Our last post explained why we preach through the Bible the way we do at OCF. In this and the next several posts we will consider another OCF “non-negotiable,” namely, our team approach to pastoral ministry.

OCF has no senior pastor leading our church for two reasons:

  1. BIBLICAL: We believe that shared ministry is God’s ideal for his church.
  2. PRAGMATIC: We believe that having a plurality of pastors is healthier for both the leaders and the members of OCF.

The first three posts will outline the biblical data. PART ONE (today) looks at specific New Testament passages that portray early church structure. PART TWO will consider Jesus’ contribution to the team approach. PART THREE will tackle the issue as part of the broader emphasis in the Bible on community and relationships in God’s church. In the weeks to follow we will consider the pragmatic benefits of having a team of pastor-elders lead a local church.

PART ONE — New Testament Passages On Leadership

The most common take on church leadership structure assumes that the Bible does not prescribe a single model. Those who take this position instead find a variety of structures in Scripture. They conclude that leadership today can (and should) be tailored to the cultural settings in which we find ourselves.

This may very well be the case. It is true that what we read about leadership structure in the New Testament is descriptive (how they did it back then), rather than prescriptive (how it should always be done). There is no verse in the Bible that reads, “You shall have a plurality of pastors leading your church.”

There is, however, a whole lot of description. And this description is quite consistent. We encounter next-to-none of the variety of approaches to leadership that the popular view claims to find in the Bible. Instead, a distinct picture emerges, one which portrays a plurality of elders leading each early Christian congregation. I have assembled the data below, providing some context for each of the biblical texts.

Plurality Leadership In The Gentile Congregations:

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust (Acts 14:23).  [Paul and Barnabas appoint leaders in the Galatian churches on their way back from the first missionary journey.  Notice the emphasis upon elders (plural) in each church (singular).]

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church (Acts 20:17).  [Refers to the leaders of the church at Ephesus, where Paul ministered for several years.]

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1).  [Paul’s churches in Europe reflect the same model of plurality leadership. Note that “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor” refer to the same office in the New Testament.]

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you (Titus 1:5).  [Again, notice the contrast between the plural (“elders”) and the singular (“every town”).]

1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:  2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;  3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.  4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away (1 Peter 5:1-4).  [Peter simply assumes that all the churches that will receive his letter in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (v. 1) are each led by a group of elders. By the way, “Chief Shepherd” actually means “Head Pastor” in the original Greek. Looks like OCF has a Senior Pastor, after all. His name is Jesus.]

Plurality Leadership In The Jewish Congregations:

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17) [Unknown author, writing to Jewish Christians, assumes plurality leadership.]

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14).  [James, addressing the Jewish Christian communities in the eastern diaspora (1:1), can assume the presence of elders in every congregation in which his letter will be read.]

That is a whole lot of churches, each led by a plurality of elders. The model proves to be the norm among Jewish and Gentile congregations, located in Asia and in Europe. No variety. No cultural adaptation. No senior leader in sight anywhere.

A possible exception is Jesus’ half-brother James, in the Jerusalem church. And it is standard fair for those who favor the senior pastor model to appeal to Acts 15. What unfolds in this passage, however, is a collaborative approach to decision-making that differs markedly from what generally transpires in today’s large, senior-pastor-led churches.

The use of Acts 15, moreover, to support one-man leadership brings up the broader hermeneutical issue of the relationship between biblical interpretation and theological synthesis. Frankly, I get a bit nervous as a New Testament scholar, when interpreters defend a position by drawing upon a single biblical text that can be read in more than one way. I think we are on safer ground leaning on the larger group of clear passages outlined above.

So, as our blog title asks, Is Plurality Leadership Biblical?

As we have seen, the New Testament consistently describes the apostles establishing churches led by a team of elders. I would be a bit hesitant to cite the above passages as categorical, prescriptive evidence for the plurality model. However, I think there is enough solid description for us to take the biblical data very seriously as we develop our theology of church structure—especially since team leadership was so utterly countercultural in the broader world of the New Testament.

Anticipating PART TWO:

As a historian, I have been trained to look for cause-and-effect. In the case of plurality leadership, we would want to ask, “Why did early Christian leaders adopt this model?”

The question is a particularly thorny one, since every other social institution in the ancient world—from empire to family—was markedly patriarchal, with a single male leader at the top. What led the apostles to adopt such a counter-cultural alternative for church leadership?

We really don’t know for sure. But we may be able to tease some hints out of the Gospels, where we see Jesus preparing his disciples for their future role as church planters. Next week we will continue our survey of the biblical data by considering Jesus’ contribution to early church leadership orientation and structure.