Concerning the issue of single or multiple elder leaders in a local church,
there is no scripture which absolutely confirms what the
structure of leadership in the local church
should be; i.e., there is no chapter and verse which mandates either singular or plural elder
leadership. It seems as though Christ has permitted us the
freedom here to establish the local church
structure in such a way that that particular local church can
best fulfill the Great Commission to teach and make disciples. Therefore, when pressed on this
issue, we can only discern God's intent by basing our decision upon the
practice of the New Testament Church,
which will be studied in the following paragraphs. However, we should keep in mind that
since the Bible does not mandate an answer to this question, its importance
can only be secondary, compared to, and as a means of, fulfilling the purpose of the church.
Have Multiple Elders?
Elder = Bishop = Pastor
Let's examine the three terms: elder, bishop, and pastor. The most revealing passage here is Acts 20 where Paul addresses
an assembly of elders from the various local churches
in the city of Ephesus, just before his final departure from there. In verse
17, these elders are indeed called elders, meaning "old men" or
"spiritually mature men". Then in verse 28, they are called bishops, meaning "overseers". Then, also in
verse 28, we see that they are charged to "feed" or "oversee" the
"flock". The Greek word used here for "feed" is "poimaino", meaning "to
shepherd", and the Greek word used for "flock" is "poimnion", meaning,
of course, "flock". Therefore, we can conclude that this
elder-bishop is also called a pastor, meaning "shepherd", such as in
Ephesians 4:11, since it is his duty to "shepherd the flock" by
teaching and explaining the Bible to them. This is also
obvious from the very words themselves: the bishop is called an
overseer, and what he is overseeing is called a flock, and the job description of
a shepherd is to oversee his flock. This same argument
applies to 1 Peter 5:2, where elders are commanded to "be shepherds" ("poimaino")
. . . "serving as overseers" ("episkopeo"). The terms can be considered to be synonymous.
As to what are the official church "offices", the Bible again allows
much freedom. The word "office" is not explicitly found in the Bible as referring to church
officials. Instead, it is implied as a variation of the word describing the position; i.e., 1 Timothy 3:1
refers to the "office of a bishop" as "episkope", and 1 Timothy 3:10
refers to the "office of a deacon" as "diakoneo".
So, regardless of the formality of the office, we see two positions of leadership in the local church;
that of an elder-bishop-pastor, and that of a deacon.
Now, how many elder-bishop-pastors should there be in one local church?
Remember now, the scriptures don't give us an explicit
command here. However, ancient history gives us some clues
about how the first churches
were structured. We know that the size of
first century commercial cities, such as Ephesus, was very large, even
by today's standards. There had to be multiple congregations
in these cities, because there was no transit system to easily transport
people several miles across town to go to church.
Furthermore, we know that the first churches
met in homes, and not until the 4th century did church
buildings appear on the scene. Therefore, the
plurality of elders seen in passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 1
Corinthians 14:34, was on a territorial basis; i.e., a plurality of
elders per city, not necessarily per local church.
The scripture that comes closest to giving us the Biblical answer here
is 1 Timothy 3. Here, Paul is listing stringent qualifications
leaders. In verse 2, he refers to "a bishop" as
singular, where, in verse 8, he refers to "deacons" as
plural. Though this is a weak argument, it seems to be the closest we
have for deciding this issue; that each local assembly is intended to have a
single elder-bishop-pastor, and multiple deacons.
On the other hand, the strongest passage against this argument is
probably James 5:14, where those who are sick are to "call for the
elders of the church",
which sounds like a single local church had
multiple elders. This can best be explained by the context of
this letter. Of all the epistles, James was probably the
first one written, probably around 45 AD. No Pauline doctrine was
on the scene yet, and James was writing to Jewish Christians during what
was still a transitional period for them between Judaism and
Christianity. In this context, he probably used the term "the
elders" here as referring to the system of multiple elders in a Jewish
synagogue; something the Jewish Christians could better
understand. This makes sense in light of James 2:21 which
even uses the term "synagogue". As for establishing the structure
of a local church,
we should weigh much more heavily on passages such as
those in 1 Timothy (among the very latest of Paul's epistles--which
more explicitly address local churches), than on the book of James.
Owen Weber 2009