First Among Equals: Why the Pastors Need a Leader

"The necessity of a first among coequals in human economies is resonant with (though not equivalent to) the way the Son submits to his Father in the incarnation (Philippians 2:5–11), as well as in the order God ordains in the home (Ephesians 5:21–33). Leadership is not a consequence of the fall, but represents God’s good design for human flourishing in a well-ordered world." - Desiring God

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Bert Perry's picture

One thing that comes to mind here is the question of how the different types of pastors will read this.  My guess is that there are some people--micromanagers--who will interpret this as license to call all the shots, and then there are some who do need to be challenged to set the basic tone and not just let things happen.  The best leaders, in my view, set up basic "ground rules" by which others can act without running into trouble, and tend to intervene only when it's fairly urgent.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

I recently resigned from the eldership of my church over this issue, so I've been thinking a lot about how the "senior" pastor relates to elder plurality. I read Harvey's new book, which is the basis of this Desiring God article. What I'd say is that at this point I'm more in agreement with how Strauch lays out elder plurality in relation to the "first among equals" concept than Harvey.

I believe Scripture is clear that elder leadership is shared and collaborative. All elders share equally the authority and responsibility for the pastoral oversight of the congregation. One elder (regardless of his title) is not the “chief elder” over the other elders, is not the “driver” of the elder car and is not the “husband” of the elder family. The metaphor used in Scripture of eldership is that of being a shepherd. There is only one chief shepherd and that’s not the senior pastor. Further, Scripture is clear that all elders are pastors. One elder is not the senior elder/pastor over the other elders. The key biblical passages relating to eldership do not present one elder who is leading over the other elders or given more deference than the other elders. Rather, elders rule alongside one another.

That being said, there is functional, gift-based diversity within the eldership team. Not all elders are equal in giftedness, effectiveness, influence, time availability, experience, verbal skills, leadership ability, or biblical knowledge. For example, one elder may be more gifted, trained, and experienced with preaching than another. Another elder may be more gifted, trained, and experienced with leadership, administration, or evangelism than another. Those who are gifted, trained, and experienced in a certain area will naturally stand out among the other elders. One elder or some elders may even display more prominent leadership initiative and influence within the eldership body. Some elders will even receive compensation from the church for using their giftedness, training, and expertise.

Don Johnson's picture

"Elder" is not the only term describing the pastoral office in the Bible. Those who limit the office to that term are unbalanced in their practical theology.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

T Howard's picture

These terms are used in Scripture to refer to the same office. Each term, however, highlights a specific aspect / responsibility of the office.

G. N. Barkman's picture

The NT clearly indicates a plurality of elders to be the norm.  However, it does not indicate parity among the elders.  In truth, there is no prescriptive teaching in regard to either issue.  Both are established by deductions drawn from a number of passages.  The same process of deduction indicates a recognized leader among the elders.  James served in that role in Acts chapter 15.  Revelation chapters two and three gives instructions to "the" messenger in each of the seven churches.  Either there was only one elder (difficult to reconcile with the repeated emphasis upon plurality of elders elsewhere), or else there was one elder who was acknowledged to exercise the leading role.

Observation and experience undergird the same understanding.  Either one elder is the recognized leader among the elders (lead pastor, senior pastor, etc.), or someone will eventually establish himself in that position, without official church recognition, wherever parity within plurality is the attempted goal.  It doesn't work very well, if at all, because that is not the pattern indicated in Scripture.

G. N. Barkman