Over the last couple of months at our church we’ve been examining the biblical, historical and practical defense for having a plurality of elders (pastors) in a local church. Trusting God to convince and convict us rightly, we hope to commit ourselves to biblical church polity over the next year.
Among some of the practical benefits of a plurality of elders I submitted that it best provides accountability and support for the elders themselves. Perhaps the following thoughts might benefit others seeking to lead their church in this same direction. In what areas does a plurality of elders best provide accountability?
1. Moral/Ethical Accountability. Aside from the biblical evidence, the rash of moral failures among pastors should be enough to rethink our polity. Too many sole pastors slip into grave moral sin without the church’s knowledge or accountability. Even churches with multiple staff members seem to function as though the “senior pastor” is above scrutiny.
Most churches who suffer the moral failure of their pastors admit they never saw it coming. It’s not because the pastor was all the sudden taken in, but that he hid the decaying process of sin behind fancy titles and cosmetic maturity.
I don’t suggest that a plurality of elders guarantees that no pastor will ever fall into grievous moral sin, but it does provide greater protection against it. Having elders who are equal in authority and responsibility are more able to ask the hard questions, something church members rarely feel the freedom to do. In fact, most church members don’t even ask the hard questions of one another, much less their pastor!
For example, how do you know if your pastor is looking at pornography or not? If your pastor is to have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim 3.7) then how do you know if he’s a good neighbor or not? How do you know how well he treats his wife behind closed doors? How do you know if greed has taken root in his heart or not?
I know from experience that pastors need no help to sin. Having a plurality of elders helps the pastors from sin that severely damages Christ’s name and bride. The elders are to reflect what they hope the church at large becomes: a community submitted to one another under the lordship of Christ.
2. Ministerial Accountability. Elders who rule well are those who work hard in the word and teaching (1 Tim 5.17). Sole pastors and/or senior pastors with little accountability find it easy to be lazy in the word. Believe me, I know the temptation of tailoring my study to the expectations of the congregation. If they’re not expecting much, then I’ll meet those expectations every time. “Google” some illustrations, lift a few quotes, alliterate a few lines and hit the golf course. Two years later you’ve digressed in biblical passion and theological pursuit.
It’s extremely hard for sole pastors to challenge themselves to better scholarship and exegetical skills. Who will care that I read a new treatment of the atonement? What does it matter if I work out a view on divorce and remarriage? Of what benefit is it that I understand how the Puritans viewed the end times?
How many congregants know what their pastor is reading? Is he reading Cosmopolitan and Reader’s Digest or refreshing his Greek? Is he learning anything new or still swimming in the same waters as he was three years ago? If he is then it won’t be long before that end of the pool gets crowded and stagnant.
A plurality of elders helps keep the pastoral leadership sharp and disciplined. The elders help one another clarify positions and sharpen their counsel. Elders keep the shepherds constantly looking for new fields on which to feast. Hopefully, the flock will grow hungry after eating all the grass. Unless they’re led to a new pasture they’ll shrivel up and fall prey to hungrier wolves. Elders keep each shepherd in robust shape and challenge one other toward greater ministry fitness.
3. Spiritual/Devotional Accountability. The pastor is also a church member and responsible for spiritual growth/maturity just like every other church member. Yet, most sole pastors seem to exist in a paradoxical dimension where he leads a people of whom he’s not really a part. Always the shepherd, never a sheep.
Alexander Strauch writes, “It was never our Lord’s will for the local church to be controlled by one individual. The concept of the pastor as the lonely, trained professional – the sacred person over the church who can never really become part of the congregation – is utterly unscriptural” (Biblical Eldership, 43).
In my experience the sole pastor and/or senior pastor with little accountability never feels really a part of the church. He rarely feels free to confess sin or ignorance. He’s always “up there” leading the flock “down there.” He dries up devotionally. He resents the fact that he never gets to eat the meal he prepares.
A plurality of elders helps pastor the pastors. They help and encourage devotional growth and practial gospel living. Elders make sure the shepherds are taking time to eat themselves. They help strengthen the pastors’ feeble knees and faint hearts. The elders provide each other the encouragement that any believer needs to flourish in gospel progress.
What do I do if there’s little to no way my church will consider a plurality of elders? I’m glad you asked because such is the case with most typical churches. I answer that question from both sides of the desk.
If you are a pastor, but cannot see a move toward a plurality of elders in the near future then: (1) Invest in particular men in the church. Don’t organize some huge, overblown men’s ministry event to encourage a faux accountability. Just meet with men and develop a culture of brotherhood and mutual responsibility. Model the kind of accountability you expect. Ask men to stay on top of you.
(2) Be open about sin and struggles. I speak hypocritically here, but I want to do better. Let the air out of your own balloon and others will welcome you back to earth. Ask certain men to pray for specific areas in your own life.
(3) As you gauge maturity among certain men then talk about ministry with them. Get their input on church vision/direction or particular ministry ideas. They’ll love it and the church will begin appreciating the benefit of having more than one guy calling the shots. It might even sow the seeds for teaching on elders.
(Disclaimer: The above will probably take years, not months.)
If you are a church member, but cannot see a move toward a plurality of elders in the near future then: (1) Challenge your pastor toward better scholarship. Trust me, he’ll love it and will try to rope you into reading boring theology books with him. Ask him what he’s reading lately. Keep an eye out for new (solid) books on the market and ask if he’s read them. You may even buy him an interesting book and ask him to review it for you.
(2) Feel free to pop in his study from time to time. Don’t make it a regular habit to show up unannounced (he may have scheduled appointments), but every so often it helps to keep him in check. He’ll think twice about putzing around on websites he shouldn’t knowing you may just stick your head in.
(3) Ask him specifics on what he’s preparing for sermons. Ask him for ways you can prepare to hear them. Make sure he’s working hard at preaching and teaching.
(4) Let him know you pray for him often. Ask him how you can pray for him specifically. He’ll dance around the issues for a while, but when he knows you’re sincere he’ll trust you with more.
(5) Bring real life issues to him for counsel. Left to himself your pastor will hermetically seal himself in an ivory tower. Chances are he sees little reason to challenge himself to clear biblical positions on practical, “street level” issues. Bring him a newspaper article about stem cell research and ask him how the gospel speaks to it. Ask him what you should tell your neighbor whose live-in boyfriend abuses her. Make him apply the gospel for you he so easily preaches to you.
(Disclaimer: If he doesn’t like all this meddling then you have a far worse problem than whether your church has elders or not. You may have a pastor who shouldn’t be.)
Much more important people have written much more important insights on all this. I pray you’ll consider these thoughts and quickly move on to them.