Bleeding and left for dead on the outskirts of a hateful city. That’s where Paul found himself at one point during his first missionary journey. He had just preached Jesus in the Zeus-loving city of Lystra. The idolatrous crowd, who in one moment were barely restrained from worshipping Paul and Barnabas, were quickly swayed by unrelenting Jews from Antioch and Iconium, and with deadly intent, took up stones to kill the apostle.
By the grace of God, Paul survived this vicious attack and the next day went with Barnabas to Derbe. Incredibly, after making many disciples in Derbe, these courageous church planters chose to return to Lystra where Paul had been brought to the brink of death, and then back through to Iconium and Antioch where his Jewish aggressors were headquartered.
What would possess Paul and Barnabas to return to Antioch back the way they came? Why would they risk their lives once more in those hostile cities instead of seeking an alternate route home? We see the answer in Acts 14:23:
Acts 14:23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Paul and Barnabas were not content seeing converts made in these cities. These new believers were like scattered sheep in the midst of a city of wolves, and that was a recipe for disaster. If they were to be faithful to their calling to shepherd Christ’s sheep, Paul and Barnabas would have to work to see these brothers and sisters organized into local assemblies, where they could continue in all that Jesus commanded, under the oversight of qualified under-shepherds. Appointing multiple elders to oversee each church was so important to Paul and Barnabas that they were willing to risk their lives for it.
This pattern of making disciples and then appointing multiple elders to oversee them is consistent throughout the missionary work of Paul. After he had preached the gospel throughout the island of Crete, he left his young protégé Titus there to complete this very work:
Titus 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—
For Paul, a church was not “in order” until elders were appointed to shepherd them. In every town where Titus went, he was to seek out the believers, find qualified men among them, and appoint them to the office of elder. A church following anything short of this pattern, was a church in disarray.
A Plurality of Elders
When Paul and Barnabas set out to organize the churches in Asia Minor, they appointed elders (plural) in every church (singular). That is, a truly organized assembly was one which had a plurality of elders overseeing them. Consistently throughout the New Testament we see the leadership of each congregation described as a plurality of elders (1 Tim. 5:17; Acts 20:17; Acts 11:30; 15:2-4; 21:18). In the opening greeting of his epistle to the Philippians, Paul refers to the “overseers and deacons” at the church of Philippi (Phil. 1:2). In Acts 20:28, Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which God has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The writer of Hebrews called his readers to obey and submit to the “leaders” who kept watch over their souls (Heb. 13:17). In each of these passages the word of leaders is used in the plural.
This clear pattern reveals that the common practice of appointing an individual man to bear the entire burden of shepherding a congregation is actually foreign to the New Testament. In the instances where we see an individual addressed, like Titus in Crete, or Timothy in Ephesus, we find that these men were operating as the apostle’s emissaries; identifying, training and appointing elders to oversee the churches (Titus 1:5ff; 1 Tim 2:2, 3:1ff).
Let’s consider some of the reasons that the Lord has designed his churches to be led by a plurality of qualified elders.
The Benefits of Plurality
“What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” These were the words of wisdom which Jethro shared with his son-in-law Moses, as he sat judging the people of Israel alone.
Likewise, the spiritual watchcare of God’s people in the context of the church is too much for one man to handle. The need for a plurality of leaders goes beyond mere numbers, however. It arises out of the inherent imbalances, limitations, and remaining propensity for sin that we all possess. Just like God has designed the church at large to function as a community of interdependent and indispensable members, relying upon the exercise of one another’s gifts for the wellbeing of the body, so too has he designed the leadership of the church to be a microcosm of that community. Only a plurality of elders can provide the accountability, encouragement, wisdom, burden-sharing, and giftedness needed to mitigate the inherent imbalances and limitations present in any one man
The sharing of burdens is an essential benefit of a plurality of elders. Among the sheep, spiritual struggles, relational conflict, marital difficulties, moral lapses, and other life trials are always looming dangers. Add to this the external pressures of potential persecution, false teaching, and divisive individuals and you can see how one man would be hard pressed to rear up under such burdens.
Many a pastor has succumbed to ministry “burn out” because he has taken upon his shoulders the sole responsibility of shepherding the entire flock of God’s people. Ironically, such men end up suffering the consequences of the very one-man-rule church model which they have led their churches to embrace. Such an approach encourages the congregation to have highly unrealistic expectations of the pastor, and the pastor to feel guilty or inadequate in the face of those expectations. It’s no wonder that the average tenure of a pastor is only a handful of years.
On the other hand, when a church is overseen by a plurality of elders, these men have the clear advantage of sharing the burdens of the people, and working together to competently shepherd them. Practically speaking, this may include assigning certain elders to oversee certain members. This would enable each member to receive personal shepherding care, while not causing each elder to feel the pressure to provide the same intensity of leadership to every member of the church.
Next, a plurality of elders also provides an elder with the encouragement and accountability of peers. An elder bears special responsibilities for which he will give special account (Heb 13:17; James 3:1). Although he will receive tremendous encouragement from his fellow believers in the congregation, there remains a special strengthening that can only come from other men who deeply understand the unique role of elder. A brotherhood of elders working together, overseeing the same congregation, will provide a level of unique encouragement that can’t be had from any other source.
With this mutual encouragement, comes also a mutual accountability. The fellowship of a plural eldership provides a safe context in which these men can give and receive loving exhortation and correction. Each elder is especially aware of the qualifications required for eldership and can serve his fellow elder by helping him persevere in these areas of importance. Whereas a church member may feel awkward approaching an elder about his faults, or an elder may be reluctant to receive such correction, a brotherhood of elders creates a circle of accountability which must be faced and embraced.
There are natural temptations to leadership that can see a man insulate himself from correction, abuse his influence, or become caught up in a sense of self-importance. When an elder is constantly faced with the obligation to maintain a loving community among the elders, he is forced to adopt attitudes of humility, cooperation, and deference. In this way, the fellowship of elders provides a corrective to the temptations often associated with leadership. Because he leads the church with a group of co-equals, his opinions and desires are continually kept in check, and he is prevented from making the church a one-man show. This is especially important when you consider the natural limitations and imbalances inherent to every man.
Next, consider that it is important that no single elder be permitted to dominate the church because each elder is in need of both the balance of gifts offered by the entire community of elders and the collective wisdom possessed by the same.
Every Christian has been gifted by the Holy Spirit with some manifestation of the Spirit intended to be exercised for the common good of the body. The fact that every believer does not possess every spiritual gift is what makes us dependent upon one another. This interdependence exists among the plurality of elders as well. Whereas one elder may clearly possess the gift of mercy, another may excel in exhortation. While one thrives in generosity, another may be a pillar of faith. One elder may exhibit an excellent sense of discernment, while another is a wonderful administrator. And although every elder must possesses the gift of teaching, even this gift will be present to varying degrees (1 Tim 3:2; 5:17).
A plurality of elders ensures that a church is led with a wonderful balance of spiritual gifts. The elders complement one another with their varying gifts while also serving to right the imbalances that might accompany those gifts. For instance, an elder who is graced with a deep heart of mercy might find himself tempted to not call out sin when necessary; an elder with the gift of discernment might provide an essential counterbalance. The elder gifted with a mind for administration might forget that genuine growth ultimately comes from the Holy Spirit and not organization; an elder with the gift of faith might remind him of the importance of prayer. In this way, the congregation is blessed and shaped by a valuable balance of leadership. On the other hand, a single-pastor leadership model is likely to see a church take on the natural imbalances of their pastor.
In addition to benefiting from the varying gifts present in a plurality of elders, a church also benefits from the collective wisdom of such leadership. Among a plurality of elders exists differing personalities, experiences, knowledge, and insights. Together the elders help one another see their blind spots, remember the scripture, and know the people. These benefits are magnified when the plurality of elders also features a diversity of ages, and ethnicities.
Lastly, consider that a plurality of elders is a benefit to the church because with multiple elders comes reputational protection. There are times when those in leadership might attract false accusations and aspersions. This is certainly a danger when the church seeks to exercise its authority in church discipline. A disgruntled individual can lodge accusations against an elder, potentially painting him as one with a personal vendetta or grudge. These things might be hard to defend against when an individual pastor takes unilateral action in church discipline. On the other hand, when a plurality of elders, with different gifts and collective wisdom, acts in unanimity, to lead the congregation to exercise their responsibility in church discipline, it becomes much more difficult for such false accusations to stick. The biblical principle of “two or three witnesses” is consistently upheld when there exists a plurality of elders.
When the elders of a church seek to maintain this sort of healthy plurality, they are doing nothing short of modeling for the church what it is to live in loving community. Their plurality requires them to exercise all the one-anothers of scripture. In this way, they serve as continual examples to the congregation of how a group of diverse individuals, with differing gifts, natural limitations and potential imbalances, can work together in love, to the glory of Jesus Christ. Which is exactly what the church at large is called to do.
What About a Lead Pastor?
The biblical model for church leadership is that of a plurality of co-equal elders working together to shepherd the flock. What then of the idea of a lead pastor? Is it still valid to recognize one among the plurality as a senior pastor?
A plurality of elders does not mean that we cannot recognize a “lead pastor” or “teaching pastor” within that plurality. Within the community of elders there will be a diversity of strengths and degrees of giftedness. One elder may excel in gifts that function primarily behind-the-scenes while another may be especially gifted in the area of preaching.
This idea of a first among equals is modeled for us in the New Testament church. In fact, we see it prominently among the apostles themselves. Peter was in no way spiritually superior to James or John, yet he consistently functions as the spokesman or chief speaker among them. Paul and Barnabas were co-equals, yet between the two of them, Paul was recognized as the chief spokesman. James seems to have functioned as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. These men were all equal as apostles, yet differed in function. Though not apostles, we can see the same principle at play among the of elders of a church.
1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
In this passage Paul indicates that elders should be counted as worthy of honour by the congregation. He says that this applies especially to certain elders. These are the elders who labour in preaching and teaching. Is there a leader among the elders? Can one be recognized as the “lead pastor”? Certainly. God gifts certain elders with a greater ability to study, teach, preach, discern and lead. This pastor or elder is often referred to as the “teaching pastor.” The teaching Pastor will likely be the primary preacher on Sunday mornings, though every elder must be able to teach.
The principle of a first-among-equals does not destroy the notion of equality among elders. The teaching pastor is equally accountable to the other elders and has an equal say in decision making. This arrangement provides needed checks-and-balances while also recognizing that in most cases the teaching Pastor, by virtue of his preaching ministry, may have greater visibility in the church.
There are some very practical issues at play when we consider a church’s recognition of a teaching, or lead pastor. The time required to study and prepare sermons, counsel church members, and contemplate the direction of the church prohibits most men from being able to fulfill those responsibilities alongside their secular jobs and family lives. A church does well when it can provide enough financial support for even one elder to dedicate himself to these things. To do so for multiple elders is likely out of reach for the vast majority of churches. For this reason, within a plurality of elders, you will find both staff elders and lay elders. The former being compensated for their work, and the latter operating as volunteers. Among them all may be one whom the church has chosen to fully support financially in recognition that he has the desire and ability to fully dedicate himself to the task of shepherding.
Paul acknowledged this distinction when he told Timothy, Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. Among the elders in Ephesus were some who were particularly dedicated to the labour of preaching and teaching. The priority for the churches was to financially support these men so that they could exercise their gifts to their fullest. Although the contribution of every elder was essential, the church recognized the priority of the ministry of the word and the church’s dependence upon it for life and growth.
As the lead Pastor teaches and preaches, often becoming “the face” of the church, the temptations to pride and domineering are curtailed by his accountability to the plurality of elders. At the end of the day, he is simply one among multiple elders. His title as lead pastor does not invest in him any greater say in the business of the church than the others.
Before we move on and consider how men are selected and appointed to the office of elder, we should be reminded that a church’s commitment to a plurality of elders as their leadership model is not born out of the practical benefits listed above, but in response to the fact that such a model is the only model taught in the New Testament.
The Selection and Appointment of Elders
We’ve seen that the apostolic pattern was to make disciples from town to town, and then to organize these believers into local assemblies, under the leadership of a plurality of appointed elders. The question remains, on what bases were the men chosen who were appointed as elders? We may be quick to answer this question by appealing to the pastoral epistles and the clear lists of qualifications contained therein. But, before we consider those qualifications (which we will do in the next few chapters), we first need to think about the role of the Holy Spirit in the elder selection process.
Elders – Men Appointed by the Holy Spirit
When Paul came to Ephesus in 54 A.D., he encountered twelve disciples. Not of Jesus, but of John the Baptist! Apparently, word traveled slowly in the first century. These spiritual stragglers were still awaiting the Messiah and hadn’t heard anything about the Holy Spirit. Paul responded to their ignorance by preaching Jesus. All twelve were baptized in the name of Jesus and continued as his disciples. With that, the gospel had reached the city and the Ephesian church was born.
Paul continued his evangelistic and church planting work in Ephesus for over two years and saw incredible fruit from his efforts. Men and women forsook their pagan practices, gave up their idolatry and devoted their lives to Jesus. Not all were happy with this religious upheaval however. The growth of Christianity in Ephesus was so pronounced that it began to harm the idol trade. Silversmiths and other idol makers rose up against Paul in a desperate attempt to salvage their livelihoods. These men managed to stir up the crowd and lead them in a patriotic affirmation of their devotion to “Artemis of the Ephesians.” After the riot subsided, Paul sent for the disciples, encouraged them in the faith and then headed to Macedonia to continue his missionary work there.
Some months later, Paul returned from Macedonia with the intention of sailing to Jerusalem. As he passed by Ephesus and landed in Miletus, we read:
Acts 20:17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.
This is the first mention of elders in Ephesus and it confirms what we’ve already learned – wherever Paul made disciples, he also organized them into local assemblies under the oversight of a plurality of appointed elders. When Paul left Ephesus for Macedonia, he did not leave the church leaderless, but securely in the hands of competent shepherds whom he had previously appointed to the task. As Paul continued his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, he said:
Acts 20:25-28 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Paul’s direct preaching, teaching and shepherding work in Ephesus had come to a close. It was time for him to fully entrust the believers in that city to the elders whom he had appointed to shepherd the flock. Although we know it was likely Paul who appointed these elders, look at how he describes their appointment in verse 28. He says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.”
As we read the accounts of Paul’s missionary work, along with the letters he wrote to Titus and Timothy, the appointment of elders seems pretty straightforward. Men are sought who meet the appropriate qualifications, including both godly character and the ability to teach, and they are then appointed to the task. In what ways then can it be said that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers? For the remainder of this chapter, we will consider the role of the Holy Spirit in the production and appointment of elders in the church.
We will see that the Holy Spirit makes elders by producing their aspiration; developing their qualifications; empowering their giftedness; and leading their recognition.
The Holy Spirit Makes Overseers, by Producing Their Aspiration
First, it can be said that the Holy Spirit makes elders in that it is the Spirit who produces their aspiration.
After Paul first left Ephesus he returned to Jerusalem, was arrested, sent to Rome, imprisoned and released. Some time after his release, he visited Ephesus once more and ministered there. Ephesus was an enigma of sorts. On the one hand it was steeped in idolatry, immorality and the practice of the dark arts. On the other, the gospel produced abundant fruit and many Ephesians converted to Christianity. Given this dichotomy, the church in Ephesus was continually under attack. False teaching, immorality, and spiritual opposition were major issues with which the church had to contend.
In light of the many challenges which the church in Ephesus faced, when Paul departed that city for Macedonia, he was sure to leave a trusted emissary behind to continue the work of setting the church in order (1 Tim 1:3). From Macedonia, Paul wrote to Timothy with further instruction regarding just how he was to strengthen the churches there. This included clear directives in how to identify qualified men to serve as elders. He begins this section of his letter this way:
1 Timothy 3:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.
We will focus on the qualifications of an elder contained in this letter in a later chapter. For now, consider what Paul writes concerning a potential elder’s aspiration. To aspire to something is to have a serious desire for it. In the book of Hebrews, the word is used to describe the heavy longing which the faithful believer experiences as he looks forward to finally attaining to the Kingdom of God (Heb 11:16). Likewise, as men are considered for the office of elder, it is only those men who have a healthy longing for those responsibilities who should contemplated.
Peter touches on the same idea when he encourages elders to, “exercise oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly… eagerly.” Do some men serve as elders reluctantly? Out of obligation? Half-heartedly? Unfortunately, yes. Paul and Peter would have the church protect against appointing such men by ensuring potential candidates genuinely aspire to the office. Although a man might have the required character, and giftedness, if he does not first have a healthy yearning to fulfill that role, he should not be considered for the position.
From whence does such a yearning come? If it flows from a desire for prominence, influence, or power, then it is perverse. However, if it comes from a genuine desire to sacrificially serve God’s people as a Christlike under-shepherd, then we can be confident that the Holy Spirit has produced that aspiration.
When considering a man’s aspiration, it is important for a church to recognize that plenty of individuals long for the position of elder for selfish reasons. The landscape of greedy, abusive, and authoritarian pastors bears this out. Its for this reason that a church must be extremely discerning when considering a man’s desire for the office. There is a world of difference between coveting a position of power, and a longing to humbly serve. Paul could tell the elders in Ephesus that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers because they possessed a Spirit-driven longing to serve the Lord and his people through spiritual leadership.
Next, consider that the Holy Spirit produces elders by developing their qualifications.
The Holy Spirit Makes Overseers, by Developing Their Qualifications and Empowering Their Giftedness
Elders are expected to be exemplary in Christian character. The catch-all phrase which Paul uses to describe this character is “above reproach.” There should not be anything in the life of Jesus’ under-shepherds which opens them up to accusations of unfaithfulness, immorality or otherwise ill-character.
Paul highlights some of this required character in his letters to Titus and Timothy. In regard to his home life, Paul states that the elder must be sexually and emotionally faithful to his wife, have his children under control and otherwise manage his household well. As to his temperament, the elder must be sensible, self-controlled, gentle, uncontentious, not quick-tempered and certainly not violent. He must be known as a respectable man, in and outside the church. He does not get drunk, nor does he love money. He is hospitable to believers and unbelievers alike. He loves what is good, just, and holy. Regarding the scriptures, he is able to both encourage others in sound doctrine, and refute those who contradict it. He is a man who is both capable and inclined to teach the Bible. As is clear from the nature of these qualifications, the qualified elder must have been tested over time, and therefore not a new convert.
It is noteworthy that every one of the above qualifications, with the exception of his ability to teach, are the character qualities which the Spirit seeks to produce in all believers (Gal 5:22ff). In other words, if men are to be qualified to lead God’s people, they must be able to lead by example.
In addition to the Spirit’s role in producing the necessary character to lead, the Spirit is also responsible for producing the elder’s ability to teach the word of God. Since an elder must be capable of teaching the scripture (and refuting those who contradict it), and since the ability to teach is a spiritual gift (Rom 12:7), it is clear that the qualified elder is developed for the position by the Spirit himself.
In summary, the Christlike character expected of the elder is the product of the Spirit’s sanctifying work, just as his ability to teach is the product of the Spirit’s gifting. In these ways the Holy Spirit is responsible for producing the qualifications necessary for a man to serve as elder. This is why Paul could say that the Holy Spirit was responsible for producing the overseers in Ephesus. He was responsible for developing their qualifications and empowering their giftedness.
The Holy Spirit Makes Overseers, by Leading Their Recognition
Lastly, consider that the Holy Spirit produces elders by leading their recognition. The Spirit’s formation of a man of Christlike character, spiritual gifting and the yearning to shepherd God’s people is only one side of the equation. On the other side is the church which has the responsibility to recognize what the Holy Spirit has produced and to appoint that man to the office of elder.
It is the weightiness of this responsibility which led Paul and Barnabas to bathe their decisions regarding potential elders in prayer.
Acts 14:23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
A church which is serious about appointing qualified men to positions of leadership must also be serious about prayer. To pray about such decisions is to recognize that it is God, through the Holy Spirit, who is ultimately responsible for producing and appointing elders. It is also to recognize that a church needs divine protection from its own weaknesses. Overlooking faults, making pragmatic selections, choosing according to non-biblical criteria, and mistaking the coveting of power for spiritual aspiration, are all real dangers from which a church needs divine deliverance. Through prayer, a church recognizes both the weightiness of such decisions, and their own potential weaknesses in making them.
So, in what ways can it be said that the Holy Spirit produces the plurality of elders charged with overseeing Christ’s sheep? By producing their aspiration; developing their qualifications; empowering their giftedness; and leading their recognition.
When God designs his institutions, whether it be marriage, the family, or the church, he does so with intentionality and purpose. His designs are not suggestions or merely “best practices” but have built in to them the ingredients for blessing and natural protections against danger.
A plurality of qualified elders is God’s chosen leadership model for his church. Such a model protects the church against abuse and imbalance while also blessing the church with wonderful benefits.
A plurality of elders shares the burden of leadership, thus providing the church with consistent, personal, shepherding care while not “burning out” a single pastor. This arrangement also ensures that the spiritual leadership is continually encouraged by a group of peers while also being kept accountable to them. Further, multiple elders provide a balance of spiritual gifts which is impossible to find in only one man. Finally, the collective wisdom of a plurality of elders serves the church well when decisions must be made and discernment must be exercised.
As a church is faithful in using the Lord’s means for growth, they can be confident that the Holy Spirit is working in their midst to develop qualified men for leadership. Its the Holy Spirit who gives men an aspiration for the office, develops in them the necessary exemplary character, and empowers them with the gift of teaching. Further, it is the Spirit who will work through the prayers of the church to lead them to recognize in which men he has produced these qualifications. Of course, this reliance on the Holy Spirit to produce godly, qualified leadership does not preclude deliberate training. In fact, training (like this book is intended to provide), is a necessary means which the Spirit can use to further his work of producing men for leadership.
In conclusion, the leadership model of a plurality of qualified elders was so important to the apostle Paul and his companions that they hazarded their lives to see it instituted in the churches they founded. Let us submit to the Lord’s design for his church with the same conviction and fervor.