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.
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