On the Facebook Baptist History Preservation Forum, a member challenged the idea of the plurality of pastors as a modern invention or modern practice. In response to that I have put together some historical excerpts that indicate it is not modern at all, but with some continuity in church history, from the beginning. In saying that, I do not dispute that often Baptist history demonstrates a single-pastor model (either a single pastor for one congregation, or sometimes a single pastor for several congregations). I also do not assert that every instance of a “plurality of elders” means a plurality of co-equal pastors. Sometimes the author means a plurality of ruling elders. The following list begins in more recent times and works back toward the “infancy” of the church.
1867, Pendleton’s Church Manual, “A bishop was a pastor of a church, and the New Testament, so far from encouraging a plurality of churches under one pastor, refers, in two instances at least, to a plurality of pastors in one church. See Acts xx. 28; Phil. i. 1.” Church Manual, Designed For the Use of Baptist Churches, J. M. Pendleton, 1867, pp. 24-25
1849, J. L. Reynolds, “The apostolic churches seem, in general, to have had a plurality of elders as well as deacons. The apostle addressed his epistle to the Church at Philippi ‘with the bishops and deacons;’ sent for ‘the elders of the Church at Ephesus;’ and Paul and Barnabas as well as Titus ‘ordained elders’ in the churches of Asia Minor and Crete. It seems, therefore, a fair inference that this was their usual practice. Of the reason of it we are not informed; but the existence of the practice seems unquestionable.” Church Polity; or, the Kingdom of Christ in Its Internal and External Development by James Lawrence Reynolds, pp. 112-113
1833, The New Hampshire Confession of Faith, “XIII. Of a Gospel Church. We believe that a visible church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ; governed by his laws; and exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by his word; that its only scriptural officers are bishops or pastors and deacons whose qualifications, claims and duties are defined in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus.
1687 (circa), “The Church at Middletown…it is remembered that James Aston and James Brown were teaching elders among them, at first planting.” Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, from A.D. 1707 to A.D. 1807, A. D. Gillette, p. 13
1656, A Confession of the Faith of Several Churches of Christ in the County of Somerset, “XXXI. That the church of Jesus Christ with its ministry may from among themselves, make choice of such members, as are fitly gifted and qualified by Christ, and approve and ordain such by fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands (Acts 13:3; 14:23.), for the performance of the several duties, whereunto they are called.”
1654, The True Gospel-Faith Declared According to the Scriptures, “XIV-XXIII. That every believer dipped is to be joyned with believers dipped which is the Church of Christ... That this company of believers dipped...have power to chuse Messengers, Pastors, and Teachers from among themselves.”
1651, The Faith and Practise of Thirty Congregations Gathered According to the Primitive Pattern, “No. 60. That the maintenance of the Ministers [plural] which labour in the Word of God, ought to be the free and Charitable Benevolence, or the chearful contribution of those that acknowledge themselves members of the same fellowship [singular].”
1646, First London Baptist Confession, “XXXVI-XXXVIII Being thus joined, every church [singular] hath power given them from Christ, for their wellbeing, to choose among themselves meet persons for elders and deacons [plural], being qualified according to the word, as those which Christ hath appointed in His testament, for the feeding, governing, serving, and building up of His Church; and that none have any power to impose on them either these or any other. That the ministers [plural] lawfully called, as aforesaid, ought to continue in their calling and place according to God’s ordinance, and carefully to feed the flock of God committed to them [singular], not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. The ministers [plural] of Christ ought to have whatsoever they shall need, supplied freely by the church [singular], that according to Christ’s ordinance they that preach the Gospel should live of the gospel by the law of Christ.”
Circa 1638. The First Baptist Church, Newport, Rhode Island, founded circa 1638, had three elders, John Clarke, John Crandall and Obadiah Holmes. [See, e.g. Isaac Backus, A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists, Volume I. A footnote on pages 206-209 gives the Confession of Faith of John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes, who served as the first pastors.]
1611, Thomas Helwys’ Declaration of Faith, “No. 20. That the Officers of every Church or congregation are either Elders, who by their office do especially feed the flock concerning their souls, (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2,3) or Deacons Men, and Women who by their office relieve the necessities of the poor and impotent brethren concerning their bodies.” A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland.
Circa 1603 to 1714 (“the time of the Stuarts”) “Elders, or Ministers, as we have seen from the last chapter, were set apart to their office by ‘the laying on of hands;’ and in many churches two ministers, in some churches even four, were associated with one religious society. In fact, a plurality of pastors, or elders, was very common during the time of the Stuarts, both among the General and Particular Baptists.” Bye-Paths in Baptist History
1544, Waldensian Confession, “No. 5. We hold that the ministers of the church ought to be unblameable both in life and doctrine; and if found otherwise, that they ought to be deposed from their office, and others substituted in their stead; and that no person ought to presume to take that honour unto himself but he who is called of God as was Aaron - that the duties of such are to feed the flock of God, not for filthy lucre’s sake, or as having dominion over God’s heritage, but as being examples to the flock, in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, and in chastity.”
1527, Discipline of the Church (Anabaptist Confession). “No. 5. The elders and preachers chosen from the brotherhood shall with zeal look after the needs of the poor, and with zeal in the Lord according to the command of the Lord extend what is needed for the sake of and instead of the brotherhood.”
AD 1325 (circa), Ancient Discipline of the Waldenses, No. 2 “He that is received the last ought to do nothing without the permission of him that was received before him; and in like sort the former ought to do nothing without the consent of his Associate, that so all things may be done amongst us in good order.” The History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piemont, by Samuel Morland, pp. 73-74. This is an excerpt from article 2 “Concerning Pastours or Ministers” from what Moreland calls and “Ancient Discipline” of the churches of the Valleys of the Piemont, written “several hundreds of years before either Calvin or Luther.” It consistently speaks of pastors in the plural. [Calvin started his reform work circa 1536 and Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, so I arbitarily chose the date of 1325, roughly 200 years before these events.]
AD 387, Commentary on the Letter to Titus, Jerome. “The presbyter is the same as the bishop, and before parties had been raised up in religion by the provocations of Satan, the churches were governed by the Senate of the presbyters. But as each one sought to appropriate to himself those whom he had baptized, instead of leading them to Christ, it was appointed that one of the presbyters, elected by his colleagues, should be set over all the others, and have chief supervision over the general well-being of the community…Without doubt it is the duty of the presbyters to bear in mind that by the discipline of the Church they are subordinated to him who has been given them as their head, but it is fitting that the bishops, on their side, do not forget that if they are set over the presbyters, it is the result of tradition, and not by the fact of a particular institution by the Lord.” Latin is here: Commentariorum In Epistolam Ad Titum; English translation from Heidelblog [Jerome describes the transition from the plural-episcopacy to the mono-episcopacy[i] in this Commentary on the Letter to Titus (1:7). The plurality of elders precedes its replacement by the single-bishop, which seems to arise from pragmatic reasons.]
AD 150 (circa) The Shepherd of Hermas, “But you will read the words in this city, along with the presbyters who preside over the Church.” (2nd Vision, Chapter 4) The Shepherd of Hermas, Roberts-Donaldson translation [Note also that bishop in used always the plural.]
AD 100 (circa) The Didache, “Appoint therefore for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, meek men, and not lovers of money, and truthful and approved, for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honourable men together with the prophets and teachers.” Didache, Kirsopp Lake translation, 15:1-2; The author mentions plural bishops, not a single bishop.
AD 96 (circa) 1 Clement, “So preaching everywhere in country and town, they [the apostles, rlv] appointed their firstfruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe. And this they did in no new fashion; for indeed it had been written concerning bishops and deacons from very ancient times; for thus saith the scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith.” (42:4-5) “For this cause therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterwards they provided a continuance, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministration. Those therefore who were appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered unblamably to the flock of Christ in lowliness of mind, peacefully and with all modesty, and for long time have borne a good report with all these men we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their ministration.” (44:3). 1 Clement, J. B. Lightfoot translation [This suggests that bishops/elders, plural, were elected by the local congregation.]