Ordering the Church: Single Elder or Plurality of Elders?–Part 6

Posted: August 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

The arguments presented here are not exhaustive.  They have simply represented the material that I have encountered as I have looked into the question of church polity.  I hope that my thinking on this issue will only become more clear as the years continue.  Let me end this series of posts by adding what I think are helpful practical points to be made and by offering a short conclusion.

What This Means for the Church.

The following pragmatic concerns tell us why a plurality of elders is practical for the local church.  In the church today,  pastors are leaving the ministry at an alarming rate.  The weight of the office is simply more than some are able to bear and certainly more than any of us could bear apart from the grace of God.  The decision-making, preaching, mentoring, counseling, and staff issues that one must deal with can easily wear a person down.  Doesn’t a model in which men share equally in the ministry work best?

First, James White has noted that “working within the context of the eldership fosters maturity on the part of those engaged in the work of the ministry”[i].  As men work alongside each other, think through issues together, and participate in decision-making together, they grow.  This is not to say that this cannot happen in a single elder/staff supported type of ministry.  Both places can foster growth.  The plural elder model would seem to be better suited for the leadership to develop in their faith.

Secondly, an elder model protects against the “one man show” that is so prominent in our Christian culture today.  Dr. Akin wants to make it clear that he defends “a particular and definite form of the model (single elder), one that sees the necessity of and demand for mutual submission, respect, and accountability”[ii].  What better way to do this than to disperse the authority throughout an elder body?  In the context where one man is seen as the pastor, it does not normally foster an environment of mutual accountability.

Thirdly, the weight of the office can be more easily handled when you have men bearing the burden together.  It could be argued that in the single elder model, where there are multiple staff, that this is the case.  The fact still remains that when one man is seen as the pastor then he is the one who takes the hits.  If the church sees the elders as a group that shares equally in the decision-making process, the hits can be taken together.  The oversight of God’s church is simply too great a responsibility to set on the shoulders of one man who bears the title of Senior Pastor and is seen as the single elder.

Finally, ordering the church with a plurality of elders seems to be most consistent with the New Testament witness.  Why is that practical?  Because as God’s church is ordered rightly it will work most effectively.  God honors that which we do in accordance with His divine will.

Conclusion

Edmund P. Clowney says that “the church is the people of God, the assembly and body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”[iii].  The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck states that “the ekklesia is the elect people of God”[iv].  The apostle Paul would write that the church is “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  There can be no denying that the church, the bride for whom God slaughtered His only Son, has the affections of God set upon it.  Therefore, any matter pertaining to the church should be taken with the utmost sincerity.

We know that God is a God of order.  We know that Paul instructed Titus to set things “in order” (Titus 1:5).  The only question is what does that order look like?  In making sure we order things rightly we are wise to look at what is clearly seen within the pages of the New Testament and steer clear of speculative games.  It would seem that what is clear and can be easily supported from the New Testament is a plurality of elders within every congregation.  The single elder position, as Dr. Akin puts it, does not have “as much scriptural warrant as is popularly thought, at least in Southern Baptist life”[v].

At the beginning of these posts we noted that there are a number of theological issues that constantly surround the church.  The issue of church polity is not least among them.  Yet, it is also not primary.  There should be healthy theological dialogue concerning this issue, but as John Calvin has said, “matters non-essential should not be the basis of argument among Christians.  Of course it is good to have complete agreement, but as no one has perfect knowledge, we must either have no Church at all or forgive error in things which do not destroy the basis of salvation.”[vi]

As this conversation continues, I pray that what would mark the tone of our dialogue would be one that says, “the most important thing is the gospel.”  I pray that it also says, “while we live out the gospel, in terms of life and the church, we seek to do so in a way that honors Jesus.”  So, lets order our churches.  And lets make sure that the order we establish is pleasing to our heavenly Father.


[i] Ibid, 282.

[ii] Ibid, 69.

[iii] Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Press, 1995), 28.

[iv] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics; Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Academic,2008), 273.

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

[vi] John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Book House, 1987), 236. 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Akin, Daniel, James Leo Garrett, Robert L. Reymond, James R. White, Paul F.M. Zahl.  Perspectives on Church Government; Five Views of Church Polity. Edited by Chad Owen Brand, and R. Stanton Norman.  Nashville, TN; Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004.

Barnes, Albert.  Acts.  Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Books, 2005.

Bavinck, Herman.  Reformed Dogmatics; Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation.  Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Academic,2008.

Calvin, John.  The Institutes of Christian Religion.  Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Book House, 1987.

Clowney, Edmund.  The Church.  Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Dever, Mark.  By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life.  Washington D.C; Nine Marks Ministries, 2006.

Dever,Mark, ed. Polity. Washington D.C.; Nine Marks Ministries, 2001.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology.  Chicago, IL; Moody Publishers, 1989.

Grudem, Wayne.  Systematic Theology.  Grand Rapids, MI; Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Ryrie, Charles.  Basic Theology.  Chicago, IL; Moody Publishers, 1986.

Strauch, Alexander. Biblical Eldership.  Littleton, CO; Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1995.

Articles

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.

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

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