Author: Ron Graham
A Plurality of Shepherds
—in each congregation of Christians
We now consider the matter of the "plurality" of elders. No one man has the responsibility to shepherd a congregation. It is given to two or more men jointly. A man can be an elder but never the elder. To use another term, that a man can be a pastor but he can never be the pastor —the term "pastor" being properly used for an elder of the church not for the preacher or evangelist. Wherever we read about elders in the scriptures, there is always a plurality of elders in a congregation, never just one.
Occasionally someone will raise an argument to the effect that a plurality of elders, while desirable, is not mandated, and a church may have one elder where only one man is qualified. The argument is that the plural "elders" can accommodate the singular, one elder. So this is the main matter for our attention on this page.
1 Does “Elders” Include One?
I'll be the devil's advocate for a while and give you an "argument" to the effect that the plural term "elders" can accommodate the singular one elder.
THE ARGUMENT TO BE ANSWERED
If I tell you that in my street there are telephones in every home, cars in every driveway, and garden gnomes on every lawn, I am not saying that every home has more than one phone, every drive has more than one car, every lawn has more than one gnome. I am using accommodative language which does not exclude the possibility that here or there a drive might have only one car, a house only one phone, or a lawn only one gnome. If someone asked me, "Are there children in every household?" and I answered yes, I would mean that each household includes at least one child. Likewise, in the term "elders in every church" there is nothing (just in the term itself) to exclude the possibility of a church with only one elder. The plural accommodates (includes) the singular.
Now if Paul had said, "Appoint elders in the church at Phoenix," or if Luke had said, "They appointed elders in the church at Iconium," we would be justified in saying that means "a plurality of elders" were appointed in those particular churches. But Paul refers at once to several churches. "I left you to appoint elders in every city." Luke's terms are similarly generalized: "They appointed elders in every church." Because the one generic statement covers several churches, then we must regard the plural as accommodative of the singular. So the argument runs.
We have no right, continues the argument, to change the inspired term "elders in every church" by adding words of our own, thus making it read "a plurality of elders in every church." By itself, as it stands, the term "elders in every church" may be taken as meaning one or more elders in every church. We have no right to make it exclude the singular by adding qualifying words.
REPLY TO THAT ARGUMENT
We must acknowledge that this argument would have merit, indeed would be conclusive, were there no other scripture but the statements of Paul and Luke referred to. If all we had to go on were the statements in Titus 1:5 and Acts 14:23, we could not insist on a plurality of elders in every church.
However, we find other scriptures that show that churches had a plurality of elders, and we have no scripture to demonstrate that any church ever had but one elder. So, to answer the argument above, we will look now at the extra information that shows that there should be a plurality of elders in each congregation of Christ, and, in the case of "elders in every church" the plural does not accommodate or include the singular.
2 Reasons for a Plurality of Elders
When we look at passages that reveal the pattern of eldership, what shape is it? No elders, one elder, or a plurality of elders? The last in that list is the observed New Testament pattern of authorized church government insofar as it concerns elders. Wherever we find examples and references, we find a plurality of elders in a congregation. It follows, therefore, that we should try to achieve the same thing in our local church if we wish to be "a church after the New Testament pattern."
In the list of local churches below, there is a plurality of elders in each case.
- Acts 15:2 Jerusalem,
- Acts 20:17,28 Ephesus,
- Philippians 1:1 Philippi,
- 1Thessalonians 5:12-13 Thessalonica.
Here we have examples of single churches with a plurality of elders. We have no examples at all of one-elder churches. Admittedly, the elders at Jerusalem might have been from "churches throughout all Judea" (Acts 9:31) and one might complain that there might have been only one elder in some of those churches. That "might have been" may weaken the Jerusalem example a little, but it does not strengthen the argument for single shepherd churches.
In Ephesians 4:11-16 and 1Corinthians 12:12-31, the congregation is conceived of as a body growing by means of a ministry distributed among several persons: some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and so forth. There is no one ministry, and in any particular ministry there is no one minister. The pattern is clearly a plural and distributed ministry. The congregation is served by many ministers, including "some pastors" not one pastor.
SINGLE CHURCHES, SEVERAL SHEPHERDS
1Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:7,17; James 5:14; 1Peter 5:1-5. These passages do not appear to have a number of churches in view, but rather have in view the circumstances within a local congregation. The concept in these passages is of folk in a church being subject to leaders (plural). The concept of a one-elder church, a flock with one shepherd, does not emerge. The writers have in mind that a member of a local church looks to several shepherds for leadership and help.
In 1Timothy 4:14, the term "presbytery" or "eldership" is a collective noun, and by that we mean a noun like the word "flock". When we say "flock" we think of a group of sheep or by way of metaphor we think of a congregation of saints. In the same way, "presbytery" conjures up an image of a group, in this case a group of elders. Since the presbytery is within the local congregation, the congregation has a group of elders. The collective concept of the presbytery is carried into the symbolic visions of Revelation in which the four-and-twenty elders appear (Revelation 4:4).
3 A Step Closer?
There may somewhere be a New Testament church, which has among its meagre membership only one man who qualifies as an elder, a deacon, or an evangelist. That church might decide that appointing him is one step closer to the scriptural pattern of government, and that it is better to be a church with one official appointment than a church with none. The intention of that church is to grow toward a plural ministry and eldership. They may consider that having one appointment to an office, whilst still unsatisfactory, is nevertheless nearer to the goal, and more satisfactory than having no appointments at all. I have not addressed that approach on this page, but have simply stressed that the New Testament pattern of congregational government is not "no elders", nor "one elder", but "a plurality of elders".