Why I Believe in a Plurality of Elders (and what that means)

In a recent post and comment stream I mentioned the need for us to work through some of our finer points of theology as opposed to bashing each other over the head and taking sides.  So let’s talk: elders.

Now with this I realize I’m out of the main stream of modern Baptist thought, though that was not always the case—reference the 1925 BF&M which mentions overseers and elders (as the same office) but not the term pastor.  Mention “elders” in some circles and immediately crops up the notion of “reformed theology.”  Mention it elsewhere and the response is, “That’s not Baptist,” as the mind drifts to thoughts of other denominations or even Mormons.

However, I first learned about this concept in the church I went to during my college years which had elders, yet they were very much Baptist, and very non-(in fact quite anti-) Calvinist (in other words they didn’t see themselves as anything near “reformed”).  Combined with the fact that the same church had some of the best and deepest preaching and teaching I had ever heard up to that point in my young life, it got me interested in hearing and studying and this has been my conviction ever since.

So I want to briefly lay out why that is, what “elders” means, and how they function in the church and relate to congregational authority.  And then (hopefully) we can discuss in a way to let iron sharpen iron.

The term elder refers to one of two offices in the church, the other being deacon, and is synonymous to overseer/bishop and pastor/shepherd. A form of presbuteros, the Greek term for elder appears 66 times in the New Testament.  Of these, 17 clearly relate to an office of the church (or of a local church).  For comparison, overseer/bishop appears 5 times in relation to the office, and pastor/shepherd once.

I believe the best explanation for the use of this term is that the early church did not see themselves as radically different from their Jewish faith, but a continuation of it through the fulfillment of Jesus as the Messiah-King.  The “elders” were older and respected men among the Jews who represented their tribes and provided leadership and council.  In the Gospels the elders are seen as a type of office or council along with the priests and scribes.  Therefore in the church and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and others continued with the language of “elders” for their local assemblies.

In the New Testament, specifically 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:17-32, “elders” is the term ascribed to appointed congregational leaders who carry out the tasks of oversight and shepherding/pastoring.  In Titus 1:5-9 the elders are also referred to as overseers; and given the similarity between this passage and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 Paul readily interchanged the words in his mind.

Thus the terms elder, overseer, and pastor are interchangeable, though perhaps most technically correct the office is called elder (which by implication of the term and the descriptions of them, the office seems designed to mainly be occupied by older men with proven families) and it is their task to shepherd and oversee.

The elders served in the role of shepherds and overseers. Based on the texts listed above, as well as James 5, 1 Timothy 5, and drawing from the Apostles’ ministry in Acts 6 the elders had six main roles in the church:

  1. To shepherd (care for, protect, and feed—see John 10) the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4)
  2. To provide oversight (lead, direct, and give example and vision) (1 Peter 5:1-4)
  3. To “rule well” (1 Timothy 5:17), though “rule” does not fully capture the meaning of the word—it is to be the head of or to lead, but to lead in such a way that you care and give aid, thus similar in thought to “shepherd”
  4. To teach (1 Timothy 3:2, 5:17, Titus 1:9)
  5. To be alert and protect against false teachers/wolves (Acts 20:28-31)
  6. And to pray for church members (James 5:14 also see Acts 6:1-7).

Given these duties I think it is best that a church have a plurality of elders instead of just one (or one senior pastor with associates—I don’t find a senior/associate authority distinction in Scripture).  Unless we are talking about a very small flock, it is difficult for a single elder/pastor to associate well enough with each member of his congregation to truly shepherd, protect, and pray for them.  Like all people, elders have limited resources and time, and most have their families to care for as well.  Thus the task is best shared among a team of godly, gifted, and able men.

Aside from this pragmatic aspect, while I agree the Bible does not specifically command that each church have multiple elders or a certain number of elders, a person is hard pressed to find a single example of a church only having one.  And when churches were established, we read that elders (plural) were appointed in “every town” (Titus 1:5—with the assumption that most churches were recognized as city churches as opposed to multiple churches in a city); and that “they [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23).

Pragmatically and by descriptive example, I believe it is best for each church to have a plurality of elders.  This does mean that each must be paid or “on staff” (though the church should make effort to supply for the needs of those who labor hard over the primary preaching/teaching duties—1 Timothy 5:17).

The head of the church is Jesus, under him the congregation is the final authority, but the elders have vested and entrusted authority from the church and God to lead the congregation. The ultimate authority in the church rest solely in Jesus, he is the head, the chief shepherd, Lord, and King.

Under Jesus, the church’s final authority rest with the congregation.  They have the right to say who does and does not belong to their membership, to carry out discipline, to test and appoint deacons, to test and appoint elders, and to discipline or remove deacons and elders from office (Matthew 18:15-22, Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and 5:19-25).

In appointing elders, the church congregation invests men with particular authority to lead through shepherding and oversight as God directs.  Since the elders are to be men of high reputation and proven character, the church is able to entrust them with such tasks.  If the church believes the elders have committed a gross sin, or are leading the congregation in an unbiblical manner or abusing their authority, the church has the right and authority to discipline them through rebuke and dismissal if need be.

In conclusion… Of course, much more can (has been and will be) said about this, the topic and discussions around it is enough to fill dissertations and books.  But based on the brief synopsis above I believe the best and most biblical model for pastoring a church is that of multiple elders.

Do you agree or disagree and why?  (Biblical reasoning w/ references is strongly encouraged! :) )


  1. says


    Thanks for the article. I too am inclined toward a multiple-elder model for church government as well.

    I have one area of contention (perhaps clarification is a better word). The concept of a “senior among equals,” I would argue, fits with a biblical concept of a plurality of elders. If we call him “senior pastor” and the others “associate pastors” is really just an issue of nomenclature. But rank or seniority does make sense.

    There’s the “double honor” that Paul mentions (1 Tim. 5:17), but also the anecdotal evidence of Peter, James and John being considered pillars of the church in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9). James is also given priority in Acts 12:17 and 15:13. While we should not have conventions in our churches where we have “lesser elders,” which is why I’m not a fan of the title “associate pastor,” I think having a senior or lead pastor is, at a minimum, not unbiblical.

  2. Jeff says

    Acts 14:23 – “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”

    According to Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, kata ekklesian should be translated “in each individual church,” (p. 241) with kata taken in the distributive sense, “indicating the division of a greater whole into individual parts” (p. 406). Daniel B. Wallace notices that if kata is “taken distributively here, it argues for plurality of elders” (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 377).

    Notice that there are plural elders “in each church.”

    James 5:14 – “Is any of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

    Notice that “the elders of the church” are called upon to pray, not “the elder of the church.”

  3. Jeff says

    I am not really expecting a biblical response from the Baptist Identity crowd. I suspect that we will hear them use the word “Presbyterian” a lot.

    • Tom Bryant says

      Didn’t take long to ignore the first paragraph of a good article…

      “In a recent post and comment stream I mentioned the need for us to work through some of our finer points of theology as opposed to bashing each other over the head and taking sides. So let’s talk: elders.”

  4. says

    Many churches that would eschew the idea of plural pastorship/overseeership/eldership ironically run a plural staff-led or plural deacon-led church with a similar (or lesser) amount of congregational input than what you have described above.

  5. Tom Bryant says

    While I agree that the Bible teaches elders, the discussion probably would deal with what is the spiritual ministry of the church and what are the areas of the church that lie outside of their purview. I see in Acts 6, the kind of key as to the relationship between elders and deacons.

    Do the elders determine the budget? Do they call and present the next pastor to the church? Are they in charge of appointing those who will do those things?

    Personally, I think what the Bible describes is far different than any ‘presbyterian’ form and can be documented in the Bible.

    • says

      You know, I’ve never liked the spiritual/other stuff divide that sometimes gets mentioned about church leadership. Every aspect and activity of the church relates to the spiritual in some form or another.

      I think with the Acts 6 thing you see the Apostles (basically functioning as the first 12 elders in the Jerusalem church) delegate a specific task out to these newly selected deacons, but they still remained under the broader leadership of the elders (6:3–“whom we will appoint to this duty.”)

      I’ve often heard this spoken of in terms of a spiritual needs/phyiscal needs spectrum–the pastors take care of the spiritual while the deacons take care of the physical. Yet, this particualr physical need was causing disunity, which could have possibly led to a split–there was very much a spiritual need driving it.

      I’ve also heard it argued that the pastors take care of the spiritual things like worship, preaching, and prayer; but in the exercise of the priesthood of believers, we must have business meetings for the congregation to speak their mind on other issues. Yet the priesthood has nothing to do with business meetings and voting on things–but spiritual sacrifices and gospel proclimation (1 Peter 2:4-10).

      So however a church with elders works these things out, I think biblically they must do it with the understanding that elders are the fatherly leaders they raise up and appoint to not just oversee the “spiritual” but the holistic operation of the church…

    • Frank L. says

      Tom, great post. I think many might miss the subtlties of what you are saying. Most discussion of “leadership” is actually a discussion of “controllership.” Who will “control” things.

      If people really understood what it means to be “an elder,” you would probably never need a selection process becausd the number of volunteers would not reach the level of need.

      As I read the Scriptures, eldership never trumped the voice of the congregation. Even notice in Acts 6 who controlled the process.

      Eldership that is primarily a “control issue” will always lead to weaker, not stronger churches. As long as the Biblical teaching of congregational government is balanced with the teaching of eldership (not an either/or, but both kind of thing) I have no problem as the Word allows for both forms.

  6. Bart Barber says

    Baptists employed the term “elder” widely as recently as a century ago. It was in many circles the preferred title to be employed with the names of pastors: “Elder Barber,” for example. You’ll find this kind of language scattered throughout the associational minutes and other documents of the period.

    It is a shame that we Southern Baptists got so focused on one of the three terms (pastor) that we lost sight of the other two biblical names (overseer and elder). The recovery of elder terminology is a positive development in Southern Baptist life.

    Jeff’s unChristian divisiveness notwithstanding, I don’t see much in this article that any “Baptist Identity” person would oppose. An enormous number of SBC churches have multiple elders already, as does ours (myself and three associate pastors). Perhaps Jeff can produce some evidence of Baptist Identity folks opposing the presence of multiple pastors at a single congregation. I urge my Baptist Identity brethren to refrain from calling Jeff a complete buffoon and to give him ample opportunity to support his allegations with data.

    It does seem to me that some people argue not merely for multiple elders in a congregation, but for multiple classes of elders in a congregation (viz., teaching vs. ruling). That is a differentiation that, I believe, has insufficient biblical support to sustain it. Although one verse in the Bible acknowledges that some pastors work harder than others at preaching and teaching, I see a presumption throughout the New Testament that an elder is an elder is an elder. Perhaps I do not see clearly enough, and others may be able to assist me. I know that our Presbyterian brothers get there by some of the same means that bring them to pedobaptism: they draw portions of their ecclesiology out of the Old Testament as well as the New. But it seems to me that New Testament ecclesiology would lead us to, as this article has stated so well, a church with two offices (elder/overseer/pastor and deacon) without further subdivision.

      • Matt Svoboda says

        Amen Bart. In the name of being “Baptist” people like Lumpkins and Harrell deny a clear teaching in the Bible The worst part is there is nothing distinctively Baptist about denying the “elder” practice and language.

        I think this article and Bart’s comment do great justice to this topic. People who deny the Bible’s teachings of eldership arent being good Baptists, they are simply being unbiblical.

        Bart, I would also love to see your response to the article linked above.

      • Bart Barber says

        I guess I’m not reading carefully enough. I read Harrell saying, just as this article does, that pastor, elder, and overseer are the same office. Harrell is arguing against “the elder as a separate office in addition to the Pastor and deacon.” This article seems to come down in precisely the same position as Harrell’s on that question.

        With regard to numerics, portions of Harrell’s article do indeed seem to suggest that a congregation can have one and only one elder. I disagree with him on that point, if that’s really what he means to say, and find it a bit odd.

        Personally, I would say that it is neither wrong to have a single elder nor wrong to have multiple elders in a congregation. It depends somewhat upon the size of the congregation. I think that most Southern Baptists would find it odd to encounter a congregation of 2,000 with only one pastor on the staff. I think it is would also be odd to have a congregation of 20 with multiple elders, all of whom were fully functioning as elders/pastors/overseers. The number of elders ought to be in some manner commensurate to the size of the congregation, I believe.

        But I would not throw down the gauntlet over which size church ought to have how many elders. I don’t think that the Bible speaks to that question with enough specificity to warrant dogmatism.

        • says

          I would say Harrell and I agree, like you said, in relation to elders, pastors, and overseers being one.

          I also did get the sense that he is firmly entrenched in a single-elder/pastor model, and found it odd how he’d quote scripture speaking about “elders” and turn that into “elder” when on the other hand he always attached the ‘s’ to deacons.

          But where I think Harrell completely missed the boat is where I think many do in this so-called debate: they create a straw-man that defines “reformed” Baptists as Presbyterian-wannabe Baptists and therefore wrongly equate the “reformed” Baptists’ talk about a plurality of elders with a divided eldership: ruling and teaching.

          Part of this (which I think is also hinted in Brad Whitt’s now-well-known article) I believe is over the designation “lay elder” as if a “lay elder” is the ruling elder and the guy who gets paid to preach is the “teaching elder”. When simply “lay elder” in a single-office terminology means an elder who doesn’t get paid. The “teaching” elder “rules” just as much as the lay elder and the lay elder must be able to “teach” just as much as the one who gets paid. But in a practical sense–the one who gets paid (or receives “double honor”) to preach and teach does most of the preaching b/c he has the most time to study and prepare.

          In baptist elder terminology lay and paid are cut from the same cloth and serve in the same office.

          Yet in conversations I’ve had with people and in things I’ve read, some just don’t seem to understand that idea.

          • Bart Barber says


            I don’t know. How is this not simply a divided eldership that is just reluctant to call itself a divided eldership? Biblically, the difference between a paid-more elder (“double honor”) and a paid-less elder (half honor?) does not equate to a difference between a paid elder and a completely unpaid elder. Also, referencing Greear’s article that I cited above, the differences between the two classes of elders (the “staff” and the “board”) are not accidents of circumstance, but are highlighted as part of the design. There is perceived advantage in having two kinds of elders—those “inside” the staff and those “outside” the staff.

            I’d be more convinced that all of these elders were truly functioning in the same office if, when such churches grew and had access to more money, rather than hiring a new face from elsewhere, one of the previously unpaid elders was automatically brought onto the payroll. That doesn’t seem to be the prevailing practice. Instead, looking from the outside, it appears that there are two classes of elders that are essentially different, so much so that individuals only very rarely pass from one category into the other.

          • says

            The church I mentioned in the starter–my college church–where I first saw eldership in action had paid elders and staff elders.

            When they gathered in meetings to make decisions in regards to their “vested authority” by the church, each elder had “one vote” and every decision had to be in unanimous agreement to be acted upon.

            The lay elders “ruled” no more or no less than the staff elders.

            One served as the “preaching pastor”–none of the others taught as much as he did, of course. However they all taught in some official capacity; they also all counseled, etc. Since it was the job of the staff to work at the church, they of course did more teaching and counseling because they had more available time.

            Yet even though there was a dichotomy in the lay/paid designation there was no such division in function, or biblically defined character requirements and abilities.

            I know some churches (in my opinion, wrongly) make a distinction between the functions, etc. of the lay and staff; but it also is a mistake in the other direction to say that there is a necessary distinction simply because some are paid and some are not.

            Granted Paul never referred to himself as an elder (like Peter did with himself), but he functioned in a status kind of like an elder in some of the churches he helped plant and strengthen. There were times he forwent pay for a particular reason, though he stated he would have been in his rights to be paid/supported for his work. To me that’s what lay elders do—their position has the right to be paid but, for whatever reason, they have chosen to forgo pay as they perform their duties.

          • says

            I’ll also mention: I don’t like hiring from the outside period, unless absolutely necessary.

            I think pastors/elders are meant to be raised up from within and that hiring via resume is largely detrimental to the ministry of the pastor and the life of the church.

            I wrote about that here: http://sbcvoices.com/is-it-working/

          • says

            <blockquote?I think pastors/elders are meant to be raised up from within and that hiring via resume is largely detrimental to the ministry of the pastor and the life of the church.

            Amen and amen!


          • says

            Gack… check you’re coding, Squirrel!

            Let’s try again…

            I think pastors/elders are meant to be raised up from within and that hiring via resume is largely detrimental to the ministry of the pastor and the life of the church.

            Amen and amen!


          • Bart Barber says


            Each having equal voting power does not mean that they are in the same office. At our business meetings, my vote counts the same as the vote of a deacon or our most recently saved member. We are not, however, in the same biblical office. I really believe that fungibility is an important characteristic here. The idea that I as a “staff elder” might just as easily wind up changing to a “lay elder” assignment or vice-versa is an indication that we’re talking about the same office. Otherwise, it seems to me that we really do have two different classes of elders.

    • says

      Bart, I’m disappointed because I really wanted to call someone a buffoon. :)

      D.R. Randle and Jeff have provided an interesting article against elders to which I would also like to know you response.

      You said something very interesting about this discussion of Baptists and elders.

      It does seem to me that some people argue not merely for multiple elders in a congregation, but for multiple classes of elders in a congregation (viz., teaching vs. ruling).

      Do you know of any Baptists who have recently written in support of having teaching and ruling elders? There have been Baptists in the past that have had such division, but I am unfamiliar of anyone in these recent debates who has called for two classes of elders.

      Also, Mark Dever’s article “Baptists and Elders” seems helpful for this discussion for everyone reading.

      • Bart Barber says

        Most of what Dever writes is helpful.

        I confess, Mark, that I don’t follow the matter closely enough to be able to differentiate intelligently between “in the past” and “these recent debates.” I do observe in some churches a clear differentiation between paid “staff” elders who preach and unpaid “lay” elders who generally do not. For example, J. D. Greear writes with a clear and pointed differentiation among “staff” and “board,” clearly indicating not only a de facto division between “staff” elders and “lay” elders who are “outside the grind,” but even employing different terminology to emphasize the distinction.

        • says

          I agree with this post and I agree with Bart. Elders are elders, whether paid or not. If one or more happen to be paid, it shouldn’t matter as to the role and responsibilities of shepherding.

        • says

          Bart, I can’t tell if Greear’s staff and board are all considered elders. This seems no different than many Baptist churches who form a board or committee in order to work in some leadership capacity. A church might distinguish on paper between lay and paid elders while in practice giving all equal authority in their positions. Either way, neither of these would be the same as the Presbyterian set-up of having ruling and teaching elders.

          I do appreciate you giving one SBC example of a church who has a bit of a ecclesiastical different set-up. (Even if it is possible only different in the assignment of titles.) I’ve not seen that Greear’s set-up is the norm when SBCer’s argue for a plurality of elders/pastors. Often the charge of SBCer’s trying to install a Presbyterian form of church government is a red herring.

          Besides, would Greear’s set-up be any more or less biblical than churches whose deacons lead in a way that pastors/elders might otherwise? Interestingly enough, these discussion hardly ever (never?) focus on the biblical role of deacons vs. their role in many SBC churches.

          • says

            Good point Mark. It’s funny how plural eldership gets such a bad rap in many baptist circles considering the absurd view of deacons that many churches hold. Do we really believe it was God’s design for one pastor and a board of deacons to continually be at each other’s throat for leadership of the church?

  7. says

    I’ve come to prefer the term “elder-led congregational” to describe what I think the bible teaches (it’s probably not original). This recognizes both the elder/pastor/bishop (to distinguish from deacons) with the role of leading, protecting and feeding the flock, while also recognizing the role of the congregational authority (as opposed to denominations or presbytyries) in key areas.

    Someone mentioned above that it is also curious that those congregations that disdain the concept of an elder-led congregational form usually have a structure that in some fashion functions as de facto elders: either the deacons pull double-duty or the staff performs that role.

    • says

      I think “elder-led” is a great description… and I use it in conversations with people: “I’m not talking about elder-ruled.”

      Of course, part of my argument is that the congregation “entrusts” the elders with authority to lead–hence to make certain decisions w/o committees or meetings. But I think part of the problem people have with that is past experience with crummy pastors (read that as: guys who should not be pastors/elders in the first place) who manipulate their authority, lead with a heavy-hand as opposed to with guiding care, or change churches all the time just for better pay or some other wordly reason…

      • Bart Barber says

        …just as congregationalism is sometimes torpedoed by people with bad past experiences occasioned by its worst practitioners.

  8. says

    I used to be in the SBC, then became a Presbyterian, and am now a Lutheran. I can’t say that I’ve seen any church body that really models itself as far as church polity goes after the Biblical model and have seen great abuses among those who think they are. In the Scriptures I see a three-fold office of the pastoral ministry–bishops, presbyters, and deacons. All three forgave sins, preached, and administered the sacraments. All three did so full-time generally. The presbyters worked under the guidance of the bishops and the deacons assisted the presbyters and focused on ministering to the poor. My own church body has determined that the only office that Christ instituted was that of the pastoral office and that deacons were adopted to address a specific need in the church and so we can choose to have them or not and can assign them to whatever we think needs to be done. I don’t agree with this position but it seems less problematic than what I’ve seen go on in Reformed and Presbyterian churches where they seem to think they are actually doing what the Scriptures say by electing people to serve as elders who are already working other full-time jobs and have not been thoroughly trained. When I believed that a pastor was preaching false doctrine–they simply did not have the ability to deal with it and chose to try to scare me, assuming that since the pastor is the pastor he must be right. The deacons tended to be chosen based on who were the most successful businessmen (and they tended to be cut-throat businessmen).

  9. says

    I started a church through NAMB almost 7 years ago. We set out with the express intent of being an “elder led” congregation. I also like and use that terminology. We developed our by laws with the intent to give the elders decision making ability so that the church could concentrate on ministry and not on the day to day details of helping the organization run smoothly. We expect our elders to be servants. They do not use their positions as clubs or bully pulpits. They serve the congregation. We currently have three elders with a fourth taking a sabbatical and a fifth being raised up from inside the church.

    The process of selecting initial elders was carried out through a long and onerous, but profitable, process that saw the congregation involved in affirming and setting aside these men by the laying on of hands and prayer. They completed a six month internship process in addition to being affirmed by the church.

    I am convinced by the inerrant scriptures that this is the most Biblical method of church government. I understand why some people are nervous about it. I do not understand why some persist in calling it “Presbyterian.” I think we had an easy time implementing the elder system b/c so many of our people were unchurched or were completely disgusted with church politics and open to what Scripture said about the church and its leadership.

    I do not wish any ill on those who do not agree with elder led churches but I wish they would take the time to listen and learn before lumping all churches with elders into the same boat. I really appreciate articles like this one that do a good job of explaining what Biblical eldership should look like. Thanks Mike!

      • says

        Extra. :)

        Truthfully, since these were initial elders, I wanted to be sure that these men fit all of the qualifications of eldership laid out in 1 Timothy and Titus. Everything I had observed from afar was in line, but you and I know that pressure has a way of bringing out the truth of a man. So the 6 month “internship” was a trial basis to see who could be counted on to be faithful, to fulfill tasks, and to keep things confidential.

        Now, we do not have that process. We have other systems in place to be able to observe potential elders in leadership roles- both paid and unpaid- and can then make calls on moving toward eldership based on those observations.

        Also, I think I failed to mention we have a mix of paid and unpaid elders on our team. They wield the same authority. The Lead Pastor serves as the “first among equals” among the elders. he holds them accountable and the elders are responsible to hold the lead pastor accountable.

  10. Louis says

    Do elders have to be hired staff?

    I believe that non-professional, lay people, who meet the qualifications set forth in scripture can also serve as elders.

    Actually, it makes more sense to have a lay person who meets the biblical qualifications set forth in scripture to serve as an elder than a younger, less experienced, associate pastor or staff person who has less years of service than the elder, and in all probability is going to move on and become a senior pastor at another church after some period of time in the congregation. I believe that such a person should serve on the staff of the church under the direction of the elders, not serve as an elder.

    Our church has adopted a model where we have multiple elders and the pastor is one of the elders. The other staff people, whether called “pastor” or not, are church employees who are managed by the senior pastor on a day to day basis and implement the vision and direction set by the elders. The elders are affirmed by the church.

    This is not the only model. It may not be the best for some. But it has worked well for us for 18 years.

    • says

      Do elders have to be hired staff?

      See up in the comment thread around (currently) #’s 15-18. I say no, but others would disagree.

      You make that comment about the older lay elder vs. a younger staff guy or associate pastor… I tell you–I think God right now is working through our imperfect systems, but I think there’s a better and more biblical way.

      I’ll be 31 in a few weeks and I’ve pastored for 7 years now. I’ve only pastored in churches where I’m the only pastor/whatever–not even an associate of any kind. Yet really, the past year or so I’ve been looking at things in light of the Bible’s requirements for pastors/overseers/elders and just how things have practically worked out.

      I’m not 100% there yet, but I’m moving in the direction of being convinced that us young guys should not be pastors (see: http://sbcvoices.com/biblical-requirements-for-pastors-older-married-and-with-a-proven-family/).

      It has to do with the title “elder” itself and the implications of the meaning of the title upon the office, the 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 description of the overseer/elder as someone with a proven family (a “proof” he is able to lead and care for a church family), and the practicality of what is missing in the father-like care and leadership elders/pastors should have when one hasn’t been there and done that…

      It doesn’t mean that a younger guy couldn’t teach and serve in the church, exercising and honing his gifts under the leadership of the elders. But the more I think and learn, the more convinced I am that the notion of elders requires something more than a younger guy can give…

        • Frank L. says

          Timothy was probably in his 40’s and had personally been mentored by the Aposlte Paul for a number of years.

          We think of Timothy being “youthful” by Paul’s description but transpose our idea of youth on the text. Of course, it is not possible for us to know exactly how old Timothy was when he started in ministry, but most likely he was not in his 20’s or 30’s.

          I’m 54 and have been in the ministry going on 34 years. I would do two things differently if I started over again: 1) I’d be a non-vocational pastor (or at the least bi-vocational) and 2) I’d seek out an older pastor to mentor me for a significant period of time.

          I think the problem surfacing in this thread for me is not the “single-elder congregational model” vs. the plurality of elders, as much as it is the professional paid clergy idea.

          • says

            What do you base the assessment of Timothy on? A “younger man” in biblical times was generally a man who was not married. If my hazy history recalls right, most Jewish men did married in their mid to late thirties. Timothy was most liekly in his late twenties early thirties. Also, based on average life expectancy in the 1st century, I highly doubt that a man in his 40s was a “young man.”

          • says


            You make a common mistake regarding life expectancies in ancient times.

            When we say “life expectancy then was 45 years” we are not saying that adults dropped dead at 45. If you survived childhood and if you died of natural causes, you’d most likely live to a ripe old age – 70’s, 80’s, or even 90’s. It is the high infant mortality rates which pull the average life expectancy down so low.

            Just a bit of explanation from an historian :)


        • cb scott says

          Hey Bart,

          Give me a call when you have an opportunity. I would like to catch up with you on some things.

          I have been “holed” in a cave fightin’ for my life with Kate “The She-Devil” Turabian for the last few months. Recently, I did see a light above and am now diggin’ out and may soon see the blue skies of normalcy if you know what I mean.

  11. Benji Ramsaur says

    I want to gently encourage everyone to consider (if you have not already) that the categorization of some Christian people as lay_________ and other Christian people as paid/clergy/professional/etc. is an Old Testament kind of distinction that has been brought over into the New Testament church that needs to be jettisoned.

    All are priests and all are anointed in the N.T. church.

    I also encourage everyone to do a word search for “cleros”, if you have not already, and see who it refers to in the New Testament.

    God Bless,


  12. Robert I Masters says

    I think the key distinction between Presbyterian systems and Baptistic systems role of the congregation in the Church.
    I like the last paragraph on your post.
    The question then is….. who has the final say in congregational life?

    My Church here in Nashville has ruling elders as do many Bible Churches. I wish we would change that as too Elder-led which seems both more Biblical and Baptistic.

  13. Robert I Masters says

    It seems to me you would hard pressed to find Biblical support for “church employees” who do the work of elders but dont have the authority of the elders. For example would your “church employees” teach the congregation or help set the doctrine of the congregation?
    Just curious what Scripture you would use to exclude them as elders?

    • Louis says

      First, I have argued that it makes more sense for lay people who meet the qualifications of Scripture who are older to serve rather than younger men who were on staff.

      Second, it depends on what the elders at a church do. If the elders serve in what you have called the “ruling” function, I think that it is not a good idea for employees to also serve in the ruling function.

      If the elders do not have any ruling aspect to their service, then there is no conflict of interest.

      These matters are definitely mandated or not mandated in Scripture. I believe that churches have some latitude in these matters. The NT does not give us too much detail here.

      We do see the church deciding in some passages. But in others, we see the leadership deciding things. And the term “overseer” itself implies some authority beyond just being elected.

      I would definitely not claim that the way I see things is the only way.

  14. Bill Mac says

    I know it is a minority viewpoint, but is there any scholarship out there that views the words for pastor and elder as not entirely synonymous?

    The word pastor is the Greek word for shepherd. And it is translated as shepherd in every instance except in Eph 4:11. In every place in the NT except the Eph. passage, it refers to a real shepherd, or Jesus. The word is never used to refer to the overseer of a church. The list in Eph. is a list of spiritual gifts.

    Perhaps the distinction is too fine, but I think there can be a distinction. Our church, though very small, has 3 elders. One of those is the man whom we call “pastor” and he is the one whose primary duty is preaching the Word to us every Sunday. And he gets compensated for it. I am an elder, and I certainly can perform the duties of the pastor. I have on many occasions when the pastor was away, or when we were without a pastor. I take my ministry duties seriously, but I do not feel that I am called to be a pastor, or perhaps THE pastor, not in the sense that I mean. It is not my gift or calling.

    That is why I think the term elder to be a better term than pastor, when talking about offices. And quite frankly, I think the change from the term elder to pastor reinforces the single elder model for churches, that I believe to be wrong. That’s only a hunch on my part though.

    • says

      I really didn’t have time to get much into the details of it in the opener. I’m not sure what the scholarship is that says elders/pastors are separate things, though I do know some people hold that not every elder is a pastor but every pastor is an elder.

      I disagree and think that every elder is a pastor, or at least should be.

      When it comes to Ephesians 4–I don’t see these so much as gifts, but particular gifted men that God has given to the church. In other words, I don’t agree that shepherding or pastoring is a spiritual gift but that the Shepherd-Teacher Paul mentions there is a man who has various spiritual gifts that equip him to be Pastor/Teacher…same with apostle, prophet, etc. But that might be a matter of nuance.

      In two places, however: Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2, Paul and Peter address the group of elders and employ the verb poimaino or “shepherd.” It’s simply the verbal form of the noun Paul uses in Eph 4:11 for the word we often translate “pastors.” When Paul and Peter write, they give no indication of speaking to a group within the elders, but to speaking to all the elders and basically say: “you are the elders and one of your God-given tasks is to shepherd.”

    • Frank L. says

      Bill Mac,

      I think the subtle distinction with the word, poime (pastor) is a good one. Pastor is more a function than a position, in regard to the other words used for leaders.

      Presbuteros (elders) obviously has an age connotation. The only real “leadership” type word is episkopos (bishop, overseer). In Phil. 1:1, one of Paul’s later epistles (the church was coming out of infancy), the organizational structure was, “deacons and overseers.”

      So, I do not see the three words as absolute synonyms but different aspects of the one (or each if a plurality) office. It would be just as biblical to refer to the “head guy” as the bishop, instead of the pastor — but I don’t look for that to catch on anytime soon in an SBC context.

  15. Bill Mac says

    I can’t tell you the number of people who pooh pooh the idea of elders by saying that deacons are really elders.

  16. says

    Thanks for the info. I caveated my statement for a reason. :) In my case it’s not the age but the mileage! Too many years and miles between the classroom and today.

    Do you think Timothy was in his 40s? Would be curious about your opinion.

    • says

      The dating of the writing of 1 Timothy (roughly 62–64 AD) would place it around 15 years after Paul’s 2nd missionary journey, when Timothy first accompanied him. If we judge Timothy’s age at that time as being between 15 and 25 years old, then, at the writing of 1 Timothy, he would be somewhere in the 30 to 40 range. 35 years old seems like a good guess, but he could have been 40.

      All dates in the ancient world are approximations 😀


      • says

        I have always heard that Timothy was probably in his 30s as well. It sounds about right. As a thirtysomething (did I really just use that about myself) minister, I can testify that there are plenty of times I feel ever so young and green in the ministry, despite having started serving as a youth pastor when I was 19.

      • Frank L. says

        I think 30 to 35 would be an acceptable approximation. Keep in mind that this was probably equivalent to an American who is in his late 40’s do to the common misconception and myth of adolescence.

        At 30 or 35, Timothy was a well-seasoned veteran.

        • says


          That’s a good point. Men were considered adults at a much younger age in those times. Women, too. I’ve read some well-documented historical analysis that said the average bride was around 13 and the average groom was around 16 in Jewish culture in the 1st century.

          Sheds a whole new light on unmarried “kids” in their 30’s living with Mom & Dad, don’t it?


  17. Nathan Petty says

    I encourage readers to take an hour and listen to Mark Dever’s interview with Bruce Winter (link below). Bruce is the former principal of Queensland Theological College and warden of Tyndale House, and a recognized scholar and academician.

    Towards the end of the interview Mark and Bruce talk about leadership. In response to a question by Mark, Bruce presses back on the issue of “leadership”. His point is that pastors, elders, and deacons are first and foremost servants. Bruce also prefers to be addressed as Bruce, not “Doctor”. It was quite refreshing to hear an accomplished man of God with an earned research doctorate express his preference to be address by his name and not his title. His insistence on the servant role for all teachers of the Gospel was important, I think.

    As Bart Barber mentioned in #29 above, any system of church polity is routinely “torpedoed by people with bad past experiences occasioned by its worst practitioners.” My guess is that many of these “practitioners” never learned and embraced the first and primary mandate that a teacher love the saints and seek to serve the church. If you don’t love and serve you should not “lead”.

    If the church were more commonly served by men (and women) who sought first to serve before “leading”, then perhaps the type of polity would not be a controlling issue (I would prefer plurality of elders but do not expect my church to adopt this form of polity).


  18. Frank L. says

    “”(I would prefer plurality of elders but do not expect my church to adopt this form of polity).””

    I wondering if you can “practice” a plurality of elders without calling it by that name. It seems to be a matter of finding mature believers and putting them into places of significant leadership within the context of how each individual church organizes itself.

    People sometimes react against the “name” not the thing. As with drums in my church. They had heard drums on background tapes for years, but they were not identified as such. Once you put a set up and call it “the drums,” it became a whole different matter. They were not against “drums,” but against “those things on the stage.”

    Overtime, it might even be possible to change how people “name” things. As Confucious once said, “the beginning of wisdom is calling something by its right name.” The naming of leadership seems to be as much a problem as the “form” of leadership

  19. says

    How does eldership ideas and qualifications apply to the teaching ministry of the church? Especially in churches with a heavy emphasis on Christian Education/ or Sunday School ministry? Let’s say we’re talking about teaching the Bible to adults including men.

    • says

      Since the only ability-related qualification that an elder is to have is the ability to teach – all the other qualifications are character-related – then it stands to reason that the teaching ministry of the church is under the purview of the elders. They are the primary teachers in the church, and oversee any and all teaching that is not directly done by an elder. They would also oversee each other and hold each other accountable for what they teach.


  20. Frank L. says

    There’s a great book on this very subject in the Counterpoints Series called “Who Runs the Church: 4 Views on Church Government.” Thisis an excellent series, and this particular offering is one of the best.

    Steven B. Cowan is the general editor.

  21. Frank L. says

    While I’m on a “book thing,” I was looking for another book and came across one I must have purchased but don’t remember reading.
    It should be required reading to participate on SBC Voices. It deals with how to discuss essential and non-essential doctrines and maintain unity.

    “Conviction Without Compromise: Standing Strong in the Core Beliefs of the Christian Faith,” Norman Geisler, Ron Rhodes. Chapter 19 is on “Forms of Church Government.”

  22. says

    Thanks for an insightful article on eldership. If I may, I’d like to add my 2 cents into the pot…

    Mike, could I challenge your statement regarding Titus 1:5: “the assumption that most churches were recognized as city churches as opposed to multiple churches in a city.”

    What if we instead assume “city” doesn’t mean “city-church” as opposed to “local church?” After all, that distinction (city-church v. local church) isn’t attested in the NT anywhere (see Romans 16, for example).

    What if instead Paul meant “every city” was to have one set of elders over one newly formed church in each city on Crete? This is a point I argue in my new book, The Titus Mandate. I argue that many cities on Crete had multiple churches – the gospel had been on Crete for 30+ years (Acts 2:10-11) and had born great fruit but the churches were for the most part led by dangerous men (Titus 1:10-16). Thus Titus 1:5 is Paul’s mandate to Titus to reform the churches on Crete with godly leadership – one newly formed church comprised of all the believers in each city – with a single set of elders ruling over it.

    With this reconstruction we don’t have to assume that “city” means “church.” But more important, it tells us precisely how Paul wanted churches led – each with a plurality of truly qualified men.