Plurality of Elders? – Part 2 (SiFWBT)

By Ben Campbell

Eldership is a topic that can be confusing to those who have never conducted an in-depth study. At least three questions surface when the bible student considers eldership:

1) Who can be an elder?

2) What should we look for in an elder?

3) How many elders should my church have?

These are inescapable questions which must be considered if a pastor is to lead the local church the way God intends. The concern is both the character and function of the office.

The question of a “plurality of elders” is quite an enigma because there really is not much to say explicitly in the Scriptures about the issue of “plurality.” Along the lines of elders alone, there really is not a lot said either. However, this does not mean that there is nothing said, but it simply means that there is not much said. Therefore, whatever the opinion, we must be willing to allow for disagreements for the sake of Christian liberty. So, it would be wise for all Christians to first understand that even when we differ on issues like these, our first reaction should be grace and kindness, not haughtiness and arrogance.

For this post, I would like to follow-up on the elders post by considering one question a reader posed early on. The reader asked, “What about the issue of plurality?”. Eldership and the possibility of a plurality of elders must be understood in conjunction with church polity. (the way you structure your church’s government) Let’s begin with a review of what a biblical elder is and how they function in the local church. We hope to convince you that there is a need for a plurality of elders or pastors in the local church.

Biblical Elders and Their Function: A Review

Biblical elders are the men in the church who function as overseers (teachers, leaders, shepherds) of the church by moving the congregation closer to the Lord Jesus by through life-on-life relationships and Gospel-centered preaching. This means that elders are several things:

First, elders are men. I know this could be a point of contention for some, however, at Everyday Theology, we want to communicate our beliefs through our personal tradition – the Free Will Baptist tradition. Historically, elders according to the forefathers of Reformed Arminianism, are men. This does not mean that women are inferior in the church, nor does it mean that every man is an elder. It simply means that those God equips to be leaders and pastors in His church are men and men only.

In his book, Men and Women in the Church, Kevin DeYoung states that it’s one thing to believe in the truths of complementarianism, yet another to believe that it is good for you and the local church.[1] In other words, the complementarian principle of Christianity is not simply a way for men to have some superiority over women in the church, nor is it a way for a tyrannical approach to life altogether. No, complementarianism aims to communicate the roles of men and women through the God-ordained created order which began in Genesis 1 and 2.

Second, elders are overseers and watchmen. Elders function as overseers of the church. The Greek word episkopos (ἐπίσκοπος) emphasizes the “oversight” function of the pastors of local churches. According to one lexicon, this word refers to “the supervising function exercised by an elder or presbyter of a church or congregation, and therefore (at first) practically synonymous with πρεσβύτερος.” Both Greek words are meant to be used synonymously with one another. Yet, there is another way elders exuberate their function and it is by shepherding.

Third, elders are shepherds. The word ποιμεν is the word for “shepherd” used 17 times in the New Testament implying the one who cares for his own sheep. We find this use of the word in verses like Hebrews 13:20 – “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant (emphasis mine)”[2] – and 1 Peter 2:25 – “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (emphasis mine)” – expressing the true nature of shepherding by the example of Jesus himself. Yet, the true exhortation for shepherding comes from 1 Peter 5:1-4:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (emphasis mine).

The word for shepherd (poimēn) is a word that means to shepherd a flock or to lead an assembly. In other words, the act of shepherding doesn’t only involve mere obligatory discipline and leading, but service and sacrifice as well. (Pastors are encouraged to obtain a copy of Timothy Witmer’s book The Shepherd Leader, which describes knowing your sheep on individual and congregational basis.)

A One Paragraph Case for Eldership

In Peter’s epistle, we find Peter using both words πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros) and ποιμεν (poimēn) to describe the qualifications of elders for the local church. In other words, Peter is using the words synonymously to describe multiple functions of the office of elder – overseer, watchman, and shepherd. Elders (presbuteros) are to shepherd (poimēn) the flock among them by expressing oversight (episkopos). In one verse, all three Greek word are used to describe one office – the office of the elder/pastor.

The Plurality Principle

So, let’s get to the real issue, what does it mean to have a “plurality” of elders? Mark Dever presents the argument that “[t]he direct evidence in the New Testament indicates that the common and even expected practice was to have a plurality of elders in each local congregation.”[3] Dever articulates that it was the most common practice in the New Testament by the apostles to appoint more than one elder in the churches. Repeatedly, James, Paul, Peter, and others greet the “elders” not the “elder.” I could go on but will refrain.

The more important question here is not whether there should be more than one elder in a church (I’m sure most of us would agree that multiple elders is better), but the more important question is why there should be a plurality.

In his chapter on plurality in the book, Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus[4], Jeramie Rinne offers four reasons why a plurality of elders is necessary and needed in the local church. First, a plurality of elders can share the load. It is often a constant struggle for pastors to be all their churches need. However, pastors often feel the necessity of being everything their churches need, while disregarding the reality that they cannot be all things. Multiple pastors in the local church allow for a more distributed ministry responsibility. Second, a plurality of elders allows for diverse gifting. In other words, not all elders are gifted in the same ways. Ephesians 4:11 tells us that Jesus gave some men prophetic gifts, some teaching gifts, and some shepherding gifts. But he gave them all gifts for equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry.

Third, a plurality of elders allows for shepherding shepherds. Often, it is the pastors of local churches who are “left out” of the pastoral care because they are giving the care more than they are receiving. While this is the nature of pastoral ministry, it does not negate the reality that pastors need pastoring too every so often. A plurality of elders can be sufficient for such a task. Fourth, a plurality of elders fights against one dominate opinion. In many smaller churches, the pastor’s opinion dominates what the church does. However, with a plurality of elders, this will not be the case because there is equal authority and power among the elders (apart from the congregation, of course). Plurality allows for that “one” dominating opinion to be measured against other good opinions also.

Conclusion

There are many other issues which come up when you address questions like these because of the differences of polity among denominations. I believe there is great wealth in a plurality of elders because of what it guards against in the church. A plurality of elders guards against tyranny, anarchy, and even fosters an environment in which pastors are accountable for their own walk with Christ. Sadly, many churches are plagued by unbiblical leadership by one pastor or by boards with exclusive power.

Does plurality look appealing to you for your church? Read passages like Acts 20, 1 Peter 5, or Paul’s epistles to see that elders were often addressed in the plural throughout the New Testament. This is a biblical principle that guards churches from bully pastors seeking to advance their own agenda rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ! And if this is what we are about, then we must be intentional about accountability and vulnerability in leading the local church.

Whether you are the only elder at your church right now or not, we want you to know that we appreciate your labor of love for the kingdom. We are praying God will equip each of you to lead well and that the Holy Spirit will give your leadership team wisdom about how to best implement a plurality of elders in your congregation! Stay faithful, fellow elders!


[1] Kevin DeYoung. Men and Women in the Church: A Short, Biblical Practical Introduction (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 17.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 13:20, 1 Cor. 9:25; See James 1:12.

[3] For a more thorough treatment of Dever’s view, see Mark E. Dever, “The Doctrine of the Church” in A Theology for the Church, edited by Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 007), 802-804.

[4] Jeramie Rinne. Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 85-96.

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