Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 1)

For many a churchgoer church polity (how a church is governed) is not of great concern.  As long as there are plenty of programs, pennies and people then why fuss over a secondary issue.  But is polity as secondary as we assume?

Church polity does not rise to the level of salvific importance.  Whether or not a local church has a plurality of elders does not determine if it’s a Christian church.  However, local church polity does directly influence church health and how church members thrive (or not) in gospel accountability and witness.  And that does touch on matters of salvific importance. We want to foster communities of faith wherein Christians flourish in the gospel. That requires meaningful church membership and deeply personal pastoral care. Having a plurality of elders best facilitates those means of grace.

Jesus is the “head of the body, the church” (Col 1.18).  How we structure our local churches demonstrates our allegiance to his authority.  For our own individual and congregational health, church polity is a means of Christ’s grace to help us in gospel progress.

A mere casual reading of the New Testament shows us the apostolic principles and model of church leadership.  Local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality (a group of at least more than one) of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.  Of course, their authority and responsibility are at all times subject to that of the Head of the Church, Jesus himself.  This plurality of elders protects the the nature and health of the local church better than other models–i.e. a solo pastor, hierarchical structure (Senior, Associate, Youth, Children’s, Music, etc.) or deacon-led structure.

“Under Christ’s name an elaborately structured institution emerged that corrupted the simple, family structure of the apostolic churches, robbed God’s people of their lofty position and ministry in Christ, and exchanged Christ’s supremacy over His people for the supremacy of the institutional church” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: 100).

We all want good and godly governance for our churches, but not more than Jesus wants it.  Strauch is right.  We’ve replaced church as family with either church as business where pastors are CEOs with subordinate middle managers or church as democracy where majority rules.  In so doing, we have indeed “robbed people of their lofty position in Christ.”  Generally speaking, churches not led by a plurality of elders will fiercely contend for parliamentary procedure (i.e. Robert’s Rules of Order), a regularly-revised constitution and by-laws, or cumbersome committees.   Yet Jesus has provided the church with what is best: simple, prayerful, Spirit-guided leadership through a plurality of qualified elders.

In Titus 1.5, Paul explained why Titus would stay in Crete: to “set in order what remains” or literally, to “set right the things lacking.”  Titus’s first order of business as Crete’s apostolic representative was to “appoint elders in every city as I directed you.”  As a matter of apostolic command Titus would establish local church elders (plural) in every city (singular).  Paul considered the lack of elders in the churches unfinished business (see CSB, NIV).  Not having elders did not disqualify a church as a church but elders would be necessary for the ongoing health, perseverance and gospel witness of the local churches.  Local churches led by a group of elders is be far better equipped to remain faithful to the gospel for the long-term.

No local church will be perfect no matter her polity.  But she can be healthy and maintain her witness through a well-ordered, Christ-designed, apostolic polity.  Having a plurality of elders protects churches from cycling through a pastor (and a new “vision”) every few years.  The plurality of elders provides more stability to a church’s convictions and identity so she will maintain a consistent witness for generations to come.  The plurality of elders also provides the best (albeit not perfect) protection for the pastors themselves from doctrinal error, personal burnout and moral failure.

No Christian wants their local church to be “lacking.”  We want to have and enjoy of all that Christ has for his Bride.  Jesus wants the best for your local church because the Father has staked his glory and name on her prosperity (Jn 6.37-40; 17.22-26). Therefore, we want our local churches to resemble as closely as possible the community he “purchased for God with Your blood from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5.9).  Having a plurality of elders helps gets the most out of his purchase.

Read Part 2.

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