Is a Plurality of Elders biblical?

Recently, a Christian insisted that any church that does not have more than one pastor does not line up with the biblical standard. To support his claim, he quoted Titus 1:5 which says, “For this cause I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking and ordain elders in every city, as I have appointed you.” My friend said, “It says elders, not an elder. It is plural.” Now I do not have any problem if a church has more than one pastor. But I maintain that Titus 1:5 cannot be used as a proof text to support the idea of having a plurality of elders.

When Paul wrote Titus, churches met in homes, not church buildings. So, in any given city, there could be many home churches. Paul’s instruction to Titus was that he ordain elders in every city. He did not say, “Ordain elders in every church.” Based upon the known history at that time and Paul’s exact words to Titus, we should conclude that pastors were to oversee multiple home churches in a given city. We also know that when churches were planted, they did not have a pastor. The church was made up of new believers. Further, the pattern in Acts 6 strongly suggests that leaders were to be appointed from within the church, not strangers to it. Most likely, Titus talked with the various home churches in those cities about his duty to ordain elders in every city. From those discussions and relationships, he no doubt learned which men were recognized in those cities as men who already had a reputation of leading and caring for the souls in the various home churches.

When Titus first ordained elders in these cities, they most likely acted as pastors to more than one church. The word “bishop” most directly means to oversee. This expression in this early New Testament context suggests that each pastor  had oversight of multiple home churches. It was not merely to oversee the Christians who met in a single home.

Having said these things, I must note that Luke said that Paul ordained elders and that almost all English translations put it as follows: “So when they had ordained elders in every church…” (Acts 14:23a). Perhaps my friend should use Acts 14:23 as his proof text rather than Titus 1:5. But as we look closer, we again realize that neither verse proves that Paul required a plurality of elders in every church. In both verses, there is no conclusive evidence that Paul is requiring more than one elder in a church. It merely says he ordained elders in the churches. Since there were multiple churches, there obviously should be multiple elders. Next, it should be pointed out that the Greek word translated “every” is kata which normally carries with it the idea “according to.” Comparatively, kata is rarely translated “every.” The fact that English translations use the word “every” could very well be a case of translation being affected by the large church building paradigm. By the time the Bible was being translated into English, Christians universally thought of church within the context of a large building. This could have influenced the translators to use the word “every” when in reality, the idea of “according to” may be more appropriate. So, if my suggestion has any merit, perhaps Acts 4:23 might be translated, “So when they had ordained elders according to (the needs of) the churches.” Now, I confess that I have no credentials as a translator from the Greek, but I suspect that my suggestion may have just as much merit as the common translation “in every church.” I am open to feedback from any Greek scholar who can prove that “in every church” is the only possible way to translate this verse. If we are aiming for a literal translation and interpretation, then I will probably not consider any rebuttal that does not consider the fact that at the time, Christians met in homes, not large buildings.

There is tendency for Christians to misinterpret (or even translate) scripture by assuming it says something it does not say, all to justify their preconceived ideas. In the case of the widespread misinterpretation of Titus 1:5, the tendency is to factor into the interpretation the non-biblical pattern of churches meeting in large buildings. From the perspective of a Christian from a large church trying to make sense of Titus 1:5, substituting the word “cities” with “churches” is justifiable. The problem is that Titus 1:5 specifically uses the word cities, not churches. The Titus passage does not address any notion of churches having hundreds of people that meet in one building. Such conditions did not exist. Therefore, to be faithful to the text, it must be interpreted within the context of the conditions that Paul was addressing. He wanted Titus to ordain pastors who would oversee multiple home churches. Because there were many home churches in any given city, he wanted Titus to ordain more than one pastor so that all the home churches would have a pastor who would take oversight responsibility not just for that church, but for several other home churches.

The New Testament pattern of growth was an increasing number of home churches becoming established, not acquisition of large buildings where hundreds of Christians could meet. It was not until about 350 A.D. that the practice of using larger buildings for Christian churches began. The Roman Emperor Constantine came up with the idea to build larger buildings for Christian places of worship. Since that time, the practice of meeting in large, ornate buildings has become the accepted norm even though that pattern is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. Because of centuries of practice, Christians now see everything through the large church building paradigm and they interpret the Bible accordingly. Now, if people like me point all these things out, we are demeaned as trouble makers and fringe. But all we are doing is pointing out what the Bible actually says.

Because things have drifted from the biblical pattern, new paradigms have been constructed and have been set forth as biblical. To do this, the scriptures are stretched and made to say things that fit those paradigms. A common example is the alteration of the role of the pastor. In a large congregation, the practice of restoring those caught in sin (a process usually called “church discipline”) is relegated to the pastor or pastors. They are assigned the responsibility or police and judge even though Jesus delegates that authority to the entire church. (See Matthew 18:15-20.) Often, pastors, neglect the Lord’s teaching and resort to a hierarchical form of church government never intended. While Jesus instructed leaders to never exercise lordship over those under their authority, many pastors follow the typical pattern observed in world forms of government. In those systems, there is a chain of command. Those at the top expect all those under their authority to submit to their authority. When they don’t, those who exercise lordship become offended and demand chastening of some sort. This is not how Jesus lead people. He taught that they should serve them rather than be served by them[1].

Another example of distortion that results from the misinterpretation of Titus 1:5 is classification of the pastorate as a career path. Home churches would never be able to afford the salary of pastors in a large church. But a large church has many of the same responsibilities you might find in a corporation. In fact, secular governments often classify churches as corporations. Pastors are viewed as CEO’s. None of this is justified using the New Testament pattern. Rather than simply let the New Testament speak for itself, extrapolations are made to justify much of which is widely considered orthodox.

When Christians begin to bend Scripture to fit their own ideas and practices, there is a ripple effect. Many other teachings and practices can be affected and the pattern taught in the New Testament is replaced for teachings and practices that are considered rock solid and unquestionable. Thus, “Ordain pastors in every city” becomes “Ordain pastors in every church.” End of Story.

 



[1] I do not deny that pastors have special authority and that Christians should appreciate them as men who hold an honorable position. I only contend that the extent of their authority often goes beyond the boundaries prescribed in Scripture thus distorting the Lord’s intentions for the office of pastor.



3 Responsesto “Is a Plurality of Elders biblical?”

  1. James K. says:

    Hello there, I had a couple questions:

    Is an elder the same as a pastor? From my study pastor is a word only used 2 times in the bible, and neither as a position but rather a function. Anyone who cares for other christians is a pastor. What do you think?

    I personally do agree with the premise that there should be a plurality of elders in every church. I believe every reference to elders in the new testament is plural, or almost every. Is that not the case?

    Why are we assuming that the bible says every house church is autonomous and independent within the city? Shouldn’t they be in fellowship?

    • Tom Bear says:

      Sorry I did not respond to this earlier. I did not know that my web site even allowed people to enter comments. (Pretty dumb, eh?)

      I believe all Christians are called to “pastor.” Yet, there seems to be a special designation of an office. As I see it, the word overseer, pastor, shepherd are all conveying the same idea here but only those appointed by the church hold the office designation.

      I want to admit here that though I have studied this subject, I still lack confidence in all of my understanding of how the early church functioned. In my article, I was merely pointing out that they were appointing elders in every city. It did not specify multiple elders in every church. I certainly am not opposed to multiple elders in churches! The more the better if they are qualified men of God.

      Concerning house churches.. again I cannot begin to say with certainty how all of that was organized but I would tend to think that since there were multiple elders in every city, there was a connection between all of the churches in every city. Connected somehow, yet “independent.” But all under the authority of the Chief Shepherd.

  2. Daryl Smith says:

    Good article. It’s been my observation for awhile that the American Church is run far too much like a business. Fee’s are charged for activities such as seminars and events. This has the function of excluding some of the poorer members of a congregation, something I think our Lord would have never endorsed. Decisions are made on the basis of a business case which really shouldn’t be so in God’s church. Among the reason’s the Church is somewhat in effective on American Society in general, the church being run like a business is very high if not at the top of the list.

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