Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Plurality of Elders

Plurality of elders = pastors plural instead of pastor singular

The New Testament practice indicates a plurality of elders in each church. There is a consistent use of the word "elders" (plural) and the word "church" (singular). There were multiple leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:4), Philippi (Phil. 1:1), Ephesus (Acts 20:17ff.), and the churches to which James was writing (James 5:14). The use of "them" in Hebrews 13:7,17 also seems to be in agreement with the concept of plurality of elders.

Acts 14:23 - And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.

Acts 15:4 - And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
Acts 20:17 - And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.

Phil. 1:1 - Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

James 5:14 - Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:

In the New Testament books, elder, bishop and pastor is one office/function; For example:

Titus 1:5-7 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;...

Acts 20:28 - Paul tells the elders at Ephesus to pastor the church over which the Holy Ghost has made them overseers.

I Peter 5:1-4 Peter tells the elders to pastor and be responsible as overseers.

The plural elders are of equal standing; equal in the sense that there is not one ruling over the others. Jesus indicates the ideal for equal Christian servants in Matt 20, Mark 10, Luke 22. We can still recognize that among these equals there are those with differing gifts and even differing amounts of experience.

Matthew 20:25-27 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant...

A pastor should never be called the head of the church. There is one head, that is Jesus Christ.

Matt. 21:42 - Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?

Eph. 1:22 - And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church,

Col. 1:18 - And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.

The concept of someone "in charge" seems to come more from the world than from the New Testament. Take the apostles, for example (see Matt. 20:25-27). Which one did Christ put in charge over the others? Were they equal? Does this equality mean there was no leadership? Is there a New Testament example of one elder being in charge of the others?

This does not negate the fact that some elders may be gifted in one area and some in another. The exercise of those gifts provides leadership in various areas. The elders work together. There are differences in gifts and differences in amounts of experience. Needs, problems and circumstances arise, and leadership rises from within the eldership to meet those needs based on their gifts and experiences. One may lead in one instance and another in another.

One practical difference in what I am saying from those who disagree, is that "leading" elders move as leaders by exercising their spiritual gifts and having them recognized by the church, rather than being appointed to a "leadership position" over and above others. We must not fail to differentiate here between assigned leadership and natural leadership, gifts & calling (cf. Acts 9:15). When the church at Antioch set apart Paul & Barnabas, they did not put one "in charge" over the other. See Acts 13:1-4. They set them apart to the work to which God had called them. God obviously had a special calling for the Apostle Paul. Even at that, though, there was not a contrived authority under which Barnabas assumed he must always acquiesce to whatever Paul wanted. See Acts 15:36-39. There is probably also the apostolic element that must be figured in. I do not believe there was a "head apostle" and "assistant apostles". But the apostles in relation to the early church occupied a special place not held by any officers today.

Some of these cases on their own may seem to prove little. But when the consistency of them becomes apparent, they speak volumes.

Acts 14:23 - Paul & Barnabas ordained elders in every church in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Nothing is notable that would indicate any of one the elders is different from the others. They appointed plural elders when they went to the churches of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Pisidia). This they did in each place. This they did without electing or ordaining one elder in charge over the others.

Acts 15 (esp. 2,4,6,22,23) - With the church and the apostles, the elders deliberate the question "except ye be circumsized ye cannot be saved". No one elder seems to be distinguished from another. They are mentioned as a body or group. Paul & Barnabas take the lead in opening the session, declaring how God was working among the Gentiles. Certain Pharisees rejoin against their testimony. Peter rebutts, recalling how God sent him to Cornelius. Quietened by Peter's address, the body listens to Paul & Barnabas again. Then James takes the lead in closing the session, giving his "sentence" (judgment). This might be taken by some as authoritative, as in James making the decision. But should it be? The apostles, elders and the whole church did not acquiesce to James because of his authority, but gladly agreed because it seemed good to them.[This James is not James the brother of John (Acts 12:2), but apparently James the Lord's brother; seems to be called an apostle by Paul in Gal. 1:19]

Acts 20:17 - Paul called the elders of the church of Ephesus to meet him in Miletus. He addresses them equally, as a body, exhorting them to feed the flock over which the Holy Ghost made them overseers. He met with them all, taught them all, exhorted them all, warned them all, and prayed with them all. No one is drawn to the forefront for special charges or recognition.

Phil. 1:1 - The church at Philippi has plural elders. Paul & Timothy write to the saints at Philippi. Bishops are addressed, but none more than others.

1 Thess. 5:12,13 - The church at Thessalonica has plural elders. Those that labour among and are over are a "them" plural. "And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." None are said to "be over" them more, or to be esteemed more.

I Timothy 5:17-20 - Those who "rule well" are plural in number. While this is general instruction to Timothy to teach others, the practical application appears to be plural elders in a singular church. Who is going to count them worthy of double honour? Who is going to not muzzle them? Who is going to hear accusations? Who is going to rebuke them? The local church.

Hebrews 13:7,17 - "Them which have the rule over you and watch for your souls" are described in a plural manner. One is not said to rule more or to watch more, or that one is to be obeyed more or remembered more.

James 5:14 - The sick are to call to themselves the elders of the church. Admittedly, the author is writing a general epistle, but in a real-life situation the singular sick person is instructed to call elders plural. The lack of a presbytery or plural eldership in a single church might not make that impossible, but would certainly mitigate against it being readily followed.

Rev. 2:1,8,12,18,3:1,7,14 - I mention this passage because of the common view that the "angel" of the church is the (singular) pastor. If this is true, it seems to be so in exception to all other cases noted. Several possibilities exist, including the fact that angel in its simplest meaning is simply the messenger from or to the church in each of these places. Or as the old English Baptist Hanserd Knollys contends, angel could be used figuratively as a collective noun representing the elders of the church (especially since this is a book of signs & symbols). Nevertheless, it seems that the main burden is for those against plurality of elders to show why their interpretation is not consistent with the rest of the New Testament.

Other mentions of elders in the churches or passages that might have application, IMO: Acts 11:30; Acts 13:1; Eph. 4:11; I Tim. 3:1-13; I Tim 4:14; Titus 1:5ff., I Pet. 5:1ff., & III John 9.

[Side note - the same idea appears to be true when the church at Jerusalem appoints deacons. Two rose to a prominence of sorts because of their gifts and activity. BUT, the church appointed seven men equally over the work and did not assign one a title or status over and above the others.]


amity said...

I think these are all excellent points, and am going to read and study more. Will also be praying that God in his mercy send us enough preachers to have MULTIPLE ELDERS in each church! As it is too many churches have NONE!

Anonymous said...

As in a lot of cases, we fail to compare the old world and this modern era. As the singer Bob Dillon wrote, "The times they are a-changing..."

Over my lifetime, there were times when I would like to have had a partner, but many churches were hard pressed to pay one, let alone many. Frankly, I don't believe that the New Testament teaches the plurality of pastors in each church. It was generally talking about some huge churches where they were adding thousands each day, according to Acts. Then other times, they scarcely had a dozen in meetings. Ever been to the Middle East and seen some of those "upper rooms" where they met? They are a flat roof with a wall around them and stairs leading up through the roof. This is where many met for church.

Call me modernist if one pleases, but I consider the New Testament to by a guide in principle and not a hard and fast rule book in some areas. We must be careful with semantics and hard facts. I don't walk about in either bare feet...wipe the dust off my feet....foot washing...etc., and I don't ride mules...a motor car is far more efficient...I don't live in sand-brick houses, but solid and modern framed structures. I wear trousers and not a gown...again, modernity.



R. L. Vaughn said...

We ought to be cautious to hope to interpret the Bible correctly, and a hard and fast literalism may not be appropriate in all cases. On the other hand, I think there is plenty of reason to carefully differentiate between what the apostles did organizationally and what was the common way of life -- e.g. plurality of elders vs. wearing togas & sandals. If one decides against the principle of plurality of elders it certainly ought to be based on more than assuming it was merely an accomodation to the first century way of life. How we "do church" is not even the same kind of concept as how we get to church (walking barefoot or riding a horse or arriving by boat or car or airplane, etc.)