On Sunday we considered a number of important Scriptures (Acts 20:17, 18, 28, Titus 1:5-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-2) which showed us a few important truths:
- “Pastor” (or “shepherd”), “elder” and “overseer” are three titles for one single leadership position.
- The New Testament describes churches as being led not by a single pastor but rather by a group of pastors/elders/overseers.
- One or more of those pastors/elders/overseers may be paid by the church to do his work full-time (see 1 Timothy 5:17-18), but he still occupies the same office or position as any of the others, and has no more inherent authority than any of the others.
This leadership model—of multiple pastors/elders/overseers leading a church together—is often referred to as a “plurality of elders.” In their excellent book The Deliberate Church, Mark Dever and Paul Alexander wrote a section called “The Practicality of Plurality,” in which they described some of the many practical benefits that come to a church through this model. Here’s what they had to say:
We’ve seen some of the main biblical arguments for the distinction between elders and deacons, for the roles of each, and for a plurality of elders in a single church. What are the practical beneﬁts of having more than one elder in each church? In other words, is it worth the trouble to switch from a single pastor/multiple deacon leadership structure to a plurality of elders leadership structure with multiple serving deacons? Let’s think about some of the advantages of making the switch.
It balances pastoral weakness. No pastor is broadly gifted enough to do all the work of the ministry equally well by himself. There are weaknesses in every pastor’s game. We all need other people to balance out our all-too-human deficiencies. When you surround yourself with godly men whose gifts, passions, and abilities balance yours, you provide more well-rounded leadership for people to follow.
It diffuses congregational criticism. Under the single pastor/multiple deacon model, the pastor often takes the brunt of the criticism alone. Tough decisions can be misperceived, motives can be misconstrued, and before too long the pastor becomes the target of all the critical remarks because he is the one who is perceived to be making all the decisions and casting all the final votes—and under this model, he often is. Within a plurality of elders, however, leadership is shared with a body of non-staff elders who have been recognized and affirmed by the congregation. This provision alleviates the pastor from bearing all the criticism, because now leadership and decision making responsibility are shared among the group. Other men can now stand in the gap with the pastor, and they can take both responsibility and criticism together. Also, the congregation likely will be more willing to follow the tough decisions of a group of both staff and non-staff elders than to follow those made alone by a paid pastor. So some criticism may be avoided simply by the increased trust that a plurality of congregationally recognized non-staff elders engenders among church members.
It adds pastoral wisdom. Sharing leadership with a group of godly, able non—staff elders will almost invariably keep pastors (especially young ones) from saying or doing dumb things, or from saying or doing the right things in unhelpful ways. None of us is omniscient. We all need to humble ourselves, share leadership, and ask advice. In fact, many of us are impatient when it comes to implementing a vision for godly change. Godly elders can help us select a pace for change that the congregation can keep up with. They can also help us formulate plans, articulate goals, and handle sensitive situations better than we may do if left to ourselves.
It indigenizes leadership. That is, it roots leadership in non-staff members. This is important because the congregation needs to be able to function and continue to grow even if something awful happens to the paid pastor. The last thing we want to do as vocational pastors is to make the congregation so dependent on us that the church would fall apart if we died, got called somewhere else, or (God forbid) fell into some disqualifying sin. We want our work to continue to bear fruit long after we’re gone! But that means leadership must be rooted in non-staff members. The best, most biblical way to do that is to incorporate a structure of leadership based on a plurality of elders in which the non-staff elders outnumber the staff elders.
It enables corrective discipline. Without corrective discipline, the church has no way to protect the purity of her public corporate witness from the hypocrisy of members involved in scandalous sin. Yet the discharge of corrective church discipline is far more difficult without a plurality of elders. Performing corrective church discipline requires a leadership structure that won’t buckle under the spiritual and relational pressures of the process. By adding wisdom, diffusing criticism, balanc- ing pastoral weaknesses, and indigenizing leadership, plural eldership helps transfer the load of corrective discipline across the multiple pillars. Plural eldership, then, is critical for the discharge of corrective discipline and therefore is critical for maintaining the corporate witness of the local church in the eyes of the unbelieving community as well.
It defuses “us vs. him.” When disagreements happen between a pastor and the congregation regarding the direction of the church or a difficult decision that affects the whole congregation, an unhealthy “us vs. him” mentality can crop up. This can make the pastor feel extremely isolated and can often breed adversarial attitudes underneath a surface of congenial pastor/congregation relationships. Granted, a plurality of elders may simply shift the relationship into the “us vs. them” gear. However, it relieves the isolation of the pastor, and it may prevent such antipathies from ever arising if the pastor is wise enough to receive godly counsel. Again, by adding wisdom, diffusing criticism, balancing pastoral weaknesses, and indigenizing leadership, a plurality of elders can go a long way toward defusing the “us vs. him” bomb.Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2005), 133-135.