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Plurality Leadership In The Teachings Of Jesus?

I ended the previous post with a question: What led the apostles to adopt plurality leadership as the preferred option for church structure?

The model is radically counter-cultural, given the universal preference for one-man leadership across the empire. So, where did it come from? Did Jesus instruct his disciples to organize the early Christian congregations like this?

We really don’t know for sure. But we can tease some hints out of the Gospels, where we see Jesus preparing his disciples for their future role as church planters.

Jesus had a whole lot to say about the character of leadership (leaders as servants). But there are some intriguing hints that he may have given instructions concerning the number of leaders he anticipated in a local congregation, as well.

Leadership characterand numberare not unrelated. We’ll see in future posts that the team approach (number) provides precisely the kind of community and accountability that encourages servant leadership (character). But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to our topic for the day. Can we find any evidence that Jesus may have instructed his disciples to establish churches with a plurality of pastors?

We’ll begin by considering Jesus’ take on fatherhood.

Jesus & Fatherhood

Sole male authority was the norm everywhere in the ancient world. The concept was rooted primarily in the culture’s patriarchal family structures. Every natural family had an earthly daddy who exercised absolute authority over everyone in the extended household.

The role of the father was so culturally defining for people in the ancient world that paternal imagery proved serviceable far beyond the boundaries of the natural family. The Roman Senate gave to the emperor Augustus the title “Father of the Fatherland” (Pater Patriae). Religious groups, like the worshippers of the god Mithras, appointed a pater, a single “father” figure, to oversee the community. A father-figure of some sort headed up nearly every social institution in the New Testament world.

This background makes Jesus’ command in Matthew 23:9 radically counter-cultural: “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).

Jesus has two fathers in view in this command: a natural father (“on earth”) and a divine Father (“in heaven”). The distinction is instructive, because as we read the Gospels we discover:

(1) Jesus emphasized the fatherhood of God more than anyone had before in Israel’s history.

(2) Jesus had some rather scandalous and disruptive things to say about natural fatherhood.

The evidence for (1) God as Father in the teaching of Jesus hardly needs mentioning, since it is on page-after-page of the Gospels. We are less familiar with the fact that (2) Jesus undermined paternal authority in a way that would have made a profound impression on his disciples and others who heard his teaching. Here are just three of Jesus’ striking statements related to natural fatherhood:

Mark 1:19–20 — He saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.

Matthew 8:21-22 — Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Luke 14:26 — “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus (1) emphasized the Fatherhood of God in his teaching and actions. But he (2) intentionally destabilized natural fatherhood, both in passages like those cited above, and in his insistence that natural descent from Abraham (the ultimate Jewish “father”) counted for little in God’s relational economy (see John 8:34–59). Our key text (again) summarizes Jesus’ viewpoint on divine and human fatherhood:

Matthew 23:9 — “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”

Jesus & Leadership

Does Jesus’ take on fatherhood/Fatherhood have anything to do with leadership structure in the family of God? There is a piece of evidence that suggests that it does:

Mark 10:28-30 — 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Peter and Jesus here discuss the sacrifices made by some of Jesus’ disciples who had to leave their natural families (who likely disowned them) in order to become part of Jesus’ new family of faith (v. 29). Jesus assures Peter that these natural family relationships will be replaced by relationships in the church family (“in this time” [v 30]). A comparison of the two lists is quite revealing:

Five Relationships Sacrificed:

“brothers or sisters or mother or father or children” (v. 29)

Four Relationships Gained:

“brothers and sisters and mothers and children” (v 30).

Don’t miss what’s missing. Sometimes what the Bible does not say is as important as what it does say. Among the Four Relationships Gained, “father” is conspicuously absent.

Did Jesus just forget to include “father”? A simple oversight? Hardly! Jesus left “father” off the second list because he anticipated that there would be no human father in the church family. That role is reserved for God alone.


The blog title asks, Plurality Leadership In The Teachings Of Jesus?

I included the question mark, because most of us assume that Jesus had virtually nothing to say about church structure. The passages cited above suggest otherwise.

Jesus gave his disciples a lot of instruction that did not make it into our four Gospels. Luke tells us, for example, that after the resurrection Jesus spent forty days with his disciples, “speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). It is only reasonable to assume that Jesus instructed his disciples about church leadership and organization.

In the Gospels, we encounter some residual hints of such teaching. In the Epistles, we see Jesus’ instruction bearing its intended fruit, in the form of team-led churches throughout the Roman Empire.

As a historian trained to look for cause-and-effect, I am convinced that what we see in Acts and the Epistles finds its origin in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus intended for God—not a human senior pastor figure—to function as the sole father of the early Christian congregations. Jesus’ disciples “got it,” and they organized their churches accordingly.

By way of conclusion, let’s expand our horizons and place what we have learned about God and fatherhood alongside two other key images of the church in the New Testament. The agreement is rather striking:

The Church As The Flock Of God — Jesus alone is called “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4), which translates a Greek word (archi-poimen) that can equally be rendered “lead pastor” (“shepherd” = “pastor” in the Bible).

The Church As The Body Of Christ — Jesus alone is the head of the body (Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18).

The Church As The Family Of God — God alone is the Father of the church (Matthew 23:9)

The idea that one person—lead-pastor or senior-pastor—should teach, shepherd, and make decisions for a whole local church community flies in the face of every Bible passage we have examined here and in the previous post. And we have yet to touch upon what is perhaps the most important reason that plurality leadership is biblical. We will do so next week, as we conclude our survey of the biblical evidence for shared pastoral leadership at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.

Posted by Joe Hellerman with

Is Plurality Leadership Biblical?

Our last post explained why we preach through the Bible the way we do at OCF. In this and the next several posts we will consider another OCF “non-negotiable,” namely, our team approach to pastoral ministry. 

OCF has no senior pastor leading our church for two reasons:

  1. BIBLICAL: We believe that shared ministry is God’s ideal for his church.
  2. PRAGMATIC: We believe that having a plurality of pastors is healthier for both the leaders and the members of OCF. 

The first three posts will outline the biblical data. PART ONE (today) looks at specific New Testament passages that portray early church structure. PART TWO will consider Jesus’ contribution to the team approach. PART THREE will tackle the issue as part of the broader emphasis in the Bible on community and relationships in God’s church. In the weeks to follow we will consider the pragmatic benefits of having a team of pastor-elders lead a local church.

PART ONE — New Testament Passages On Leadership

The most common take on church leadership structure assumes that the Bible does not prescribe a single model. Those who take this position instead find a variety of structures in Scripture. They conclude that leadership today can (and should) be tailored to the cultural settings in which we find ourselves.

This may very well be the case. It is true that what we read about leadership structure in the New Testament is descriptive (how they did it back then), rather than prescriptive (how it should always be done). There is no verse in the Bible that reads, “You shall have a plurality of pastors leading your church.”

There is, however, a whole lot of description. And this description is quite consistent. We encounter next-to-none of the variety of approaches to leadership that the popular view claims to find in the Bible. Instead, a distinct picture emerges, one which portrays a plurality of elders leading each early Christian congregation. I have assembled the data below, providing some context for each of the biblical texts.

Plurality Leadership In The Gentile Congregations:

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust (Acts 14:23).  [Paul and Barnabas appoint leaders in the Galatian churches on their way back from the first missionary journey.  Notice the emphasis upon elders (plural) in each church (singular).]

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church (Acts 20:17).  [Refers to the leaders of the church at Ephesus, where Paul ministered for several years.]

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1).  [Paul’s churches in Europe reflect the same model of plurality leadership. Note that “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor” refer to the same office in the New Testament.]

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you (Titus 1:5).  [Again, notice the contrast between the plural (“elders”) and the singular (“every town”).]

1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:  2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;  3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.  4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away (1 Peter 5:1-4).  [Peter simply assumes that all the churches that will receive his letter in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (v. 1) are each led by a group of elders. By the way, “Chief Shepherd” actually means “Head Pastor” in the original Greek. Looks like OCF has a Senior Pastor, after all. His name is Jesus.]

Plurality Leadership In The Jewish Congregations: 

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17) [Unknown author, writing to Jewish Christians, assumes plurality leadership.]

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14).  [James, addressing the Jewish Christian communities in the eastern diaspora (1:1), can assume the presence of elders in every congregation in which his letter will be read.]

That is a whole lot of churches, each led by a plurality of elders. The model proves to be the norm among Jewish and Gentile congregations, located in Asia and in Europe. No variety. No cultural adaptation. No senior leader in sight anywhere.

A possible exception is Jesus’ half-brother James, in the Jerusalem church. And it is standard fair for those who favor the senior pastor model to appeal to Acts 15. What unfolds in this passage, however, is a collaborative approach to decision-making that differs markedly from what generally transpires in today’s large, senior-pastor-led churches. 

The use of Acts 15, moreover, to support one-man leadership brings up the broader hermeneutical issue of the relationship between biblical interpretation and theological synthesis. Frankly, I get a bit nervous as a New Testament scholar, when interpreters defend a position by drawing upon a single biblical text that can be read in more than one way. I think we are on safer ground leaning on the larger group of clear passages outlined above.

So, as our blog title asks, Is Plurality Leadership Biblical? 

As we have seen, the New Testament consistently describes the apostles establishing churches led by a team of elders. I would be a bit hesitant to cite the above passages as categorical, prescriptive evidence for the plurality model. However, I think there is enough solid description for us to take the biblical data very seriously as we develop our theology of church structure—especially since team leadership was so utterly countercultural in the broader world of the New Testament.

Anticipating PART TWO:

As a historian, I have been trained to look for cause-and-effect. In the case of plurality leadership, we would want to ask, “Why did early Christian leaders adopt this model?”

The question is a particularly thorny one, since every other social institution in the ancient world—from empire to family—was markedly patriarchal, with a single male leader at the top. What led the apostles to adopt such a counter-cultural alternative for church leadership?

We really don’t know for sure. But we may be able to tease some hints out of the Gospels, where we see Jesus preparing his disciples for their future role as church planters. Next week we will continue our survey of the biblical data by considering Jesus’ contribution to early church leadership orientation and structure.

Posted by Joe Hellerman with