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

Over the past two posts, I’ve been making the case 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. The particular model I have in mind is “elder-led congregationalism,” where the terms “pastor” and “elder” are synonymous.  While last week we considered the biblical argument for each church having a plurality of pastors, today we will briefly provide a historical defense for this model of church leadership.

Did the earliest churches interpret the Scriptures to imply the need for multiple pastors?

It is undeniable that the post-apostolic church began to display tremendous and rapid change.[1] As a result, we do not see a consistent, universal presence of the plurality of pastors model throughout the course of church history. However, we do see reference to this model of leadership in the earliest churches found in the Shepherd of Hermas, Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians, and the Didache.[2]  For example, the Didache encouraged the early believers to appoint “bishops and deacons.” Additionally, Polycarp counseled the Philippian church to submit themselves to what he called the “presbyters” of the church even as they submitted to God. Irenaeus argued similarly that the elders were to be obeyed as those who possessed the “succession from the apostles.”[3]

Ultimately, the early church recognized a two-tiered system of church government that consisted of the two biblical offices of elders and deacons. Over time, men like Ignatius were instrumental in moving away from this model that led to the eventual distinction between the offices of overseer/bishop and presbyter/elder. Ignatius called for a model that would place a single bishop over the elders and deacons. By the third and fourth centuries, this model became the norm.[4] Ultimately, events transpired that led to the development of the hierarchical government in the Catholic Church which elevated the bishop of Rome above the other bishops, a practice that finally constituted the papacy.[5]

This centralized authority would eventually be called into question in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, at which point the authority of Scripture once again began to take precedent over mere tradition. While Luther continually articulated in his sermons and writings that bishops, elders, and pastors were all the same office in Scripture, Calvin also similarly reestablished the synonymous identity of bishops and elders. In doing so, he removed any level of authority that would have otherwise been above the local church.[6] Thus began the earliest form of Presbyterianism, which was further emphasized by the Puritans, finally leading to the revitalization of the plurality of elders model.[7]

In Baptist life, history gives us the same picture. W.B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote, “each [New Testament] church had a plurality of elders.”[8] In 1849, J.L. Reynolds who served as the pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia affirmed the same teaching. Later, William Williams, a member of the founding faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stated, “In most, if not all the apostolic churches, there was a plurality of elders.”[9] While for years a great number of Baptist churches drifted from this biblical and historically Baptist practice, even in the latter twentieth century and early twenty-first century, indeed a revival of the plurality of pastors model has occurred.[10]

In the next post, we will begin looking at a number of the practical benefits of each church having a plurality of pastors.



[1] Mark Dever, By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life, 13.

[2] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 293-294.

[3] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, 589-590.

[4] Ibid, 590-592.

[5] Ibid, 596.

[6] Mark Dever, By Whose Authority? 16.

[7] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 590.

[8] W.B. Johnson, The Gospel Developed, in Dever, By Whose Authority? 20.

[9] William Williams, Apostolical Church Polity, in Dever, By Whose Authority? 21.

[10] Mark Dever, By Whose Authority? 22.

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