Ordering the Church: Single Elder or Plurality of Elders?–Part 1

Posted: July 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

There are a myriad of complex theological questions that surround the church of the Lord Jesus Christ at any given point in time.  On every side,  there seems to be some type of theological controversy.  We have Muslims and Christians debating whether or not they believe in the same God.  The issue over whether or not women should serve as pastors continues to stir emotions.  And the issue over Calvinism and Arminianism seems to never want to go away.

Not least among the theological issues facing the church today is the issue of polity.  Stan Norman has said that the “most general understandings of polity involve governance and organization.”  How are local churches to be structured and governed?  Paul writes to Titus and tells him that the very reason that he has left him in Crete is to “put what remained into order” (Titus 1:5, ESV).  What exactly that “order” looked like is a point of debate within the ranks of the church.

This paper (turned blog post) sets out to answer a question that deals with a specific issue in matters of polity.  Are local congregations to be led by a single elder or a plurality of elders?  I will attempt to answer the question by laying out the arguments and critiques of each position.  After stating the case for these two options (I am aware there are other options in terms of polity) I will state and defend my position.  Finally, I will look at the practical application that the position I advocate has for the local church.

BASIC ASSUMPTIONS

Before I can dive directly into the issue, it would be helpful to clarify what I am talking about.  The issue before us is not a simple one.  When thinking about church government there are a number of issues that one must work through.  It is not within the scope of this paper to work through all those issues, so basic assumptions will be stated first. 

I am writing from the standpoint of a Congregationalist.  That means that I believe that the final court of human authority rests not in some hierarchical structure but in the congregation itself.  In itself, this is a topic that deserves careful consideration and study. 

I will also write with the understanding that there are only two offices within the church.  Elder, Bishop, and Pastor are believed to refer to the same office and not three different ones.  W. B. Johnson, writing in 1846, notes that “all these terms are applied interchangeably to the office of ruler, as the same qualifications are required in all”[i].  The elder (presbuteros) and bishop (episkopos) are both used to denote the same office in Acts 20:17, 28.  Again, this point of theological debate is beyond the scope here.

Throughout this paper a plural elder model will refer to a church that has “shared leadership”[ii].  Alexander Strauch puts it in clear terms when he writes, “By definition, the elder structure of government is a collective form of leadership in which each elder shares equally the position, authority, and responsibility of the office”[iii].  The single elder model will denote when “the pastor is seen as the only elder in the church”[iv], or when the senior pastor is seen as the ruling authority among the elders/pastors.  This pastor will probably have a board of deacons, several other committees, and in some cases a staff that he works with yet he is the elder (leader) of the church.

To state it succinctly, this paper assumes that the congregation is the final human court of authority and that Christ has given his church the office of elder and deacon to lead it.  The question is whether this congregation appoints a single elder to exercise oversight or a plurality of elders?  As with all things the Bible must be our guide.  What pattern do we see emerging from the pages of God’s Word?

In the next few posts I will try to make a case that the form of Plural Elder-led Congregationalism is the apostolic pattern that churches today should follow.


[i]Mark Dever, ed., Polity (Washington D.C.; Nine Marks Ministries, 2001), 191.

 [ii]Desiring God Staff, “Do You Believe a Church Should be Governed by One Elder or Several?” [on-line], accessed 11 November 2009, available from http://www.desiringgod.org: Internet.

 [iii]Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Littleton, CO; Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1995), 39.

 [iv]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI; Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 928.

 

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