The Church is Led by Pastors/Elders/Bishops

A local pastor whom I know and respect in many ways was quoted a few years ago in the Knoxville News Sentinel as saying, “They say small business carries the American economy, and that’s what we are – a small business.”

But is that true? Is the church a business? Should it be organized and ran like a business?

Well, it is true that many churches are ran like a business. Sometime around 1950, many churches began to adopt the corporate model for the church. Pastors began to be looked upon as CEO’s. Deacons became board members. Committees were organized to run the business of the church. All of these are dramatic departures of how the New Testament depicts the church. In the New Testament the church is not seen as an organization (a dry, boney structure) but as an organism (a living, breathing being).

The church in Scripture is an organism ruled by Christ, governed congregationally, led by pastors/elders/bishops. In Acts 20:17, 26-31 we see both the identity and plurality of elders in the early church.

From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. . . . 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. 31 Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.

First, the Identity of the Office.
There are only two scriptural offices in the church: pastors and deacons.
Our church’s statement of faith adopted in 1908 (the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith) states in Article XIII, OF A GOSPEL CHURCH:

We believe that a visible Church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ; governed by his laws, and exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word; that its only Scriptural offices are Bishops, or Pastors, and Deacons, whose qualifications, claims, and duties are defined in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus.

In that article we can see the terms “Bishops” and “Pastors” being used interchangeably, just as we do in this evening’s text. Also see in Titus 1:5-7 and 1 Peter 5:1-2.

In the New Testament, a pastor is an elder is a bishop. These three words refer to the same office. The Roman Catholic Church claims that the office of pastor/elder and bishop are two distinct offices. This is to justify their hierarchical structure. Instead, these terms refer to the same office, but each have a different nuance of meaning.

Elders: The word elder gives the idea of a man’s mature leadership ability.

“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” 1 Timothy 5:17

Bishops: The word bishop emphasizes the idea of his being an overseer of the house of God.

“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof.” 1 Peter 5:2

Pastors: The word pastor means “shepherd.” The pastor is to lead the church as a shepherd would his sheep.

“Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Acts 20:28

In Acts 20:28-31 we see the function of pastors to lead, feed, and protect the flock to which God has entrusted them.

Second, we see the Plurality of the Office.

Another aspect of the office of pastor/elder/bishop that can be seen in Acts 20 is the plurality of elders in individual local congregations. Paul is addressing the “elders” plural of the church singular in Ephesus (v. 17). He says that the Holy Spirit has made these men to be “overseers” i.e., “bishops” and that they are “to shepherd the church of God.” This idea is also seen in Titus 1:5 where Titus is told to appoint “elders” plural in every “city” singular and in Philippians 1:1 where Paul writes to the saints in “Philippi” singular and to the “bishops and deacons” both plural. In fact, I don’t think the term elder or bishop ever appears in the New Testament in the singular, except in the qualifications of an individual bishop given in 1 Timothy 3.

As I’ve read about and researched the idea of a plurality of elders over the past several years, several benefits of such leadership have occurred to me. I claim no originality here. I have read widely on this subject, but these are my own distilled thoughts.

Some Benefits of a Plurality of Elders

  • Wisdom in a Multiplicity of Counselors – Every pastor has blind-spots. But if you have a plurality of men serving as pastors, they will not all have the same blind-spots. This will protect from unwise decisions.

Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety. Proverbs 11:14

Without counsel, plans go awry, But in the multitude of counselors they are established. Proverbs 15:22

For by wise counsel you will wage your own war, And in a multitude of counselors there is safety. Proverbs 24:6

  • Sharing of Leadership Responsibilities – This is a biblical concept in both the Old and New Testaments, e.g., Exodus 18, Acts 6. The early church way of implementing this principle was by a plurality of elders/pastors/bishops providing spiritual leadership with a plurality of deacons ministering to the physical needs of the congregation.
  • Continuity of Spiritual Leadership – Too often when the typical pastor leaves the typical Baptist church there is a vacuum of spiritual leadership that is filled through unbiblical means (read, deacon board). Because deacons remain in churches far longer than the average pastorate, the deacons have assumed the leadership of the church by default. Where a plurality of elders exists, when the “preaching pastor” leaves for whatever reason, there is no spiritual vacuum. Instead, the pastors continue to lead and the deacons continue to serve. I view my ministry as the main teaching pastor to eventually work myself out of a job!

You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 2 Timothy 2:1-2

  • Freeing of Deacons to Serve – Because deacons are leading instead of serving the church, many of the acts of service needed in the church and community are being neglected. Today we have the reverse problem as in Acts 6. In Acts 6 the problem was that the apostles (who were functioning as elders in the Jerusalem church) were too busy with the ministry of the Word and prayer to meet the physical needs of the church. Today the problem is that the deacons are too busy with matters of leadership within the church that they are not able to meet the physical needs in the church. Having a plurality of elders will liberate deacons to be deacons, i.e., servants.

I do not believe that all churches are required to have a plurality of elders. That is determined by the size of a congregation and whether or not God has blessed the churches with gifted men.

For me the issue all comes down to the church acknowledging the leadership which the resurrected Christ has given to the church. According to Ephesians 4:11-16, Christ has given pastor-teachers to the church. Failure to recognize those who have been gifted, called, and are qualified is not healthy for a church.

However, having an arbitrary standard for a certain number of elders that must be filled is likewise unhealthy. Only gifted, called, and qualified men should be elders/pastors. If there is only one such man in a church then a solo pastor is necessitated. If that is the case begin praying for God to gift the church with more such men and begin developing the men in the congregation who God seems to be leading in this way.


  1. Sorry, I jumped the gun. I posed this question at the Introduction posting, but it is more appropriate here.

    Is being an elder a vocation or an avocation?

    “If..a plurality of [elders] be required, why is not a plurality of them supported? The office of elder in those churches which are partial to the system is little more than nominal: for while an elder is employed like other men in the necessary cares of life, he cannot ordinarily fulfil the duties of his office.”
    —Andrew Fuller, On Church Government and Discipline.

    “be exhorted that as your Ministers take care of your Souls, you would take care of their Bodies and Families:…God hath made it your Duty by a Divine Command; Even so hath the Lord ordained, that they which preach the Gospel should live by the Gospel”
    —Hercules Collins, The Temple Repair’d.

    Aren’t elders to give themselves wholly to the ministry?

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