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Does the Bible teach that there should be a plurality of elders?

plurality of elders

Some churches have just one elder or pastor leading them. Others have a plurality of elders—that is, church leadership is shared among several individuals. While this is not a salvation issue, it has implications for church administration, which affects church growth and overall health. As with any other subject, we seek to understand what the Bible says about a plurality of elders.

Although there are no explicit passages forbidding the practice of having a single leader as overseer of a church, a strong biblical case can be made for having a plurality of elders. When we examine the structure of the early church and the instructions given by the apostles, it becomes apparent that modern churches should lean toward shared leadership.

In Acts 14:23, Luke records that “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.” Prior to this, in Acts 11:30, Luke mentions “the elders of the church in Jerusalem” (NLT). Other passages in Acts also reference a plurality of elders, such as Acts 15:2; 16:4; 20:17; and 21:18.

The epistles also support a plurality of elders. In Philippians 1:1, Paul introduced the letter with greetings to “all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the elders and deacons” (NLT). Some translations use the term overseers instead of elders, but the office is the same.

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus provide well-known references to the subject of eldership. In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul instructs that “the elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” Notice the plural form of elders. Additionally, Timothy’s ministry was in the church of Ephesus, indicating the presence of multiple elders in one church. While the word elder in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 is singular, considering the overall context, one can infer the existence of many elders in the church in Ephesus.

The letter to Titus also affirms a plurality of elders. Paul wrote, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).

There are some passages that mention a single elder (2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1), but in those salutations, the word elder is simply a title, with little bearing on ecclesiology.

Many contemporary churches employ a hybrid system, having elders and a lead pastor. The pastor may have more influence and responsibilities than the other elders, but he is still considered an elder and held accountable.

We should be willing to approach the subject of church leadership with grace, wisdom, and understanding of different perspectives. Ultimately, concentrating all authority in the hands of one person in the church carries risks: overworking the pastor, cutting him off from counsel, and fostering a personality cult. Church leaders require some level of accountability, and a plurality of elders provides just that.

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Does the Bible teach that there should be a plurality of elders?
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This page last updated: August 21, 2023