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Should Churches Have Multiple Elders?

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.

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.

Church Offices

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".

Church Leadership

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.

Plurality

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.

Singularity

The scripture that comes closest to giving us the Biblical answer here is 1 Timothy 3. Here, Paul is listing stringent qualifications for church 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.

Self-Refutation

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