Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 introduced and briefly defended from Scripture that local church leadership is best entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.  Both the biblical vocabulary and pattern indicate the local church is best led by elders (a.k.a. overseers, bishops, pastors-shepherds) rather than solo pastors or other pastoral hierarchies.  A church without elders is no less a church, but she should consider such polity of primary importance (cf. Titus 1.5).  A church should carefully and patiently pursue having a plurality of elders as soon as reasonably possible.

Whatever Jesus commands and/or models is by definition practically beneficial for the church.  What he commands is right because it’s also good.  In addition to the biblical witness there are practical benefits to having a plurality of elders in your local church.  It is the best practical way to display the church’s nature, provide pastoral care, protect pastors from moral failure, and cultivate happier pastors and churches.

1.  The plurality of elders best protects the nature of Christ’s church.  Most churches — especially those formed in the mid-20th century — organize according to business or governmental practices.  A strict hierarchical structure draws a sharp line between the leaders and those they lead.  Titles, salaries, office sizes and secretaries define the importance of positions.  Like a mailroom clerk at a Fortune 500 company, the lowly children’s ministry intern hopes to climb the ladder.  The associate pastor bides his time like a minor league shortstop, ready for the big leagues when the position opens up.  There is often more concern for the church’s “business” (buildings, budgets and bodies) than the church’s mission of making disciples of those Christ calls to salvation.  

The church, however, is unlike any other institution in history.  She is led by an otherworldly Founder and operates according to an otherworldly economy.  How did the very men who walked and talked with Jesus go about establishing local churches?

The church is family.  The most common NT term for Christian fellowship is that of brotherhood (the Greek cognates of which were used some 250 times outside the Gospels).  The church does not behave like a business (a la the Pharisees) but as a family of brothers and sisters.  Having a plurality of elders helps remove any assumed pecking order in the church.  While the congregation is to  submit to her elders (Heb 13.17ff.), the elders in no way lord their authority over the congregation (1 Pt 5.1-5).  Mirroring the humility of Christ himself, a church is at her finest when she humbly submits to men who humbly lead.  The congregation joins together with the elders on their knees.

The church is inherently non-clerical, non-professional.  God’s Spirit does not indwell only certain qualified individuals as in the old covenant.  Pastors are not the equivalent of Old Testament priests because Jesus is the fulfillment of that role.  In the church, the Holy Spirit indwells all believers and unites them equally in grace.  All believers are saints and part of the “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2.9) serving one another at the pleasure of the Great High Priest.  Worship is no longer led by professionals but all are participants.  Having a plurality of elders protects the church against clericalism.

The church is led by Christ himself.  The plurality of elders enforces humility among those who would oversee the local church.  No one man is the chiefest.  Alexander Strauch states it firmly: “…in the first century, no Christian would dare take the position or title of sole ruler, overseer, or pastor of the church.  We Christians today, however, are so accustomed to speaking of ‘the pastor’ that we do not stop to realize that the New Testament does not. . . . There is only one flock and one Pastor (Jn 10.16), one body and one Head (Col 1.18), one holy priesthood and one great High Priest (Heb 4.14ff.), one brotherhood and one Elder Brother (Rom 8.29), one building and one Cornerstone (1Pt 2.5ff.), one Mediator, one Lord.  Jesus Christ is ‘Senior Pastor,’ and all others are His undershepherds (1 Pt 5.4)” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: 115).

“The pastor” is not and never was the boss.  Having a plurality of elders is the constant reminder there is only one Head of the church.

2.  The plurality of elders provides for the best pastoral care of individual church members.  Jesus never established his church so that one man had all the gifts to care for her (Eph 4.11-16).  In reality, most pastors are weak in far more areas than they are strong.  The plurality of elders balances those weaknesses.  “Plurality of leadership allows each shepherd elder to function primarily according to personal giftedness rather than being forced to do everything and then being criticized for not being multigifted” (Strauch: 42).

Faithful shepherding (from which the word “pastor” derives) does not mean getting the same number or more people coming back to church the next Sunday.  It does not mean leading successful building campaigns or crusades.  Faithful shepherding is ensuring all those who profess Christ in their charge (Acts 20.28) are making gospel progress.  The elders serve the members by regularly (daily, weekly) layering the gospel into various life situations (Heb 13.17).  They want to ensure those who claim to be Christian are indeed persevering in Christ: enjoying his grace, obeying his commands, gathering with his church, observing his sacraments, loving and serving his people.  

One pastor/elder simply cannot oversee an unlimited or undefined number of souls.  Jesus never intended that to be the case.  In fact, in most cases two or three men couldn’t even do so.  Assume, for example, one elder could faithfully serve 30 people (give or take).  That is, he can reasonably pay close attention to that number of people during any given week.  A church of 150 people needs five pastors/elders equal in accountability and responsibility to ensure all 150 people are persevering as Christians.  Again, not all the pastors/elders/bishops/overseers need to be vocational.   But they all have equal weight and authority to shepherd their slice of the membership.

Without a plurality of elders all the souls in a church suffer.  Having a plurality of elders provides the best and broadest means by which individual members receive personal pastoral care and encouragement.

3.  The plurality of elders provides accountability and support for the pastors themselves.  The rash of moral failure among pastors is enough for any local church to reconsider its polity.  Too many sole pastors or “untouchable” Senior Pastors slip into grave moral sin without the church’s knowledge or accountability.  Pastors/elders must have a good reputation in the world (1 Tim 3.7).  Moral failure and scandal bring shame not only on himself and family, but also the work and witness of his church and ultimately Christ himself.  Having a plurality of elders provides a heavy layer of moral scrutiny necessary for maintaining a ministry of integrity.  The plurality of elders helps protect the name and honor of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Further, good elders are those who work hard studying and teaching the Word (1 Tim 5.17).  Believe me, sole pastors can easily grow lazy in the word.  They are also spread so thin they simply do not have the time and energy to mine Scripture for the church’s eternal benefit.  He is often left with shallow study and superficial sermons that all sound the same.  Having a plurality of elders provides a measure of scholarly discipline and, since the pastoral load is shared, each elder has more time and energy to devote to it.

Lastly, a pastor is also a church member and responsible for spiritual growth and maturity just like all other church members.  “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” (Strauch: 43).  Having a plurality of elders ensures the pastors have pastors, too.

4.  The plurality of elders provides the best protection against pastoral burnout.  Very simply, a plurality of elders share the church’s pastoral workload.  The burden of pastoral leadership is an impossibly heavy load to bear (2 Cor 11.23-29).  Pastors/elders can take no credit for the church’s success and bear much of the blame for her weaknesses.  It is not a glamorous job by any stretch.

In a 2001 survey, George Barna found the average pastoral tenure at a church to be five years (I doubt much has changed in 15 years) and concluded,  “To appreciate the contribution made by pastors you have to understand their world and the challenges they face. Our studies show that church-goers expect their pastor to juggle an average of 16 major tasks. That’s a recipe for failure—nobody can handle the wide range of responsibilities that people expect pastors to master. We find that effective pastors not only love the people to whom God allows them to minister, but also provide firm, visionary leadership and then delegate responsibilities and resources to trained believers. Ultimately, the only way a pastor can succeed in ministry is to create a team of gifted and compatible believers who work together in loving people and pursuing a commonly held vision. The pastor who strives to meet everyone’s demands and tries to keep everyone happy is guaranteed to fail.”

It might be that your church is simply too busy and/or (gasp!) too big. It might be the pastor intentionally spreads himself too thin.  In any case, having a plurality of elders significantly slows the pace of pastoral burnout. 

Having a plurality of elders makes for happier pastors.  Happy pastors stay longer at churches.  And those churches remain consistently faithful for generations.

Revisit Part 1Part 2, or jump to Part 4.

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