ONE PASTOR OR MANY? THE CASE FOR A PLURALITY OF PASTORS (PART 5: What about Congregationalism?)

Over the past several posts, I have argued that the Bible, church history, and conventional wisdom communicate that the healthiest model of church leadership is one in which leadership responsibilities are shared among a plurality of pastors. However, this model is not without concerns or perceived difficulties. Two of these common concerns are related to congregationalism and the importance of a primary, single leader. In today’s post, we will begin by answering this question: Does the plural pastor model compromise congregationalism?

One of the fears of pastor-led congregationalism is that the pastors/elders will become an oligarchy and the congregational members will lose all or much of their voice and influence. As was stated earlier, however, it is crucial to make a distinction between the elder-ruled and elder-led form of government. The model that is being advocated is elder-led congregationalism. This model provides a balance between the authority of the pastors and the authority of the congregation. It is not an “either/or,” but a “both/and.” When churches ignore the biblical authority given to both parties, such an oversight can create an unhealthy and dangerous balance.[1]

On one hand, Scripture clearly teach that the congregation is to honor, love, and rightly esteem its pastors (1 Thess. 5:12-13, 1 Tim. 5:17). Additionally, church members are even told to “obey” their leaders (Hebrews 13:17). However, we must not say that the elders are infallible and that their authority is absolute. While submission to the elders is expected in Scripture, Strauch is right to say,

The requirement to submit, however, is not meant to suggest blind, mindless submission. Nor does it suggest that elders are above questioning or immune from public discipline (1 Tim. 5:19). The elders are most assuredly answerable to the congregation, and the congregation is responsible to hold its spiritual leaders accountable to faithful adherence to the truth of the Word. . . . the congregation is to be directly involved in the public examination and approval of prospective elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:10). All members have a voice in assuring that what is done in the church family is done according to Scripture. So there is a tightly knit, delicate, and reciprocal relationship between elders and congregation.[2]

The model of church government that seems to be the most consistent with the Scriptures is one that is characterized by some form of congregationalism in which the pastors regularly and normally lead.[3] In some sense, the congregation is still ultimately governing itself, but it is doing so only through the leadership of its elders – the elders that the church members examined and approved. However, where the notion of congregationalism becomes dangerous is when it essentially becomes a democracy. “The New Testament does not indicate that the congregation governs itself by majority vote, and there is no evidence that God has granted every member one equal vote with every other member.”[4] In other words, elder-led congregationalism is not a sheer democracy that calls for a vote on every single issue or decision in the church. Instead, while the elders are given the freedom to lead and oversee the general direction of the church, there are limited instances when a congregational vote is biblical. For example, Scripture is clear in Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 that the final stage of church discipline is to be carried out by the church, and Paul even uses the language of a “majority” vote in 2 Corinthians 2:6. Additionally, the Bible seems to suggest direct congregational involvement in the choosing of its officers in texts such as Acts 6:1-6.[5] In many churches using this model, other major decisions will be made with the final approval of the congregation. This typically includes things like property acquisition, yearly budgets, and hiring key staff members.[6]

Finally, elder-led congregationalism recognizes that the elders are given the freedom to generally make the decisions in the church while maintaining a close relationship with and keen awareness of the congregation. The elders should be eager to humbly desire the affirmation of the church members. Thus, the elders are not to inoculate themselves and operate in secrecy apart from having a real pulse on the congregational members. Rather, this relationship between the pastors and congregation should be characterized by free, open, and frequent communication.[7] Thus, a plurality of pastors is not the enemy of congregationalism; rather, the two are able to effectively complement one another for a well-balanced approach to ministry.

In our next post, we will examine the question: does a plurality of pastors compromise the principle of a senior, or primary leader?

 

[1] Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 98.

[2] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 292.

[3] Mark Dever, By Whose Authority? 36.

[4] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 293.

[5] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 278.

[6] Ed Stetzer and Thom S. Rainer, Transformational Churches, 89.

[7] Ibid, 294.

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