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)