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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

Sunday Teaching: What I Want to Hear...What I Need to Hear

Some years ago, after Brandon passed around the Fall preaching calendar, someone asked, How do you guys decide what to preach on from Sunday to Sunday?  The answer to this question affects a lot of what we do at OCF and it has an eternal impact on all of us who consistently worship together on Sundays.  So, I thought I’d take a moment to let you in on some of our reasoning along these lines.  I will share three “principles we live by” and two “extremes we try to avoid.”  These values are “on the table,” so to speak, before we even get around to picking Sunday topics and passages.  Once you read them, you’ll see why we preach the way we do:

Principle #1 — We come to church to meet with God, so the Bible must remain central to what we do in our Sunday teaching.  After all, God’s Word is our only trustworthy source of information about God and His ways with us.  If church is all about God, then church had better be all about the Bible.  Pretty straightforward.

Principle #2 — It is not enough for OCFers to come and receive Bible truth from trained pastors on Sunday morning.  As your pastors, we must also equip you to feel increasingly comfortable with the Bible yourselves, so that you can read and study God’s Word on your own during the week. 

Principle #3 — Your pastors must connect the eternal truths of God’s Word with the daily circumstances and needs of your lives, and we should do so in such a way that everyone—skeptical seeker or seasoned saint—has something to take home and think about or work on during the week. 

As you might imagine, remaining consistently and equally faithful to all these principles on any given Sunday is an almost impossible task!  But we do the best we can over the course of a year and, in the process, we try to avoid two extremes, each of which would compromise one or more of the principles outlined above:

Extreme #1 — Focus too much on where WE are at. 

            People generally find topical preaching (addressed directly to felt needs) very attractive.  Frankly, I am quite sure we could attract more people to our Sunday services, if we took a hot-button/current events approach to our teaching ministry. But there are some pitfalls associated with preaching topical sermons every week. The first problem is that a person can attend church for several years, hearing sermon after sermon dealing with themes like Success on the Job, Having a Healthy Marriage, and Finding Fulfillment in Life, and never gain the kind of familiarity with the Bible that would encourage him to study God’s Word on his own!  The Bible remains a foreign book full of tidbits of Godly wisdom which only the ‘paid professional’ (the pastor) can discover and deliver, as he prepares and preaches his messages each week. 

            The second pitfall of a topical approach is less obvious.  But it may be even more serious.  Preaching that is intentionally preoccupied with our felt-needs tends to start with us and end with God.  This kind of “teaching trajectory,” in turn, subtly but effectively communicates a whole worldview—one that is diametrically opposed to Scripture.  It says:  We are at the center of the universe, and God is here primarily to meet our needs and to fulfill our agenda.  Well, this is the just kind of thinking we want to avoid here at OCF, not the kind of thinking we want to subliminally reinforce by the way we craft our sermons! 

Extreme #2 — Focus too much on where the BIBLE is at

            Did a pastor just write that?!  Did Pastor Joe just write that?!!!  Yep.  At some point in our preaching we have to get out of the first century (or the eighth century B.C., in the case of 2 Kings 18) and into the twenty-first.  This means that Sunday morning will always be a worship service and never become just a classroom. 

            Don’t misunderstand.  We hope you learn something on Sunday.  But we do not want our preaching to impart only information.  We want you to meet your Lord in the Biblical text and come away with hope and direction for your life.  So we try to be relevant.  [Commercial Break:  You say our Sunday sermons are not technical enough, deep enough, theological enough, or heavy enough for you?  Hey, I know a Christian university not too many miles from OCF that would love to collect your tuition money in return for some real heavy, in-depth theological training!]

Putting It All Together

            Now how do these Principles and Extremes cash out in the way we plan our Sunday sermons?  Well, they make things pretty simple.  In an effort to be faithful to Principle #3, we will, at times (typically January & summer) program some topical sermons. But when we do, we try real hard to keep God at the center, where He belongs.  Over the course of a year, though, you won’t hear a lot of topical messages on Sunday at OCF.  Instead, we are usually preaching right through a book of the Bible (Principle #1), generally rotating from year-to-year between Old and New Testaments. (We’ll begin the Gospel of Luke this Fall) After we finish our survey of the historical books this summer (12 Samuel, 1-2 Kings), for example, we hope you will be familiar enough with the text to go home, read these books with understanding, and make them your own—for the rest of your life!  Hang out with us consistently for a few years. . .and just think of how much of the Bible you’ll know!  The Goal:  For you to have access to the Word of God to find hope and direction for your own life on a daily basis (Principle #2)—something you’ll never get from hearing topical sermons week after week.  

            So, you might not get what you WANT every week at OCF:  something that scratches your felt-needs right where they itch.  But we promise to do our best to give you what you NEED:  a big-picture exposure to God and His Word that gives you a basic biblical foundation for a lifetime of study.  Because the Christian life is not a 100-yard dash—it’s a marathon. 

            You’re part?  (1) Be there consistently, to get the whole flow of the Bible book, (2) Be there attentively, to actively think and reflect on what is being said, and (3) Be there openly, to let God have His way with you on Sunday mornings!  God will be honored and we’ll all be better for it! 

In Christ our Servant King,

Pastor Joe

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