By that term, Biblical Eldership, I mean the plurality and equality of elders in every local church.

"When most Christians hear of church elders, they think of an official church board, lay officials, influential people within the local church, or advisors to the pastor.  They think of elders as policy makers, financial officers, fund raisers, or administrators.  They don't expect church elders to teach the Word or be personally involved in the lives of people.  Victor A. Constien, a Lutheran official and author of The Caring Elder, explains this common view of the elders' role: 'Members of a congregation's board of elders are not assistant pastors.  They assist their pastor....  Through the senior pastor, elders establish a caring link with each person on the professional staff, whether assistant pastor; director of Christian education, evangelism....  But, even more important, elders help facilitate and strengthen the working relationship of the church staff.'

Such a view, however, not only lacks scriptural support but flatly contradicts the New Testament Scriptures." Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch,  Lewis & Roth, page 15 ff

By ignoring Biblical Eldership, the churches are being deprived of many blessings. As Baptists, we insist upon the Bible as our "only rule for faith and practice."  We will not compromise on the right administration of the Lord's Supper {grape juice excepted}, nor the right administration of baptism of believers by immersion.  We follow the Bible in our worship of Jesus Christ as we sing and pray; as we read the Scriptures and as we preach the Gospel.  We certainly know to take an offering.  But when it comes to polity {church government} we have allowed tradition to offset the Scriptural teaching.  The Bible is as clear on plurality and equality of elders as it is on the ordinances and on what constitutes worship in the church assembled.

Let me say emphatically that I do not come to criticize how sister churches are organized for spiritual oversight.  My own church, where I have been a faithful member and taught and preached for over 26 years, has only come to plurality and equality of elders in the past 16 months.  It took my local church 75 years to change to Biblical Eldership.

But I am now convinced of the Biblical Eldership Leadership Model.  From my personal experience, I can tell you that every day I see the wisdom of God in ordaining plurality and equality of elders.

In the next few minutes, I want to:

1. Establish the Scriptural Basis for the Plurality and Equality of Elders.

2. Report on how one local church made the transition from the Pastor - Deacon Leadership Model to the Biblical Eldership Leadership Model.

3. Conclude with some observations on the practical benefits of
   plurality and equality of elders.

Most of our Baptist churches already have a plurality of leadership.  But it is the deacons who are serving in the role of elders, except that they are not expected to preach {although in many instances they do preach and teach}.  However, I am not aware of many {any?} other churches who have an actual working plurality and equality in leadership.  Perhaps you know of some and can tell me about them.  It would greatly encourage me.

My subject today is Biblical Eldership {plurality and equality of elders}, so I will not deal with the qualifications of elders {bishops} and deacons.   Needless to say, if all of the elders of a local church are not scripturally qualified, and if church discipline is not applied, the eldership is doomed to failure and the church will suffer.

You all know, of course, that elder, bishop, pastor and teacher are the same office.  These designations are used interchangeably in Scripture, depending on the function in view: leading, overseeing, shepherding and feeding the flock.

1. Scriptural Basis for the Plurality and Equality of Elders.

Acts 14: 23  So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Acts 20:17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.

Acts 20:28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

Titus 1:5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you-

1 Tim 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. 18 For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer is worthy of his wages."

Phil 1:1 Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

"If we are to be faithful to what we find in the opening verses of Philippians, and at the same time allow them to speak to us today, we must stay with them a while longer.  For in the rich company at Philippi Paul saw not only all the saints but also the bishops and deacons.  Within the local church there was a fellowship {all the saints} and leadership {the bishops and deacons}.  The leadership, however, was not an imposition upon the fellowship but an extension of it.  For the saints are not 'under' but with {in company with} the bishops.  When we add to this fact that in the same verse we find Paul the apostle and Timothy the apostle's legate, we have a remarkably full summary of the constitution of a New Testament church: the body of believers, the companionate leadership of local church officers, the overarching apostolic work of Paul and the occasional ministry of a person like Timothy coming into the local situation from the outside." The message to the Philippians, J. A. Motyer, IVP, page 33

James 5:14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

"... From the very earliest apostolic times is was customary to appoint elders in every church.  The alternative title, 'overseers,' is more functional: it signifies 'caring for,' 'watching out for the welfare of.'  We not only meet such a group in Acts 20: 17-35, but we find their work described there as guarding and feeding God's flock {28} and following the apostolic example of 'admonishing' {31}.  Elsewhere emphasis rests on their work as teachers {1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9}, labouring in preaching and teaching {1 Tim 5:17}.  Since it is not as much as hinted in the New Testament that the church would ever need - or indeed should ever want or tolerate - any other local leadership than that of the eldership group, we may say that James vests this ministry of prayer, anointing and healing in the ongoing life of the church." The Message of James, J. A. Motyer,  IVP, page 189

1 Peter 5:1 The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4 and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. 5 Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for

"God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble." 

***********

Brothers, search the Scriptures, you will not find the Pastor - Deacon Leadership Model.  Neither will you find any hierarchy or ranking of men: no senior pastor, no assistant pastor, no associate pastor.  What you will find are elders, bishops, pastors and teachers, always a plurality, and always equal in authority.

In his book, Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch makes the argument that in a council of elders, a "first among equals" will emerge. 

"Although elders act jointly as a council and share equal authority and responsibility for the leadership of the church, all are not equal in their giftedness, biblical knowledge, leadership ability, experience, or dedication.  Therefore, those among the elders who are particularly gifted leaders and / or teachers will naturally stand out among the other elders as leaders and teachers within the leadership body.  This is what the Romans called primus inter pares, meaning 'first among equals,' or primi inter pares, meaning 'first ones among equals.'  " Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch,  Lewis & Roth, page 45.

And I may add, that not all elders will have the same amount of time for study and prayer, due to secular work, etc.

The elder on which the mantle of "first among equals" falls must be scrupulous in his efforts to share responsibility and authority.  There is no place for ego.

A brother pastor, asked me if I believed that a church could be biblical with only one elder.
My answer was, "Yes, of course it can, but they should be actively seeking to reform to the Scripture."

There is another relevant subject that I am only going to mention.  Where do the elders of the church come from?  Does the pulpit committee find one, is it the seminary graduate looking for a job, or do they come from within the church?

I refer you the articles in the Baptist Reformation Review .
At the April meeting I gave out some copies of a series of articles from the
Baptist Reformation Review, Summer 1978.

2. Report on how one local church made the transition from the
    Pastor - Deacon Leadership Model to the Biblical Eldership Model.

A few months ago I received an inquiry from a pastor in Kentucky who asked if I knew of any churches that had moved from the Pastor - Deacon Leadership Model to the Elder Leadership Model without splitting the church.  He was not aware that our church had just done this very thing.  The essence of my response was:

I don't have any quick and easy answers to your question but I will tell you a little about the change that occurred at our church.

We had the same pastor for 25 years {1974 - 1999} and we followed the traditional Pastor - Deacon Leadership Model.  For 22 of those same 25 years I was a quasi - elder, not ordained, but serving the function of an elder.   That pastor retired, I stayed.

In March of 1999, the church called a part-time pastor who was a Reformed Baptist and who was employed full time at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham.  The pastor who retired was a Calvinist and the church is fully committed to the authority of the Scriptures.  This is the key, if there is one, to church reform; the church must accept the Scriptures as authoritative.  I too, am a Calvinist.  We try to keep the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in Scriptural balance. We are evangelistic. Our preaching is expository and Christ-centered.

The new pastor immediately recognized me as an elder - in fact, and referred to me publicly as such.  However, we still followed the Pastor - Deacon Leadership Model; but we were beginning to move toward a true plurality of elders. The new pastor resigned after 10 months {January 2000} to return to a deaf ministry that he and his wife had started.

In January of 2000, the church called and ordained me and another man to serve as elders.  The church now enjoys plurality and equality of elders.  We currently {as of October 2000} have four elders, all of whom are pastors: two of us do most of the preaching.  I am the oldest elder and have been in this church the longest, but I am not "senior pastor."  The elders share the preaching and teaching and all the other functions of being elders. It is a most happy arrangement and we are learning every day why God's Word teaches a plurality and equality of elders.

The deacons were and are submissive to the Word of God.  There has not been any resistance on the part of the deacons to yield leadership to the elders.  The church is happy with the new polity.

We have not "arrived," in the sense that we are finished with our reform of the church.  We studied the doctrine of the church in our Wednesday Night Bible Study for several months. {We used Mark Dever's, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church;   but in God's providence, we met every one of his "nine marks" to some degree before we ever heard of the book.} 

{Brother Dever spoke in our church when he was here at Beeson Divinity School, October 2000.}

So ended my response.

And I would add that we looked first among our deacons to see if any of them were, in fact, elders. One of our deacons was recognized by the church and was ordained as an elder. The church also called a fourth man from among its membership to serve as an elder.

3. Some observations on the practical benefits of plurality and equality of       elders.

The church has congregational government in that the church has the final authority in all matters. Under Christ, and bound by Scripture, the elders have oversight.  The Council of Elders meet and out of that conference comes recommendations to the church. The church trusts the eldership to decide what must come before the church.

All the elders have a role in our Sunday worship. This helps to keep the principle of equality of the elders before the congregation. On a typical Sunday one elder serves the church as Worship Leader {order of worship, song leader}, another elder reads the Scripture and offers brief devotional comments and confessional prayer, another elder preaches the Word of God, and yet another elder makes announcements and offers the benediction. These roles may change depending on which elder is preaching that Sunday.

Since we believe in expository preaching, and thus for continuity, one of the elders will preach about three consecutive Sunday's.  Until this month {May 2001}, one elder preached most of the Sunday's and a different elder led the Wednesday Prayer Meeting and Bible Study.  The elder who was preaching most Sunday's left the church this month to pursue an intern requirement needed to graduate from Beeson Divinity School.  He also believes his calling is in "cell group ministry" which is the subject of his internship. As of now, I will be preaching Sunday's and Wednesday's . However, there is ample opportunity for the other two elders to preach and teach.

As of this month {May 2001} we ceased using the title "Co-pastor" for the elders who do most of the preaching.  As we grew in our understanding of the church, we saw that we had created an unintended perceived hierarchy.  Now all elders are called "Pastors," and the sign out front will reflect that equality.

There is a sharing of pastoral counseling that will naturally follow age relationships.  There is no rule as such but the younger people relate to the younger elders, and likewise the older people relate better to an older man.  Not every little thing is shared, nor should it be, but certainly matters of discipline and benevolence are discussed in the Council of Elders. 

Hospital and Nursing Home visitation can be shared.  Perhaps two or three elders may visit the same person, but at different times.

The burden for the care of the church is not on one man {"the pastor"}.  We have regular Council of Elders meetings in which we discuss the affairs of the church and reach consensus of how to deal with issues, and decide what must go before the church.  The unanimity among the elders is a pleasant relief.

"In addition to shepherding others with a servant spirit, the elders must humbly and lovingly relate to one another.  They must be able to patiently build consensus, compromise, persuade, listen, handle disagreement, forgive, receive rebuke and correction, confess sin, and appreciate the wisdom and perspective of others - even those with whom they disagree.  They must be able to submit to one another, speak kindly and gently to one another, be patient with their fellow colleagues, defer to one another, and speak their minds openly in truth and love.  Stronger and more gifted elders must not use their giftedness, as talented people sometimes do, to force their own way by threatening to leave the church and take their followers with them.  Such selfishness creates ugly, carnal power struggles that endanger the unity and peace of the entire congregation."              
Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch, page 96

There is accountability among the eldership.
Plurality and equality of elders is a safeguard against one man "lording it over the flock."

When an elder leaves the church, or if one of us were to die, the church is not in crisis.

Finding someone to fill the pulpit when the preacher is sick or out of town is not a problem.
Each elder is advised to be ready "in season and out of season."

***********

I urge you to read:
Biblical Eldership, by Alexander Strauch.
Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, by Mark Dever.
Baptist Reformation Review,  Summer 1978.
BIBLICAL ELDERSHIP
James A. Gunn
Copyright © 2001 James A. Gunn
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