Article by Michael Goforth II:
Who governs the church? While Scripture is very clear that Christ is the head of the church, the form of government beneath Him is slightly more complicated. A simple survey of the wide variety of church government structures that exist today would attest to this. While the differences in church policy could be discussed in great detail, that is not the purpose of this study. Instead, this is an attempt to narrow in on one category of church government and answer a specific question contained within. However, before introducing the problem and presenting the findings of the research, some background information is necessary.
Local churches are governed with a vast amount of variations today. However, in his book entitled, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Wayne Grudem explains that most forms can be organized into three large categories. He states it this way, “Different philosophies of church government will be reflected in different methods used for selecting officers of the church, as explained above. This is evident in the fact that forms of church government can be broken down into three large categories, which we may term “episcopalian,” “presbyterian,” and “congregational.” One of the primary distinctions between these three categories is the self-governing nature of the congregational form. In this structure, the local assembly of believers has no governing authorities outside the congregation.
Episcopalian and presbyterian, while different in many ways, both contain an element of authority that governs more than one local assembly. Charles Ryrie, in his book, Ryrie’s Basic Theology, presents a simple definition of congregationalism. He says, “Basically the congregational form of government means that ultimate authority for governing the church rests in the members themselves. Additionally, it also means that each individual church is an autonomous unit with no individual or organization above it, except Christ the Head.” For the purposes of this study, the congregational form will remain the central focus going forward.
Within the congregational category of church government there exists several variations of structure. Nevertheless, this study will focus on two of the most prominent forms. These forms are similar in that they both only recognize two Scriptural offices in church government, elder and deacon. Where they differ is how they structure the office of elder. The first form is called single-elder led congregationalism. In the book entitled, Who Runs the Church?: 4 Views on Church Government, four different authors write essays on four different structures of church polity. Steven B. Cowan, the general editor of the book, defines single-elder congregationalism this way, “In this model—probably the most widely used—the local church is overseen by one elder or pastor chosen by the congregation and clearly distinguished as its spiritual leader.” As mentioned, this is a very popular form of church government today. In fact, it may be helpful for the reader to know that the researcher behind this project has a background in this form of government. This structure usually has a board of deacons as a secondary office and includes those churches who have assistant pastors.
The second form of congregationalism that was studied is called plural-elder congregationalism. The difference may seem obvious by comparing the labels, but it is still helpful to see the contrast. Cowan distinguishes this form from single-elder congregationalism by making these distinctions, “Plural-elder congregationalism is demarcated from single-elder congregationalism in that (1) a church with only one pastor is considered deficient, and (2) all the pastors/elders are considered to be equal in authority.” This form also usually comes with a board of deacons, but rejects any hierarchal authority structure among the elders. When comparing and contrasting these two forms of church government, the question is, what saith the Scriptures? The goal of this project was to answer that question. Specifically, does the New Testament prescribe a plurality of elders for each local church congregation? In order to answer that question, the researcher first had to determine which passages in the New Testament refer to this issue. Secondly, he had to examine those passages in their context to discover their bearing on the question. Finally, he had to compare the different passages and their meanings and draw a conclusion.
The first step in studying the plurality of elders in the New Testament is to determine which passages refer to this issue. In an essay on single-elder congregationalism, Paige Patterson identifies three different words that refer to the office of elder. He says, “The terms “pastor” (Gk. poimen), “elder” (Gk. presbyteros), and “bishop” (Gk. episcopos) are used interchangeably in the New Testament.” D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo make a similar comment in their book, An Introduction to the New Testament. They describe the different terms this way, "Within the period when the New Testament documents were written, the labels “pastor” (which simply means “shepherd”), “elder,” and “bishop” (sometimes “overseer” in modern English versions) all referred to the same people, that is, those primarily responsible for the leadership of local congregations.”
One passage of Scripture that demonstrates how interchangeable these labels were is 1 Peter 5:1-2 which says, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;” Peter is writing to the presbyteros, translated “elders,” and tells them to poimanate, translated “feed” or “shepherd,” and to episkopountes, translated, “taking the oversight.” In just two verses, one sees the task of one office described with three different words. In his essay, “Baptist Polity And Elders,” Mark Dever uses a different passage of Scripture to make the same argument:
These two passages are especially helpful because of how clearly they illustrate the interchangeable use of the terms. However, even passages that do not contain all of the terms together can still be compared with other passages and lead to the same conclusion.
In the book, Perspectives on Church Government, James White comments on these three terms and says, “By comparing the use of these terms in parallel passages we are able to discover that the apostles used these terms in a basically interchangeable fashion.” This information is of critical importance when determining which passages in the New Testament refer to the issue being studied. Since Scripture uses the terms elder, bishop, and pastor to describe the same office, all passages that refer to any of these terms should be thoroughly examined. Locating these different passages can be done by conducting a detailed study of each of these words.
“Elder” was the first English term to be studied. This word is taken from the Greek root presbytos and is found 78 times in the New Testament. Depending on the Greek lemma used, as well as the context, this word can carry a different meaning. For example, Luke 15:25a says, “Now his elder [presbyteros] son was in the field:” Here, the word is clearly not referring to the biblical office, but only being used to designate this son as older in age. During the research process of this project, each of the seventy-eight locations was examined to see how many times the word referred to the biblical office of the church.
The findings were then verified by the, “Logos Bible Sense Lexicon.” This lexicon divides Greek lemmas into different categories of meaning based on the context. In the majority of the locations where this root is found, it is referring to the Jewish religious official and not the Christian office. However, the lexicon did identify eighteen different locations where this Greek lemma specifically refers to that office. In these locations, the word is defined by the lexicon as, “Christian elder n. — an elder over an assembly of Christian believers (as an appointed or elected position).” The researcher also added two other locations where the Greek lemma could refer to the office, totaling twenty.
The English word, “bishop” and “pastor” were studied next. “Bishop” comes from the the Greek roots, episcopos and skopeo. Out of the twenty-four times in the New Testament that these roots are found, only seven refer to the Christian office. Poimon is the Greek root from which “pastor” is taken and is found forty times in the New Testament. However, eight times it is used in the context of the Christian office. Together, all three terms made up thirty-five locations that were studied during the research phase of this project. The findings of this research will be summarized in the following section.
Studying each passage in the New Testament that refers to the office of elder was the second step in answering the question. Namely, does the New Testament prescribe a plurality of elders for each local church congregation? What follows is a chronological survey of the relevant findings from the New Testament passages dealing with this question. The first time elder is mentioned in the Christian context is Acts 11:30. In this passage, the church in Antioch is sending money to the Christians in Judea who are struggling due to a famine. Paul and Barnabas are sent to the “elders” in Judea. While the word, presbyteros, is in the plural here, the passage does not specify these elders as belonging to a single church in Judea.
The next time one sees Christians elders mentioned is on Paul’s first missionary journey in Acts 14. After Paul and Barnabas preached and planted churches in many cities, they returned the same way they came to appoint leadership in those new churches. Acts 14:23 says, “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” This verse very clearly shows that “elders” plural were appointed in every “church” singular. In his book, Why Elders?, Benjamin L. Merkle makes the following argument, “Even though Luke mentions Barnabas and Paul appointing “elders” only in Acts 14:23, it is likely that this was Paul’s customary procedure.”
In Acts 15, Christian elders are mentioned four times and they are all in the plural form. Verse four of this chapter seems to once again show a plurality of elders in one church. Acts 15:4, “And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.” Acts 16:4 and 21:18 also mention a plurality of elders in the city of Jerusalem. Paul ends his third missionary journey in Miletus by calling for the leaders of the church of Ephesus and giving them a farewell address. Acts 20:17, “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” Once again, one sees “elders” plural in a “church” singular. The root word for “bishop” is also found in this passage in the plural form. It is translated, “overseers” in Acts 20:28. While there are no direct commands in the book of Acts that prescribe a plurality of elders for each church, that certainly seems to be the pattern. It is also worth noting again that Acts 14:23 could be considered an apostolic precedent.
The next passage of relevance is Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:” Notice the Greek word episcopos, translated “bishops,” is used in the plural here. Also, in Philippians 4:15, Paul calls the Philippians a “church” singular. These two passages indicate there was more than one elder serving in the church at Philippi. The books of 1 Timothy and Titus contain the next set of findings. In chapter three of 1 Timothy, the Apostle Paul lays out the qualifications for elders/bishops. Verse one of chapter three says, “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” Here the word “bishop,” from the Greek word episcopos, is used in the singular. The same exact thing takes place in verse two as well, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;”
It is interesting to note that in the next five verses Paul continues to give qualifications for this office and each time he references the person in the singular form. Then, in verse eight, a clear shift takes place. 1 Timothy 3:8, “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;” Paul starts this verse by referring to the office of deacon and he uses the word in its plural form. Another example of the word bishop clearly being used in the singular form is Titus 1:7 which says, “For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;” Some have used these verses to argue for a single-elder position, including A.H. Strong. In his book, Systematic Theology, he even points out the singular definite article modifying “bishop” in both of these verses. Wayne Grudem responds to Strong’s arguments by saying,
In 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7, the Greek definite article modifying “bishop” simply shows that Paul is speaking of general qualifications as they applied to any one example. In fact, in both cases which Strong cites we know there were elders (plural) in the churches involved. 1 Timothy 3:2 is written to Timothy at Ephesus, and Acts 20:17 shows us that there were “elders” in the church at Ephesus. And even in 1 Timothy, Paul writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). With regard to Titus 1:7 we need only look to verse 5, where Paul directs Titus explicitly to “appoint elders in every town.”
In Grudem’s quote one can actually see the next place elder is found and that is 1 Timothy 5:17 which once again uses the word in its plural form. Two verses later in 1 Timothy 5:19, the word is used in the singular, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.” However, this seems to be referring to an accusation that is made against a specific individual who is serving as an elder.
In Titus chapter one, one sees the next relevant findings in verses five and seven. Verse seven was dealt with above. However, in Titus 1:5 the first prescriptive command dealing with the amount of elders is found. It says, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:” Here, Paul clearly prescribes more than one elder in each local context. However, since each city in Crete theoretically could have had more than one church, the command still leaves room to question.
The remaining passages with information relevant to the question are found in James, 1 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John. In James 5:14, James says, “Is any sick among you? 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:” Here James assumes there will be “elders” plural in each “church” singular. In 1 Peter chapter 5, Peter addresses the “elders” plural and consistently refers to the men in the plural form in the following verses. 1 Peter 5:1, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:” 1 Peter 5:3 “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” Notice “elders”, “lords”, and “ensamples” are all in the plural form. In 2 John 1 and 3 John 1, the Apostle John refers to himself as, “The elder.” This could be a reference to his office, or it could have just been a title of his. Dever argues that it is hard to know for sure, “Presumably, he was known by this title. But if he was writing to those outside his own congregation, the title may have suggested his widespread recognition, rather than his office. It is difficult to say on such slight information.”
In summary, the biblical evidence seems to be weightier for the proponent of a plurality of elders in each church. In fact, Daniel Akin, an advocate of single-elder congregationalism, makes this admission, “The argument for a plurality of elders, pastors, overseers, leaders is easier to make based upon the biblical evidence.” As seen above, every time the New Testament word elder is used to definitively refer to church leadership, it is found in the plural. Also, of the churches mentioned in Scripture, all of them seem to have a plurality of leaders, and it could be argued that it was Paul’s precedent to ordain more than one elder for each church. As Samuel Waldron says in the book, Who Runs The Church?, “The plurality of elders in local churches in the New Testament is not something that is doubtful. We know of no church in the New Testament that had only a single elder.” That being said, it would still be difficult to make an argument that the New Testament requires it. There is only one example of a prescriptive command when dealing with this subject and that is Titus 1:5. Here, Paul tells Titus to “…ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:” However, as mentioned above, it is difficult to say for sure whether or not the cities in Crete had more than one local church.
In conclusion, does the New Testament prescribe a plurality of elders for each local church congregation? After examining every passage in the New Testament that relates to this issue, it could be argued that there is flexibility when answering that question. However, while there are no clear prescriptions of plural-elder congregationalism, the biblical evidence is definitely on that side of the spectrum. The single-elder congregationalist would have a difficult time using Scripture to prove his side. One is left to determine whether or not the description in the New Testament is one that should be followed as closely as possible. With that in mind, Benjamin L. Merkle makes a powerful observation. In his book, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons. He says, “Something described in the Bible is different than something prescribed. The first explains what happened in history; the second exhorts us to do something. Yet, once we leave the biblical model of biblical eldership, we leave the sure footing of apostolic precedent and begin wandering in the wilderness of pragmatism.” The question is, should the church follow the biblical description, or wander into the wilderness? That is a question that each church must answer on her own.
 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 923.
 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 472.
 Steven B. Cowan et al., Who Runs the Church?: 4 Views on Church Government (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004) Kindle Edition, 14.
 Ibid., 15.
 D.A. Carson, and Douglas J. Moo: An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005) Kindle Locations 583-585.
 Mark Dever, “Baptist Polity And Elders,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 03:1 (Spring 2005) : 8-9.
 Chad Owen Brand et al., Perspectives on Church Government (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2004) Kindle Edition 270.
 Faithlife Corporation. “Logos Bible Software Bible Sense Lexicon.” Logos Bible Software, Computer software. (September 2017)
 Benjamin L. Merkle, Why Elders? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2009) , 29.
 A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1907), 914–17.
 Grudem, 930.
 Dever, 11.
 Akin, Perspectives on Church Government, 64.
 Waldron, Who Runs the Church?, 212.
 Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008) 165.