Ordering the Church: Single Elder or Plurality of Elders?–Part 3

Posted: August 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

In this post I am going to begin to dive a bit deeper into the issue.  There is so much to consider, and so many ways in which we could consider this issue, that there is no doubt in my mind I can improve on the following material in a multitude of ways.  I readily acknowledge that I have not thought through this enough, or considered every question.  These pages will simply represent where I am currently in my convictions. 

So, we are going to look at the argument for the single-elder position first.  I will list five arguments that I have encountered that favor this position.  Then we will look at the arguments for the plural-elder model and consider how others, including myself, will lobby for this position.  After doing this, I will make my case for the plural-elder model and end with some practical considerations.  All of this will be in the next several posts.


A Single Elder?

Baptist churches in America practice a single elder form of church governance more than that of the opposite position of plurality.  That is undeniably the case.  Churches across the United States are being led by pastors who are the single elder within the congregation.  They may have a quality (and sometimes not so quality) staff around them, a committee for every conceivable issue, yet they are the elder in the church.  The congregation has vested senior authority in this man.  The most common nomenclature used to describe this man today is that of “Senior Pastor.”  Is this model what we find in the New Testament?

Augustus H. Strong, former president of Rochester Theological Seminary (1872-1912), has argued in his Systematic Theology for this position at length.  Dr. Danny Akin, current president of The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has also labored to show that “a case for a single-elder position, as a scripturally acceptable option, can be made on biblical, theological, and practical grounds”[i].  What are the basic arguments for setting the church in order this particular way?

The first argument that I have encountered is that of ambiguity.  The idea being that since the Bible does not clearly state how many elders should be present within the church we should allow flexibility.  Dr. Akin writes that since the Bible “allows flexibility at this point” we should as well.[ii]  A. H. Strong picks up on this note as well.  In his Systematic Theology he states that “the New Testament example, while it permits the multiplication of assistant pastors according to need, does not require a plural eldership in every case”[iii].  Where the Bible is silent, or at least ambiguous, we must allow flexibility. 

One would certainly look in vain through the pages of the New Testament to try finding a passage that dictates how many elders are to be present in each congregation.  All we can say, it is argued, is that it was common practice for elders to be appointed (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5).  There seems to be no evidence that a set number of elders was in the mind of the New Testament writers as they wrote.

A second argument asks this question; “What if only one man is qualified to lead?”  1 Timothy 3:1-7 lays out clear qualifications for anyone who would hold the office of overseer.[iv]  When Paul writes that “an overseer must be…” (1 Timothy 3:2) and then lists the qualifications in the next five verses, he is making sure that Timothy knows what type of man is to fill this position.  It could definitely be the case that only one man in the congregation met these qualifications and was thus qualified to hold the office.  That Paul would tell Timothy to make concessions here is doubtful.  As Dr. Akin states it, “In some situations only one meets the qualifications.  This in and of itself testifies to the legitimacy and acceptability of a single elder (pastor) model”.[v] 

Dr. Akin reminds us that in American church history there was a time when, “as the gospel moved westward, pastors often ministered to multiple churches because of need and a shortage of God-called men”.[vi]  Benjamin Griffith, pastor of the Montgomery church in Pennsylvania, answered this very question in his A Short Treatise Concerning A True and Orderly Gospel Church (1743). He states, “If none among the members of a church be found fit in some measure for the ministry, a neighboring church may and ought, if possible, to supply them”.[vii]  This may have not been the best situation, but still, these were churches that God blessed in many different ways.   

A third argument deals with the apostle James who seemed to exercise a prominent role in the Jerusalem church.  A. H. Strong states that “James was the pastor or president of the church at Jerusalem”[viii].  He cites Acts 12:17 where Peter, upon being divinely freed from prison, appears to those gathered at Mary’s house.  When Rhoda answers the door and they finally let him in, he tells them to go and tell “James and to the brothers,” that he had been freed, and by mentioning James by name, it is suggested that this shows James to hold a position of prominence.  Acts 21:18 is also cited in support of this view, as well as Galatians 2:12. 

One could also look at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 for support of James as the pastor of the Jerusalem church.  It is, after all, James who stands up at the end of the councils deliberations and says, “Therefore my judgment is that we should..”, and then goes on to give what seems to be commands.  Does this not point to a man who exercised authority over one church?[ix]

A fourth argument stems from the book of Revelation.  In Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, and 14 we find John referring to the “angel” of these various churches.  According to A. H. Strong this “is best interpreted as meaning the pastor of the church; and if this be correct, it is clear that each church had, not many pastors, but one”[x].    This is a strong argument from the prominent Nineteenth century theologian, if “angel” in this text refers to the pastor/elder of a congregation.

Fifth and finally, there is a suggestion that a pattern is present within the pages of the Bible that shows the validity of one man who sits in a place of prominence.  Some that advocate a single elder position will appeal to the way in which Moses exercised oversight of Israel.  He was the clear leader who had help from other “elders” among the people.  The Senior Pastor is seen as, in a sense, “Moses,” while the other staff members are simply in support. 

Dr. Akin, arguing in this vein, also uses the example of the apostleship.  He states, “Peter, James, and John are of the Twelve but also, in some sense, over the Twelve”[xi].  This pattern, it is suggested, is a perfectly legitimate model of ministry for the church today.

In summary I have acknowledged five arguments for a single elder position.  There are, however, plenty of questions that must be raised in response.  Is the Bible as ambiguous as many would lead us to believe?  What about this idea of one person alone meeting the qualifications?  Is that to say a move towards plurality isn’t the best, and most biblically faithful, option?  Was James the “Senior Pastor/Elder” of the church at Jerusalem or simply the one who wielded great influence and thus spoke for the others, without having a position of authority over them?  Must we take the term “angel” to refer to the elder of these respective churches that John writes to in Revelation?  And does the pattern we see in Moses and the apostleship carry neatly over into the realm of the church?  There seems to be lots of room for the game of speculation with so many questions left unanswered.

[i]Daniel Akin, et al., Perspectives on Church Government; Five Views of Church Polity, 64.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 928.

[iv] Overseer is a translation of episkopos and is used interchangeably with presbuteros which is where we get the word elder (see Acts 20:17-28).

[v] Daniel Akin, et al., Perspectives on Church Government; Five Views of Church Polity, 64.

[vi] Ibid, 67.

[vii] Mark Dever, ed., Polity, 97.

[viii] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 929.

[ix] Church is always in the singular when referring to the Jerusalem church.  The debate is whether or not there was one congregation or multiple house churches that made up the one city church.  I personally believe that the Jerusalem congregation may have met in smaller groups but, by nature of what a church is, would have met together on a regular basis.

[x] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 929.

[xi] Daniel Akin, et al., Perspectives on Church Government; Five Views of Church Polity, 66.



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