Ordering the Church: Single Elder or Plurality of Elders?–Part 4

Posted: August 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

In this post I want to move from outlining the arguments in favor of the single-elder position to outlining the arguments for the plural-elder position.  I will not argue the validity for this position at this point, but hope to simply acknowledge certain arguments that are made in favor of this form of church government.

Plurality of Elders?

The definition given by Strauch above states this position in clear terms.  A plural elder model of government is one in which a group of qualified men (per 1 Timothy 3:1-7) are appointed by the church to lead.  These men share “equally the position, authority, and responsibility of the office”[i].  These elders all have one vote on any given issue and all issues are decided together.  What are the basic arguments for this position?

First, those who advocate this position believe it is highly important that when the term “presbuteros” (elder) is used it is always in the plural (except when John refers to himself in 2 and 3 John and where Peter refers to himself in 1 Peter 5:1).  Dr. Danny Akin, who argues for the acceptability of the single elder position, notes that “every time the word elder (presbuteros) appears in the context of church leaders, it is always in the plural (e.g., Acts 14:23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1)”[ii].  This argument is significant as we search the New Testament for a pattern of church governance.

Secondly, a plural elder model is argued for on the basis of the many places where we see the church in the singular and elders in the plural.  This is closely connected to the first argument but here adds the important distinction of one local congregation with multiple elders being displayed.  For example, when Paul calls for the leadership of the church (singular) in Ephesus, he calls for the “elders” (plural) and not the elder (singular) (Acts 20:17).  Every time the Jerusalem church is referenced it is always in the singular but there is a body of elders that is mentioned (Acts 11:27-30; 15:2).  Again, although questions can be raised in regards to how far these semantic issues can be pressed, this is a significant point.

A third line of argument hinges on what seem to be clear texts in regards to this issue.  In Acts 14:23, James 5:14, and 1 Peter 5:1 there seem to be strong indications of what type of leadership existed in the churches.  Before getting to Acts 14:23 I will mention what we see in James 5:14 and 1 Peter 5:1.  In James 5:14 we have the famous passage of the sick person calling for the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil.  James White says that the “sick did not have to wonder who these elders were or ‘which church’ they would be contacting”[iii].  They would have contacted the elders (plural) of their own church (singular).  In a similar vein, Peter exhorts the “elders (plural) among you…shepherd the flock (singular) that is among you” (1 Peter 5:1, 2). 

A crucial text in this discussion is Acts 14:23.  Here Paul and Barnabas are traveling on the second missionary journey and are retracing some of their steps.  They are encouraging the believers of these newly established churches and are appointing “elders for them in every church.”  If we take this at face value, then these three passages (Acts 14:23, 1 Peter 5:1, and James 5:14) present what seems to be a consistent pattern of plurality.

A fourth line of argument for the plurality position stems from that of speculation.  When one argues for a plural elder model it is suggested that this model reflects what can be seen in the pages of the New Testament.  It is said, by those who advocate a single elder position, that “multiple house churches in a city or area would require multiple elders, though exactly how many, and in what form, the Scriptures are silent”[iv].  The response to that line of questioning is that it requires us to speculate.  There are simply too many “what if” types of questions in the argument for a single elder position.  Why play the game of speculation when there seems to be a consistent pattern present?

There are some needed questions to raise here as well.  Although we must agree that when the word presbuteros is used in reference to church leadership it is in the plural, can we infer then that this means all churches are to have multiple elders?  What about house churches?  Just because the Jerusalem church is in the singular does that negate one elder overseeing various house churches that could have been present in the city?  When Paul calls for the Ephesian elders, could he not be calling for the elders of the various house congregations?  These are all important questions to consider…in the posts to come!

[i] Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 39.

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

[iii] Ibid, 279.

 [iv] Ibid, 288.



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