Plurality of Elders: God's Plan for Success

Nestled in the suburbs of San Jose, California, is an estate built by the heir of the Winchester rifle fortune. In 1884, Sarah L. Winchester began a thirty-eight-year construction project guided by a superstitious fear. 

Mrs. Winchester was convinced by a medium that she would be haunted by the spirits of those killed by the famous Winchester “gun that won the West” unless she kept building. She was worth 20 million and earning a thousand dollars a day, so she kept the carpenters’ hammers pounding constantly, sometimes twenty-four hours a day. 

The end result was a Victorian mansion with corridors randomly leading nowhere, doors that opened to blank walls or sheer drops, and stairs that led to a blank ceiling. Although it had 160 rooms, six kitchens, thirteen bathrooms, fifty-two skylights, four hundred sixty-seven doors, ten thousand windows, a bell tower, three elevators, forty staircases, and forty-seven fireplaces there is one thing it did not have—plan or purpose. The only driving force was to keep building and never stop.

I don’t know of a better illustration to describe the landscape often found in many local churches. At some point in the past these churches possibly had more people, even experienced a couple of growth spurts, but now after a period of stagnation and decline they are left with unrelated programs that lead to nowhere, ministries that exist simply because they always have, and activities that serve no observable purpose or accomplish any definable goal. 

Ultimately these churches will die. However, unlike businesses, they often limp along for years on the financial reserves hoarded in designated line items, funded by memorial bequests. And, you will not have to look hard to find someone in these churches to champion the pointless ministries and dysfunctional traditions. Dying congregations lack self-awareness. “I don’t know what you are thinking young man, but we don’t need you to fix us. There is nothing wrong with this church.” So, with blind, smug, self-assurance these churches continue their slow agonizing march toward the grave. 

I can’t count the number of times I have heard a fellow pastor say, in the middle of recounting some difficult situation, “they didn’t teach me about this in seminary.” That one’s first venture into pastoral ministry is traumatic, is a story too often told. The newly ordained minister rarely suspects ulterior motives, power brokers, the idolatrous worship of buildings, dedication plaques, and longstanding traditions. There is nothing more disorienting in ministry than to encounter leaders who fight to preserve and maintain doors that open to nothing and stairs that go nowhere. Why would someone who is supposed to love the church fight to protect the terminal disease that is killing it? There must be a better way.

In my ministry and life, I came to the place where I had to ask myself, does God have more to say to the church about spiritual leadership than what I had previously seen?  

So, I started studying and focusing on the biblical pattern and prescription for elders and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. Did you know that almost every New Testament author speaks of church elders? It goes like this: pastors are elders who oversee God’s flock as they are strengthened, helped, and supported by other elders within the local congregation. The leading elder, along with other elders, shepherd the flock in tandem. Not only is this a better way it’s a biblical way.

In the New Testament I discovered that multiple Christlike elders within the individual congregation is more than an optional idea, it is the keystone of God’s plan for spiritual health within the church. It is the means by which the body of Christ wins the lost, makes disciples and plants churches. 

In the first century, and soon after, the spiritual leaders in the local churches were consistently called elders. As Paul’s missionary work expanded among the gentiles these elders were then also called bishops or overseers. Paul commands these elders to “shepherd or tend” the flock of God and “manage” the household of faith together. Additionally, to illustrate that eldership is not reserved to one or just a few, Paul, in 1 Timothy 3:1, assures us that any man who desires to be an elder is desiring a “noble task.”

I have concluded that if the church is going to be the thing God intended it to be it must follow God’s plan, God’s way, for God’s glory. The body of Christ must be shepherded, managed and overseen by faithful and sensitive servants whom God has called and qualified for this purpose. Therefore, in regard to elders:

1.     There are specific qualifications necessary for serving as an elder. (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9)

2.     Throughout the New Testament there is an emphasis on the human responsibility in selecting and appointing “qualified leaders.”

3.     Timothy and Titus, as Paul’s apostolic representatives, selected and appointed elders in Ephesus and on the island of Crete. However, in all honesty, we are not told how other churches in the New Testament world carried out this process.

4.     As the New Testament unfolds it becomes increasingly obvious that the apostles intended for each local church to be managed and shepherded by a unified team of godly men.

5.     The New Testament teaches by word and illustration that although there is a plurality in leadership, someone functions as the primary leader/elder.

6.     In the first century church there was an accountability for elders/overseers/shepherds among themselves for their maturity and for the maturity of the saints.

Looking over the landscape of broken churches and disillusioned Christians we must admit that the authoritative deacon board is a deadly virus and the lone pastor is a ticking time bomb. Too many pastors, because they were forced to shepherd alone, have burned out, broke down, and bailed.  There are too many churches that could have been great churches. What if, instead of a revolving door of changing solo pastors, instead of the church suffering under the tyranny of politics and power brokers, it was shepherded by a pastor supported by qualified, called, spiritual men who walked together with Christ. Isn’t that a better way?

What About Plurality of Elders?

This blog is the first of a series.

Prior to my present ministry, I have pastored four other Baptist churches. Each one has been (to some degree or other) pastor led, deacon served, committee operated, and congregationally approved. In fact, that has been the case with most of the Baptist churches I have interacted with throughout my ministry.  In recollection, very few of those churches have been unswervingly healthy. Even a cursory look at the history of most Baptist churches will reveal an ongoing cycle of ebb and flow, up and down, incline and decline.   More often than not, these “ebb and flows” run parallel with pastoral transitions which also usually precipitated congregational transitions. Without a doubt, I believe I could give you a long list of Baptist churches that, in my opinion, are healthy. But if the record of history is true, dysfunction is only as far away as the next pastoral transition.

Could it be that there is a better way? Could it be that we have overlooked, for a variety of reasons, a healthier biblical polity? Is there perhaps, a biblical leadership model that would better insulate the local church from power brokers and protect it from deacon, pastoral, and congregational tyranny? Could it be that multiple elders are a better, healthier, more biblical leadership model than that of a single elder?

To answer this, I would like to give you two primary questions we will be investigating in the coming weeks. First, what does the New Testament teach us about church leadership? [Who were they? What was their function? What were their qualifications? How were they selected?] Second, how did church leadership in the first century relate to each other as well as to those who were apostles, prophets, and teachers?

As we approach these questions it is important to answer them biblically—not traditionally, not culturally, and certainly not from the encyclopedia of human opinion. The New Testament provides us with an invaluable resource, and if we can look beyond our embedded theologies and personal preferences, we might discover some great treasures in the ancient text.

In Acts and the Epistles, we find a record of the actions and directives of first-century church leaders. For example, Paul and Barnabas, on the first missionary journey, founded churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Luke (Acts 14:23) tells us they later returned and appointed elders in each/every church. Not only is this what Paul did, but this is also what Paul directed others to do. He instructed Titus to appoint elders (Titus 1:5-9) and listed the necessary qualifications for elders. In these coming weeks, we will be investigating more examples of the action and directives of early church leadership.

I realize I am not breaking new ground here. A great number of Baptist churches have seen the spiritual wisdom to move away from the traditional SBC model of church polity and seek a more biblically based one. For some, I am behind the curve, for others, I am ahead of it. However, if God allows me common health and energy I probably have only 15 years of vital ministry left and those years will pass quickly. So, after 30 years of having to deal with my own insufficiencies (1 Timothy 1:15), a few power-hungry deacons (Acts 19:33 & 1 Timothy 1:20), and gullible, selfish, carnal church members (2 Tim. 3:6, James 4:1-3) the time has come for me to erase the board of my familiar traditions and let the Word of God redirect my path. This is not said to offend anyone but rather to establish my resolve to make my last years of ministry as productive for the kingdom of God as possible.

In all honesty, I am not hoping to discover … God has already done the work in my mind and heart. I have already asked and answered the questions. But now I want to “put pen to paper” as they say and with prose outline the path which the Lord has taken me.

Would you consider walking this path with me?  Through the next few weeks, I will be investigating the biblical teachings of elder leadership as well as identifying some transcultural principles that I believe are transformative for the community of faith as well as the individual believer.

Years ago, I became close friends with Dr. Antolin Zamar, an indigenous missionary, and pastor, from the Philippines. We would often play ping pong together on Saturday afternoons, and later he was our wedding photographer. As he saw it, American missionaries had reproduced the American ministry in the Philippines. “Brother Nathan, we are the third generation of Baptists since the first missionaries came, and we find that our churches now have the same squabbles and divisions you have in American churches.” Sadly, we reproduced after our own kind, and our kind was flawed. There must be a better way.

Until our next time, I will leave you with the following to consider. It is a timeline of church leadership in the New Testament.

Date             Event

A.D. 45 -Elders in Judea (Acts 11:30)

A.D. 45-47 -Elders’ prayer and healing ministry (James 5:13-15)

A.D. 47 -Paul and Barnabas appointing elders (Acts 14:21-23)

A.D. 48-49 -Material support for spiritual leaders (Galatians 6:6)

A.D. 49 -Apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-32)

A.D. 49-50 -Delivering letter composed by apostles & elders (Acts 16:4)

A.D. 51 -Respecting and honoring overseers (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

A.D. 58 -Paul’s directives to the Ephesian elders & overseers. (Acts 20:17-38)

A.D. 61 -Paul greets overseers & deacons in Philippi (Philippians 1:1)

A.D. 63 -Qualifications for elders & deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13)

A.D. 63 -Paul, the body of elders, and Timothy’s gift-2 Tim. 1:6 (1 Timothy 4:13-14)

A.D. 63 -Material support for some elders (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

A.D. 63 -Both protecting and disciplining elders (1 Timothy 5:19-20)

A.D. 63 -Peter’s directives to elders and overseers (1 Peter 5:1-4)

A.D. 65 -Qualifications for elders and overseers (Titus 1:5-16)

A.D. 64-68 -Directives to imitate spiritual leadership (Hebrews 13: 7, 17, 24)

Oh God give us ... for Christ!

This week God blessed our family with a new granddaughter. On the same day, within a 2-hour window, a friend suddenly died. Is this Karma? Is this reincarnation? No, this is life after Adam. The sinful flesh is born to die. My precious granddaughter, like everyone, is born in sin and in need of saving grace because one day her life on earth will be over. My friend, although his flesh died, stepped into a glorious eternity with Christ, because he was a recipient of saving grace. Because of Adam, the human condition is fragile and weak. Because of Adam, in our own strength, we are hopelessly in need of rescue.

Yesterday as I held that wonderful child in my arms and looked at her I considered humanity sympathetically. We are all so powerless needing someone to care for us and, like my granddaughter, unable to grasp the full weight of what that means.  You would hope that maturity would increase the awareness of this reality—but it won’t. Just as a fish is unaware it is wet (because it has always been in water), a growing child is unaware of the love of her mother and father because that is all it has ever known. The same is true of the goodness of God. We live in a world filled with people who have heard of God and heard the name of Jesus Christ, yet apart from the Holy Spirit’s work they are oblivious to their need to be reconciled to God. Those who have been rescued need to have great sympathy for the lost. Jesus saw the multitudes and was moved with compassion.

Thinking of these things, I am stirred to consider my city—Summerville. Within a mile radius of this church building there are thousands of homes, and who knows how many people, in need of grace but unaware. Every day after work they drive back to their homes, go inside, eat supper, watch Netflix, go to sleep and repeat the cycle day after day. When the weekend comes they mow their grass, wash their cars, and try to plan something on those few hours off to make the monotony of life bearable and their existence more meaningful—this is repeated ad nauseam. The many distractions of life’s obligations keep them from noticing their Christ-less existence.

I don’t know if we will be able to reach them with the gospel, but I want to. I don’t know if we, as a church, can keep from being distracted by the unnecessary and stay focused on the necessary, but I pray we can. We must choose the glory of God over the traditions of man. We must remove the handicap of looking backward and pining for days gone by and start counting the former things loss in view of the surpassing value of the excellency of Christ Jesus. I believe if we will allow our hearts to be broken for the unsaved and ask God to fill and equip us to reach them and make them true disciples He will do just that. This is my deepest hope. Oh, God give us Summerville for Christ!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen. (Gal 1:3-5)

Starting with a blank Wall

This past Monday I set out to arrange and organize my study at the church. My books and furniture were already there, I had hung pictures on the wall, but the room seemed cramped when the square footage said it shouldn’t be. The problem was the arrangement. For two hours I moved furniture and compared, but nothing seemed to work. Then it dawned on me. The problem I was having was that I was trying to arrange the furniture around the pictures already hung. So, I took every picture down, placed them in the hallway and in 15 minutes I knew where everything needed to be—then I hung the pictures.

As I was finishing up, I realized this very problem had been a restraint in some of my previous ministries. You see, the pictures represent the things the church has been doing for years upon years. Those “pictures” are the things we arranged everything else around and as the churches declined, more and more energy was invested in trying to maintain what we’ve been doing for so long , and less and less energy in discovering what God wants to be done now. That is usually the mode churches find themselves in when they finally die.

Wallace Baptist Tabernacle was once a thriving church in Wallace, NC. By the 1990’s it had declined from 350 in attendance to less than 40. Mr. Smith was the deacon chair. He and I met through a mutual friend and began to discuss what needed to be done if the church was going to have a future. My first suggestion was to repaint the church a different color and give the church a new name. Mr. Smith, a good man, and still a good friend responded, “We started with that name, and we are not going to change it” and they didn’t. Today if you drive down Hwy 117 from Wallace to Rose Hill on the right-hand side of the road you will see a large church building with a tattered roof, peeling paint, and a faded church sign still emblazoned Wallace Baptist Tabernacle. They preserved the name and lost the church.

I’m not saying a name change would have saved it. I am saying the unwillingness to change the name, the pining to resurrect a bygone time, and the struggle to preserve something the Word of God never mandated is what killed the church. Many church business meeting victories preserving the historical and negotiable church practices have often paved the path to ultimate death.

As your pastor I want you to know that I’m not reading a book trying to reproduce somebody else’s successful ministry. I’m not trying to preserve or resurrect the past. I just want to start with a blank wall.  I’m trying to hear and discern the voice of God through prayer and the Word to see what HE wants so that we can have HIS blessings. I’m telling the Lord our desire is not to see 1990 come back. “O Lord you are the only non-negotiable. We desire to see YOU glorified in YOUR house.” Here is what I know to be undeniably true: Change will not bring revival but unwillingness to change will absolutely prevent it.   

"Do not call to mind the former things, Or ponder things of the past.  "Behold, I will do something new, Now it will spring forth; Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, Rivers in the desert.” (Isa 43:18-19)

The Lord's Faithful Love

Recently I sat around a table with eight other ministers, and contrary to my normal behavior, I did very little talking. They spoke of loneliness and rejection. One DOM said, “As a pastor, you at least have church members who care about you that you can turn to.” Another responded to him, “What do you mean? I’m just a hired employee, and when I can no longer do what they want, they will discard me and get another.” Loneliness. Feeling like you are only a resource. I would love to write that this is a condition unique only to the ministry—but that would be a lie. It is part of the human condition. There is heartbreak and trouble everywhere and in every category of existence.

First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh was where I met Henry Blackaby. In the early 20th century it was the pastorate of Clarence Macartney, a man who chided his denomination for ousting J. Gresham Machen from Princeton over the issue of inerrancy. One of that church's most respected pastors was Bruce Thielemann.

Before coming to Pennsylvania, Bruce had been the pastor of Glendale Presbyterian Church in California, and while he was there, he went through a period of great darkness. On a particular day when he had just come back from a preaching mission to Africa, something happened. As he stood looking out his bay window over the city, he was overwhelmed by his loneliness, depression, and discouragement. Being unmarried he got out his contact list and started calling friends. He told them that he desperately needed to talk. Each person said they would love to meet with him but when they got out their calendars none of them could do it for at least a week. With some, it would take even longer. When Bruce got to the last name in his book of contacts, his friend (also a pastor) said, “Bruce, I will be glad to meet with you but right now my schedule is so heavy. Could we meet in a couple of weeks?” “No,” Bruce replied. “I need to talk to someone yesterday and you’re my last hope. I’m in serious trouble and I’m simply not going to let you blow me off. Could you meet me tomorrow for lunch, please?” The friend reluctantly agreed, and they met in a restaurant. After they had ordered, Bruce poured his heart out about his loneliness, depression, and discouragement. When he finished, his friend said, “Bruce, do you know why I didn’t want to meet with you? Last night I came home and found my wife in the arms of another man.” Both, in their own darkness, almost missed the need of the other. Later Bruce said, in an interview, "if anyone had been there that day, they would have seen two pastors holding hands and crying together."

Have you ever felt like Bruce, or Bruce’s pastor friend, that all is lost, and you are alone? Do you ever feel like a discardable resource? Everyone does at one point or another. Let me encourage you that in your darkest night, hope is found in God. Jeremiah gives us a great word of encouragement. "Yet I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD's faithful love we do not perish, for His mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness!  I say: The LORD is my portion, therefore I will put my hope in Him. The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. (Lam 3:21-25 CSB)