Church government is an often overlooked doctrine in the modern church. Yet, how the church is lead and governed was not a small matter in the New Testament. Right at the Church’s beginning there was structure and organization. The first church members held to the apostle’s teaching and observed the Lord’s Supper together (Acts 2:42, 46). They kept track of membership which allowed them to know how many had joined the church (Acts 2:41). The church also appointed leaders (Acts 6:1-7) and provided help for those in need (Acts 2:44-45). Still the question remains as to what form of church government a local church should practice.
Christ wanted His church to have a clear understanding of the type of leadership the church should have. It is only because of man’s sin that he sometimes cannot see the plain truth of Scripture.
Do we have the right to reinvent church government? If Christ has given us a model for leadership in His church, who are we to make up our own?
Elders are mentioned a total of 26 times in NT. Every church had more than one elder leading. The early church had but one church in each city or town. Hence, Paul’s instruction to Titus in Titus 1:5 is to “appoint multiple elders in every church”.
Some of the passages which clearly speak of a plurality of elders are Acts 14:23; 15:2; 20:17, 28; Phil 1:1; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 31:7; Titus 1:5-9;Heb 13:7, 17. We can see from these verses that the consistent pattern in the NT is that every church had a plurality of elders.
What does a plurality of elders mean for the church? A plurality means:
- Mutual accountability is necessary to avoid falling into sin or making unwise decisions. Because there is always more than one elder, authority never resides with just one person.
- The teaching elder/pastor is one among several elders. The teaching pastor does not have ultimate authority over the other elders nor is he seen as an employee of the elders.
- Authority belongs collectively to the entire group of elders. The teaching elder is not to take all the heat if someone doesn’t like a change. At the same time, he doesn’t get all the credit either!
- The teaching pastor himself is subject to the authority of the elder board as a whole.
- No major decisions are made without a unanimous vote of the eldership.
A plurality of elders is the best and safest model of church government. And more importantly it is the only biblical pattern of church government we see in the NT.
While churches can try to function under another type of leadership, and sometimes God has blessed a church despite its unbiblical church government, the God-appointed form of church government is a plurality of elders.
As a church, we want to function in the way that Christ has commanded us. The pattern is clear in the early church. But as the centuries went on, man began to try and “improve” upon church government and drift away from Scripture.
Church historian Merle D’Aubigne (1847) noted this when he wrote “As we advance through the centuries, light begin to decrease in the Church. Why? Because the torch of the Scripture begins to grow dim and because the deceitful light of human authorities begins to replace it.”
Let us return to the Biblical teaching of a plurality of elders in each local church. Let us return to what the Bible teaches on such a vital matter.