

Historically, these churches are following a monoepiscopal model. This is virtually indistinguishable from a polity that became common in the churches by the late 2nd century, with a bishop over each church in distinction from the church presbyters (elders). This pastor + elders model is very old, but this was a polity that developed over time and one that was quite different from the leadership structure of the 1st century churches. More importantly, a great many of us would question where this distinct senior/lead pastor role is taught in Scripture. We would caution our sister churches that an eldership that adds a wholly extra-biblical church leadership role should not be described as “biblical eldership.” I respectfully challenge my brothers that an eldership plus a senior/lead pastor is a model that is not consistently scriptural. (I would also ask for a robust biblical defense of the senior pastor role, based on a clear, unambiguous scriptural model. This is something I haven’t been able to find, even from those who were supposed to be defending this practice.)

When we try to discuss the elder-leadership of churches, these pseudo-elderships muddy the water. Many of those boldly claiming we must have elders—because of the New Testament pattern—go on to add a distinct leadership role that can’t be found in the New Testament! But because they so emphasize the scriptural need for elders, they create a perception they’re following a genuinely biblical church polity. Their people don’t have to be discomfited or challenged by talk of biblical eldership because they think they already have one.

This can be discouraging to those seeking to live out the New Testament model of plural, shared pastoral leadership. Most scholars (and to a lesser degree pastors) agree that the earliest churches were led collegially by councils of elders with no designated senior leader—but disappointingly few seem motivated to act on their apparent convictions. We’re surrounded by churches who claim to be “elder-led”—while they tack on a leadership role that is entirely missing from, and incongruous with, the New Testament model. It’s easy to see how proponents of biblical eldership could become weary, wondering why they should continue to be the odd man out in current evangelical church culture.

So what should we do?

1. Don’t despair. Remember it’s Christ’s church. We should be willing to pour out our lives for Christ and for his body, to do everything we can to contribute to the well-being of the church. But it’s not our responsibility or prerogative to “fix” everyone else in the church. We remember that God is sovereign, and we trust the big picture to him.

2. Don’t become condemning or divisive. None of us are perfectly balanced in all our theological views. We all have our blind spots. We should continue to discuss these issues, respectfully challenging our fellow leaders, but we should also continue to intentionally stand with them as Christian brothers. Just because they see things differently than we do doesn’t mean they are rejecting Scripture or willfully ignoring God’s instructions.

3. Don’t give up your convictions for what seems easy now. It’s hard to go against the flow—especially when we have to (gently) resist sincere, committed fellow believers. But if we’re convinced this is the normative biblical model for church leadership, we can’t compromise or water down these New Testament teachings on the church just because they aren’t popular right now.

4. Talk—respectfully—with your pastor about your convictions. You’d be surprised how many senior/lead pastors believe there really shouldn’t be any senior/lead pastors! Some have even tried to initiate change only to be resisted by the very people they lead. If you speak with your pastor, it could be encouraging to both of you, and might even facilitate change. At the very least, you’ll be open and honest with the pastor who is leading your church. But never be accusing, disrespectful or argumentative. This doesn’t help anyone!

5. If necessary, prayerfully seek another church. If we believe the leadership structure of our church is unbiblical, there may come a point when it’s time to leave. It’s doubtful we’ll ever agree with every little thing our church does, but it is difficult to become deeply involved with a church when we can’t sincerely defend its theology of ministry. I think most pastors would agree with this and understand the need to find a better fit. The good news is there are more churches out there with biblical forms of eldership than most people realize.

who-me6. Prayerfully consider whether you should be part of planting a new church. If God has gifted you for a shepherding and teaching ministry, maybe you should be part of providing your area with a biblically-led church. This isn’t a decision to make hastily, and I encourage much prayer and the seeking of wise counsel and input from other mature, experienced leaders. But often a new work begins with a divinely-encouraged dissatisfaction with the status quo.

7. If you’re stuck, seek to be a faithful part of a local church despite the different views, as you’re able. I know of people who have attended churches whose views they can’t entirely endorse. As people of conscience, this limits their ability to be involved in the church. But they strive to be as faithful and involved as they can be without violating their convictions or causing friction in the church. (Of course, I’m speaking of churches that are solidly grounded in the biblical gospel.) This isn’t an ideal situation, and it’s not an easy one, but I respect those who make this kind of sacrifice when necessary.

If this is where you are right now, keep trusting God! Both your individual life and the life of the church are in his hands. And he knows what he’s doing. We need to be faithful with the gifting, resources and opportunities God gives us, and leave the rest up to him.

7 thoughts on “Why do so few churches today have a truly biblical eldership?

  1. Brother – great, great, article.

    I thought this was profound – “When we try to discuss the elder-leadership of churches, these pseudo-elderships muddy the water. Many of those boldly claiming we must have elders—because of the New Testament pattern—go on to add a distinct leadership role that can’t be found in the New Testament!”

    My first thought was, “yeah, the leaders submit their leadership to democratic votes. That’s not NT leadership!” But on rereading the article, I think what you were meaning was, “yeah, such churches still have men calling themselves senior pastors!”

    Am I right?

    If OK with you, I’m including that quote in my next article on “The High Call of Eldership Churches.” Should be out in a couple weeks.
    Can I ask you a question? Are you comfortable that you really answered your question, “Why do so few churches today have a truly biblical eldership?”

    I would agree you identified that reality, strange as it is, but I’m left wondering if you feel you actually answered your post’s ‘why’ question. At least, to your own satisfaction? (I didn’t.)

    Perhaps this can help?http://www.churchsonefoundation.com/the-age-of-schism/

    In Christ, Ted

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Ted. You’re right, I was referring to the senior/lead pastor role that can’t be found in the New Testament. (I do plan to write on congregationalism in the near future.) Please feel free to use any quote that’s helpful.

    Your article addresses an even greater concern than elder-leadership, and one that’s been much on my mind. Have you read Evangelical Reunion by John Frame? I think you’d like it.

    While the disunity of the church and unbiblical church polity are not unrelated, I don’t see this as necessarily causative. The unity of the church would provide us the framework for reaching real consensus on issues that have historically divided believers, including church government, but it wouldn’t by itself guarantee orthodoxy (or orthopraxy). A united church could still be wrong and in need of correction. And, even in our divided state, many churches have sought and implemented a biblical form of eldership. I do think the factors I’ve listed contribute directly to this problem of unbiblical church leadership, but I’m by no means suggesting the list is exhaustive!

    Thanks again for the encouragement, and for your thought-provoking article on schism in the church.


  3. Hi Curt,

    While the disunity of the church and unbiblical church polity are not unrelated, I don’t see this as necessarily causative.

    Here’s a couple things to consider along these lines: the first churches to receive schism left eldership churches, for eldership is the only kind of church the apostles started (Acts 14:23, for example). All churches of a difference governing structure were a deviation from the apostolic pattern.

    Two, Paul prophesied,

    I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them (Act 20:29-30 NAU)

    Church history, speaking from the perspective of polity, is as much about church governance as it is about schism. All we’ve ever known is schism so we tend to accept it as status quo, but we know better, right?, for Scripture is so clear. In the NT there is always just one church in every city , led by elders, and the apostles are keeping it that way.

    I have indeed read Evangelical Reunion by John Frame, but I found it lacking in a couple areas, personally. Frame’s excellencies are, I feel, in epistemology. Even his recent systematic theology has been received with lukewarm applause by his own tribe (presbyterians) and even criticized for some rather serious shortcomings.

    I use him illustratively in my article that evaluates the modern movement of planting churches where churches already exist. His thinking is, “the more, the better.” Quite the opposite of the NT.

    If you are interested, I also used him illustratively in my article on theologians who use the term “church” in ways that aren’t scriptural. Go there and search for “reunion.” If the topic is of further interest.

    Lastly, check out my latest post, “The High Call of an Eldership Church.” I wanted to include your quote in it, but am saving it instead for a future article on congregationalism.

    Lord bless, Ted

  4. Curt – there a several links embedded in my above post. If you don’t mind, go ahead and dig them out and let them post – thanks.

  5. Hi Ted,

    The subjects of church polity and schism are both very broad. I’d enjoy discussing them with you—and I may comment over at your blog—but for now I’m going to try to keep this comment thread on the topic of the original post. 🙂

    Here are some thoughts regarding eldership and schism in the early churches:

    — An early schism would not have necessitated a difference in polity. Schism could have occurred between two groups even if both were led by plural elderships, or it could have occurred within one eldership. Actually, the history of the Plymouth Brethren is a good example of this.

    — Schism is not the only plausible explanation for a change in polity. A church with an eldership could have fairly easily slipped from a primes inter pares to a formally distinguished chief elder, and from there to a bishop distinguished from the presbyters. The early church was certainly not immune from slipping away from where they had once been.

    — Both of the points above involve what “could have” happened. But I would think your explanation is also conjectural. Do we have any historical evidence of such a schismatic change in polity? I would be very interested if we do! The letter from Ignatius of Antioch seems to be trying to persuade its readers of his polity, but this is a somewhat subjective interpretation. All we know for sure is that by the end of the second century practically all churches had a monoepiscopal structure. Is there any hard historical evidence for how the churches transitioned from the NT pattern in the first century to a monoepiscopal one in the late second century?

    The idea of this change occurring by way of schism is intriguing, and I’d like to know more about this if more data are available. But I’d caution against us extrapolating any definite causal relationship between polity and schism if the history itself is conjectural.


  6. Curt – all good points. We have no “hard data” on a a schism producing a change (defection) in polity.

    I should have been careful in my words, for in my mind I was drawing a macro, broad brush picture, not a micro picture of what happened in any one church. When I wrote, “Church history, speaking from the perspective of polity, is as much about church governance as it is about schism,” well, that’s what I was referring to.

    No church started out under in unity with apostolic doctrine with either episcopal, representational, or congregational polity. Churches that did have any such polity were not judged as being in unity. As we see in Titus, all such churches were reformed immediately and by apostolic force to eldership churches.

    Thus Paul did not think any other governance polity had merit with Jesus Christ (Titus 1:4-5).

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