Ordering the Church: Single Elder or Plurality of Elders?–Part 5

Posted: August 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

The previous posts have introduced the topic at hand, stated some basic assumptions, and outlined arguments in favor of two options in ordering the church.  The posts have simply outlined some of the issues and are by far everything that can be said, and indeed has been said, regarding this specific theological topic.  Nevertheless, they represent the arguments that I have encountered as I have studied.  Now I would like to take this opportunity to outline where I would stand in terms of the elder question.  I will then follow this post with a final one that will outline some practical considerations for the local church while adding some concluding comments.

Single Elder or Plural Elders?  Which is it?

The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns, when addressing the doctrine of the church, has one sentence devoted to the number of elders.  “A plurality of elders is mentioned frequently (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1, Titus 1:5)”[i].  Although I admit that this is overly simplistic, the point is still made.  Mark Dever states the case clearly, “The normal pattern in the New Testament is for a congregation to have more than one elder”[ii]

Those who call for latitude here, and there should be some, cry out that the Scriptures are simply ambiguous as to the number of elders a congregation should have.  I agree that an exact number is not found in any passage.  But does that mean the Scripture is silent?  I do not believe that is the case.  The Scriptures may not give us an exact number, but it does show us that a plurality was present.  The one number that Scripture seems to reject is the number “one.”  A plurality, if that is the pattern that the New Testament teaches, may not give an exact number to have, but it does give us a number not to have.  The number “one” cannot fit with plural elder leadership. 

The key text would be Acts 14:23 when Paul and Barnabas are said to have “appointed elders (plural) in every church (singular).”  There is no guesswork or speculation required here.  As Albert Barnes has noted concerning this passage, “It is implied here that there were elders in each church; that is, that in each church there was more than one”[iii].  According to Alexander Strauch, the phrase “in every” in the middle of Acts 14:23 is a translation of the Greek ‘kata’.  “Here it is in the distributive sense, meaning “in each individual church”[iv].   

Dr. John MacArthur notes that “reference is made to a plurality of elders in each of the various churches”[v].  He states that “every place in the New Testament where the term presbuteros (“elder”) is used it is plural, except where the apostle John uses it of himself in 2 and 3 John and where Peter uses it of himself in 1 Peter 5:1”[vi].  Dr. MacArthur also notes that “in other passages, reference is made to a plurality of elders even though the word presbuteros is itself is not used”[vii].  What he is referring to is where the word episkopos is used in the plural, like Philippians 1:2.  Since it can be established that this refers to the same office as elder, then this also supports the position of plurality.  It would seem that the New Testament is not as ambiguous as some would have us think.

A common objection that must be answered is that of the house church.  We know that there were house churches and that Paul was well aware of them (Romans 16:5).  Does the fact that these house churches might have been led by a single elder give credence to the single elder model?  Alexander Strauch replies to this specific question asserting that this line of reasoning is “pure guesswork”[viii].  This seems to be what the single elder model relies upon the most.  Since there is no text that talks of a congregation being led by a single pastor then it requires us to speculate about what might have been.  Charles Ryrie goes this route when he writes, “In other words, each house church might have had a single elder who, together with the other elders in other churches, constituted the elders of the church in that city”[ix].  Again, if a plurality is shown in the New Testament, why do we want to move in this speculative direction? 

It must be noted that A. H. Strong would disagree at several points and states his positions clearly in his Systematic Theology.  In response to no one church having a single pastor, he would likely mention James as the sole leader of the Jerusalem church and he would mention the passages in Revelation that are written to the “angel” of each church.  A couple of points can be made.  First, Wayne Grudem states that “James may well have acted as the moderator or presiding officer in the church in Jerusalem…but this does not imply that he was the “pastor” of the church in Jerusalem in a “single elder” sense”[x].  We can read Acts 15:2 and see that there was indeed a plurality of elders present.  We can also say in regard to the passages in Revelation that refer to the “angel” that they can be refuted in the same way.  We know that Paul met with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, so Revelation 2:1 does not mean the single elder of the Ephesian church (if “angel” even refers to the elder, which itself is a matter of debate).

We must also acknowledge that a plurality of leadership was common in the Bible.  Dr. Akin himself argues for a sort of “first among equals” in respects to the governance of the church.  In Perspectives of Church Government:  Five Views of Church Polity, Dr. Akin employs an argument that stems from patterns seen in the New Testament.  He looks at the likes of Moses and the Apostles as examples.  Here we see a group of leaders with a leader who stood above the rest.  In making this argument Dr. Akin helps establish an argument for a plurality of elders.  We could then debate what that eldership would look like.  For Dr. Akin it would not be an elder model as we have defined it, but nonetheless, he does not deny the evidence within Scripture that multiple leaders are present in various contexts.  

The idea that there is a “first among equals” is not to be denied.  It must be acknowledged that even when you have a group of men that are leading there is usually one that stands out.  To have one who is the spokesmen, that is more gifted in preaching, or has a stronger personality, does not imply that the elders are not all equal when making decisions.  This issue of giftedness does not imply that one is senior and holds more authority.  The various gifts that are present within the elder body simply decide what specific function that particular elder will have.  Moses “fulfilled a special role, one of leader and one time deliverer of the nation of Israel”[xi].  In 1 Samuel 8 we see that the people of Israel were being led by elders and judges, not another Moses.  The apostles were just that, Apostles!  That office has ceased to exist here on this earth.  Those examples are not transferrable in terms of church structure.

It is also affirmed that there may be only one person who meets the qualifications for eldership as laid out in 1 Timothy and Titus.  Paul lays out qualifications and these are non-negotiable.  To say, however, that this supports the validity of a single elder model goes too far.  James White has noted that “a local assembly with a single leader is functioning below the level provided by Christ for His church”[xii].  Even if only one person meets these qualifications that does not mean there should not be movement towards plurality.

When the biblical evidence is weighed, it would seem that the pattern we see in the New Testament is that of plural eldership.  Paul and Barnabas appoint a plurality in the churches that they have founded in Acts 14.  Paul instructs Titus to “put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).  Paul meets with a plurality of elders from the single Ephesian church and there is a plurality of elders that are present in the Jerusalem congregation.  When James instructs the sick they are admonished to call for the elders, not an elder.   Many more examples could be given.

So, it is my conclusion, and contention, that each church should be led by a plurality of elders that have equal authority in the church.

[i] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL; Moody Publishers, 1989), 356.

[ii] Mark Dever, By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life (Washington D.C; Nine Marks Ministries, 2006), 8.

[iii] Albert Barnes, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Books, 2005), 223.

 [iv] Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 135.

 [v]A Grace Community Church Distinctive; Biblical Eldership”, [on-line], accessed 22 November 2009; available at http://www.gracechurch.org; Internet.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 133.

[ix] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL; Moody Publishers, 1986), 479.

[x] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 930.

[xi] Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 106.

[xii] Daniel Akin, et al., Perspectives on Church Government; Five Views of Church Polity , 86.


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