In chapter two of Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul David Tripp relates a story of a church member who called the pastor to get him to help a man. Tripp’s comment to the member was, “Isn’t God’s love amazing? God cares about this man and put one of His children in his path. God cares about you and has given you the opportunity to be an instrument in His hands.” Those of us who are not pastors are prone to want the pastor to do everything! We expect him to be in charge of everything from moving tables for the ladies’ meeting to being the chief administrative officer. That is certainly not the pastor’s role. The flip side of the coin is that in many churches the pastor wants to be and is the CEO, but that is not a biblical model either and will, ultimately, lead to serious problems for the ministry.
As John MacArthur says in The Master’s Plan for the Church: “Understandably, elders cannot afford to allow themselves to be consumed with business details, public relations, minor financial matters, and other particulars of the day-to-day operation of the church. They are to devote themselves first of all to prayer and to the ministry of the Word, and to select others to handle lesser matters.” The biblical model of a pastorate is that of a team effort. In every place in the New Testament where the term presbuteros (that is, “elder”) is used it is plural, except where the writer is referring only to himself. Nowhere in the New Testament is there reference to a single-pastor congregation. The church at Jerusalem included apostles and elders (Acts 11; 15); the church at Antioch had prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1). The churches at Crete, Philippi, and Ephesus all had elders, also called “bishops.”
Don Clements in Biblical Church Government writes that “in each of the earliest developing New Testament churches, there was clearly a plurality of elders in leadership. In other words, the church was not governed by the decision of one person…. Rather, it was to be governed by groups of elders working together. This is one of the most important points in the biblical form of church government, but one that is frequently misunderstood, wrongfully practiced, and maligned in today’s churches.” There are a number of problems with a single leader. We are all sinners, and, without someone else participating, one may become a “religious dictator.” The vast number of chores in the church is too enormous for one man to handle physically, mentally, and emotionally. In trying to do them all, as Clements says, “The strongest of leaders, left on his own, will quickly burn out.” Scripture requires that we examine every word that comes from the pulpit; if there is only one decision maker, there is not going to be much examination of what he says. Many denominations have gone down the road to apostasy by not having such an examination, and I think it is particularly true in this age of easy-belivism and pluralistic beliefs. The same was true in Jeremiah’s day (see Jer. 5:30–31; 6:13–14).
The idea of multiple elders is not new to the New Testament church. They are seen functioning throughout the Old Testament. God, when speaking to Moses from the burning bush, instructs him to “gather the elders” (Ex 3:16). It is unlikely that this means only the older men, but this is the first use of the term in Scripture. However, in numerous passages in Deuteronomy we can see that the “elders” are assigned specific responsibilities (19:12; 21:19–20; 22:15–18; 25:7–9; 31:9–13). By the time of Christ, elders were an institution in the Jewish synagogues.
The function of elders in both the Old and New Testaments is to exercise “oversight” of the church. The tasks of elders, as set forth in Scripture, include preaching, teaching, watching over the doctrine, exercising discipline, visiting the sick, praying, feeding the flock, and overseeing the congregation.
Paul in his letter to the Philippians describes two groups of officers in the church: bishops (overseers or elders) and deacons (Phil. 1:1). The special purpose of the deacon is found in Acts 6:1–7; they assist the elders in the ministry to the poor and widows (mercy ministry) so the elders can devote themselves to the ministry of prayer and the Word. As the name implies in the Greek, the deacons’ primary function is that of service. They perform their duties under the oversight of the elders. As Brian Habig and Les Newsom point out in their excellent work The Enduring Community, “The Word had to be preached in order for lives to be changed and hearts to be converted. So fundamental was this activity to the life of the church that nothing was to be allowed to distract them from its practice…. So committed were the disciples to these primary activities that they instituted an entire office dedicated to the temporal, or physical, needs of the church.”
Not only is rule by a plurality of elders the biblical model, it gives the pastor a great deal of protection. If the preacher acts as a CEO, then every decision he makes will give some disgruntled parishioner ammunition to use against him. When the elders make a decision, it is a group decision, and therefore not the pastor’s alone!