What did church leadership look like in the first century?

“The general norm in the first century seems to be that churches were led by multiple elders/overseers/pastors. Some see this plurality as a command. I’m not sure it quite rises to that level.” - DBTS Blog


  1. Does anyone know why 1st century churches had multiple elders? Did the number of believers to be ministered too necessitate it? Did a church in a city meet all together or did it meet in individual house churches necessitating multiple elders?
  2. This is something described but not prescribed. There is no “Go thou and do likewise.” I don’t think a church of 80 people with one pastor/overseer/elder and deacons is disobedient.

I have been doing a lot of article reading recently on plural vs. solo pastoral models and I am actually surprised with where I have arrived in my conclusions.

I have observed that most (not all) plural elder models differentiate between "ruling" elders and "teaching" elders. Further, there appears to always be a "leader among leaders" who sets the tone and direction for the other "elders." (Note that the pastoral epistles are not written to "elders" but to individual pastors) I have also observed that generally "teaching" elders are paid while "ruling" elders are volunteer. I'm not sure, though, that these distinctions necessarily align with the biblical model. I would say that every elder rules and teaches. The New Testament does not conceive of an elder who is not "apt to teach." Further, to be consistent, all elders should be paid. I think that is the point of what Paul is getting at 1 Timothy 5. While it is certainly permissible for a church to have volunteer elders, I don't think it should be the norm. I think with the popularity of the plural elder model, churches have felt the need to have multiple elders but don't have the resources to pay them all so there has been a growth in "lay" elders. Again, this is not necessarily wrong but I would struggle to have someone who is qualified and taking the office of an elder not receive some compensation.

Finally, and this is just conjecture, but the NT refers to elders in geographic areas. Because of the number of believers in a particular city and also due to the nature of their meeting in houses in the 1st century, I wonder if an elder of a church was responsible for a certain, smaller group. So for instance, say in Ephesus, while there were multiple elders in the city, each elder acted as a solo pastor of small segment of the larger group. That makes sense, at least to me. So to take the references to multiple elders and then apply it to the average church size in America (less than 100) and say they need multiple elders I think is an apples and oranges comparison.

So all in all, I think we can be certain that scripture requires at least one elder and that plural elders are perhaps assumed as a best practice but not required. I think it goes well beyond what scripture teaches to say that a church is disobedient if it does not have plural elders.

Phil Golden

...can be found in Matthew 28 and 2 Timothy 2:2. It is implicit, not explicit, but if we are to make disciples in a world where pastors are dying of old age, disease, and Roman intervention, I would argue that the pastor who is faithfully passing things on to others is going to at least eventually find himself in a church with multiple pastors. We can't say "Well, it's been five years, so you'd better get going, bucko!", but I would dare say that if a pastor has been in a place for 20-30 years, and he doesn't have lay leaders or fellow pastors developed that he'd trust to share the pulpit, decision-making, and then entrust the future leadership of the church, then he's failing at the discipleship which Scripture calls him to.

My church is moving to multiple elders, lay and professional, and I'm glad for it. Some of the lay elders are, moreover, men who have gained the experience and wisdom over the years within the membership and walls of our church.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Read Strauch's Biblical Eldership. He does the best job at summarizing and interpreting the biblical data concerning eldership in the NT.

Yes, all elders need to be "apt to teach," but not all elders need to be public speakers. Thus, you have preaching elders and non-preaching elders. All elders are responsible for and share equally the authority of leading, shepherding, feeding, and overseeing the flock. In some churches, those responsibilities are distributed to elders who have more experience, training, or gifting in those areas. This is one of the major benefits of elder plurality. Another benefit of elder plurality is accountability.

Churches where the "senior pastor" runs and rules over the elder body are not churches that practice biblical eldership. I was part of an elder team where the expectation of some was that we deferred to what the senior pastor wanted out of respect to his title and position. To seriously question or disagree was seen as a sign of disrespect and disloyalty. This is not a biblical eldership plurality.

At the church were I'm serving, I requested not to be given the title "senior pastor" (even though that was the historical practice of the church) because there is only one senior pastor (1 Pet. 5:4). Instead I use the title "teaching pastor." I am teaching the church to view all the elders of our church as their pastors, not just me. In our elder meetings, I've asked each of our elders to be responsible for various aspects of leadership in our elder meetings. We now rotate who prepares the agenda, who leads the meetings, who provides the weekly devotions, who takes minutes, etc. I've also encouraged our elders to see themselves as my equal, to speak up when they disagree with me, and to hold me accountable when I speak or act in a way that is not honoring to God.

I question the concept, common though it may be, that there is exact parity (authority) within the eldership plurality. That's not what I see in Scripture. It is often assumed, but does it fit the NT model? It's hard to see James as anything other than an acknowledged "Senior Pastor" in Acts 15. By way of observation, I've never seen a church committed to parity where the actual practice was not a defacto "head elder" among the elders. The reason is obvious. Although parity is a pleasant theory, it seldom (if ever) works. That's why you find a lead elder among a plurality of elders in the Bible, in those few cases where such can be determined from the information given.

G. N. Barkman

In reality there are different types of church polity. Among them, there's the one where the pastor is in charge and the deacons/elders are yes men. (Think Jack Hyles) There's the one where a family or a few individuals call the shots.(This is the "ask Uncle Billy" model.) There's the one where the deacons act like elders and run the church. Then there are elder led churches where one elder may act as a lead elder but shares in the decision making with the other elders and may or may not need congregational approval. FACT: Any polity will work where the people are godly and no polity will work where they aren't.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

The attempt to achieve parity within a plurality of elders nearly always "shakes out" to one of the elders becoming the defacto head elder. The problem with this is that the congregation did not appoint him to become the leader, but that's what evolves over the course of time. Wouldn't it be better for the congregation to appoint one elder to be the lead elder? The congregation chooses that person, and the church knows who the leader is among the leaders. That eliminates the problem of having someone leading who was not appointed by the church to that position.

G. N. Barkman

It's a good question of whether it's better to have an appointed leader or a de facto leader, but that leads to the question of what the Biblical model is again. Data are sparse, but what we have, IMO, is a definite authority of the Apostles, followed by an uncertain distribution of roles in the Apostolic era, followed by an establishment of bishops and episcopal polity in the early post-Apostolic era.

It is definitely true, moreover, that one elder tends to get the preeminence, but I'd suggest that the person who has the "leadership vibe" is going to become the leader whether he's appointed or not. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's bad. But that noted, it's also true that every church, no matter what the official polity, boils down to congregational polity for a very simple reason; when people are fed up, they show up as empty pews.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

As Greg said, you can never have true parity, as a leader will always arise in a group. That certainly applies to elders too. However, the congregation and other church leadership also need to be vigilant to not let an elder violate I Peter 5:3 by lording power over everyone else (other elders included). I’m not opposed to a formal head elder, but it should be clear that he doesn’t get to declare “his way or the highway.”

Similar to the way the U.S. government is supposed to be arranged, it’s better to formalize and lay out the duties and powers of the elders, deacons, congregation, etc. That way, even though human nature means things can and will still go wrong, there are remedies already specified, and actions that can be taken in the church to correct abuses. Leaving it all nebulous is a recipe for trouble, even (or especially?) in an organization that is supposed to be doing things biblically.

Dave Barnhart

Maybe I’m weird but I don’t see how a plurality of humble godly men can’t corporate with equal authority. Christ is the head of the church and it would seem that those that believe that ought to be able to achieve something like parity. Granted the congregation will recognize the main preaching pastor (if there is one) as the go-to guy for theological questions probably. That doesn’t affect how things actually run though.

I agree with Philip's comments above. All the talk about teaching vs ruling and professional vs lay is tradition added to Scripture.

The principle of elders being paid in 1 Tim 5 is one that seems to be conveniently overlooked or explained away in an attempt to follow one's tradition.

Our church has four elders including me. We refer to each other publicly as Pastor so-and-so. We have a running joke about one of our elders and affectionately call him The Bishop.

I'm the only fulltime guy on the elder team. There's also a retired pastor / former missionary, a retired business man / former missionary, and a farmer. They all receive a stipend from the church for their service as elders.

While our church has historically viewed the "senior pastor" as the main guy who does the preaching and makes the decisions, as I have mentioned above, I've intentionally taught and modeled shared leadership amongst our elder team. Two of us are seminary trained and are proficient preachers. All of us are apt to teach. Each elder is assigned particular oversight responsibilities: one is over missions, one is over our youth / children's ministry, one is over visitation and assimilation, and I am the primary teaching pastor. I view each of these men as my pastor. If I need spiritual advice or counsel, I go to them.

When we meet together weekly, we treat each other as equals and are free to express our thoughts, ideas, and disagreement. Although I'm the fulltime guy, I'm not the "idea guy" or the "vision caster." I believe God works in the midst of the plurality of elders to make his direction for his church clear. That idea or direction may happen to originate from me, but it doesn't have to. And, just because I propose or suggest something doesn't mean that's what the plurality decides to do.

I'm not sure why this model can't or doesn't work in other churches. My previous experience on an elder team has taught me that some guys who serve as "senior pastor" say they believe in elder plurality, but in reality they expect the other elders to defer to their leadership, vision, and directives. If they ask the elders to jump, the only proper response is, "How high?" My experience has also taught me that some elders don't want the shared responsibilities and authority of leadership, some feel intimidated by the "senior pastor"'s pedigree or theological training, so they are fine with letting the "senior pastor" make the decisions and rule over the elder team. They are content to serve in an advisory capacity.

The elder plurality that was/is modeled in many conservative evangelical megachurches is basically a CEO-led business model, not a biblical elder plurality. That is true for guys like MacArthur, De Courcy, Fabarez, Driscoll, MacDonald, etc. I know this is the case because of either what I've read about how their leadership team functions or what I've learned from speaking to people who have served on the leadership team. It's not surprising then that young men entering pastoral ministry have adopted these wrong views of elder plurality, and in some cases have been accused of bullying and spiritual abuse.

Again, if you're interested in the best treatment of biblical eldership, I would encourage you to read Strauch's Biblical Eldership.

I think Ron's statement best sums things up: "FACT: Any polity will work where the people are godly and no polity will work where they aren't."

You can have a humble and godly solo pastor who seeks to please the Lord and not himself.

You can have harsh and dictatorial oligarchies in plural models.

I don't think the answer is as simple as we would like. Until I really took a deep dive into the biblical data, I was a staunch plurality guy. After all, almost every time the term presbuteros is mentioned in scripture, its plural. But there could be more than one reason for that and further, I have yet to see a direct command from scripture that a church MUST have multiple elders or else it is disobedient. I think that is where I take issue with some of the rhetoric that surrounds this discussion.

I believe a church can be pleasing to the Lord with one pastor/elder/bishop. I think scripture assumes multiple elders and it is likely the best model but it does not demand it much in the same way scripture assumes a pastor will be married but never commands it.

I guess there is a reason church polity has been debated and given birth to various denominational distinctives over the centuries!

Phil Golden

I believe a church can be pleasing to the Lord with one pastor/elder/bishop. I think scripture assumes multiple elders and it is likely the best model but it does not demand it much in the same way scripture assumes a pastor will be married but never commands it.

A single elder/pastor/overseer model is not necessarily wrong, but given the example of Scripture it is not wise. There may be legit reasons why a church only has one elder (e.g. church plant / young church, church revitalization, etc.). However, there are no examples of a single elder/pastor/overseer model given in Scripture in a mature church (and no, Timothy and Titus were not "senior pastors"). Paul ordained multiple elders in each of the churches he planted for a reason.

But, I admit, I've drunk the kool aid on elder plurality. That was one of the reasons I stepped down from serving on the elder team at my last church. The elders, with the help of an interim pastor / leadership consultant, decided to move away from true elder plurality to a pastor-as-CEO model. The interim pastor / leadership consultant was no fan of Strauch because when he was in fulltime pastoral ministry he was the victim of a coup by his associate pastor. Consequently, he sought to create a strong "senior pastor" role in the churches with which he consulted.

As a lay person (I’ve served as deacon a number of times, but would be unqualified to be an elder w.r.t. education/teaching requirements), I’ve seen the results of coups as well as what happens when a “strong senior pastor” resists any attempts at correction. Obviously, you want neither to happen, but if the church makes changes that make it difficult to remove problematic leadership, the only recourse is to leave when things go wrong.

As others have posted, it would be nice if humble, godly people could always work together in a biblical fashion, and it’s also true that with such people, about any model works. Even if some of us are blessed to experience that for a time, in the real world, it rarely lasts, which means putting good checks and balances into the church documents is, IMHO, essential, whichever elder model you use.

Dave Barnhart