Elders and the New Testament Church – a Gift from the Lord

by | Sep 10, 2021 | Theological Issues | 0 comments

Elders are a part of the biblically ordained offices for the New Testament church and, while many churches use elders poorly, this does not negate their value or their biblical import. Elders only work when they work. I offered several examples of prominent churches who had elders but some of the very individuals who committed themselves to serve as elders by accepting the position in a local assembly, rejected their office when the elder collective decided against their views, and they, for all practical purposes, abandoned the elder principle and exposed their churches to chaos, some publicly and others privately. Elders only work when they work. A tautology? Well, not really. Elders only work when those who are committed to the practice remain committed to the practice in trying times. Every church experiences difficult times of one sort or another. Elders are a part of God’s good gift to his churches to help lead and feed the flock, especially through stormy waters. So, what does the Bible teach about elders?

Elder plurality is an important part of this instruction. How many elders does any particular assembly need? There are plenty of proponents of elders who argue that a church must have an elder plurality regardless of church size. God never intended the church to be ruled by a single pastor but to be led by multiple elders. “Shared leadership has the benefits of balancing people’s weaknesses, lightening the workload, and providing accountability.” Amen and amen! Evidence of this may be found in Acts 11:30, the church at Antioch, which had multiple elders who commissioned Paul and Barnabas to Gospel ministry; Acts 15 which discusses Paul’s visit to the church at Jerusalem and his meetings with the “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22 and 16:4). Πρεσβύτερος, the Greek word from which we get our word elder, is in the plural in each of these verses, πρεσβύτεροι. Also see Acts 20:17 where Paul calls for a meeting of the elders of the church at Ephesus to assemble before him for discussions and Acts 21:18 where Paul returns to Jerusalem and meets with the elders. Mention should also be made of Tit 1:5 where Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders (pl) in every place (singular). James instructs the sick to call for the elders of the church to pray for the one sick (Jas. 5:14) while Peter instructs “elders among you” not to dominate their flock (1 Pet 5:1) calling himself an elder. Clearly many biblical churches had multiple elders. Doesn’t this settle the matter? Antioch, Jerusalem and Ephesus had multiple elders so churches today who wish to follow the biblical pattern should have multiple elders. Absolutely . . . almost. Are churches without an elder plurality, churches out of order?

The real issue to be addressed is the question of why these churches had multiple elders? Was the intention of the Holy Spirit, the ultimate author of Acts, to teach prescriptively that all New Testament churches have multiple elders, or is God recording in his Word the practical outworking of NT churches who recognized that as these churches grew, so too did their elder requirements. Large churches need more elders, smaller churches need fewer. So how many elders does a church need? As many as it needs. In the same way that the church at Jerusalem chose seven men to be the first deacons because two men were insufficient to meet the needs of the group, as churches increase in the number of people to be ministered to, there is a compelling need for more elders. Churches need as many elders as churches need!

Another consideration for the churches at Antioch, Jerusalem and Ephesus was the nature of these churches themselves. How did they meet, all together as large city churches with one in each location? Hardly. They met in houses, smaller house churches or small groups. The logistics of gathering the saints in these early days suggests that rather than one mega church in each city, there were multiple smaller gatherings requiring an expanded elder network to provide spiritual care. The story of Aquila and Priscilla certainly suggests this—they had house churches in Ephesus and Rome (1 Cor 16:19 and Rom. 16:3). This is an explanation for why Paul tells Titus to appoint elders in every town. The word πόλις signifies a population center as opposed to a rural area. It could be a city or a town. The important issue is that it was a population center. Again, no mega churches were in view here. More likely it was house churches. Hence the need for multiple elders.

I am not arguing that since today larger numbers of believers can meet in big church edifices, single pastors are all that is necessary. I am only suggesting that the city churches of the New Testament aren’t comparable to the big mega churches of today. They were the sum total of believers in Antioch, etc., not ABC Church at the corner of Appian Way and Rome Boulevard that was large enough to gather thousands of worshippers. Lakewood Church of Houston meets in the former Comcaq Center, former home to the Houston Rockets. The building can hold nearly 17,000. One man may be able to preach to 17k people, but one man cannot shepherd even a fraction of that number. Elder plurality in the early churches was driven by need. A church needs as many elders as it needs—in most cases, this means a plurality of elders.

What about a newly planted church? Should it begin with elder plurality? That depends. I remember reading in Christianity Today about the formation of Stonebriar Church in the Dallas area when Chuck Swindoll was president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Chuck decided in 1998, that he would start a Bible study at a country club. Two hundred people showed up for the first meeting. The next week, attendance doubled. It doubled again the following week. Within a few months, the church was running two thousand. Clearly from the beginning of this mega church, elder plurality was needed. How would a church even vet elders in this kind of rapid growth situation? There was a large SBC church in our area in the early 2000s that was planted to be a mega church. It had a full company of leaders from the beginning chosen ahead of time and paid for by the area association.

Few churches start like this today, especially in countries with small Gospel presence. American mega churches with superstar preachers may require large numbers of elders, but small fledgling churches in virgin territory may take a while before the congregation has a qualified plurality of men to serve as elders. Elder plurality is a goal to be aspired to, but not a minimum qualification in forming a church. A congregation needs as many as it needs. From the beginning, the church planter’s main job is to disciple leadership from whom the new assembly may select other elders and deacons. You have to start somewhere. Shared leadership is the goal to be sure.

I would make the same argument for deacon plurality. If one understands Acts 6 as the formation of the early diaconate, then the number chosen was based on the needs of the group—in Jerusalem’s case it was determined that seven men were needed. If this teaches us anything, it teaches us that a church needs as many deacons as it needs. In the early stages of church planting, a small group of six families may not need any deacons but it will become apparent that if the church grows at all, deacons will soon be necessary. Again, the church planter may need to disciple a man or several men toward becoming deacons. In the Acts church, many of the converts had come from Judaism and were almost “prequalified” to be deacons. They had been faithful Jews who became faithful Christians. I emphasize this because my esteemed and learned theology teacher used to argue that a church couldn’t start until it had a pastor and a deacon (or two). Yet many global churches start with just a handful of converts who need discipleship from non-Christian backgrounds. Diligent training and discipleship will bring qualified leadership to light in time, hopefully short time if the church is to grow.

For those who start a church and yet have no elders or deacons from the beginning, the church planter should seek the input of the men who attend, and he may find that he has qualified men already. Even in a small church with a single elder and no deacon, the pastor or elder need not act like the lord or boss. He would benefit from consultation with the church men. The goal is shared leadership not a single captain who has absolute authority over the whole ship.

I have a friend who has taught pastoral theology for years who doesn’t like the notion of “lay” elders. In other words, the way to determine what a church needs is, as it grows, when will it be able to afford more dedicated workers? Of course, dedicated elders are a lofty ideal and, elders who can be provided for by the assembly is the goal, but in church planting, even the first elder may have to work to provide for his family. Does this make him less qualified to be an elder? At various points in my ministry, I hung drywall and worked as an EMT out of necessity. If a man is going to be a “lay” elder, regardless of his work outside church, he must commit himself to do the requisite work in the assembly to carry out elder function.

It is important to remember that elders are not a panacea to solve all the problems within a local congregation. Elders are good and the multiplication of them should accompany the growth of the church. But simply having them will not insure that a church will weather the storms that come her way. Elders only work when they work . . . when those who serve as elders are committed to follow the duties of an elder. In recent weeks, I have pointed out churches that have had elders but either some elders refused to work with the other elders, or some elders refused to follow the decisions of the majority. In these cases, the churches have been thrown into turmoil. Elders only work when they work. What about arguments for a single pastor as the best model? I will address this question next week. May God grant his grace to do things decently and in order to his glory!

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

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