Sheep Make Baaaaad Shepherds.

sheep.jpgIn my mind, it really is that simple.  Shepherds rule sheep.  Elders rule congregations.  Of course, there is a bit more to the subject than this.

I recently listened to a sermon by Pastor Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  Mark is one of my favorite preachers.  He is committed to expositional preaching.  He is serious about the local church.  He is passionate about truth.  I think, however, he is on the side with the weaker biblical argument when it comes to the subject of church government. Mark's premise: the congregation itself is the last, final, earthly court of appeal. 

Now, remember, in our piping-hot discussion of whether I am a Baptist or not, I made quite clear that I do not separate over this issue.  The Bible is explicit in its qualifications for two church officers: pastor/elder/overseer and deacon.  I believe that the terms pastor, elder, and overseer are interchangeable.  I do not see, however, in Scripture a mandate for an exclusive elder-rule or exclusive congregational rule in church government.  I do think the evidence leans more strongly toward elder-rule though.

In his message, Mark makes three arguments to support his premise of congregational rule.

  • The congregation itself is the final court of appeal in disputes between brothers.

Supporting texts for this argument are Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 6; Galatians 1:8

  • The congregation itself is the final court of appeal in matters of doctrine.

Supporting text for this argument is 2 Timothy 4:3.

  • The congregation itself is the final court of appeal in matters of discipline.

Supporting text for this argument is 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2.

What I do NOT dispute is that the Bible teaches a congregational form of government.  I believe that the local church is autonomous (self-ruling).  What is in dispute is whether the "final court of appeal" is the congregation itself or the elders/pastors of the church.  For further understanding, I want to briefly summarize the three spheres of church polity:

  1. Episcopalian: This form of church government maintains that there are three legitimate church offices: bishop, presbyter (or rector of priests), and deacon. Bishops alone have authority to appoint other bishops, presbyters, and deacons.  Denominations embracing this form of government would include Roman Catholics, Methodist, Anglican, and Orthodox.
  2. Presbyterian: The local church is governed by the session, which is composed of ruling elders elected by the membership, with the teaching elder or minister as presiding officer. The next highest- ranking body is the Presbytery, which includes all the ordained ministers or teaching elders and one ruling elder from each local congregation in a given district. Above the presbytery is the synod, and over the synod is the general assembly, the highest court. Denominations using this from include Presbyterians and Reformed.
  3. Congregational: The ultimate authority for each local church resides within that church; each church is completely autonomous. These denominations would include Congregational, Baptist, Mennonite, Evangelical Free, and Independents.

Now within each of these spheres, there are various ways churches have structured their government.  Within the congregational sphere (which I embrace), there are several different approaches:

  • Single pastor/elder: some describe as a monarchical episcopacy
  • Corporate board: like many deacon boards function
  • Pure democracy: congregation votes on everything
  • "Holy Spirit" rule: really scary system
  • Plurality of elders: group of leaders who rule the church

Mark Dever and many other pastors would subscribe to the single pastor/elder structure, while I am more convinced of a plurality of elders.  In addition, Mark would describe the congregation as the final court of appeals whereas I would say the pastors/elders are the final court of appeals.

Now, I'll try to contrast the two positions.  See what you think is more biblically based.  I'll refer to "Congregation as final court of appeal" as position A.  "Pastor/Elders as the final court of appeal" will be position B.

To be fair, I should say that in one sense, the two positions are not that far apart.  Both positions would hold to roles for both pastor/elder and congregation within the church.  Mark Dever (A) certainly believes that the pastor/elder has a tremendously important role in the church; however, he gives final authority to the congregation.  In my position (B), I certainly see the involvement of the congregation in church government, specifically in the matters of brotherly dispute or discipline (Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:22).  However, I maintain that the elders/pastors carry the final authority.

Since I have taken the burden of proof on myself, here is the biblical evidence I would submit for the pastor/elder as the "final court of appeal."  To accomplish this, I want to briefly survey the use of the biblical words for pastor in New Testament.  Each, I think, contributes to a proper understanding of who an elder/pastor is, what he is to do, and how he is to fulfill his responsibilities.

The first term is presbuteros, the word we translate "elder."  This title refers to who a pastor/elder is.  The term is used in two primary ways in the New Testament: (1) to describe an older man or (2) to designate a community official.  Twenty-eight times in the Gospels and Acts it refers to the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Twelve times in Revelation it identifies the 24 elders—representatives of the redeemed people of God. Nineteen times in Acts and the Epistles it identifies a unique group of leaders in the church.

The second term is episcopos, the word we translate "bishop" or "overseer." This title refers to what a pastor/elder does. It is a common word for an office holder in the Greek culture. It is used of secular officials of various kinds, especially local officials or any official who acted as a superintendent, manager, controller, or ruler. The Septuagint uses the word for army officers (Num. 31:14), tabernacle administrators (Num. 4:16), supervisors of the temple repair (2 Chron. 24:12, 17), temple guardians (2 Kings 11:18), and a city supervisor or mayor (Neh. 11:9). It occurs only five times in New Testament: one time of Christ (1 Pet. 2:25) and four times of church leaders; it is especially used for Gentile congregations such as Ephesus. It is a general word like supervisor, manager, or guardian.

1 Timothy 5:17 develops the idea of overseer even further.  The word “rules” means “to put before,” “to set over,” or “to rule”; it is also translated:

  • “Leads” (Rom. 12:8); refers to the gift of administration

  • “Manages” (1 Tim. 3:4–5); refers to an elder’s oversight of his “household”

  • “Managers” (1 Tim. 3:12); refers to a deacon’s managing of his “children” and “household”

The word “especially” is used 12 times in the New Testament. This Greek word occurs eight times in Paul’s epistles. Every time Paul uses this word, what follows it is a subset of what has come before. (Gal. 6:10; Phil. 4:22; 1 Tim. 4:10; 5:8, 17; 2 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 1:10; Philem. 1:16)

So, In 1 Timothy 5:17 the point is:

  • All elders are supposed to “rule.”

  • Some elders rule particularly well (kalos).

  • While all elders are to be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), some work hard at preaching and teaching; the implication is that some elders have greater teaching responsibilities, probably because of superior gifts.

The third term is poimen, the word translate "pastor" or "shepherd."  This title refer to how a pastor/elder leads (by protecting).  The noun form occurs 18 times in the New Testament. It is used of:

  • Actual shepherds; keepers of animals

  • Christ (e.g., Heb. 13:20–21; 1 Pet. 2:25)

  • Only one time of church leaders; translated “pastor” in English versions (Eph. 4:11)—“pastor-teachers"

The Greek construction puts the two words together. And means “that is” or “in particular,” so teacher becomes explanatory of pastors.  The word emphasizes the shepherd’s primary role: teaching or feeding the sheep.  The verb form is used three times in context of the church’s leaders.

  • John 21:16—Christ demanded that Peter shepherd His sheep.

  • Acts 20:28—Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that they are to shepherd the church.

  • 1 Pet. 5:1a, 2a—Peter charged the elders scattered across Asia Minor to shepherd the flock of God.

The first three centuries had a strong agrarian mindset. During the Reformation, the term “pastor” was popularized as a reaction to the “priest” or “bishop.” It probably was never intended to be a title but rather a description of what an elder does.

One final passage to consider is Hebrews 13:17, which states: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you."

While the congregation is certainly involved in matters where the Bible prescribes, it seems to be more of an affirming role, rather than a determinative role.  The teaching and example of the New Testament, from my study, is that the shepherds rule the sheep.  The sheep obey the shepherds.  The shepherds are responsible for the sheep and will give an account for the sheep.  In my opinion, many good churches have allowed the governmental models of democracy and representation to permeate the local church.  That is why so many of our deacons function as ruling boards rather than the servants they are instructed to be.  While it may seem very "American" to insist on majority rule, the reality is that in many of our churches the majority are not the spiritually mature.  God gave very specific qualification for pastors/elders to ensure that they would generally make wise, spiritually mature decisions.

Now, obviously, if a leader teacher error, he must be put out of the congregation, disciplined as the Bible instructs.  A leader should be gentle and loving, an imitation of the Good Shepherd (Psalm 23), who leads by still waters and offers rest in green pastures, who directs down paths of righteousness.  A ruling pastor/elder who is more of a dictator or maverick will not do for the church of Jesus Christ.  One who sows discord or confusion among the sheep needs to turn in his shepherd's staff.  A good shepherd will give his life for his sheep, will know them by name, will be eagerly followed by his growing and dependent flock.  Such is the leader I desire to be.  Such is the leader God wants me to be.


23 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting, Brian, especially knowing your background at a church that held to a very strong position A.

    If I understand you correctly, you would see the congregation having a say/vote in church discipline but what about such things as buying property, taking out a mortgage, or calling a senior pastor?


  2. While I don’t think it’s wrong for the pastors/elders to get advice from the congregation (“multitude of counselors=safety”), I do think those decisions belong to the elders/pastors. Regarding senior pastor, with a plurality of elders/pastors, there is technically no senior pastor. Decisions are made by consensus of all the elders/pastors.

    By the way, that was FAST! I just posted this.


  3. Brian, how would you view the choosing of elders for a congregation? The Acts example is an apostle (Paul) ordaining them in every city. Since I assume you would agree that we no longer have apostles with us today, where does that responsibility lie?

    I think it is sad, that deacons have taken the role of elders in many baptist churches. One other question though. How many is a plurality of elders? And are small churches with only one man qualified in the church to be an elder being unbiblical? Elder qualifications are pretty tough in our society. I appreciated you article, just a few questions I have.


  4. Hi Brian,

    Good article. You have made some very good and interesting points. One question I have is how do you decide who would get a paid salary if there is a pluarity of elders, but not all of them being on “staff”? In 1 Timothy 5:17-18 ” Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, specially they who labour in the word and doctrine.18 For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.” Would you have only those “elders” that labour in the Word and doctrine be receiving a salary? Are the those “Elder” lay person (sheep) or trained and schooled personel? In Titus 1:5 “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:” Paul speaks of ordaining elders in different cities. Are “Elders” then to be ordained as practiced in the NT? Just food for thought from Dad.


  5. Mark Dever and many other pastors would subscribe to the single pastor/elder structure


    You claim to know and love Dever, but you don’t even know his position on plurality?

    Dever’s ninth mark (agree or disagree) is “A Biblical View of Church Leadership”- which he argues is a plurality of elders.


  6. Greg,

    Mark does have a group of elders whom he considers to be the pastors of the congregation. However, he also claims the title of senior pastor, which he defines as “first among equals.” I think many churches, even Baptist, have a plurality of elders in the sense that we have multiple pastors on staff; however, a true plurality of elders does not have a “senior” pastor. Mark would also differ from the position I have delineated above in making the congregation the final court of appeal.


  7. Matt,

    I don’t know that the NT addresses the idea of “who selects elders.” I think most of the churches of that day were started by apostles or men qualified to be the elders. Obviously, a group of men cannot just walk into a local church and claim it as their own. The congregation, in my thinking, would need to extend the invitation. But I don’t know that it is a biblical issue.

    Regarding a small church only having one qualified elder. I don’t think I would call it sin, but the attitude of the church should be that they are constantly looking for qualified men to become part of that group. I will say that I have not come across any NT examples of any local churches that did not have a plurality of elders. Time and time again it is: single church, multiple elders.

    I don’t the NT addresses your other question of how many elders constitutes a majority. I don’t know. I think you would want as many as are qualified within your church.


  8. Dad,

    Good questions. The one I can try to address right now is whether elders could simply be from the congregation or schooled, trained people. The qualifications for an elder are laid out pretty clearly in the letters to Timothy and Titus. The elders are supposed to be able to teach, so their would need to be a spiritual gift of teaching or training in that regard. I would certainly think that elders could come from the laity, although schooling certainly helps in maturity and knowledge.

    The other question about payment of elders I’ll have to come back to. We’re getting ready to start moving today, so I have lots of work to do! I’ll try to get back to this tomorrow.


  9. Brian,

    You are a brave Baptist … a very brave Baptist!

    And for that, you are to be commended!


  10. Posted by Dan Miller on May 28, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    Brian, have you read the Capitol City constitution?

    For them, “Elders” is inclusive of:
    • “Senior Pastor”
    • “Associate Pastors”
    • “Assistant Pastors” – from within the congregation only
    • “Senior Pastoral Assistants” – not pastors – hired
    • “Pastoral Assistants” – not pastors – hired
    • “Deacons/deaconesses”

    I thought it was interesting that they made so many categories.


  11. Posted by Dan Miller on May 28, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    oops. Just looked at the document again.

    “Elder” also includes the non-paid elders (in addition to those above).
    And “deacon/deaconess” is not an elder at all.


  12. FWIW- I don’t think that this polity position makes you not a Baptist- though I still think you don’t grasp what Dever is saying about the role of the congregation and how it relates to elders. I would love to see you expound further in how your view works with recieving into membership, choosing of elders and deacons, and so on.

    And FWIW- Dever is an elder and NOT the chairman at his church (and as I understand it, there is a chairman).

    Would you deny, then, that should not be an elder amongst the plurality that will be, if not the senior in title and control, spokesman or central in leadership amongst the plurality? Just curious. The pastoral epistles, as addressed to individuals and not a body, seem to indicate that some did have greater responsibility.


  13. Greg,

    Perhaps Mark and I are closer than not on this issue. I could certainly pick some other models which would contrast a bit more. I do think that we would have an honest disagreement on who is the final authority in the church. I also think that, although Mark has a plurality of elders, he does claim the title of senior pastor or “first among equals”–at least on his website.

    I don’t know exactly how it would have to work in incorporated America b/c you have to have a CEO and Board of Directors to incorporate and get tax-exempt status. But speaking purely from the New Testament example, I do not find examples of “senior pastors.” Even the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus seem to indicate that they served more as representatives of Paul than anything else. I think Paul even told Titus to “appoint elders in every city” which would seem to follow the apostolic tradition, rather than the “elders appointing other elders” as seems to be the regular NT practice.

    Again, I want to make sure I say that I am not claiming absolute certainty in this area. I just think the biblical evidence leans more toward elder rule as the final authority in the church.


  14. I think that part of the flaw here is when “final authority” take place. Dever uses the term “final court of appeals” rather than “final authority” for the congregation. I think that is a good description – there is a time (though perhaps extreme) when a congregation should defend the truth against ungodly leadership. There are times when the authority of an elder(s) should be used to rebuke (again, perhaps extreme) and set in order. To say that one should always supersede the other does not seem to perfectly fit in the bounds of Scripture.

    The ideal is each working in harmony with the other.


  15. Hi Brian,

    You wrote earlier, “Regarding senior pastor, with a plurality of elders/pastors, there is technically no senior pastor. Decisions are made by consensus of all the elders/pastors.” Why do you think that Dever has a limited number of years a person may function as an elder (two three year terms) then sit out a year, when he says that the senior/associate pastor/elders have a unlimited call to their office without re-appointment. After all are they all not equal in biblical qualifications? Also, why would you want to identify with someone who clearly is in agreement with the SBC? Dever’s church polity may be close to what you believe to be a biblical position, but I don’t think that I’d want to be know as one that is in agreement with Dever’s associations. Again just food for thought from Dad


  16. Dad,

    I don’t know why Dever makes distinctions in the tenure of various elders in his church. For practical reasons? I don’t know.

    Regarding his association with the SBC, I do know that Mark has spoken out against the liberalism in some quarters of the SBC. In fact, I believe that a good amount of firing has been done at some of these schools and the SBC is much more doctrinally unified than it has been. Having said that, I will always separate from false teachers and if the SBC harbors such individuals in their schools, churches, or boards, then a separation is indeed necessary.


  17. Posted by Joy Wagner on May 31, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    So, if I understand you correctly, you are in favor of a congregational form of government but an elder/pastor rule? Where do the lines cross? For example, what circumstances are controlled by the congregation and which by the elders? Another question is do you have equal authority with the senior pastor on issues that are under your jurisdiction? So, are all pastors the final say or is that just the senior pastor? Surely you don’t have to take every little decision through the pastor’s approval?


  18. Joy,

    When I subscribe to a congregational form of government, what I’m saying is that the local church is autonomous, that there is no outside authority–no authority beyond the confines of the local church.

    I think that, ideally, the elders make all the decisions in the leading of the church. I don’t really see a “senior pastor” model in the New Testament, although the New Testament doesn’t rule out the possibility of having one. I think the pattern is more a plurality of elders, no senior pastor, all equal in authority.


  19. Posted by Joy Wagner on June 2, 2006 at 12:35 pm

    What about guys like Timothy? Wasn’t he the senior pastor in Ephesus?


  20. Joy, I addressed this is an earlier response to Greg. It appears to me that both Timothy and Titus were more of representatives of Paul than the actual pastors of those churches. The elders (plural) of the church at Ephesus are repeatedly addressed by Paul and Titus was commissioned to appoint elders (plural) in every church (singular) in Crete. So, while they had authority in the early formation of churches in this part of the world, I don’t think their example is particularly instructive in having a “senior pastor” among other elders. I don’t think Scriptures prohibits it, just doesn’t seem to be the regular pattern of the NT.


  21. Posted by Larry Lawton on June 6, 2006 at 7:07 am


    This is a great discussion, and yes, I’m a Baptist that believes in an elder/pastor-ruled church where a multitude of elders/pastors lead the church.

    I don’t know if my pastor (he doesn’t use the term ‘senior’ pastor, just ‘pastor’) has been influenced by Dever, but our church also uses a very similar model of a ‘first but equal’ elder rule in that one of the elders (he is currently the ‘first among equals at our church) is the ‘leader’ and the other elders are equal– not subservient or inferior. I think that this keeps order in our elder/pastor meetings, but it doesn’t make him the ‘supreme poo-bah’ who has the ‘final’ authority in matters where the elders may have a dispute.

    I have yet to read all of 9Marks (at their website), but it seems that the provided link above does lay some groundwork in a ministerial philosophy based on Scripture, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that one has to adhere to Dever’s philosophy in order to maintain an ‘elder-led’ church. I’d agree with you that the congregation isn’t necessarily the final authority, but it is wise to consider their input as an elder when we are making decisions. Perhaps Dever is making a distinction between spiritual matters and business matters when he is speaking of congregational authority? I have a lot to read yet about all of this, and this has been a very enlightening thread!


  22. Posted by Dan Miller on June 14, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    Do you know what the 1st century Jewish elder looked like?

    When the early church appointed “elders,” they used a term that was already in use in the religious institution with which they were familiar. This suggests that many aspects of the office may have been similar to that of the Jewish elder in the temple. (Otherwise why would they not have preferred another term which distanced them from the practices associated with the word?)

    How did a Jewish man become an elder?
    How long?
    Did he actually have to be “old”?


  23. Dan asked-

    How did a Jewish man become an elder?
    How long?
    Did he actually have to be “old”?

    Interestingly enough, I don’t believe that any of the criteria outlined in I Tim. 3 has anything to do with ago. True, it does assume that the leader [insert your term of choice here] is married, because he rules ‘his household well’ and ‘is a husband of one wife’. It also says that he is NOT to be ‘a recent convert’, but again, interestingly enough, it does NOT specify an age.

    As for Timothy, from what I gather in Paul’s writings, it doesn’t sound to me like he was all that old – probably right around my age [28]. I’ll look at a couple commentaries and see if they say anything later.

    This is a great, great topic, and it’s good to see some discussion on it. I’ll link to it at my blog.


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