God has designed the church to have elders, a group of qualified men who will oversee a congregation. His desire is that a local congregation has more than one man who leads the church. The New Testament is clear concerning the plurality of an eldership in a local congregation. Notice these examples: elders in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30), elders of the church (James 5:14), Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church (Acts 14:23), The Ephesian church had elders (Acts 20:17), elders oversee the affairs of the church (1 Timothy 5:17), appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5), to the elders of the church (Philippians 1:1). Early non-inspired Christian writings such as the Didache (15.1) (100 AD), 1 Clement (42.4, 44.3) (100 AD), and the Shepherd of Hermes (vis. 8.3) (150 AD) point out that God’s plan is for a local congregation to have multiple elders. Each of the men who serve as elders do so as a team who is equal who serve under the leadership of the head of the church, Jesus Christ, 1 Peter 5:3-4.
Church history shows us the danger of having one elder who dominates the others in the eldership. Early in the Second Century after Christ, Ignatius from Antioch in Syria created a system that placed one man as the head of every local church. Ignatius faced deep concerns about false teachers and their impact on the doctrine and unity of the local churches. For this reason he assumed the role as head elder (he called himself a bishop) in order to fight these false doctrines. In the next generation, these men who ruled as sole bishops over congregations began to spread their influence over other local, weaker congregations in order to protect them as well. Soon all the churches of the region were dominated by the bishops (ruling men) of Syria of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and later Constantinople. While the rule of one man over a congregation or series of congregations was against the Scriptures, it still was done for what they thought were good motives: doctrinal purity, strong personalities and efficiency in church government. But the one leader model soon lead to apostasy and sinful pride in men as they jockeyed for power over one another. In just a few generations, the church became unrecognizable.
The biblical doctrine of eldership plurality and the lesson of the dangers of one man leadership in church history lead us to some practical applications today in the Lord’s Church. The first lesson is that while the doctrine of a plurality of elders is inefficient, it is necessary. In most congregations where there is a “head elder” in churches of Christ, it is because that man believes it takes too long for the group to decide or that they do not know as much as the one man does. But an eldership that works together has the advantage of the greater wisdom and experience of everyone in the group. It is important that elders be able to work together and that they have the humility, faith, and patience to depend on others in their work of overseeing the church. A second application is that an elder’s authority is to be exercised through the eldership and not individually. While elders are to be shown respect for their office individually (Hebrews 13:7, 17), their authority over church matters is as a group. Great care needs to be taken so that each elder recognizes they are to be in submission to the other elders. The oversight of the church is a responsibility given to the elders as a group and not as an individual. A third application is that great care needs to be taken by each of us to follow what the Scriptures teach concerning church leadership. Many denominations have left the eldership concept and have instead followed a business model (CEO with a board of trustees) or Roman government model (an emperor with a Senate to advise on actions) to lead the church. God’s design is that a local congregation has shepherds who care for the flock and lead the congregation as a group. May God help us to always put aside our opinions and follow his plan!