By Danny Carpenter

Thomas Ralston, known for his book Elements of Divinity (published in 1876 by The Methodist Episcopal Church, South), argues eloquently that it is illogical to think that God did not specify the type of church government that He expected the church to have.  But he also points out that it is equally illogical to think that God established various types of church government and leaves it to up to us to decide which one we want to use in a given church!  He then proceeds to demonstrate that God did indeed design the type of church government He wanted for his Church, and it can be seen throughout the New Testament.  I want to examine the passages that, I believe, speak to the teaching on elder-led churches.

First, it should be pointed out that the disciples began the church inJerusalemand were the first leaders (not one of them, but all of them).  They made joint decisions, such as can be seen in Acts 6, a text typically seen as promoting the congregational form of government. But an examination of the text proves otherwise.  The twelve heard the grumbling about unbalanced distribution of provisions to the widows.  What did they do?  They called a meeting of the church.  They pointed out that their responsibilities did not allow them to care for that need.  They then delineated a plan to cover that need:  seven men were to be chosen, using a spiritual profile outlined by the apostles, who would oversee the work.  The directive laid out by the apostles pleased the people, who immediately set out to do just that.  After determining which seven men fulfilled the spiritual requirements, the men were presented to the apostles, who gave their official approval through the laying on of hands.  Throughout the process, the leaders “led” the people by making a decision and including them in on the solution to the problem.

Secondly, inAntiochthere was a leadership team of 5 men (Acts 13:1).  These men were of varying backgrounds and gifts. But together they led the church, and on one occasion, received direction from the Holy Spirit to send out two of those leaders to plant new churches.  The other three sent them out by the laying on of hands.

Thirdly, the two missionaries who were sent out, Barnabas and Paul, planted new churches in cities where no churches existed (Acts 13:4—14:28).  During the process of planting and establishing (in the sense of “to make stable”) the churches, was included the naming of elders (plural) in each church (Acts 14:23).  These were men raised up and trained from within the local churches.  Barnabas and Paul were probably in that area for no less than 2 years, which allowed for time to train those who would be named elders.

Fourthly, Luke recorded in Acts 15 a problem that arose in Antioch of Syria, and which was eventually referred to the leaders of Jerusalem (presumably because the ones who caused the problem in Antioch were from Jerusalem, though they were not sent out from that church [Acts 15:1-5]).  Note that though the church and the apostles and the elders (I’ll come back to this) received those who came fromAntioch(v. 4), the church atAntiochsent Paul and Barnabas to meet with the apostles and elders inJerusalem(v. 2), which they did (v. 6).  Thus we conclude that it was the leadership who heard the two sides of the debate and came to a conclusion and not the whole church.

Three side notes are worthy of consideration.

1)  It is interesting that inJerusalemat this time there were not only the apostles, but also elders in leadership.  This raises various questions:  Who were these elders? When were they appointed?  By whom? What was their role in the church?  My personal answer to these questions is based more on logic than on Biblical information, though there is informing theology in Acts and the Pauline epistles that help me arrive at these conclusions.  It would seem that it would be best to assume that the apostles appointed these men as elders to be the up-and-coming leaders who would carry on the leadership of theJerusalemchurch after the apostles would be gone from the scene.  This would also be consistent with Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in the churches they planted on their first missionary trip.

2)  The church was indeed involved in what happened in Jerusalem, but not as some have assumed.  Many try to twist what the Scripture says to justify the congregational form of government.  But on closer examination, the church body was involved in two ways: they received those who came from Antioch(v. 4) and they helped decide who would be sent to take the final decision to the other churches (v. 22).  But the decision was made by the elders and apostles who considered the question.

3)  Some have used this passage to advocate the idea of a “senior pastor” form of church government.  They point to James, who after hearing all the arguments, seems to make the final decision.  The KJV translates his conclusion, “Wherefore my sentence is….”  The NET Bible has the following note:

The resolution of this [that is, how to translate the word krinw] lies not so much in the lexical data as in how one conceives James’ role in the leadership of the Jerusalem church, plus the dynamics of the specific situation where the issue of Gentile inclusion in the church was being discussed. The major possibilities are: (1) James is handing down a binding decision to the rest of the church as the one who has ultimate authority to decide this matter; (2) James is offering his own personal opinion in the matter, which is not binding on the church; (3) James is voicing a consensus opinion of all the apostles and elders, although phrasing it as if it were his own; (4) James is making a suggestion to the rest of the leadership as to what course they should follow.

Given that there is no other reference to a “senior pastor” leadership in a local church in any other passage in Scripture, it would seem most likely that option 1 is not a possibility.  The other three are all viable options.  (I personally prefer option 3 or 4.)

Fifthly, in Acts 20 Paul is on his way toJerusalem, but has an idea what awaits him there.  Not having the time to go to port and travel inland toEphesus, he sends a request to the elders (plurals) of the church inEphesusto meet him inMiletus.  Besides the fact that he mentions the plurality of elders, this passage is very instructive as to the work they are to do.  After reminding them of his ministry among them (vv. 18-27), he exhorts them in v. 28:  “Watch out foryourselves and for all the flock of whichthe Holy Spirit has made you overseers,to shepherd the church of Godthat he obtainedwith the blood of his own Son.”  Several things are noteworthy.

1) Paul expected there to be a mutual accountability among the elders.  This is important, because when there is only one pastor, very rarely does he have anyone “on his level” to whom he is or can be accountable.

2) Together these elders were to do the work assigned to them.  That way the workload is shared, and can be divided according to gifts and passions.

3) It is interesting to see how Paul used interchangeably the terms “elders”, “overseers” [or bishops], and “to shepherd” [or to pastor].  These terms are used interchangeably in several passages in the NT (see Titus 1:6-7; 1 Peter 5:1-2).  They are not separate offices, as some would make them.  It was after the first century, towards the end of the second, that distinctions between them began to take shape.

The sixth passage I want to mention is Philippians 1:1.  Paul greets the “overseers [bishops] and deacons” of the church inPhilippi.  He uses this term overseer to designate those who are the leaders in the church, in contrast to the deacons, who serve the church under the direction of the leaders.

The seventh passage is important to examine.  Paul gave the requirements for elders (or overseers or bishops) in Titus 1:5-9.  I want to point out two important aspects:

1)  Paul left Titus inCreteto “set in order the remaining matters” or “straighten out what was left unfinished” (NIV). Paul apparently had to leaveCretebefore the churches were taken to maturity, and he entrusted Titus with that responsibility.  The end of v. 5 says “and to appoint elders in every town, as I directed you”.  Some scholars have suggested that the word “and” could be translated “including”.  The appointing of elders could be considered part of Titus’ job as he helped the churches to become established (stable).

2)  Paul mentioned the appointing of elders (plural) “in every city”.  We can presume that Paul and his band of missionaries had started churches in several cities on theislandofCrete, but he did not spend enough time on the island to train the elders. It seemed that the establishment of elders was a key factor for Paul to leave a church or area of churches (see Acts 14:21-23).

3)  V. 6 refers back to elders, and Paul begins to outline the requirements for that office.  But in v. 7, as he continues, he refers to these same men as “overseers” or bishops.  Again we see the interchangeableness of the terms to refer to the same leaders.

Lastly, Peter also addressed the elders.  Though his letter is addressed to Christians in different parts of the world (1 Peter 1:1), he address the elders in particular in 5:1-5.  He tells them in v.2 to “shepherd” (verb form of the noun “pastor”) the flock in their care and to “exercise oversight”[1] (verb form of the noun “bishop”) over them.  Again, we see the interchangeable use of these terms with the term elder (v. 1).

As can be seen, the pattern of a plurality of leaders directing the churches is consistent throughout the NT.  There is no basis for a one-pastor system or for the congregation form of government.  The one negative example of the danger of one leader in a church wanting to be in charge is in 3 John 9-10. Diotrephes loved “to be first among” the church (probably among the leaders) and was making decisions that reflected poorly on the ministry of the local church.  But clearly his pride led him to do such things, and John planned to expose his evil actions.

[1] A few important MSS (a* B sa) lack evpiskopou/ntej (episkopountes, “exercising oversight”), but the participle enjoys otherwise good ms support (î72 a2 A P Y 33 1739 Û lat). A decision is difficult because normally the shorter reading is preferred, especially when found in excellent witnesses. However, in this instance the omission may be due to a hesitation among some scribes to associate oversight with elders, since the later church viewed overseer/bishop as a separate office from elder.