Titus 1:5 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
Acts 14:23 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.
When beginning to plant our church in 2016, we met together and put a folding table in the middle of the room. We then wrote down on index cards everything that came to our minds when we thought about the local church and we placed each card on the table. One by one we divided the cards into three categories: un-Biblical, extra-Biblical, & Biblical. We wanted to start our new church fellowship with a clear picture of what practices were absolutely against the Bible, what practices were not necessarily against the Bible but were not prescribed in the Bible, and finally what were non-negotiable practices according to the Bible’s witness.
It was amazing how many cards fell in the category of extra-Biblical. We found that so many of the practices that the local churches we had been a part of were not practices that were commanded, but rather practices that had slowly just become a part of tradition over the last century. Some examples are more obvious. For example, pews, stained glass windows, particular music styles, and the greeting time at the beginning of a Sunday service were all extra-Biblical aspects of the church that we had come to know but were not prescribed in Scripture.
There were some, however, that were less obvious. What about church committees, youth pastors, senior pastors, and miscellaneous staff positions? What does the Bible have to say about the offices of the local church, church structure, decision-making, and church leadership? How does the church come together organizationally to carry out the work of the ministry? Is this something left up to our own creativity, or does the Bible speak to these questions?
After much prayer and study, I came to believe that the Bible does, in fact, speak to many questions of church organization. Here are some principles for church organization that we have built our church polity around.
The New Testament portrays the congregation of local church members as the final court of appeal in circumstances concerning church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8) and in the election of church officers (Acts 6:3-5). Many of the letters of the New Testament were written to churches as a whole for the confrontation of certain issues, thus, by implication, the weight of responsibility falls on the collection of members at large. This is what we mean by congregational. Church members are committed to and responsible for the health, growth, and ministry of the local church. At the same time, churches are clearly commanded in Hebrews 13:17, “obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This Scripture points to an organizational structure in which church members follow the leading of certain leadership. Who is that leadership?
All authority in the church comes from the resurrected Jesus Christ and is exercised on his behalf. According to the Scriptures, Jesus is the “Chief Shepherd” of God’s church (1 Peter 5:1-5), but he has invested the authority and responsibility of church leadership to “under-shepherds”. These under-shepherds are referred to in the scriptures with three interchangeable words: elder, pastor, and overseer. In Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, all three words occur simultaneously referring to the same group of men. You can also find all three words used interchangeably in Peter’s instruction to elders in 1 Peter 5.
Elder is not a term that signifies a particular physical age (1 Timothy 4:11-16), rather it conveys a certain spiritual maturity. Elders/Pastors/Overseers must be men who meet the Biblical qualifications as outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. While no man is perfect, the descriptions found in these two passages of Scripture should consistently characterize any potential elder. In addition, each elder must have the ability to verbally communicate sound Christian doctrine to the church. He must be able to both recognize and refute false doctrine that endangers the church. These qualifications require deep Biblical understanding and the ability to convey that understanding to the congregation with clarity and fruitfulness.
What Do Elders Do?
The responsibility of an elder is first and foremost to devote himself to the ministries of prayer and teaching the Word of God as portrayed in the pattern of the apostles in Acts 6:1-7. The major qualification that differentiates the office of elder from the office of deacon is the requirement that an elder must be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 4:11-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:9; 2:1). This qualification is in place because elders are primarily responsible for the doctrinal integrity of the church. They lead the church in Biblical teaching on various platforms and through various means including corporate preaching, small group teaching, and discipleship of individuals. They hold one another accountable in matters of doctrinal integrity and they protect the church’s membership from false teaching. Elders make decisions together in regard to the future of the church based upon the teaching of the Bible and the leading of the Spirit.
Elders are also responsible for the ministry of shepherding. They pay close attention to themselves and to all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. They care for God’s church (Acts 20:7-32). This shepherding involves the exercise of oversight that is willing, eager, and clothed with humility (1 Peter 5:1-5). Pastors lead by example in their disciple-making of the congregation through modeling Christ-like character, engaging in pastoral care, counseling, and carrying out Biblical church discipline. They are ultimately responsible for equipping the saints for the work of the ministry and for building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Though there may be circumstances in which a church is led by only one elder, the goal for that elder and the congregation should be a movement toward a plurality of elders – multiple men qualified and called to pastor a local church together. Although singular pastors have been common for many churches in the last century, a plurality of elders appears to be the norm for congregations addressed in the New Testament. (Acts 14:23; 15:22-23; 20:17; 1 Peter 5:1; James 5:14) Both Timothy and Titus were instructed to appoint multiple elders in each local church. (2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 1:5-9) Multiple elders leading a congregation together is both Biblical and practical. A plurality of pastors, both paid and volunteer, share the load of shepherding, teaching, and overseeing. With there joint leadership there is strength in a plurality of perspective, wisdom, and accountability.
What About the Lead Pastor?
The role of “Lead Pastor” or “Senior Pastor” cannot be explicitly sighted in Biblical texts, but it is perhaps inferred that particular elders did function in a leadership position that was unique to the others in their labor of preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18). Paul’s pastoral writings (1, 2 Timothy and Titus) imply that both Titus and Timothy served unique leadership roles in their churches. In the exercise of pastoral plurality within the church, there may be a certain pastor or certain pastors that are paid by the church so that they can give their lives fully to the work of pastoring. One man may be labeled as the lead pastor but he functions as a chief among equals. He may have more responsibility, but he does not wield more authority than his fellow elders. It is possible that a lead pastor might have more influence among church members because he teaches more often than the other pastors and is more immersed in the work day in and day out, but a pastor in this position nonetheless submits to his fellow elders and affirms their leadership in the local church as equally valuable and authoritative.
How Does It All Work Together?
This is what it looks like in our church. A lead pastor is paid by the church to devote all his time to preaching, praying, overseeing, and shepherding the local church. He is joined by fellow elders who may or may not be paid by the church. Volunteer elders have full-time careers outside of the church but make significant sacrifices to take on pastoral responsibilities. The elders meet together bi-weekly to pray for church members, discuss pastoral issues, and make decisions regarding the future direction of the church. Most decisions are voted upon in the elder meeting leaving no need for other committees or councils. Deacons serve as ministry leaders over certain areas of ministry within the church that would otherwise distract the pastors from pastoral work. Church members are free to carry out the work of the ministry as they glorify God by serving the church and making disciples in their homes, the community, and the church. Ministry is messy no matter what and it requires the leading of God’s Spirit, but this is the structure we believe to be most clearly outlined in God’s inspired word.
- For a sermon on Titus 1:5-9 and the significance of elder-led church governance click here.
- For a sermon on 1 Peter 5:1-5 and a sample ordination service for a new elder click here.
- For a book guide on elder leadership click here.
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley,
St. Rose Community Church