How does a society avoid the self-destructive mistakes of the past? What are the important measures to take to ensure a long-lasting, healthy world? Is it possible for any societal institution to last? Perhaps it is not, and there are not many examples, if any, of such institutions outlasting the ages. The Roman church can be argued to be one, but is it really the same Roman church from the Middle Ages?
Kingdoms rise and fall, and democratic societies rise and fall. Institutions within those societies rise and fall, and what are the reasons? There are many, to be sure, but there is a common reality of each collapse of a university, a church, a kingdom or any nation, and that is when power comes into one body.
This is what happened to Rome, which started out in a democratic-type rule. When the society decayed, the structure of the society corroded and then one man comes to change everything. In the French Revolution, the decadent society, in its attempt to overthrow the monarchical corruption, elects its own madman, whose madness leads to rivers of blood in the streets, and ultimately the rule of Napoleon. In the 1930s, Germany was in a crisis point, and in that desperation, just like Rome, looked to a messiah, one man who would bring them out, and that man was Hitler.
We are not far from repeating such a thing in America. In each case, it seems like one man rises to power, and we always forget that fundamental doctrine of the depravity of man, and what happens when corrupt man holds absolute power? Never, in my historical studies, have I ever seen that work well. Even in the Bible, what happens when Israel elects, against God’s command, one king to rule over them? Saul happens.
Plurality or Absolute Authority?
Notice, however, in the midst of all of this, in America, when the American Revolution comes to a close, what the founding fathers do. Instead of looking to appoint one man over their new founded nation, they do the opposite. They elect a plurality of leadership. That plurality of leadership in the head of the government, a three-fold separation of power (two branches themselves made up of a plural body) has allowed America to go as long as it has, which, as you ought to see by now, is slowly and slowly deteriorating into a dictatorship, as the executive branch attains more and more power he was never supposed to have.
How can the church avoid this great blight on society? How do we as the church not become like the culture and society around us? The Roman church is ruled by the order of one man, the Pope. The result of this form of ecclesiology has led to the accumulation of unbiblical traditions, unbiblical decrees, and an unbiblical church. This great dilemma came to its logical conclusion in the Great Schism of the Roman church in the eleventh century. What happens when two men, on the same grounds of authority, claim to be the Pope? You get the huge mess that was the Papal Schism of the Roman Catholic Church in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, where up to three popes rivaled each other.
What is, then, the biblical model of church government? How is a church to be made that avoids the problems that we have shown above? Is it to become a monarchical, or monolithic order itself? With a single authority? Obviously not. Most evangelicals would agree with me at this point. Of course we don’t want to have one guy at the head of any Christian organization of churches. That would be like Rome, or the LDS church.
However, how do such institutions like the Roman Catholic Church and the Ladder Day Saints begin? By one guy who claimed to have authority from God over everyone else. In Joseph Smith’s case, that didn’t begin in a church. But a church began under his single authority. However, in Rome’s case, that did begin within the Christian church as one bishop claimed to have special authority by himself.
We have multi-campus sites now in America, where one pastor is owning churches; one pastor’s ministry leads to multiple churches being planted, all under the name of that one pastor’s ministry, and are hence his churches. What is the biblical order of church leadership, then? How does the Bible speak towards how a church should function in leadership? I am going to take a closer look at this issue and explore the biblical data to see if the Bible provides any basis for the idea of a single pastor per church, or if the Bible speaks in fact towards a multiple-eldership system for church.
Church Leadership: Elder or Elders?
As always, Scripture is our starting point. I do not want to approach this purely from my own personal bias, and hence I will attempt to deal with the data from a neutral point. Since it is not until the New Testament that we have the church, we are going to be looking in the New Testament itself, and once again, to remind ourselves, what model is the Bible giving us for church leadership? A single pastor? Or a plurality of elders?
In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul mentions the office of an overseer. In the Greek (episkopes) it means “supervisor” or to have oversight. Paul provides the qualifications of being an overseer in the following verses, but we are currently not concerned with qualifications, but rather the structure of a church by bliblical standards. We know Paul speaks of overseers, but what exactly are they? So far, based on the Greek word, an overseer is one with an authority of supervision, oversight in the church. He is a leader of some fashion.
In Acts 20:28, as Paul prepares for what is likely his final journey before his martyrdom, he exhorts the Ephesian leaders to pay careful attention to their souls, and then the souls of all (in the Ephesian church). What does he call these people? He calls them overseers (episkopous; in the plural). These are the leaders of the Ephesian church. Not Ephesian churches, but the Ephesian church (Acts 20:17). These would be what we today would call presbyters or simply elders.
What we see then is that the Ephesian church functioned, not with a single overseer, but multiple overseers, i.e., elders. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul in the very first verse acknowledges the existence of “overseers and deacons”. In Titus 1, beginning with verse 5, Paul again gives a treatise on the qualifications for an elder, and once again, Paul commands that it is not an elder per town, but elders per town–the plural. Each church in each town was to have a plurality of elders, not one.
In Acts 11:30, relief to the brothers in Judea was sent to elders of Jerusalem. The plurality of elders is again mentioned of Jerusalem in Acts 16:4. In Acts 14:23, after making disciples in Lystra, Paul appoints elders, again indicating that the leadership was to be a plurality of leaders, not a single man over the flock. Here, however, an argument might be made to counter ours, in that while elders is plural, it also uses churches (plural). This can make a poignant case for one elder per church, if the consistent pattern of the New Testament ecclesiology supported that. Does it? It does not.
The Jerusalem council was made up of the elders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). While James takes a prominent role in the matter, he by no means is the head of the whole committee.
All throughout the book of Acts, you find this consistent pattern. In no place and no way did the apostles give authority of a church in the hands of a single individual. Instead, the ecclesiology functioned in a plurality of elders. While Paul in his epistles to Timothy and to Titus, as well as Peter’s first epistle mention overseers and elders, and such letters can, in isolation, be used to promote the idea of a single pastor per church, the fact is that the whole of Scripture, and especially in the history of the church in Scripture, testifies against that idea.
The Tradition of Single Eldership
Why then, do we have so commonly in modern evangelicalism, all around the world, this idea of a single elder per church? A single pastor, if that word works better, per church? If this idea is not found in the New Testament, where exactly is it found? To make a long story short, it’s tradition. That’s the only place it could ever really be found. Just like with Rome, tradition comes in, and it is so subtle that if you are not careful it creeps in and replaces biblical authority. Even reformed people are not immune to this trap. How often do reformed Christians treat the confessions almost as a kind of quasi-scriptural concept? Too often, I’m afraid.
The reality is that we humans are made to be followers, and perhaps followers more than leaders. This is especially dangerous when in crisis moments, such as the historical things I discussed earlier in this article. When in crisis mode, people begin looking for a messiah. It happened in the Roman church, it can and is happening here in America. There’s nothing unnatural about that, of course. It is often in a mode of crisis that we do look for a hero. Isn’t that what Jesus is? When we come to that point where we realize we are doomed, we Christians run to Jesus.
But often times, in many situations, we can lose sight of that, and in the clutch moments as our society is facing, we are looking for someone to save us. For a lot, Donald Trump is that guy. As we enter the 2020 elections, we will soon see who the progressive cult’s hero of death will eventually be. But even in evangelicalism, we can tend to flock to “our hero” who we may see simply as the hero who leads us to the big hero, Jesus. But often times we don’t check ourselves, and that mini-hero really becomes our big hero, our great pastor, and he seems to have it all together and hence, we flock to him over others. He inadvertently becomes our mediator to Jesus.
Much of this is perhaps unintentional, but it is part of our nature, and we have to be aware of that. Far too many bad churches are the result of a single man in control of the church. I said that we are naturally followers, and we ought to be. Well we are also naturally prone to leadership and power, and we ought not to be. When we seek what we ought not have, with no accountability to others, that will not work well, and it has never worked well. This includes church life. This makes it all too easy for that one man to push upon his congregation particular theological concepts that, at best are not absolutely monolithic to Christendom, and at worst, become serious problems to Christendom, and the congregation is not aware of it–especially if they have preemptively accepted the idea of a single presbyter governing the church. That, as much as we may not want to admit it, has all the recipes of a cult in the making. It doesn’t typically happen that way, certainly, but all the cults did in fact begin that way.
That, I suspect, is where this tradition of a single elder for a church, or a multi-campus church concept comes from. However it comes, an important question that we must ask is, what would Paul have thought about this idea? What would the apostles have thought? Given the biblical data, would they have ever agreed to such an idea? I don’t think they would. Therefore this unbiblical idea of ecclesiology ought to be rejected on biblical grounds.
The Importance of a Plurality of Elders
Why would this concept be the consistent pattern the apostles adopt? The Bible does not explicitly state it (at least that I know of), but I think we can deduce the reason for it, and it goes back to history. Look at the history of the world and see how well the idea of a single person ruling a nation or any kind of institution worked out. And when those institutions had a plurality of leadership–a council of sorts to govern the body, the system worked. Take the United States again as a prime, modern example. It’s been able to withstand for this long because of its function. Even the Supreme Court is dictated by a plurality of bodies. Maybe the founding fathers, many of which not Christians themselves, read the Bible more carefully than modern evangelicals do today.
There is of course Paul’s doctrine of man, which you can find plainly in his epistle to the Romans. His view of fallen man is not kind (Romans 1:28-32, 3:1-18, Romans 8:5-8). If Paul’s view of fallen man was this radical (and godly, by the way), why would he ever trust one man with key positions of leadership, especially in the precious church of his precious Lord Jesus Christ?
The great benefit of this is not only a biblical command, although it most certainly is. There are also practical benefits of this. The first is, as we have alluded, that a plurality of elders; trusted, qualified men who have proven themselves mature and true ministers of the gospel, vastly reduces the possibility of a church falling away into corruption. A single elder who begins to stray is held accountable to the rest who, being elders themselves, will fulfill their duty to set that elder right.
Another is the fact that all of us need the gospel preached. We all, in other words, need a pastor. Elders themselves need an elder. Who is pastoring the pastor, in a church, if he has no accountability to others? For his own sake, he needs a pastor, and not one who is on a TV or computer screen in another state or country. He needs as much a personal relationship to pastoral ministry as we do. The plurality of eldership gives him that, and hence a healthier elder, which grants healthy eldership in the church and a healthy church.
The concept of a plurality of leadership is not only the consistent biblical concept, but it is also attested to in history as we have seen. There is not in any historical context that I know of, an indication that the idea of a single man leading a corporate body ever worked to the good of that society. The church, of all people, should be all the more hesitant to the idea of a single man leading a church, given the Bible’s doctrine of fallen man. As we have seen, the Bible’s consistent testimony, and especially the New Testament church’s consistent model of ecclesiology is that of a plurality of elders, not a single elder per church, and this is not only necessary for a healthy church, it is also a biblical concept and command.