Can churches be too small?

StockSnap_QVIEE1UZSXIn my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?

I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?

Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.

But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?

Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?

Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”

The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.

Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’  they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.

luan-cabral-XVqwbImMR4M-unsplashThe biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).

We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.

To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):

“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”

Can churches be too big?

architecture-building-chapel-532720Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?

When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).

In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”

O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.

But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.

audience-backlit-band-154147Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.

Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.

The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:

“Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with ‘the expert,’ and more interaction with your classmates.

“Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?”

I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”

Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.

It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)

nicole-honeywill-dGxOgeXAXm8-unsplashThis helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”

Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).

So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.

Core commitment 3: Team-led and team taught

imagesWe must have a plurality of pastoral leaders and teachers:

  • The New Testament model of church leadership is one of local churches being led by teams of pastoral elders (with no mention of a senior or lead pastor). These elders serve in differing capacities depending on their gifting and available time, but they all share in the shepherding of the church.
  • While accepting that some elders/pastors may seem more prominent because of their gifting, we must guard against the unhealthy perception that any particular elder is the pastor of the church.
  • We will only appoint as elders/pastors men who are ministering pastorally by leading, teaching or tending. The elders must be the pastors of the church, not just in name but in actual ministry.
  • The New Testament doesn’t show the church to be a dictatorship of the elders or a democracy of the people. The elders must truly lead—gently, humbly and in a Christ-like way—but at times they must lead the people in reaching true, biblically-informed, spiritually-mature consensus on major issues.
  • We must strive to apply this New Testament principle of plural leadership consistently throughout the church. The plurality of the elders in pastoring the whole church should be an example to the teams of leaders overseeing all other ministries within the church.

Exploring a possible church plant

As many of you know, my wife, Kelley, and I moved back to California earlier this year, returning from over 13 years of ministering in Puerto Rico. Looking strictly at circumstances, it would seem the economic situation in Puerto Rico forced this move. But we believe God is sovereign over circumstances, and that the timing of this change was—and is—in his hands. The church there has transitioned from being overly dependent on one paid elder/pastor to being served by three unpaid, bi-vocational elder/pastors (along with others stepping up to do their part in ministry). They are now realizing the level of team leadership and teaching to which we always aspired. Although it was sad for us to leave, this is a good and healthy change.

imagesAs for us, we’re now in Placerville, CA (between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe). The transition for us hasn’t been as smooth as we had hoped. Over the past few months, we’ve had trouble finding good jobs, finding a place to live, and dealing with ministry opportunities that didn’t pan out. But we still trust God’s timing and believe that he has been working through these circumstances. We’re praying for wisdom and the sensitivity to be aware of any guidance God is giving us.

We’re prayerfully considering planting a church in the Placerville area. Some have asked me what a new church would look like (whether here or somewhere else). So I’ve written out four core commitments I see as essential for a new church. I’ll post them here one at a time. I’m not implying that these commitments would be unique to us. Some could prove to distinguish us from other churches, but this isn’t really the intent. The idea is that these four core commitments, together, would constitute the DNA of a new church. All other distinctive strategies and methods we might develop would be built on the foundation of these core commitments.

You may notice these posts don’t include a detailed description or vision for this new church. This is intentional. As you read through these commitments (or if you’ve read many of my posts on church leadership), you’ll see why for me to plan out in detail my vision for a church plant—and then look for people who will support my unique vision—would be contradictory. It’s not that I don’t have a vision or a lot of ideas for a new church! But the plan is to first establish a consistently biblical vision for a church plant. Then, as a team, we can brainstorm how to best apply these biblical principles to our specific context. The comment threads of these posts are a great place for this kind of discussion!

Review: “Eldership in Action: Through Biblical Governance of the Church” by Richard Swartley

This book is an extremely valuable addition to the study of pastoral leadership of the church. Where a book such as Strauch’s Biblical Eldership provides the necessary doctrinal foundation of church leadership, Swartley builds on that foundation and gives us incredibly helpful insights regarding the nuts and bolts of ‘eldering.’ We get to benefit from this author’s experience and wisdom.

He covers all of the topics one would expect in this kind of book, such as the processes for selecting and appointing elders, the make-up of the elder council, interaction with the rest of the congregation, the necessity of prayer, effective council meetings, church discipline, confidentiality, etc. Along the way, he also discusses some key issues that church elders will appreciate. For instance, he clarifies the relationship between the terms elder and pastor, reminding us that all elders are pastors, but not all pastors are elders. This is helpful because we can begin to equate the two. He also—more than once—gives strong warning concerning the danger of distinguishing one elder as ‘the pastor,’ showing how this undermines a truly biblical eldership, and has no scriptural basis.

I appreciated Swartley’s wisdom on the benefits of team teaching/preaching. This model perfectly fits the concept of the church being pastored by a team of elders, and I’m pleased to see significant attention paid to it. He criticizes the use of Robert’s Rules of Orders, and shows a much healthier way of elders interacting that fosters consensus rather than politicking. Swartley advocates a middle ground between the rule of the majority and absolute unanimity. He values consensus, but warns against the possibility of decisions being determined, in a sense, by the lone holdout. His thinking has merit, but is challenging to those of us trained to hold unanimous consensus as almost sacred in elder deliberations. He also cautions against potential groupthink, where harmonizing with one’s fellow elders can become more important than what is actually right (and wrong).

Swarley presents an intriguing proposal concerning a designated leadership team drawn from an eldership council that has grown too large to effectively lead as a whole. As with any book that includes practical insights and suggestions, readers may not agree with every idea but will benefit from thinking through and responding to them. He also includes a lot of helpful, practical thinking on the need for elder councils to be proactive rather than simply reactionary, to intentionally provide opportunities for fellowship among elders, how to delegate effectively, the process of making proposals, etc.

Leaders of larger churches with paid staffs (or churches who hope to grow to that point) will want to carefully read Swartley’s thoughts on the subtle danger of dividing the staff from both the elders and the church’s volunteers. The staff can too easily become the actual, active leadership of the church, with the elders serving merely as a type of trustee board. Elders must be actual pastors and leaders, and the author emphasizes this repeatedly.

This is an excellent resource. I think any church seeking to wisely implement a truly biblical eldership will find this book both challenging and edifying. I highly recommend it!

So what exactly do elders do?

I’m going to move on to other topics (I promise!), but some have responded to the series on team pastoral leadership by asking, “So what do elders do?” If our traditional understanding of the pastoral role isn’t entirely accurate, what would a biblical job description for these church shepherds look like? Here is an explanation of the role of the elder, as drawn from Acts 6:4; 20:28-31; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:6-11; James 5:14-15; 1 Peter 5:1-3.

Pray for the church
The elders are to devote themselves to praying for the spiritual health and vitality of the people in the church, and to lift up to God any needs of the people.

Teach the church
The elders are to be involved in teaching the people the Word of God and overseeing other teachers in the congregation, to make sure that the body is well-fed spiritually, so that the people might grow as fully committed and mature followers of Christ.

Lead the church
The elders are to be continually seeking the will of God for the direction of the church by constant prayer, study of the Scriptures, and wise consideration of the needs and opportunities of the church. They should regularly seek the input and counsel of others in the body, and then should lead in applying biblical principles to specific situations and circumstances.

Care for the church
The elders should demonstrate loving concern for the spiritual well-being of the people in the church. They are to be available to pray with and counsel anyone in the body struggling with spiritual, emotional or physical problems.

Guard the church
The elders are to be constantly on guard against any false teaching or harmful behavior in the church. They must be able to refute false teaching and act decisively against any destructive activity.

Equip the church
The elders are not responsible for all the ministry within the church, but through their ministry (as described above) they are to equip their brothers and sisters in the body to minister to each other and serve one another in love. The elders should help the people discover their spiritual gifts, provide opportunities for them to use and strengthen their ministry skills, and train new elders and pastors.

A couple of final points that I think are very important:

  • Not all elders will be equally gifted in every area of responsibility. Some elders will be better leaders than teachers. Some will be excellent at teaching in small groups or one-on-one, but not at teaching in large group settings. This is healthy and one of the reasons why the biblical pattern is a group of leaders pastoring the church. The strength of the different elders will complement and balance each other. However, all of the elders should be involved, in some way, in each of these areas of ministry.
  • Not all elders will pastor as a full-time vocation. Some will be supported financially by the church, particularly those who devote great amounts of time to studying and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18). However, each elder shares in the responsibility to shepherd the church of God, and no elder is to be elevated above the others.

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

From time to time people ask why we don’t have a senior or lead pastor as many other churches do. After my recent post Just call me Curt, I received quite a few questions regarding the nature of our church leadership, and why we’ve structured it this way. This is an important issue, and so we’re going to devote some attention to it. In this post, I’m going to give a basic overview of our leadership structure and the biblical reasons for it. In subsequent posts, I’ll tackle some of the most common objections to our type of church leadership.

While there are specific biblical reasons for our approach—and we’ll examine them—it might be helpful for me to share my experience in discovering these scriptural principles. My story is by no means unique. I’ve heard similar accounts from many others.

In the early 90s, I was part of a church in the Calvary Chapel movement. Calvary Chapels typically put great emphasis on being biblical in their approach to Christian teaching and ministry. Most of them show a healthy balance between heart-felt, passionate worship and solid, expositional teaching of the Word. I eventually was invited to become part of a small group of leaders being trained to become pastors. I felt God’s leading into a ministry of pastoring and teaching, which, as I understood it, meant serving under the leadership of a senior pastor or, quite possibly, as a senior pastor myself. Because I desired to do everything in a biblical manner, I sought to be a good student of the Word and see just what the Bible had to say to me as a future pastor.

You can imagine my surprise when I could find no mention of senior pastors in the Bible, and only one place where the English word “pastor” was used at all! That was it. There were no passages describing the “pastor” of a church, or directly addressing pastors. It was confusing, to say the least.

But I wasn’t satisfied with this, and resolved to dig more deeply into the original languages. The Greek word translated ‘pastor’ in that single reference (Ephesians 4:11) is poimēn. Unlike the English word ‘pastor,’ poimēn is used 18 times in the New Testament. It’s translated ‘pastor’ only once; the other 17 times, it’s rendered ‘shepherd.’ This made sense to me. I knew the English word pastor means shepherd. This connection is even more clear in Spanish, where there is only one word used. For example, El Buen Pastor is often used as a church name: The Good Shepherd.

So now I could search out what the Bible had to say concerning those who shepherded or pastored the churches. Again, I was surprised. According to Scripture, the people responsible for the shepherding/pastoring of the church are the elders or overseers of the church.

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them, “. . . Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

Acts 20:17-18, 28

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder . . . : Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

1 Peter 5:1-3

As I studied these, and other, passages, it also became clear that the apostles were using the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ interchangeably. The Acts passage above demonstrates this well. Paul is speaking to the elders of the church, refers to them as overseers (or bishops in some older translations), and then tells them they are to be shepherds/pastors of the church of God. In 1 Peter 5, he describes one of the duties of these elders as “watching over” the flock, which more literally means ‘overseeing’ them, again using the terms synonymously. And, again, these elders are to be shepherds/pastors of God’s flock. Paul’s instructions to Titus provide us another example of the interchangeable nature of the terms elder and overseer:

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless . . . since an overseer manages God’s household.

Titus 1:5-7

Also, according to 1 Timothy 5:17, the elders of the church are the ones doing the preaching and teaching, not the “senior pastor.” I was finding that the biblical model of pastoral leadership seemed surprisingly different from what I had seen in church ministry.

The Bible never specifically addresses ‘pastors’ because it usually refers to the pastoral leaders of the church as ‘elders.’ The elders were the pastors of the New Testament church. There is no biblical distinction between an elder, an overseer/bishop, and a pastor of a church. Elder and overseer are different terms for the same church office, and pastor describes the function of these leaders (what they do, i.e. they shepherd the church).

Not only do we not find any churches in the Bible led by a senior pastor, we don’t find any examples of one man serving as the sole elder or pastor of a church either. But while the traditional office of pastor is strangely missing from Scripture, there is a clear pattern of each church being led by a group of godly elders/pastors. The first Christian church was led by a group of 12 apostles, with no one taking a separate office of “senior apostle.” This model is consistently followed and taught throughout the New Testament:

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders [plural] for them in each church [singular] and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Acts 14:23

. . . Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.

Acts 20:17

. . . To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.

Philippians 1:1

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

1 Timothy 5:17

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

Titus 1:5

Is any one of you sick? Call the elders of the church to pray over you . . .

James 5:14

The Bible definitely shows a strong pattern of each individual church being led by a group of leaders. And, again, it never shows one man taking a senior pastor role. We are given accounts in Scripture of elders being appointed, qualifications for elders, and instructions given directly to elders. But with all of the issues the churches were facing, and all of the letters being sent to the churches, we don’t have even a single letter sent to “the pastor” of the church in Corinth, or Ephesus, etc. From our modern perspective, that’s a pretty shocking absence. We have no account of the appointment of a senior or sole pastor, no qualifications for a senior or sole pastor, and nowhere is “the pastor” of a church directly addressed.

If we are going to designate one leader as the pastor of a church, in distinction from the other elders, the burden is on us to show how this is scriptural. As Alexander Strauch has pointed out, the Bible gives us far more information concerning the plural leadership of the church than it does many other important teachings, such as baptism and communion. Can we ignore it?

By using different terms interchangeably for the same church office, Scripture demonstrates it isn’t the name of the leadership position that’s important but the nature of the leadership role. Whether we call these leaders elders, overseers, bishops, ministers, or pastors, the important thing is we’re following the biblical model of church leadership by a council of leaders with no leader promoted to authority over the rest.

The purpose of this post is to explain the reasons for our church leadership structure, not to attack any other churches. It was encouraging to me to find I wasn’t alone in seeing these discrepancies between common traditional models and the scriptural pattern, that pastors and scholars have been discussing these issues throughout much of the history of the church. The consensus among an overwhelming majority of biblical scholars is that the first century church was led as I’ve described above. And more churches every day are committing themselves to applying these New Testament principles of church leadership.

One last point: I find it very compelling that the only use in Scripture of the Greek word for a chief or head pastor (archepoimēn) is used specifically of Christ in 1 Peter 5:4. We need to be wary of encroaching on the authority of our Lord. The body has only one Head; the kingdom has only one King. The elders/pastors of a church are merely under-shepherds who look to the Chief Shepherd of the flock for his will concerning his sheep. Like good sheepdogs, we don’t draw the sheep after us; we direct their attention continually to the Shepherd. My prayer is we would be very sensitive to the leading and guiding of our ‘Senior Pastor,’ and that we would be faithful to fulfill his will, for his glory and the benefit of his people.

If you’re interested in studying more on this topic, I would recommend Alexander Strauch’s excellent book Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. This book has become the standard work on church elders and pastoral leadership. (We have a copy in the church library.)

As I mentioned, I’ll be covering some of the most common challenges to this view in upcoming posts. If you’d like to submit a challenge of your own, let me know!

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor [see above]

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

So what exactly do elders do?

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