Thoughts on plural elders

Ryan Hayden • February 1, 2023

church polity ministry

I grew up in independent Baptist churches. I went to an independent Baptist Bible college. I worked at two different independent Baptist ministries before assuming the pastorate of an independent Baptist church where I have served now for 11 years. During that entire time, I never was in a church that had anything other than a single pastor (maybe with assistant pastors) and deacons. It was all I ever really knew and I never had to give any other form of church government much thought.

Four years ago, my parents started attending a Bible church near where they live in New Hampshire. It was the first time I'd ever really experienced anything other than the baptist church tradition that I grew up in.

Now, this particular Bible church is VERY similar to the independent Baptist church I pastor:

In fact, I would say the only major difference between their church and the church where I pastor (besides the name on the sign) was their views on church leadership. They believe very strongly in having a plurality of elders - and I've never experienced that.

So, over breakfast one day I asked their pastor about this. He was completely nonplussed by my question and his answer was:

Of course we have elders, that's the plain pattern of the New Testament.

Then he spouted off several verses from memory referring to plural elders.

My assumption, up until that point, was that the weight of scripture clearly pointed towards the traditional baptist model I had grown up under (one pastor and a deacon board). Having been challenged, I decided to research what the Bible actually had to say on the matter, and the results have been, well, inconclusive.

The biblical basis for the plural eldership

There are about 15 references to elders (in the plural) in the New Testament church context. If you exclude references to the "apostles and elders" in Jerusalem (because obviously that wasn't a normative situation) you are left with about seven references. Here they are:

[Act 14:23 KJV] 23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.

[Act 20:17 KJV] 17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.

[Act 21:18 KJV] 18 And the [day] following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.

[1Ti 5:17 KJV] 17 Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.

[Tit 1:5 KJV] 5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:

[Jas 5:14 KJV] 14 Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:

[1Pe 5:1 KJV] 1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:

In addition I would add one more verse:

[1Ti 4:14 KJV] 14 Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.

(The word "presbytery" means "a council of elders")

Of the verses there - the one that seems to be clearest in favor of plural eldership are Acts 14:23 ("they ordained elders in every church"), 1 Timothy 5:17 ("especially they who labour in the word and doctrine") and James 5:14 ("let him call for the elders of the church").

The practical basis for plural eldership

From a practical standpoint, their are usually two reasons given for plural eldership:

First, a plural eldership situation provides extra accountability to the pastoral staff. A single pastor is not a dictator and decisions are made by a group of counselors.

Second, a plural eldership situation provides shared responsibility. The elders (both lay and paid) share oversight of the spiritual needs of the church and share teaching responsibility. The elders preach in the pastor's absence and help make decisions about pastoral topics like membership decisions, church discipline, and missions.

The biblical basis for a single pastor model

There is also a biblical case to be made for a single pastor model. From what I've heard and read, these seem to be the best biblical arguments:

Bishop (singular) vs. Deacons (plural) in 1 Timothy 3

1 This [is] a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; ...

8 Likewise [must] the deacons [be] grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; 9 Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience....

In 1 Timothy 3 where Paul is giving instructions for the qualifications for a bishop and deacons - the word "bishop" is singular and the word "deacons" is plural. Which could indicate that there should be one bishop (elder, pastor) in the church but multiple deacons.

However, I must add that this argument is slightly undermined by the wording of a similar passage in Titus 1:5-7

[Tit 1:5-7 KJV] 5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: 6 If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. 7 For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;

Notice that in that passage Titus is told to ordain elders in every city (plural) and then in the next breath says "For a bishop (singular) must be blameless." This passage seems to tie together the office of bishop and elder, and clearly talks about multiple elders while giving the qualification for bishop in singular terms.

The angels of the churches in Rev 2-3.

Another argument has been made based on the letters in Revelation delivered to "the angel of the church of Ephesus" (etc.) Many Bible teachers believe "angel" here (which means messenger) is referring to the pastor of these churches. If this is the case, the fact that there is one angel for each church would suggest one primary pastor.

James behavior in Acts 15.

I've heard James behavior during the Jerusalem council incident referenced as evidence for the single pastor model. These verses certainly make it seem like James had a special authoritative role over the council:

[Act 15:19-20 KJV] 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and [from] fornication, and [from] things strangled, and [from] blood.

However, this could be undermined in verse 22, where it says:

[Act 15:22 KJV] 22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; [namely], Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:

The house church argument

One final argument I've heard is in reference to the nature of churches in the first century. Because they met in various houses, some have argued that they needed something akin to a "campus pastor" in each house church, and these men were the elders who worked underneath the main pastor or bishop. This is (in my opinion) a sensible position but it opens up several questions. (Should we do house church? Should we subdivide our large churches into smaller groups under elders? etc.)

The practical argument for the single pastor model

In every case I've ever personally encountered - when asked about single pastors verses plural elders - single pastor advocates go to a practical argument first. Almost always, that argument is some variation of this:

Every healthy organization has to have one leader.

After all, (they say) there is a reason our country only has one president at a time. There is a reason that companies don't have multiple CEOs. Someone has to be the chief.

I've also heard many anecdotes made about stifling church growth and handcuffing pastoral leadership with too many committees. This isn't helped by the churches where the "elders" are basically a board of trustees selected because of how much they give.

But you don't have to have an elder board to be handcuffed by committees. The deacon board (or some other church board) could be equally stifling. It could also be said that for each story of a runaway board, there is a story of an abusive senior pastor with unchecked authority.


So who is the victor, the elders people or the single pastor people? Here is my take: nobody. It's inconclusive. Bible arguments could be made supporting both positions and neither argument should be dismissed out of hand. Neither the pastor-only, nor the elders crowd have room to be dogmatic on this.

Personally, having looked at everything, I think biblically that the plural elders people have the better case. But on a balance, it's super close. Neither side has a slam dunk "well duh" kind of argument and neither side should put the other down.

Closing Considerations

With that being said, here is why plural eldership is personally interesting to me:

I've seen the dark side of pastoral leadership. I've seen different churches where...

Given these experiences having some system of shared authority and accountability is attractive to me and seems like a healthy thing in a church.

I yearn to have a group of men who I can share pastoral concerns with. As the pastor, I know the problems (both spiritual and otherwise) of many of the people in my church family and feel that burden every day. I often have to make difficult decisions (Should we allow this person to teach Sunday school? What is the best way to correct that person for open sin?) and wish I had others to share those burdens with officially.

I like the idea of a clear separation of duties between deacons and elders. In a plural elder model there is this clarity: the elders handle spiritual and ministry matters, and the deacons handle physical, helps and financial matters. The deacons know what their job is and the elders know what their job is.

When Spurgeon took over at New Park Street, he had deacons who acted as both an elder board and deacons. Soon after his arrival, he introduced elders and made their duties clearly separate. In Spurgeon's church - Deacons had lifetime appointments, elders had to be reelected every year.

In my mind the biggest danger of elders is that it become just a board of trustees for the church - led by those who give the most in the offering plate. Biblically, if you have elders, they need to have the same qualifications as pastors (See 1 Timothy 3) and this includes teaching the Bible and being models of hospitality. If you have an elder board and it's just a bunch of business guys who want to argue about whether the church should purchase another broom - I'll take a hard pass.

Currently, I'm not looking to change things at our church. We still have a single pastor, assistant pastors, and deacons model. But I thought it might be helpful to share why this is so interesting to me.

Comments powered by Talkyard.