The Congregational Leaders of the Early Church were Elders

Part 3 of a 5 part Series…
Please refer to archived post for previous blog. This is from a document written by a pastor from 4 years ago. Truths 1-4 were in the previous blog post.

5. The leaders in the congregations of the early church were elders.

The eldership was not one alternative leadership form among many in the early church. It was wide-spread as far as we know, and it seems there  were always more than one in each church. Consider these texts that show how widespread was the practice of having elders in each church.

  • Jerusalem: Acts 15:22, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church to choose men and to send them to Antioch.”
  • Ephesus: Acts 20:17, “And from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.”
  • All the towns of Crete: Titus 1:5, “This is why I [Paul] left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.”
  • All the churches James wrote to when he said, “To the twelve tribes of the dispersion” James 5:14, “Is any among you sick? Let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (assuming that there are elders in every church).
  • All the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia that Peter wrote to:1 Peter 5:1, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed.”
  • Finally, all the churches Paul founded on the first missionary journey (and presumably the other journeys as well): 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 believed.”

The universal extent of elders in the early church becomes even more obvious when you realize that the term “elder” is the same person designated by “bishop” or “overseer” (cf.Titus 1:5,7 and Acts 20:17,28) or “pastor” (Eph. 4:11; cf. Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1-2where elders are given a shepherding function). It is hard to escape the conclusion that God’s will for the local church is that it have a group of elders as its primary leaders.

As we consider the early church model of leadership, it might be helpful to compare and contrast this with current trends in church leadership.  Nathan Finn has helpfully categorized the popular models of church leadership common today in his blog “Between the times” on January 13, 2013.

Option 1 is pure democracy. In this polity, the whole congregation votes on nearly every decision. The pastors and church staff are often treated as mere employees of the church who direct various ministries, but who have no real authority in the church. All of the authority rests in the whole congregation assembled in a church conference or members meeting (often called a “business meeting”).

Option 2 is committee-led congregationalism. In this polity, the church uses democratic processes to make key decisions, but the real authority rests with certain key committees or similar small groups that are comprised of influential church members. In many Southern Baptist churches, the committee that runs the church is the so-called church council. In others, it might be the personnel committee, since these are the folks who keep tabs on the staff. A very common variation of this polity is deacon-led congregationalism, where the deacons function as the chief committee in the church’s hierarchy.

Option 3 is single-pastor-ruled benevolent autocracy. In this polity, the solo or senior pastor is called by the church, but after that, he wields most of the authority. In a larger church, he typically hires and fires all ministry staff, including other pastors. The lead pastor is as much a CEO as he is a shepherd. Members meetings are kept to a minimum; in some churches, only once a year. The pastor is the leader and the people follow his lead.

Option 4 is plural-elder-ruled benevolent oligarchy. In this polity, which is not as common as the others, a plurality of elders rules the church in much the same way as the single-pastor-ruled option. The difference is that the authority is vested in a small group rather than a single individual. In many ways, this polity could be called “poor man’s Presbyterianism.” The church is ruled by her elders, but there is no presbytery or classis beyond the local congregation. This polity also frequently makes a Presbyterian-like distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders; only the former are considered pastors.

No doubt these are simplistic summaries of the various polities found in our circles, but I doubt they are overly simplistic. I’m personally acquainted with many (sometimes tons) of SBC churches that hold to each of these polities pretty much exactly as I’ve described them. Options 1 and 2 are very common among traditional-minded, small and medium-sized churches in small towns and rural areas. Options 3 and 4 are more common in contemporary-minded, larger churches in suburban areas, as well as newer church plants.

Plural-elder-led congregationalism differs from each of these polities in various ways. Unlike Options 1–3, there is a plurality of pastors. Unlike option 4, all of the pastors are elders, and vice versa; the terms are synonymous. All may be paid staff, or some may be paid and some may be voluntary. Unlike Option 1, the elders/pastors have the freedom to exercise biblical pastoral authority over the congregation in matters of teaching and shepherding. Unlike Option 2, no committees or deacon “boards” are elevated to an unbiblical level of authority in the church. Unlike Option 3, all pastors are equals, even if, based upon prudence and giftedness, different pastors have different roles within the leadership team. Unlike Option 4, the final earthly authority still rests with the whole congregation as it corporately seeks God’s will under the lordship of Christ as it is revealed in the Scriptures.

  1. The function of the elders was to feed and lead.

Or to say it another way, the elders are responsible for teaching and governing the congregation. As leaders they give guidance and direction to the church. As teachers they oversee the life of the church to preserve its biblical faithfulness. They are wardens of the Word of God.

Titus 1:9 says that the elder “must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.” The elders are the trustees of the truth in the life of the church.

And they are the governing overseers. 1 Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well (govern, or oversee, or manage well) be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” So it is clear that there is a diversity of function among the elders. All must be able to handle the Word of God and be able to recognize false doctrine and correct error; but some “labor especially in preaching and teaching.”

Jarrod Scott

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