One Pastor or Many? The Case for a Plurality of Pastors (Part 2: The Biblical Argument)

Should churches be led by one primary pastor, or multiple pastors (often known as a “plurality”)?

 In my last post, I began to make the following argument: 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. The particular model I have in mind is “elder-led congregationalism,” where the terms “pastor” and “elder” are synonymous.

As we think through church leadership structures, we must begin with the Bible. A survey of the New Testament on church leadership seems to suggest the call for each local church to have multiple pastors. In fact, Gregg Allison concludes, “A pattern of plurality of elders is established from the New Testament data; all the examples of churches found on its pages were led by a multiple group of pastors, and no church had a single elder.”[1]

It is compelling to establish the fact that almost every single mention of the term “elders” in the New Testament is found in the plural form. In fact, there are only three exceptions. They are found in 1 Timothy 5:19, 2 John 1, and 3 John 1. However, in none of these instances does the singular usage of the word “elder” indicate that the church in reference only had a single elder; it simply entails that one particular elder was being considered in that specific context.

The first mention of the term “elders” in the New Testament is found in Acts 11:30 where the church at Antioch is sending Barnabas and Paul to the elders in Jerusalem for financial aid. Then, in Acts 15, like the plural body of apostles that had initially led the church, Luke points out the Jerusalem church also consisted of multiple elders.   Luke tells us in Acts 15:2, “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.”

In Paul’s first missionary journey, he travels to the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. In each of these instances Paul makes sure of one thing, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). In the initial establishment of Paul’s earliest church plants, he was committed to appointing for each of them not one single pastor, but multiple pastors.[2] Thus, the model of church government that calls for a plurality of pastors was not simply one that developed over time, but one that was fundamental to the DNA of the local church from the very beginning.

This practice was almost certainly the firm pattern that Paul intended to establish not only in these churches, but also in all churches. For example, we see this same pattern continue in Titus 1:5 where Paul writes to Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.”

For Paul, a church was not “in order” if it did not yet have a plurality of pastors.

Throughout the New Testament, leadership in local churches is continually referred to in the plural form. For example, when James instructs the sick to call for their church leadership to pray for them, he does not command them to call for their single pastor. Instead, in James 5:14 he tells them to “. . . call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

As Paul was passing through the city of Ephesus in route to Jerusalem, in effort to provide a final word of encouragement to the churches, he does not call for the pastor, but he gathers together the “elders of the church” (Acts 20:17), and then refers to them as the “overseers” in Acts 20:28.[3]

When Paul writes to Timothy, he encourages him to, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1Timothy 5:17). Again Paul naturally refers to a plural form of leadership in the church at Philippi when he addresses his letter in the following way, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). Finally, in 1 Peter 5:1, Peter is speaking to the churches scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. In doing so, he does not exhort a single pastor. Rather, he says, “So I exhort the elders among you . . . .” (1 Peter 5:1).[4]

In spite of the seemingly overwhelming evidence for a plurality of pastors, an honest observation of Scripture still admits that there are some gray areas as it relates to church government.   Tim Keller argues, “There is no single way of doing church that employs the right biblical or even the right cultural model.”[5] Dever agrees and admits “. . . the Bible leaves ample room to wiggle on the issue of church structure.”[6] In spite of some cases of admitted ambiguity, the pattern in the New Testament remains consistent and sufficient for advocating a model of church government that consists of multiple pastors.

Bruce Stabbert offers the following helpful summary,

“It is concluded after examining all the passages which mention local church leadership on the pastoral level, that the New Testament presents a united teaching on this subject and that it is on the side of plurality. This is based on the evidence of the seven clear passages which teach the existence of plural elders in single local assemblies. These passages should be allowed to carry hermeneutical weight over the eight other plural passages which teach neither singularity nor plurality. This is a case where the clear passages must be permitted to set the interpretation for the obscure. Thus, of the eighteen passages which speak of church leadership, fifteen of them are plural. Of these fifteen, seven of them most definitely speak of a single congregation. Only three passages talk about church leadership in singular terms, and in each passage the singular may be seen as fully compatible with plurality. In all these passages, there is not one passage which describes a church being governed by one pastor.”[7]

In the next post, we will take a brief look at church history and its usage (or lack thereof) of the plural form of pastoral leadership. In the mean time, please begin to interact below in the “comment” section with initial observations, questions, and concerns.

[1] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 289-290.

[2] Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 161.

[3] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 36-37.

[4] Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 163.

[5] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, 369.

[6] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel, 131.

[7] Bruce Stabbert, The Team Concept: Paul’s Church Leadership Pattern or Ours?, 25-26.

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