Monday, December 05, 2005

Why the Local Church Needs a Plurality of Elders

While theological in content, this post will not be an exegetical argument. Those have been made elsewhere and in greater detail. In my understanding, the case for a plurality of elders in the local church is so clear that I cannot imagine an argument to the contrary holding much weight. If you wish to read something informative on this matter, let me recommend Elders in Congregational Life by Phil A Newton and Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch. Both are excellent books on the subject. If you are short on time and new to the idea, Newton's book is short, easy to read, and very concise. It is a great place to begin.

Now let me make a few observations concerning elders and what happens when a church fails to recognize men in their midst who have been called to this noble task of shepherding.

The first problem that I see with neglecting the call to shepherd (I believe that Elder, Pastor, and Overseer are all the same office) is not only detrimental to those called, but also to the congregation at large. Let me explain how this breaks down.

A man who is called to shepherd cannot help but shepherd. It is an overwhelming desire and the pinnacle of joyful worship for him to serve in this capacity. So if he is called, he will do this in some capacity.

The problem is that when men have this gift, and are employed in gainful, God-honoring "secular" employment, they often fail to live up to the potential of their gift because it goes unrecognized. Am I suggesting that they should quit their day jobs? Quite the contrary! That is the first problem. It is the assumption that a man called to pastor must necessarily go to seminary and be a "full-time" pastor that I particularly abhor! He must be trained. He must be guided. He must be learned in the Scriptures. But he need not quit his job or get "paid" to do this. Not if there is a group of qualified men already present in the local church who are qualified to equip a man called to this task.

What we have helped to create by neglecting the Scriptural principle of eldership is a divide between the "laity" and the "clergy", between the "called" and the "uncalled". (What in the world is an "uncalled", anyway?) It may not be spoken aloud, but the fact of the matter is that a church without a plurality of shepherds, especially a small church, assumes that they only have one pastor. This is tragic in the extreme. I know for certain that several men in my own congregation are apt to teach and qualified to guide the flock of God. I need their help, and they need to be recognized as the gifts to the church that they are (Ephesians 4:11).

Another problem that arises is that a church without a plurality of elders inadvertently places their lone pastor, especially in a smaller church, in a peculiar situation. In an older congregation, there will be leaders and shepherds in place. They will have administrated well, led the church, and gone through the "wars" that must come to the church. They have poured out their time, money, sweat, tears, and prayers on behalf of the local church, and the congregation rightly recognizes them as honorable leaders. Most of the time, these men serve as deacons. The problem comes with the new pastor. He is immediately placed in a position of being an "outsider" that is twofold. One is that he has no history with the church or possibly even the town in which he is serving. Secondly, he is not a deacon. Instead of being one voice among the rest of the elders, he is regulated to an "advisory" capacity to the deacons of the church. This is unfortunate for them and for him. For one thing, the deacons know the church better than he does, they probably have the same gifting that he has, and they ought to be treated in every way as equal in voice, capability, and standing as the hired "pastor". The paid pastor may have a greater gift of exhortation, divine unction, and etc., but that does not mean that he excels every man in the church in every area. He is unique, but he is not superior.

I am afraid that what begins to happen is that an unwise pastor starts to take offense at the status of his "deacons". Instead of trying to join them, he begins to try to "put them in their place." He will pull out all the Scriptures about the role of deacon to demonstrate that deacons do not have "authority" but that authority is reserved for the elder/pastor. Instead of joining them, he tries to leapfrog them. This causes considerable heartache to the flock, and it is hurtful for the called men who are serving as deacons. It causes heartache to the flock because they know these men to be worthy men. (If indeed they are worthy.) The flock knows them to be dependable and good and they cannot understand why they are fighting with the pastor for control. The flock also knows that the pastor is the pastor. He is the recognized "Man of God." So some will take his side because of the virtue of his office. Others will side with the established men of the congregation. Ugliness ensues. You get the picture. You have probably seen it.

In my opinion, it is disgraceful for a pastor to behave in such a way. He is neglecting the gifted men around him, and he is belittling the work and the call that these men have from God. It is indeed the job of the pastor to "put people in their place", not by putting them down, but by lifting them up. He should seek to join these men, not put them under thumb. He should invite them to join him as fellow-shepherds, not by lording over them and demanding place.

If they meet as equals, I believe this creates an environment of peace and mentorship that enables real ministry. It keeps the "pastor" from becoming a dictator, and it allows him the authority that Scripture grants. I believe the reason that so many smaller churches go through so many pastors is due, in part, to a failure to recognize these things. It is also why we have so many contemporary churches neglecting the elderly in worship style and format. It is tragic when pastoral voices are silenced.

I have more to say on this, but I would like some feedback on this. This post is already too long for the average blog reader, but I hope that it will at least generate enough discussion to minds to thinking.


brother terry said...

This "seperation" between Pastors and Deacons was VERY evident when my church first called me.

We are a small church (Average 30-40) that had three Deacons when I was called to be the Pastor.

One of the three Deacons was very outspoken and critical which caused the other two, and really the rest of the church, to defer to him.

Their church had become a stop-over for Pastors to go until they got a better gig, and as a result they had a run of some pretty "shifty" Pastors.

The outspoken Deacon had been the one to preserve the church from these bad Pastors. As a result, he had become something of a dictator.

He left the church not long after I came.

If he (and the other Deacons) could have been on more equal terms with the Pastor I think the church could have flourished and he would have been able to really grow as a "shepherd" instead of a "protector."


Daniel said...

I would add that the best thing an eldership and/or deaconage can do is to support their pastor.

Leadership begins with service.

Sojourner said...


Certainly they should support one another, as should everyone in the church. My point is that the elders are pastors. For them not to support one another would be wretched in the extreme.

By the way, is your new pic somewhat inspired by that scene where Bilbo grabs for the ring from Frodo?

laboring_to_rest said...

I agree 100% with you on this issue. Aside from the fact that it is the clear teaching of Scripture to have a plurality of elders shepherding the church... it just seems like common sense to me. It is dangerous to place too much power in the hands of one man... I know several people myself who have experienced this in their churches and have been deeply wounded as a result. I look forward to reading further posts on this issue.

BTW... good luck in the playoffs... unless you wind up facing me, of course! :)

Daniel said...

Brad - no inspiration to the pic at all. My wife wanted me to photoshop some pics of the kids - superimposing them on ornaments so that we can make a homemade christmas card and print them off on the new laser printer. I used to have some software from work, but had to return it when our license changed - so I downloaded "gimp" for windows and noticed that one of the tools was an image warper (iWarp) that not only allows you to warp the image with extreme ease, but also has a built in morph animation tool, so after you morph your favorite image into something freakish - you can animate the change with the click of a button - which I did. The image was so "cornballish" I decided to use it for a while.

I agree with you about the elder pastor thing. In our church we have one pastor, and three deacons - the deacons are empowered by the congregation (along with the pastor) with the authority and responsibility to carry out the business of the church - at the same time they can't do anything much without the congregatin voting on it.

(needless to say if one is writing the constitution for a church, do not send three separate people to the internet to find other constitutions, and then come back to the table with each, toss 'em in a blender (set to "chunky I might addd), and expect a good, clean document. ;-)

pilgrim said...

Well as a Prebyterian, I would add--we have that built in--because it is Biblical.

Still conflicts and problems can exist and be divisive. No system is perfect when humans use it--because we are not perfect, but a plurality of elders is Biblical and profitable. I am encouraged by this set up in my congregation & denomination.
This plurality is even better when it extends to a presbytery of several churches and to the denomination. I come away from every presbytery meeting refreshed and encouraged. I know I have brothers and sisters supprting and praying for me, and I have seen it in action. I also get to fulfill that role for others as well.

Gummby said...

Great post. We spent almost a year studying (in Strauch) about the role of elder in anticipation of making a change back to elder rule--something we didn't have. Actually we had it, but we didn't call it that, which led to some confusion.

Two things became abundantly clear. First, most every denomination has an ecclesiastical structure that is derived more from tradition than from the Bible. And second, those structures, especially the changing of the Deacons to an Elder role in some denominations, has caused a lot of this confusion and frustration.

To this last point, we even discussed the possibility of having women deacons, and why in our society that would cause problems, because deacons are elders, and elders must be men.

Back to your post, I loved the first few paragraphs. Most people do see the clergy as different than laity, and that has also led to problems. Some people think it is the pastor's job to do all the ministry; others make a distinction between a pastor and other elders, when all should be considered shepherds.

Finally, there are very few churches that have set about the business of training the men in their church to be leaders (whether they are going to be elders or not). How are elders to be raised up in our midst, if there is not some effort by churches to train and equip men for this calling? Is it inconceivable that a man could get training in his own church rather than a (somewhat artificial) atmosphere of seminary?

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, and I look forward to future posts on this subject.

John Rush said...

I agree that a plurality is the way to go. We are putting elders in place this January in our church in the Smoky's.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Good post, Brad. I agree.
At our church where my brother is the pastor, we will be trying to implement something like this in the future.
Reforming a church is hard work. But we will get there by God's grace.

BTW, Do you see yourself more as a reformer, or, pastoral? And, Who is the intended audience for your blog?

I alos need more compliments from you to determine your place on the blogroll.