The church I grew up in didn’t have “elders.” We had one pastor, flanked by associate ministers, deacons, and trustees.
From where I stood, it seemed that the pastor was in charge. He was king of the hill. He did most of the preaching and teaching. The associate ministers were his assistants. The deacons were second in command. They maintained the building and property, wrote the checks, opened up the service with Scripture and prayer, taught Sunday school, and if the pastor ever seriously overstepped his bounds, they had the power to discipline him. But it always seemed that the pastor was running things and wielded most of the power relatively unchecked.
This was the typical setup of most Baptist churches in the area — one pastor, associate ministers, and deacons. As you can imagine, when one man is considered the singular spiritual leader and holds a significant amount of authority, it’s hard for him to be reined in, even when it is technically possible, by those under his authority. I’ve seen many pastors abuse this system for their own selfish gain, and their sheep have paid dearly for it. Unqualified men can remain in office for years, even decades, without ever being meaningfully checked or questioned.
Such a system is not only unwise, but detrimental to the church when evil men are placed in office. However, I know good men who are in similar systems and shepherd their congregations well. I thank God for them and their faithfulness, despite the unideal form.
Eldership Isn’t Simply Better
Even though we have some good pastors in such bad systems, the most important reason this form of church government needs reforming is because it is unbiblical.
When I sat down to talk with Juan Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, I asked him why a plurality of pastor-elders was so essential for a healthy and vibrant church. Sanchez immediately emphasized the primary reason why every church needs elders in the plural: “Eldership is not just something that we need to do because it’s more proficient or makes things run more smoothly.”
In other words, we don’t practice eldership because it works. Our conviction is deeper than practicality. Sanchez explains that the New Testament reveals that the ascended Christ structures his church for the purpose of mission. What is the mission? Why does the church exist?
“Throughout Ephesians, you see that the eternal plan of God is to exalt his own Son, and to place everything under Christ, and to unite all things in Christ.”
The mission of the church is to exalt God the Father’s risen Son, Christ Jesus. In Ephesians 3, according to Sanchez, as Paul preaches, he exposes “God’s eternal plan to all people everywhere so that through the church God might display his manifold wisdom to the cosmic powers.” And Ephesians 4 reveals that God is gathering people from every nation; bringing us together under Christ — the head of the church. That same chapter, then, says “that the ascended Christ has given the church these ministers of the word to equip the church so that it would build itself up in love.”
The Chief Shepherd Uses a Plurality
“As we begin putting the New Testament data together, what we see is that Jesus Christ, the chief shepherd, who ascended to the right hand of the Father, shepherds his church.”
How does Jesus, the singular head of the church, shepherd his body? Through a plurality of elders. The New Testament doesn’t mention a single instance where a single elder rules a local congregation. In Titus 1:5, Paul writes, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Notice he left him to appoint a plurality of elders. Other examples include:
When they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23)
Now from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. . . . “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [“to pastor”] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:17, 28) (This passage, along with 1 Peter 5:1–2, shows that the terms elders and overseers, as well as pastors, are used interchangeably in the New Testament.)
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. (Philippians 1:1)
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)
“The reason elders are so necessary,” says Sanchez, “is because they are the means by which our sovereign king chooses to shepherd his church to display his kingdom on earth in local churches as embassies of heaven, and also to proclaim the message of the gospel, calling all people everywhere to repent and believe and enter into the kingdom. Elders shepherd the flock of God among them, under the chief Shepherd. That’s why elders are important, because it is our ascended Lord’s chosen means by which he shepherds his church.”
A Forgotten Qualification?
I also asked Sanchez about what we might call “the forgotten qualification” of hospitality. Growing up, I knew of pastors who led very private lives and rarely, if ever, had members in their home. Most members seemed to see this as acceptable. But later I discovered that this problem wasn’t confined to my experience, but is a problem in many churches in America. Rarely, when examining a man for elder ministry do other elders ask, “Is he hospitable?” It seems to be considered a non-essential. However, Paul disagrees. He places it in the list of basic qualifications without a disclaimer. He gives us no reason to believe that it’s less important than the others.
Before addressing the qualification of hospitality, Sanchez lays the foundation that elders should lead by example. He points to 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and 1 Peter 5:1–5. As a result, hospitality is one of the ways elders should model normal, healthy Christianity for the congregation.
“In the New Testament, hospitality was essential because that’s how the gospel spread. There was no Holiday Inn Express. There was no Hilton. Now, we have away from that for many different cultural reasons — the individualism of our world, the disconnectedness of our world — and so we really have to fight to be in our people’s lives, and to be in one another’s lives. There’s so much discipleship, so much counseling that happens around the kitchen table. That’s [why] hospitality is essential.”
Hospitality is both active and passive, so to speak, as a means of discipleship. Active discipleship is intentionally having conversations with mentees around the dinner table and asking hard questions or reading through a book. Passive discipleship is simply allowing your people to be in your life with little immediate agenda. You’re not reading a book or having a counseling session, but simply allowing your people watch you navigate life.
“It’s important that our church members actually see us loving our wives, raising our children, in the context of our home. Hospitality is not just, ‘I have to get a meal together, and I have to ask my wife to put this together.’ It’s just living life together as a church. We want to model that hospitality so that our members would also be hospitable, and so that we’re involved in one another’s lives, and so that we actually have influence in people’s lives.”
Present Outside the Pulpit
Sanchez believes that the people shouldn’t only see their pastor lifted high in the pulpit on Sunday, at his best, but also in the lowly and less glamorous positions of “husbands and fathers, as home owners who have to fix the garage door, or have to cook the dinner, or mow the lawn, whatever it might be. It’s important for us to see one another, how we live.”
Elders would be surprised how many of their people would love to just spend time with them, even if it means helping take care of chores around the house. This quickly becomes mutually beneficial and allows the elder to give more time to his people without neglecting his primary duties at home. Sanchez notes that this should be extended to unbelievers as well.
“Hospitality opens our homes, and our hearts, to the congregation, and I would also extend hospitality to unbelievers as well in our homes. Those are very helpful models that should be follow-able for our congregation that would help us to create a culture of hospitality.”