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.

Just call me Curt

We live in an area with an extremely transient population (at least the expat population). I know it’s common for many churches today to watch members of their church family move away, but what we’ve seen here in Puerto Rico far exceeds anything we’ve experienced in other places. Many of our people―even those on our leadership team―will stay here for only 2 or 3 years and then move back to the States. That’s a part of ministering here; we’re used to it.

But with a church our size, that means the make-up of the congregation can change dramatically. And it does. It’s amazing how fast our church gatherings can begin to look very different, and even feel different. Something I’ve been noticing over the past few months is the number of people here now who seem to feel the need to call me “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” We’ve had people in our church family before now who have referred to me this way. This is traditional for many believers. I understand this, and I’ve tried to be gracious and not make it an issue. For the past few years, we’ve been able to not address this and still maintain our informal, family dynamic.

But with the latest class of WithoutWall’ers to join us (brothers and sisters for whom I am deeply thankful, btw), we run the risk of seriously altering the DNA of our church family. The terminology we use affects how we and others understand the church. And misperceptions that aren’t corrected, but instead become a common (mis)understanding of the church, can eventually change the nature of a church, or at least cause conflict if we seek to clarify the issue too late.

Now, I understand this isn’t some heretical teaching that will draw us away from the truths of the gospel. But I think it’s still a significant issue for us, and one that affects the tone of our church life and ministry. So let me suggest five reasons why I prefer not to be called “Pastor.”

1. It’s not biblical
Jesus once told his disciples, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.” But in Matthew 23:8-10, he instructed us regarding what we should, and should not, call each other:

Don’t let anyone call you “Rabbi,” for you have only one teacher,
and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.
And don’t address anyone here on earth as “Father,”
for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father.
And don’t let anyone call you “Teacher,”
for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.

We could plug “Pastor” into this, and the same principle would still apply because it is the Lord who is our Shepherd/Pastor (1 Peter 5:4). This passage doesn’t mean we don’t have people in the church who teach or lead. Other Scriptures make it clear that this is so. But we are not to refer to these people by honorific titles such as Rabbi or Teacher. In the same way, we have people in our congregation who pastor, or shepherd, others. But we should not refer to them by a title. It’s interesting that Peter and Paul are frequently identified as apostles of Jesus Christ, but they are never once in Scripture referred to by that title. No one seems to have called them “Apostle” or “Apostle Paul” in the way we sometimes use “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” They just called them Paul and Peter. This seems like a good example.

2. It perpetuates a different class of Christians
One of the principles that was boldly proclaimed during the Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers.” The idea (a very biblical one) is that as the New Testament church we no longer have a separate priestly caste. We don’t have to go through any other person to come to Christ; we can go to him directly. All believers are called saints. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Unfortunately, many of the reformed churches retained the exalted status of the pastor and essentially made him into a protestant priest. Only the pastor was to baptize, serve communion, officiate weddings, etc.

We still often make the same distinction today. Only pastors are referred to by their title. We have Sunday school teachers, but we don’t call them “Teacher Sue.” We have small group leaders, but we don’t call them “Leader John.” It’s rare to hear someone called “Deacon” or “Elder” in place of their name. We reserve this honor only for pastors. Why? We speak of pastors being “in the ministry,” when all of God’s people are to serve in ministry. We speak of the call to ministry as if it’s something specially reserved for pastors, but each member of the body is called by God to serve. By giving a title of honor to only one part of the body, we falsely distinguish that part from the rest. In our church, we don’t believe in distinguishing Christians as “clergy” or “laymen.” The only one who should be distinguished from the body, and honored above the body, is the head of the body―Jesus Christ.

3. It isn’t really accurate
As I mentioned before, Jesus is the Pastor of the church. He does call others to share in this ministry of shepherding the church, but this involves more people than just me. We have others in the church who minister pastorally. Cecy Barbosa shepherds the children. Monty Smith has a group of people he shepherds. We usually don’t call everyone who shepherds others in the church “Pastor,” even when they officially serve in a pastoral role. (How many call the youth pastor in their church “Pastor”?) In our church, we have a team of elders who pastor the whole church, with no designated senior or lead pastor. At different times, this team has included not only me, but Steve Lantz, Darren Draper, Ken Sanner and Sam Murphy. Currently, Nino Caceres and Kurt Ziegler serve as elders,  co-pastoring the church with me. In the future we hope to add to our elder team. So it’s simply not accurate to refer to only me as “Pastor” or even “our pastor” (as in “I’d like you to meet our pastor”).

Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, Curt, but you serve full-time. I call you ‘Pastor’ because that’s what you do.” But do we do this for anyone else in the body? When was the last time you said, “Hello, Professor” on Sunday morning? (We have a number of professors in our congregation.) If someone in law enforcement was part of our church, would you call them “Officer” or “Agent?” Years ago, a friend of mine was a pastor in California. A man he knew well fell into the habit of greeting him “Hello, Pastor Keith.” So he started reciprocating, “Good morning, Banker Bob.” It didn’t take long for the man to understand that it’s really kind of silly to call someone by their vocational title, especially in the church. (At least one of our ministry leaders, when greeting me as “Pastor,” has had me respond “Hello, Ministry Leader.”)

4. It makes it harder for me to interact naturally with people in the community
You can ask any pastor and they’ll tell you that identifying yourself as a pastor often causes people to start acting artificially around you. The man sitting next to you on the plane starts explaining that he ordinarily never drinks three scotches. People begin internally editing everything they say so they won’t shock the ‘man of God.’ Of course, pastors shouldn’t hide what they do, but we do try very hard to develop a natural rapport with people in the community. I work to get to the point where they’ll interact with me as a real person instead of some religious icon. Not long ago, I was in a public place talking with someone, developing this kind of rapport, when someone from our church came in and greeted me enthusiastically: “Hello, Pastor!” I could feel the tone of our interaction change immediately as this person slipped back into be-careful-this-guy’s-a-pastor mode. Religious titles unnecessarily build walls between pastors and other people. It’s hard enough for us to rub shoulders with non-Christians. So, help us out a little!

5. It doesn’t fit with the church as a family
The family of believers has only one Father―and it’s not the pastor! The elders/pastors of a church are not to be fathers to the church; they’re more like spiritually older brothers. What do you call your older siblings? Do you have some exalted title that you bestow on them? Or do you simply call them by their names? Maybe a ‘bro’ or ‘sis’ now and then. So, if it’s too awkward to call me simply by my name, I guess an acceptable, familial substitute would be “Hey bro!”

After reading this, if you still insist on having some official title to call me, then I actually prefer “Your Magnificentness.” Oh, and don’t forget to kiss the ring.