When we answer theological questions, we often find ourselves confronted with a variety of evidence. Some of the evidence will point in one direction while some of the evidence may seem to point in one or more other directions. Because the evidence is of different sorts, it carries different weights.
Weighing the evidence to discover an answer is one of the more difficult challenges in theological method. It is more of an art than a science. It usually involves an element of judgment. When the evidence appears to point in more than one direction, we must allow some of the evidence to explain the rest. In other words, part of the evidence will explain not only our answer, but also the remainder of the evidence.
Previously, I have suggested three methodological principles that should guide us in making these judgments. First, didactic (teaching) passages must explain historical references. Second, clear passages (texts that have only one likely interpretation) must explain obscure passages (texts that have more than one plausible interpretation, but in which no single interpretation is significantly more likely than another). Third, deliberate passages (texts that aim to address the theologian’s question) must explain incidental passages (texts that touch on the question only tangentially).
These principles need to be illustrated in practice. Therefore, in the present essay I wish to bring them to bear upon a theological question. In doing so, I shall deliberately avoid the issues that have more obvious answers (e.g., the fundamental doctrines). Of course, by selecting a question with a less clear answer I shall open myself to disagreement. That kind of interaction, however, is useful and necessary. Theologians learn through conversation, which is one reason that the best theology is done in community.
The question that I propose to examine is this: “Must a congregation have more than one elder in order to qualify as a rightly-ordered New Testament church?” Phrased this way, the question makes certain assumptions. It assumes that a church is a particular congregation. It assumes that pastor, bishop, and elder all refer to one office. It permits the possibility that a church may have more than one elder. The question is whether plural eldership is essential to New Testament polity. In other words, I am asking whether a church is sinning if it has only one pastor.
In answering this question, the first line of evidence that is usually considered is the uniform pattern of the New Testament. Among the apostolic churches, plural eldership was widely, and perhaps universally, practiced. Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23). They consulted with the elders of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22). Later, Paul called for the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17).
What about Paul telling Titus to ordain elders in every city (Titus 1:5)? Could a city have held more than one church? The New Testament contains no reference to any city having more than one church (though the church in a city might have met in several places). Certain church fathers insisted that each city could have only one church. We lack adequate grounds to insist that some cities had more than one church. On the other hand, we cannot completely exclude the possibility, even if it seems unlikely. Probably the safest approach is to consider Titus 1:5 an obscure text. It is not the best text to rely upon for proof in either direction.
At any rate, the New Testament offers plenty of evidence that many of the apostolic churches had multiple elders. In fact, plural eldership is (nearly?) a uniform pattern in the New Testament. Historical examples, however, must not be construed as requirements. Even universal practices (such as reading the New Testament in Greek) do not constitute binding mandates upon all subsequent churches. The most that we can infer from the practice of the New Testament churches is that it is not wrong for a church to have more than one elder.
What about didactic passages that make reference to honoring elders (1 Tim. 5:17), esteeming those who are over you in the Lord (1 Thess. 5:12-13), or obeying those who lead you (Heb. 13:17)? While not all of these passages use the labels pastor, bishop, or elder, these are almost certainly the individuals who are in view. And yet these passages do not aim to answer questions about eldership or church offices per se. They are about the obligations that Christians bear toward church leaders. Whatever is said in these passages about the number or function of the elder is tangential or incidental to the point of the text.
So far, all of the evidence that we have seen is historical (rather than didactic), obscure (rather than clear), or incidental (rather than deliberate). This leads to a question: Does the New Testament contain any clear, didactic text that aims to address issues of church order and, specifically, the office of bishop? The answer to this question is yes, and the text is 1 Timothy 3.
According to 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul is writing so that Timothy will know how to order congregations. The issue with which Paul is most concerned is church office. He addresses two offices: the office of bishop (1-7) and the office of deacon (8-13). In both cases, when he refers to the office, he speaks of it in the singular (3:1, 10, 13). When he refers to the individuals who occupy the office, however, he sets up a contrast between deacons (in the plural, 3:8, 12 with their accompanying pronouns), and a bishop (singular, 3:2 plus the following pronouns).
Not infrequently, the suggestion is made that Paul’s contrast may be purely stylistic. That may be the case. It is also irrelevant to the question we are trying to answer. Our question is how many elders (pastor, bishops) the New Testament requires in order for a congregation to be fully ordered. In the key text on the subject—the didactic passage that aims to speak to questions of church office and order—Paul requires a bishop, not multiple bishops.
How many elders does the New Testament require a congregation to have? Evidently, one. A church with a single pastor-bishop-elder is (in this respect) fully ordered and conformed to the biblical requirement. It may choose to have multiple elders for a variety of reasons, but it is not sinning if it chooses to call only one pastor.
But does not Titus 1:5 require multiple elders? We have already seen the obscurity that is created in this verse by Paul’s use of city rather than church. Another layer of obscurity is introduced by the uncertainty over whether Paul is writing a prescription for all churches or simply an ad hoc description of what he wanted in the churches of Crete. Given these obscurities, we should be hesitant to use Titus 1:5 as a proof text in either direction. If these obscurities could be cleared up then this verse might tilt the balance toward affirming the necessity of plural eldership.
In fairness I should point out (though it ought to be obvious) that I have not reviewed every bit of evidence in this short essay. Other passages could be adduced. I believe that none of the remaining evidence is of a different kind than the evidence that has been examined. It will fit into the categories that have already been established.
Perhaps I should also reiterate that my answer does not preclude the possibility of a congregation having multiple elders. If it chooses to do so, then other questions must be answered, such as whether elders function collegially, hierarchically, or in some other way. Whatever one’s view of singular eldership, one must also discover how elders are supposed to rule or lead (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:17). These questions remain unaddressed by my discussion.
I began with the question of how many elders the New Testament requires for a congregation to be fully ordered. My conclusion is that the New Testament requires only a single elder per church. I do not claim that this answer is certain. In my judgment it is probable, given the methodological commitments that I carry to the evidence and my understanding of the individual texts. If those commitments were successfully challenged, or it could be shown that some of the evidence ought to be weighted differently, then the answer might change.
Crucifying from La Corona
John Donne (1572-1631)
By miracles exceeding power of man,
He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious hate:
In both affections many to Him ran.
But O! the worst are most, they will and can,
Alas! and do, unto th’ Immaculate,
Whose creature Fate is, now prescribe a fate,
Measuring self-life’s infinity to span,
Nay to an inch. Lo! where condemned He
Bears His own cross, with pain, yet by and by
When it bears him, He must bear more and die.
Now Thou art lifted up, draw me to Thee,
And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,
Moist with one drop of Thy blood my dry soul.