Thinking About Elders

Uncategorized // March 29, 2022 //

In a previous post I presented three models of pastoral ministry common among congregational, Baptistic churches: single pastor, staff pastor, and a plurality of pastors (elders).

I attempted to show the shortcomings of the first model, and draw a crucial distinction between the second and the third. To be sure, pastoral ministry at Coats Baptist currently functions under the “staff pastor” model. As conversation continues among church leadership—pastors, deacons, SVT and their report meetings, etc.—we are learning the implications (and perhaps limitations) of this second model for pastoral ministry.

Being that the New Testament seems to best reflect the third model of a plurality of pastors (elders), many congregational churches functioning with either “single” or “staff” pastor models, will find that Scripture calls them to evaluate their polity.

Doing so often gets churches thinking about elder plurality as a legitimate, biblically faithful model. However, the shift to elder plurality is no easy task. It is often a long journey, and rightly so. Few discussions and decisions are more important than those around church leadership. A change in polity should always be a process of prayer, education, strategic thinking and resulting as a means of disciple-making for the entire church.

As churches continue to study their Bibles to better understand the needs and benefits of pastoral ministry, it is good to hold up reasons “why” a church would consider moving to a plurality of elders. In this post, therefore, I want to mention five reasons why it would be advantageous for a church like Coats Baptist to consider adopting a plurality of elders as their polity model for pastoral ministry—in the Lord’s time.

Five reasons that get us thinking about elder plurality:

(Note: This is a longer post. If you’d like the short version, just read the bold type. We can still be friends.)

Reason #1 | The Bible

A plurality of elders aligns most faithfully with the Biblical witness.

Churches should seek to align themselves to the teaching of Scripture. In all they do—be biblical. Therefore, whatever polity a church adopts, they should do so with biblical convictions. If Coats Baptist ever moves to a pastor (elder) plurality model, they must do so because they believe it’s both best and biblical.

Two offices of church leadership are presented in the New Testament: overseer/elder/pastor and deacons (cf. Phil.1:1). Both offices are represented in the plural which is worth our attention. They both have clear qualifications and general responsibilities outlined in Scripture.

The first mention of eldership is in Acts 11:30, which tells how the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to the elders in Jerusalem. Later in Acts 15 the elders are referenced along with the apostles in the Jerusalem Council. There is more to say, study and nuance but we start by asking, “What does the Bible teach?” We start there, and we stand there.

Reason #2 | The Sheep

A plurality of elders provides a more robust approach to congregational care.

Sheep and shepherds go together. The Lord has given his church shepherds (Ephesians 4:11), for an obvious reason: because we are sheep. The overseers and the elders (two terms describing the same office) are also called to “shepherd (pastor) the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2-3). We have seen in previous studies that the shepherds have no less than five responsibilities of ministering to the sheep: knowing, leading, feeding, caring, guarding (cf. Psalm 23).

The question is simple: would the sheep of a local church be better served by less shepherds, or more shepherds? I believe that answer is self-evident, and baked-in to God’s polity plan for his church as described in his Word.

As a note — “Single” pastor and “staff” pastor polities typically produce well intentioned but  manufactured structures to (unintentionally) compensate for a lack of shepherds (e.g., “deacon family ministry plan,” which in turn chips away at a deacon’s true ministry).

Reason #3 | The Deacon

A plurality of elders frees the deacon to be who God calls them to be.

The deacon is one of two offices of the church: the elder and the deacon. Though the deacon is mentioned only a few times in the New Testament, there is a high calling on the one who fills this office. Simply consider qualifications mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 to get the picture.

These lead servants of the church function primarily in meeting the practical needs of ministry. Deacons often assist the elders, handle various administrative tasks, while modeling an exemplary Christian lifestyle for the church to follow. Yet many times a church’s polity can distract the deacons from performing the duties assigned to them—and the gifts God has given them.

“Single” and “staff” pastor models often place burdens on deacons they are not meant to carry. Many times deacons are innocently and unintentionally drafted into functioning as a deliberative body or a governing board of directors—neither of which Scripture prescribes nor most deacons pursue. In the worst cases, the misappropriation of the deacon’s ministry is often the result of an upstream “single” or “staff” pastoral departure or leadership crisis that forced deacons into such a governing role. In many churches, men bear the title “deacon” but never truly get the chance to serve as such. That’s a tough road to walk.

A plurality of elders works to remedy that hard reality. Elders carry the burden, relieving the temptation to force deacons into a mold contrary to Scripture, while freeing them to serve the church and grow in the ministries God would have for them. The true purpose of deacons is closely associated to the priority of elders in the local church. Show me a church with a strong eldership and I’ll show you a group of deacons serving with a smile.

Reason 4 | The Mission

A plurality of elders encourages disciple making and church planting.

The mission of the church is to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:18-20), and church polity drives that mission. (If the mission is a diamond, then polity is the prong(s) holding it on the ring of the church. Nobody likes a lost diamond.) Polity will determine how effective a church will be in multiplication: making disciples, planting churches.

Jesus said we’d make disciples by “teaching them to observe all the I have commanded you,” (v. 20). A church therefore cannot make disciples without teachers, and elders by definition, are teachers. And to be an elder is to be a “teacher” (Greek, πρεσβύτερος) or presbyteros (cf., Titus 1:5). These are men who are “able to teach” that is, who can Learn, Explain, Apply and Defend the Bible (LEAD) with recognized skill (cf., Titus 1:9).

“Elder” means “teacher.” The word “elder” is the predominant word used for the pastoral office, more so than “overseer” or “pastor” combined. The church needs—more teachers, not less; more custodians of gospel content; men raised up and affirmed by the church, and ordained to serve as a staff or lay elder in an official capacity. Such a broad scope of elders will raise the waterline of teaching in the church. A rising tide raises all boats.

Churches, then, must intentionally seek to identify men who possess the character and competency qualifications of the office of overseer/elder/pastor as set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. In order to excel in disciple making, churches must have a culture of training, installing and sending teachers. In short a church must have both a process and a place (pipeline and platform) for the unbeliever to become a pastor. Such is what internalizing the missionary task within the church seeks to accomplish. Elders steward and shepherd that process.

Reason 5 | The Pastor

 A plurality of elders fosters healthy assistance and accountability for pastors.

Regardless of the polity, whoever is leading from the front, filling the pulpit, is the lead pastor. The one who calls the shots takes the shots, from all angles, not the least of which being the spiritual. Welcome to leadership. But no pastor should lead alone.

However, many do, even with the “staff” model, because a pastor’s staff is not the same as his fellow elders. With the plurality model, the elders provide a sharing of pastoral burdens and benefits, that is not like a “staff” pastor and his associates. Rather, the lead pastor is the first among equals and serves with his colleagues, his co-equals in ministry. He is protected by paid and unpaid (1 Tim. 5:17) brothers who serve alongside him.

The concept of shared leadership is a common theme throughout the Scriptures (e.g. leaders of Israel, Jesus and his apostles, the first prototype deacons in Acts 6). In Acts 14:23 for example, Luke records that they “appointed elders for them in every church.” The early church saw the importance of appointing more than one spiritual leader.

What is more, those benefits (wisdom, balance, accountability, protection, etc.) are not for the lead pastor alone, but for all the elders. No one is siloed. No man is out on a limb by himself. The “I” becomes a “we.”

I believe there are several benefits ranging from the biblical to the practical, that churches receive when adopting a plurality of elders as their polity. Let me encourage you to consider these five reasons. What reasons would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

About Neal Thornton