Plurality of Elders

Guest Blogger today: Jeff Norton, pastor at NorthRidge Fellowship in Jerome, Idaho. NorthRidge Fellowship gathers for worship at 9:30AM at 2 Ridge Loop, Jerome, ID, or call 208-324-4962.

Jeff has been the pastor at NorthRidge for just over a year. I have the privilege of fellowship with this brother in the Lord on a regular basis. Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, sponsored this work over 10 years ago and has had an ongoing relationship with the dear people. I’ll broadcast an interview I had with Jeff on BridgeCast, February 9, 2014. Be sure to listen in.

Jeff wrote this for me and gave me permission to post it here for your consideration. Thanks Jeff.

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Elder Polity by Jeff Norton:

Elder polity has been a cause of discussion among various Southern Baptists in the last few years. As a pastor of an elder led SBC church, it is my intention to make a brief case for elder led polity, while at the same time not pigeon holing other Christ-like, Word-centered, grace-based, diaconal-led or even congregationally-led SBC churches. I will show who elders are, the qualifications for an elder, what elders do, show that elders and pastors function similarly, and finally, show the advantages to a church holding to elder led polity.

  • First, who are elders? The Greek word for elder is presbuteros, and it means an older, wiser man. Also, the word episkopos in the Greek means overseer. Though presbuteros and episkopos are different Greek words, they are synonymous in function. For example, in Acts 20:7, the apostle Paul calls the “elders” of the church together for a meeting before he departs. Later in verse 28 of Acts 20, Paul calls these men “overseers”. So elders are older, wiser men and they oversee the running of the church.
  • Second, what are the qualifications for an overseer / elder? We see those qualifications laid out in I Tim. 3:1-7: The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

So for a man to serve as elder in the local church, he must fit these qualifications.

  • Third, what precisely are elders to do? Elders perform multiple functions. They keep watch over and shepherd the flock (Acts 20:28, I Peter 1:2). Elders also have authority among the congregation and are called to exercise spiritual oversight (I Peter 5:2, Heb. 13:17). Elders must teach what accords with sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). Also, the elders are to set an example in their lives that the congregation would desire to follow (I Peter 5:3).
  • Fourth, do elders and pastors essentially perform the same function? I believe they do. In Ephesians 4:11, we see that God gifted the church with the shepherds and teachers. We see in the Scriptures that elders shepherd (I Peter 5:1-2), elder and overseer titles are transposable (Acts 20:17, 28, Titus 1:5, 9) and overseers are to feed the flock (Acts 20:28). Therefore, the elder can do what the overseer can do and vice versa. In other words, the function of an elder, pastor and overseer seem interchangeable!
  • Fifth, do we see a pattern or a norm of plurality of elders in the NT? Unquestionably, we do:
    • Philippians 1:1- To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
    • 1Timothy 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
    • James 5:14 – Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church.
    • Acts 14:23 – And when they had appointed elders for them in every church,
    • Acts 21:18 – On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.
    • I Peter 5:1 – So I exhort the elders among you.

These scriptures prove there is a consistent plurality of elders throughout the New Testament.

  • Sixth, if elder equals overseer equals pastor, then is single elder / pastor polity acceptable? What are the advantages of a solo pastor polity? Here are potential arguments for a single pastor / elder polity:
    1. With one single pastor, there is a clear leader in the church.
    2. Depending on church size and church finances, it may be best to have a solo pastor.
    3. There is nowhere in the Word of God where plurality of elders is commanded.
    4. If there is only one man qualified for the office of elder or gifted as a pastor (Eph. 4:11) in the church, then the body should not force unqualified men to be elders for the sheer sake of plurality.

Based on these, we can see there is legitimacy for a single pastor / elder polity.

  • Seventh, conversely, what are the advantages to having a multiplicity of elders in the local church? Here are the arguments:
    1. With multiple elders in the church, there is a wisdom in multitude of wise heads. Pro 11:14 Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.
    2. Having multiple eldership eliminates a “possible” one man show by a solo pastor .
    3. Having a manifold of elders / overseers takes the pressure off one single pastor from performing the various duties and responsibilities needed in the local church.
    4. The norm in Scripture seems to be a plurality of elders (Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2, 16:4, 20:17).

I would certainly love to see more SBC churches enact elder led polity in their body. However, I know well meaning brothers who are serving in non-elder led SBC churches. The polity that is arranged in the local church is between that church and the Lord.
However, we ought to be zealous to know what God’s Word has to say, and I believe that the normative polity in the NT is a plurality of elders.

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