The Number of Leaders in the Local Church
Although I believe there can be flexibility, as there are few explicit statements in Scripture, I believe that the most biblical (closest to what we see in Scripture) and most prudent model of church governance is that each local church govern itself autonomously (independently), and be led by a plurality of elders. A plurality of elders seems to clearly be the pattern of the early church. Paul appointed a plurality of elders in each local church he planted (Acts 14:23), and he instructed Titus to do the same (Titus 1:5). In Titus, Paul connects appointing elders with setting things in order; so Paul seems to have in mind a set pattern to which the local church should conform. Throughout the New Testament, we find a consistent pattern of plural elders in individual local churches. For example, Paul called the elders of the Ephesian church to come to him (Acts 20:17), and James instructs the sick to call for the elders of the church (James 5:14).
There are three titles in Scripture for the spiritual leader of a church: “elder,” “overseer,” and “shepherd” (or the latinized “pastor”). In my opinion, these three terms all refer to the exact same office — not that they are absolute synonyms, because they each emphasize a different aspect of that leadership, but that there is only one office (though it can be held by multiple men in one church) of spiritual leadership in the church, and that is that of the elder/overseer/shepherd.
These terms are often used interchangeably in the New Testament. For example, all three terms are used of the same office in Acts 20:17-28, as well as 1 Peter 5:1-2, and Paul equates elders with overseers in Titus one. It seems that the term “elder” is the more formal title, referring to the man’s position — his standing — as spiritual and theological leader. “Pastor” is a more functional description (appearing only once as a noun—Eph 4:11) of the role of elder, stressing the care and feeding of the church as God’s flock. “Overseer,” or “guardian,” emphasizes the governing or general oversight of church life, as well as protecting the church (from false doctrine, disunity, wolves in sheep’s clothing, etc.).
Distinctions Between Elders
Because of the interchangeable use of these terms throughout Scripture, I do not think it wise to make constitutional distinctions (or to retain cultural ones) between the “pastor” in a church, and the “board of elders” (often treated either like a board of advisers for the pastor, or like the pastor’s staff, i.e. subordinates), as though these are two different offices. This distinction is not biblically founded (thus, not necessary); but nor is it helpful, as it inevitably causes one office to be seen by the congregation as of higher authority or significance than the other.
Rather, the pastor (whether he be called the senior pastor, lead pastor, teaching pastor, or any other moniker to designate him as the primary teacher or leader of the church) is simply one of the elders — an equal member of the council of elders (1 Timothy 4:14); and every other elder is also a pastor just as much as the lead pastor. This is not to say we cannot call one particular man the lead pastor (or some similar title). But his role as “first among equals” is a natural result of his being the one who bears primary responsibility to teach and preach the Word week by week. In other words, a particular man’s role as lead pastor should be more organic, rather than the church officially identifying on paper the position of “lead pastor” as distinct from or superior to that of other elders. As Jonathan Leeman puts it, “any ‘extra’ authority an elder or group of elders acquires should be the consequence of faithful service rendered, such as naturally accumulates through consistent and faithful teaching or a pronounced track record of one-on-one care for the sheep.”
Likewise, some elders/pastors may be paid as the church is able to support them for full-time vocational ministry, while others may be “lay” elders (not paid). Again, I believe this should not be reflected directly in the title used. In other words, I do not think it wise to call someone a “pastor” simply because he is paid, and others “elders” simply because they are not (or any variation thereof). This may be contrary to the way many contemporary churches do it now; but are we going to choose the cultural norm rather than use biblically precise language? I hope not.
So the church is to be led by a plurality of elders. But the big question then is: what is the role of the congregation? Does the congregation simply follow the council of elders, no questions asked? Or does the congregation have a role in the decisions made? Is the congregation in fact the final authority for the church? Must every decision be brought to a congregational vote? Some, such as Pastor Mark Dever, believe that the congregation — the assembly itself — is the final authority in matters of membership, disputes, and doctrine. As Dever puts it, in his book, A Display of God’s Glory, the congregation is “the last and final court of appeal in a matter of the life of the local church” (pg. 33).
Others, however, like Pastor Stephen Davey, in his commentary on Titus, argue that the local church is not a democracy, despite our typical American sensitivities (pg. 66). Rather, Scripture delineates the elders as the clear leaders over the congregation, for whom the elders are responsible and will give an account to God, while the congregation is commanded to obey and submit to the leadership (Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2). The elders are not to be dictators or authoritarian rulers, however (Matthew 20:25-28; 1 Peter 5:2-3). There is clearly two-way communication between the congregation and the leadership in decision-making. For example, the local assembly nominates its own leaders, who are then affirmed, or appointed by the elders (Acts 1:23; 6:1-6; 15:2-3). The assembly is also involved in church discipline (Matt 18:17-18; 1 Cor 5:4-13; 2 Thess 3:6, 14-15), and making decisions such as sending out its own missionaries (Acts 13:2-3; Acts 15:22). The primary delegated responsibility, however, of overseeing the church, and interpreting and transmitting the Word of God to the people of God, resides with the elders.
The Duties of the Elders
What then is the primary function and duty of the elders? Fundamentally, the role of the elders is to lead and disciple the believers under their care in becoming more fully committed and competent disciples of Christ themselves, and to equip them to make disciples of others. Or as one of my professors, Alan Potter, puts it, the elders are to lead the congregation under their care to grow in faith, hope, and love (1 Cor 13:13; Eph 1:15; Col 1:4-5; 1 Thess 1:3; 5:8; 2 Thess 1:3; Titus 1:1-2; Philemon 1:5; Hebrews 10:22-24; 1 Peter 1:21–22).
The Realm of their Duties
It is significant to note that the responsibility of the elders is specifically to the congregation under their care. In Acts 20:28, Paul instructs the Ephesian elders to give themselves to the ministry of their flock. Peter also stresses this responsibility in 1 Peter 5:2: “Shepherd the flock of God among you.” So the duty of every pastor is to feed the sheep appointed to his care. The focus of pastoral ministry is not the people outside the church, but on the care of the people within the local assembly. The elder has been set apart “to equip the saints” (Eph. 4:12). Pastors are not called to the culture, and they’re not called to the unconverted; they are not even called to the broader Christian community (although they may well engage and benefit these as opportunity arises). They have been mandated to feed their flocks so they (the flock) can grow spiritually. Of course, everyone, including pastors, is called to do the work of an evangelist. Every Christian is an ambassador of Christ and is called to represent Him well to the unsaved world. So the pastor, by virtue of him being a Christian, is called to witness to the lost. But the pastoral role — the specific job description of an elder — is to shepherd his congregation.
The Specifics of their Duties
How does the elder shepherd the church? Actually, the image of the shepherd is a most helpful illustration. A shepherd feeds, leads, protects, and cares for his sheep. These are the basic functions of the churches’ shepherds as well. The pastor teaches, leads, protects, and cares for the spiritual needs of his people. Perhaps the primary function — certainly the most public — is to feed the flock (John 21:15-17) — carried out by teaching the Word of God. One of the qualifications for an elder, given in 1 Timothy 3:2, is that he be “able to teach.” Paul exhorts Timothy to preach the Word continually (2 Tim. 4:1-2), and to devote himself “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). As Dever puts it, the greatest responsibility of the elder, as shepherd, is to teach the Word of God to the people of God. However, remember that this duty is carried out not only in the formal, public preaching of the Word, but also in the giving of personal instruction and counsel (Acts 20:20).
The elder also shepherd’s God’s people by overseeing the basic functioning and governing of church life (1 Timothy 3:4-5; 1 Peter 5:2), protecting and guarding them from false doctrine (Acts 20:28), and caring for the spiritual well-being of the people (James 5:14; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:14). Alexander Strauch summarizes the responsibilities of the elder well in his book, Biblical Eldership:
“Elders lead the church [1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:1-2], teach and preach the Word [1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:9], protect the church from false teachers [Acts 20:17, 28-31], exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine [1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:13-17; Titus 1:9], visit the sick and pray [James 5:14; Acts 20:35], and judge doctrinal issues [Acts 15:16]. In biblical terminology, elders shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church” (pg. 16).
The role of the elders, as the spiritual leaders and shepherds of the local church, is, fundamentally, to disciple the people under their care toward Christ-likeness by teaching, leading, protecting, and caring for them through the ministry of the Word.