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?