Polity: Plurality of Elders Does Not Necessitate Elder Rule

The following is the first in a series of posts that will address the important matter of church polity. My intent isn’t to “whack” those who disagree with my understanding of church polity, but to provide what I hope will be a perspective that is clarifying and edifying.

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One of the reasons why the biblical norm of a plurality of elders in the local church is often rejected is that it is criticized as anti-congregational (as in this message by Dr. Chuck Phelps, much of which I agree with). It is supposed by some that elders “rule” the church with ultimate authority whereas Scripture teaches congregational government—that a church can either have a plurality of elders or be congregational. It isn’t so.

While I don’t deny that there are churches governed by a body of elders (much like there are churches governed by one power-hungry man), that’s the exception rather than the rule, in my experience. Churches led by elders may still be—should still be—overtly congregational. The churches I grew up in were. Tri-County Bible Church is; we have a plurality of elders who pastor this body. (I am 1 of 5 elders.) These godly and gifted men are responsible for the feeding and leading of the flock, and they do an exceptional job. However, our Constitution places ultimate authority in the church (under Christ) in the hands of the membership. Thus, the vital decisions of the body (from major expenditures to the election of leaders to the carrying out of church discipline) are made by the entire membership, not just the elders (Acts 6:5; Mat 18:17; 1 Cor 5:4-5).

Thus, if one of the arguments you use against the concept of a plurality of elders is the importance of congregational government, you should stop assuming that the two are irreconcilable. Indeed, I would argue that situations in which leadership that is shared among a body of elders are more conducive to genuine congregational government than situations in which leadership is centralized in a single pastor.

Now, I want to point out a sermon of John Piper’s that makes this point (and others) exceptionally well. I do so understanding that I risk being written off as trendy and thoughtless—a disciple of men who says “How high?” whenever a reformed, Calvinistic evangelical says “Jump.” That’s not so. I grew up in churches with a plurality of elders and was committed to the idea long before I’d heard of men like MacArthur, Dever, or Piper. The assumption that churches are employing a plurality of elders just because it’s “the thing to do” is insulting since (a) those who hold to the position are submitting to Scripture, not a few notable advocates, (b) those who hold to the position commonly do so in a manner very different than those advocates, and (c) the concept of a plurality of elders isn’t new at all, but is as old as the New Testament and common throughout even Baptist history.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest…

What makes Piper’s message (“Who Are the Elders?“) particularly interesting is the fact that it was preached in 1991, on the very day when Bethlehem Baptist Church moved from a pastor and deacons model to a plurality of elders and deacons model. He provides the following overview of elder leadership:

  1. Jesus Christ is the head of the church.
  2. All the members of Christ’s body are priests and ministers.
  3. Under Christ the local congregation is the final authority in the church.
  4. God calls some members of each congregation to feed and lead the church as servants of Christ and his people.
  5. These leaders in the congregations of the early church were elders.
  6. The function of the elders was to feed and lead.

All of the points are worth considering. Piper’s noting the geographical pervasiveness of elder leadership under point 5 is something I hadn’t considered. For the purpose of this post, however, I want to point out his statements under point 3 regarding congregational government:

“What I mean is that under Christ—his Word and his Spirit—the congregation, and not pastors or elders or deacons or bishops or popes, is the body that settles matters of faith and life. This is not only implied in the priesthood of all believers, but illustrated in Matthew 18:15-17 where the church is the last court of appeal in church discipline…

“So the church—the congregation—is the final court of appeal in matters of church discipline where decisions about membership are made. Since this is the most basic authority in the church under Christ, this shows that the congregation as a body is the final authority in the local church.”

I’d like to consider the idea of congregational government in another post in this series. For now, suffice it to say that the criticism that a plurality of elders is at odds with congregational government is inaccurate.

(Note: One more word of clarification regarding a statement early in Dr. Phelps’ message may be in order. With respect, there are actually many churches that have a Dispensational (vs. Covenant) hermeneutic and yet have a plurality of elders. In fact, many of them couldn’t even be described as Calvinistic. So it’s not accurate to categorize churches that have a plurality as particularly “Reformed.” FWIW.)

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12 Responses

  1. Good article. My church has two pastors that are considered co-pastors. We do not have a senior and associate/assistant.

    I think a problem we are currently seeing (as far as Scripture is concerned) in area of church polity is not the plurality issue, but the issue of a “third office.” Some churches are going to a system that includes what some call “lay elders.” This is what I have a problem with. Scripture doesn’t allow for it. You have pastors/elders/bishops and deacons. Two offices – period. You can plug as many as you need into each one of those offices, but still only distinct offices.

  2. Jon,

    I’m trying to follow your concern. Are you saying that a system that includes “lay elders” is, in fact, a “three office system”? Or are you merely saying that some churches that have lay elders seem to view them as a third party?

    It seems that you are implying the former. If that is what you’re saying, here are a few questions: is there a problem with a bivocational pastor? A part-time pastor? A lay pastor? Would you have an issue if a church had paid and non-paid deacons (or full-time and part-time)? In your understanding, could a church have non-paid elders and still be biblical?

    I wouldn’t see any inherent problem with “lay elders,” unless, in fact, they are viewed as another category from the full-time elders (which we usually call “pastors”). Regardless of terminology, as long as they’re thought of as “non-paid pastors” who team with the “full-time pastor(s)” I would say it’s a biblical system.

    Do you agree?

    Joe

  3. Sorry for the confusion Joe.

    Yes, I agree. Both of my pastors are bi-vocational and if the Lord allows me to plant a church one day I will most likely be bi-vocational as well.

    A problematic trend that I see though is an actual third office. For instance, there are several churches in my area (Baptist and Bible) that have an actual third office. They seem to think there are ruling elders, non-ruling elders (which they term “lay elders” and then deacons. Each group has a distinctive function. This is what I a was referring to.

  4. The PCA has “Teaching Elders”, “Ruling Elders”, and “Deacons”.

    Within the PCA there are debates as to whether there actually are three offices called for Biblically. The majority position is probably the “Two office” view. The two-office guys just see “Teaching” and “Ruling” as a division of labor within the single office of Elder.

    Don’t know if that helps Jon and Joe.

    What I want to know, Chris, is what is the problem with elders ruling? Where is the Biblical problem with that?

    There are, of course, different approaches to elder rule. The episcopal form is significantly different from the presbyterian form. In the presbyterian form the congregation calls the pastor and elects the elders and deacons, THEN those office holders rule according to set procedures. What’s wrong with that?

    Keith

  5. Keith, I understand that the elders functioning on behalf of the congregation in some ways is a reality, and isn’t necessarily inconsistent with congregational polity. On the other hand, the examples of church discipline I cited above (in Mat 18 and especially 1 Cor 5:4) explicitly make it a matter carried out by the gathered congregation, not a few elected leaders.

    I hope to post on several of these matters in the future, including the idea of “teaching and ruling elders,” which I don’t see taught in Scripture.

  6. Joe, I’m not sure what Jon meant, but I too see a kind of 3-office tendency, and it’s evidence in your post. You say,

    “I wouldn’t see any inherent problem with “lay elders,” unless, in fact, they are viewed as another category from the full-time elders (which we usually call “pastors”).”

    I personally have no problem with having lay elders (although I do agree with Doran that they should at least be offered some pay for their service since “a laborer is worthy of his hire”).

    However, it seems to me that in most churches who have lay elders, they only call the full-time guy(s) “pastors.” So you have deacons, pastors, and elders, although the pastors are also called elders.

    I’m not saying that you guys do this; I don’t know your situation at all. And let me repeat that I see great value in a plurality of elders, and even non-full time elders.

    But let’s call them all the same thing!

  7. I’m in total agreement with you, Jon and Scott.

    I see two offices. And we should call be fine with calling lay elders “pastors.”

  8. Chris,

    I can’t download the sermon on this computer, but it sounds like this may be a different take by Phelps than what I thought was his position.

    In the SI interview with Phelps a few years ago
    (http://sharperiron.org/showpost.php?p=7788&postcount=1), he said,

    “Well, I believe in the plurality of elders. Trinity Baptist Church has on its pastoral staff, I believe, 6 men…I have no problem at all seeing many elders serve in one congregation.”

    He then goes on express two concerns – the same two concerns I have. (Both of which are related to the idea of “lay elders” – a term that perhaps is viewed differently by different groups.)

    1. The idea that there can be elders who are not also “apt to teach.”

    2. The idea that there are elders for whom the church is not responsible to provide financial support.

    I have seen the term “lay elders” used in regards to both of these issues.

    Some have contrasted “lay elders” as elders who have a responsibility to help in the ruling/leadership, but are not “teachers” (or “apt to teach.”). I find that distinction difficult to support Biblically – it seems to me that “apt to teach” is part of the requirements for elders.

    I have also seen the term “lay elders” to refer to those elders who were not supported by the church financially. I would agree that the elder does not
    need to accept financial support – e.g., they can choose to be a tentmaker, etc. I would also agree that there are situations in which the church does
    not have the funds to fully provide the needed finances for their elder(s) – which is the situation at our church.

    What I fail to see as Biblically supportable is the idea that there are a whole group of elders of whom the church has no responsibility – those that labor in the Gospel are to live by the Gospel.

    I am looking forward to your upcoming posts to see where you happen to be on these issues.

    In Christ,

    Frank Sansone

  9. I’ve just began to explore this subject (polity) and its amazing the ignorance many churches are govern by.
    I am happy that someone else is addressing this issue too-not just addressing it,but addressing it BIBLICALLY.

  10. Spicewriter, thanks for reading and for chiming in.

    If you’ve not read the following, they might help:

    * Mark Dever’s “The Deliberate Church” and “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church”

    * Alexander Strauch’s “The NT Deacon” and “Biblical Eldership”

    * Bill Hull’s “The Disciple Making Pastor”

    Also, this post and this pdf may provide more biblical information for you to consider.

    Blessings!

  11. I am not sure who I am agreeing with or not, but I am glad this discussion is being made and made biblically. I do however seem to differ in my convictions from most who have commented here in one specific area. We all agree that the church as a body has one head, Christ, and we are subject to Him. Christ instructed the church via Paul’s instruction that a plurality of elders is necessary to “put in order” the church. A church is ordered properly when elders are appointed because without them there is not proper teaching AND leadership. I believe the church cannot be ruled by the congregation any more than the sheep can find green pasture on their own or protect themselves from wolves on their own. To put that in practical terms, let me offer an example.

    A very good church 10 years ago grew to an average attendance of 250-300 about 4 years ago is now back down to only about 100 because the leadership, a pastor and a group of non-elders (ie deacons), made decisions based on majority rules. They are now in such financial straits that the remaining 100 will likely not be able to sustain themselves without making compromises from the pulpit to attract people (ie, more goats).

    I believe that pastor (he has since stepped down) of that church to be a good man with a desire to see people grow spiritually and he admitted to me that if he had it to do over again, he would have begun the church with elder leadership. My point is that there was only 1 man appointed to the biblical office of teaching, yet the church’s leadership was dominated by business men who the church did not necessarily trust to teach them anything, but they did elect them to leadership.

    I will remind those here that the only difference between an elder and a deacon, the only difference standing between a pastor and a deacon is the ability to teach. It is not the degree from seminary.

    Why should the leadership of a church not also be the teachers of the church?

    I have heard tell of many churches that have overrun the spiritual leadership just like a hostile takeover, which considering how many goats we have in our congregations, this is not difficult to imagine at any given church, even the best of them.

    Simply put, when it comes to matters of doctrine and church ministries, including how the money is spent, it is the elders who are qualified to make the decisions, not the congregation in general and the elders MUST be in one accord. A majority is not good enough. All decisions should be based on unanimous consent. People have the choice to stay and submit to a church’s leadership or to move on somewhere else.

    Lest anyone believe I am buying into the clerical form of church government, I am not. I believe there is no special distinction between the sheep and the shepherd except that which is designated in scripture. Not all sheep are qualified to teach and rule. It does not require a degree, it does not require some elaborate ceremony. Paul says “appoint” elders. There is nothing significant to it. If someone is qualified and has the desire, they must be appointed to the office. It is shameful that so few are qualified to be elders.

    I hope that these comments help this discussion. I sincerely hope for continued reform in the body of Christ until we can return completely to the Apostles doctrine and breaking of bread and prayers.

    David Martin
    Elder, Grace Baptist Church Durham, NC

  12. I am struggling with this problem, unknowingly i started importing other person blog posts…………..which i want to disable. Please help me out.

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