Plurality of Elders
The office of elder appears to be part of the New Testament ekklhsia since its inception. In Acts 11:30 Luke casually mentions the elders of the church in Judea, “This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” In Acts 6, Luke describes the beginning of the office of Deacon. In Acts 11, Luke treats the matter of elders as being too commonplace and too well known to merit additional attention.34 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders almost immediately on their first missionary journey.
So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).
Both B. J. Lightfoot and William Ramsey claim the significance of this passage is in Luke’s usage of it as a summary of Paul’s customary method of organizing newly planted churches. Lightfoot writes: “On their very first missionary journey the Apostles Paul and Barnabas are described as appointing presbyters in every church. The same rule was doubtless carried out in all the brotherhoods founded later; but it is mentioned here and here only because the mode of procedure on this occasion would suffice as a type of the apostles dealings elsewhere under similar circumstances.”
William Ramsey comments: “It is clear, therefore, that Paul everywhere instituted elders in his new churches; and on our hypothesis as to the accurate and methodical expression of the historian, we are bound to infer that this first case is intended to be typical of the way of appointment followed in all later cases.”35
He encouraged Timothy and Titus to remain in Ephesus and Crete and do the same (1 Tim. 1:3; 3:1; Titus 1:5). The ekklhsia in Jerusalem already had an established and functioning group of elders at the time of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Elders appear as part of the normal structure of other early New Testament assemblies (Acts 20:17; Phil. 1:1).
Two Greek words are used to refer to the office of elder: Presbuteros and Episkopos. The term Presbuteros denotes a “senior” or “mature” person.36 The term Episkopos conveys the idea of “oversight” or “superintendence.”37 The two terms are used interchangeably in the New Testament and refer to difference aspects of the same office.
It is true that some have concluded that “bishop” refers to the office, while “elder” has more to do with the man. Others, however, believe that “elder” relates to the dignity of the office while “bishop” describes the duties.38
In Acts 20:17 Paul calls for the elders (presbuteros) of the assembly at Ephesus. In Acts 20:28 Paul claims that God made them “overseers” (episkopos), to shepherd the church of God. In Titus 1:5 Paul left Titus in Crete to appoint “elders” (presbuteros) in every city. In Titus 1:7 Paul immediately claims that a “bishop” (episkopos) must be blameless. The context of this passage shows that Paul is clearly referring to one and the same office. In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul speaks of the man who desires to the office of “bishop” (episkopos). In First Timothy 5:17 Paul states that the “elders” (presbuteros) who rule well should be counted worthy of double honor.
It is now generally recognized by theologians of all shades of opinion that in the language of the New Testament the same officer in the Church is called indifferently “bishop” (episkopos) and “elder” or “presbyter” (presbuteros).39
The New Testament evidence points to a plurality of elders in each local assembly.
Acts 11:30 “This they also did and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.”
Acts 14:23 “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
Acts 15:4 “And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them.”
Acts 20:17 “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.”
Acts 21:18 “On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.”
Philippians 1:1 “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”
First Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.”
Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.”
Hebrews 13:7 “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (cf. Heb. 13:17, 24).
James 5:14 “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”
1 Peter 5:1 “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.”
Most of these passages specifically refer to the plurality of elders in a single local assembly. Some of these passages may refer to more than one congregation, such as a city, but the plural term “elders” is still used. There are a few places in Scripture where the term elder is used in the singular (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7). The general instructions of each book and the context of each passage make it clear that Paul taught that a plurality of elders should be appointed in each location. The term “bishop” (episkopos) is used in the singular in each of these passages to stress the individual qualifications that each overseer must possess. It is not unusual for Paul to use the generic singular in reference to widows, elders, and believers.
The church did not install merely one person to do this job but several. In fact, there is no reference anywhere in the New Testament to the appointment of only one elder or one deacon to a work. We would tend to appoint one leader, but God’s wisdom is greater than our own at this point. In appointing several persons to work together, the church at God’s direction provided for mutual encouragement among those who shared in the work as well as lessened the chance for pride or tyranny in office.40
Multiple leadership in the church is a New Testament principle. The “one man” ministry is a violation of this important guideline. The Scriptures frequently stress the “mutuality of the ministry.” No local church in the New Testament was ruled and managed by one person. Plurality of elders appears as the norm.41
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 the hermeneutical weight over the eight other plural passages which teach neither singularity or (sic) 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 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.42
One objection to the plurality of elders comes from an odd interpretation of the first chapters of the book of Revelation. The phrase “And to the angel of the church of…” appears seven times in Revelation 2 and 3. Some believe that this angel is the senior pastor of each local assembly.43 This can only be seen by reading something into the text that is not there. No where in the entire New Testament is there any mention of a senior pastor having authority over a local congregation.
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word “aggellos.” Aggellos can refer to either a human or divine “messenger.” There are a few instances in the New Testament where the word aggelos does refer to a human messenger. John uses the word 100 times and it always refers to heavenly or divine angels. There is no reason to believe that Revelation 2 and 3 would be the lone exception.
The expression, angels of the seven churches, represented by the seven stars in the hand of Christ, is difficult, especially since each of the seven letters was addressed to the angel of each respective church. This fact has led many commentators to conclude that the angel stood for the bishop of the church. This would be a good solution to the problem except for the fact that it violates New Testament usage. Aggelos was not used of Christian leaders, and in the seven letters, neither angels nor bishops were rebuked. Another meaning of aggelos is “messenger,” and the “angels” are taken to be the seven messengers who carried the letters to the seven churches of Asia. If this is so, it is difficult to see why the letters were addressed to the messengers rather than the churches themselves. The proper meaning of the word angel, and the natural idea is that churches on earth have angels in heaven who represent them. However, the feature of angels symbolizing or representing men is lacking in all apocalyptic literature. Some have felt that the angels are guardian angels of the churches. It is best to understand this as a rather unusual symbol to represent the heavenly or supernatural character of the church.44
Some believe that early assemblies had “readers,” who received and read letters to the congregation. They believe that it was this “messenger” in each local assembly whom John addressed his seven letters. That some local assemblies had readers may be true. That all seven of these churches had readers is far from certain. Even if this “messenger” was a man, there is nothing in the text to suggest that this human messenger was the “pastor” or “bishop” of the congregation. Revelation 2:1 is addressed to the angel/messenger of the church of Ephesus. We know from Acts 20:17 that the assembly at Ephesus had a plurality of elders.
34 Donald L. Norbie, New Testament Church Organization, p. 36.
35 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth, 1986) p. 73.
36 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 706.
37 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 299.
38 Earl Radmacher, “The Question of Elders,” Paper (Portland: Western Baptist, 1977) p. 4.
39 J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, p. 93.
40 James M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986) p. 632.
41 Gene Getz, Sharpening the Focus of the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974) p. 121.
42 Bruce Stabbert, The Team Concept (Tacoma: Hegg Bros., 1982) p. 25.
43 Robert Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995) p. 242.
44 George Eldon Ladd, The Revelation of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) p. 35.
Copyright 2008 by Joe Fogle. All rights reserved.