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Living in Milan, I enjoy taking walks around the perimeter of Sforza Castle. Built in the fifteenth century, this structure was one of the largest citadels in Europe for hundreds of years. Its massive walls, more than a hundred feet high, loom over the outer moat like a towering tsunami of brick, making the castle practically impenetrable. There was a time when these walls extended around the entire city, protecting its inhabitants from invasions and providing them with a sense of security. In the medieval world, a city without walls was almost unimaginable. It would have been defenseless and unlikely to survive.
The vast walls of an ancient city illustrate the church’s need for a plurality of elders. Just as ramparts and fortified gates helped safeguard a city so that civic life could prosper, so too a plurality of faithful overseers in the church helps preserve life in the kingdom of God. A church in which the senior pastor is the sole elder or possesses the most authority among its leaders is in a very vulnerable position, exposed to the perils of power, personality, and conflict. One need only observe the course of many influential evangelical churches in recent years to see how true this is. In most cases, the eventual collapse resulted in part from a lack of shared authority among a group of elders.
There are at least four biblical and practical reasons that a plurality of elders is necessary. First, it provides the church with greater accountability. According to the Bible, believers are accountable for their doctrine and life. What they believe and how they live are to be in line with Scripture. The elders of the local church have the weighty responsibility of holding the members of the congregation accountable. “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17). Notice that this verse speaks of leaders in the plural. Christians are not accountable to one leader alone. Instead, Christ cares for His church through a plurality of elders. This shared accountability helps protect the flock from the spiritual abuse and bullying that could more easily occur in a church where everyone is accountable to one man.
Moreover, the pastor himself is also accountable to the elders. The biblical model for church government is not a hierarchical system in which the senior pastor is a bishop over the elders of the church. In the New Testament, “bishops” (also translated “overseers”) and “elders” (also translated “presbyters”) are synonymous. For example, when Paul instructs Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5), he describes the qualifications for these elders, calling them overseers: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:7). He uses the two terms to describe the same office. Likewise, in his farewell address to the leaders of the church in Ephesus, Paul “called the elders of the church to come to him” (Acts 20:17). He then addressed them as “overseers” or “bishops” of the church of God (Acts 20:28). These terms are never used in Scripture to describe differing ranks of authority or a single leader governing the church alone. This means that the pastor serves the congregation alongside the ruling elders but not over them. He himself is an elder who labors “in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). Even though he has biblical training and spiritual gifts for rightly dividing the Word of God, his vote is not more important than the votes of other elders; nor does he possess veto power over the consensus of the group. He is to work in harmony with the other elders, respecting their leadership and submitting to their collective wisdom. There is no place in the church for one leader to domineer over another. The only “boss” in the church is the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the head of the body (Eph. 1:20–22).
Second, a plurality of elders provides the church with a greater chance of success in her mission. Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus gave the church its marching orders:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18–20)
According to our Lord, the goal of the church’s mission is to make disciples. The means of the church’s mission is the ministry of the Word and sacraments in the local church. This is how Christ has chosen to gather His redeemed people, receive their worship, nurture their faith, and bond them as a community rooted and established in love (Rom. 12; Eph. 4; Phil. 1:27–2:11).
None of this is possible, however, without a plurality of elders in the local church. The ministry of the Word is not dependent on the minister of the Word alone. The Apostles appointed elders to oversee the congregation (Acts 14:21–23; see Phil. 1:1; James 5:14) and deacons to serve the body with mercy (Acts 6:1–7). Without these officers functioning in their God-ordained roles, the pastor cannot remain devoted to prayer, preaching, and teaching. He inevitably becomes overwhelmed with administration and involved in tasks that rightly belong to the elders and deacons. Worse still, he runs the risk of defining the church’s mission according to his own vision and building the ministry around his giftedness and personality. When these things happen, the spiritual consequences are disastrous. When a congregation is blessed with a plurality of faithful officers, however, the results are bountiful: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (Acts 6:7).
Third, a plurality of elders provides the church with greater preservation of the truth. Exhorting the Ephesian elders, Paul said:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock . . . speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert. (Acts 20:28–31)
Ruling elders have the responsibility of maintaining the purity of the Word and sacraments in the local church. They must be vigilant to guard the gospel so that each generation can rediscover it. We live at a time when people do not “endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3). A body of elders in the local church helps ensure that the congregation stays on course doctrinally and does not become carried away by the theological whims and personal opinions of one leader. As the proverb says, “In an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14).
Fourth, a plurality of elders provides the flock of Christ with greater pastoral care. In the Old Testament, a multitude of elders were appointed to assist Moses in caring for the people of God. The Lord gave a portion of the Spirit that was on Moses to seventy elders so that they would help carry this burden (Num. 11:16–17). Likewise, in the new covenant church, elders share the responsibility of pastoral care with the minister. Peter writes: “So I exhort the elders . . . shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:1–2). Elders do this in a variety of practical ways. They shepherd the flock through family visitation and biblical discipline. They assist in catechizing the youth of the church and actively promote the work of evangelism and missions. They provide biblical counsel and help minister to the sick and dying. In short, they ensure that the flock is healthy and that everything in the church is done decently and in good order. No one man has all the gifts that are necessary to build up the church. Having a plurality of elders supplies the congregation with greater pastoral care by bringing men with different gifts into the church’s leadership so that they can complement the pastor’s strengths and compensate for his weaknesses.
As a pastor myself, I am grateful to the Lord for the many godly elders with whom I have served over the past twenty years in ministry, both in the United States and in Italy. I am thankful for the ways that they have held me accountable for my doctrine and behavior, having the love and courage to correct me when I have needed it. I am thankful for their commitment to the mission of the church, always reminding me that it is about proclaiming Christ through the ordinary means of grace. I am thankful for their fidelity to the gospel and the Reformed creeds and confessions, helping me stay on track theologically and not lose focus on Jesus. I am thankful for their willingness to use their gifts for the pastoral care and spiritual well-being of the flock, setting us an example of Christlike servant-leadership. According to the promise of Scripture, when the Chief Shepherd appears, they will receive “the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Until then, may King Jesus continue to fortify the walls of His kingdom in every local church with a plurality of faithful elders.