March 22, 2008

On one matter, the vast majority of churches of Christ are in agreement: a church cannot have only one elder. If the congregation does not have two or more men meeting the biblical qualifications, that church does not appoint elders. And if, for whatever reason, the number of elders in a congregation is reduced until only one remains, that individual can no longer serve as an elder.

While this is a reasonable conclusion to draw from the scriptures, I believe it is an incomplete picture. Our understanding of the scriptures on this subject (and on many others) is tainted by our modern preconceptions about the church. Further, our understanding is clouded by our reaction against practices of other groups that we believe to be wrong. As a result, while we have very definite and strong convictions about the subject, our convictions are not completely aligned with scripture.

The basic idea of a plurality of elders comes from passages like these:

Act 14:21-23 They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. 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.

Act 20:17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.

Php 1:1-2 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers [elders] and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

1Ti 5:17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

It is apparent in each of those cases that there were more than one elder in each of these churches.

Let’s consider another passage:

Tit 1:5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

Here, Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every town. One might reasonably ask whether these elders were associated with a single congregation or with multiple congregations within that town. J. W. McGarvey comments on this passage:

Titus was left at Crete to ordain Elders in every city, which is equivalent to ordaining them in every church, because there was but one church in each city.

Later he states:

It is true that in these cities the disciples often had several meeting places, but there is no evidence of separate and independent organizations.

It is easily proven that first century cities often had multiple congregations. Romans 16 mentions at least three separate house churches (verses 5,14,15), along with numerous individuals who were not included in any of those three groups. The churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Ephesus were especially large, perhaps tens of thousands of members. It is quite likely that those groups seldom if ever assembled together as a single group after reaching such large numbers. The same may have been true in other cities as well.

The church in Jerusalem is particularly instructive on this question. Consider the following:

Act 21:17-19 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

When Paul arrived, he found all of the Jerusalem elders meeting together with James. That is very significant, since verse 20 tells us the church was exceedingly large:

Act 21:20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.

Verse 20 speaks of how many “myriads” of Jews have believed — literally, how many “tens of thousands.” Suffice it to say that the Jerusalem church was huge, by modern standards. It seems completely infeasible for so many to assemble together regularly for Sunday worship in ancient Jerusalem. Communion alone would have been a logistical nightmare — not to mention such mundane concerns as restroom facilities (without indoor plumbing).

So the Jerusalem church was really made up of many smaller congregations. There must have been many elders in Jerusalem, but no elder could have served as shepherd for every one of those thousands of disciples. Instead, they would have divided the work so that each of the available elders could focus on a manageable group of disciples.

Yet, when Paul arrived, he found the elders meeting together with James. And the group of elders together addressed the controversy of Paul’s arrival and asked Paul to participate in some Jewish purification rites. In their shepherding role, they must have divided the labor. But in their overseeing role, they made a joint decision.

Today, when we read these passages, we naturally picture a church like our modern-day congregations — a few hundred at most, in a modern church building, with a group of elders who serve only the people who assemble in that one place. In many cities there may be a dozen or more of these churches of Christ, each of which acts like it is the only church in the city. The leaders of those different congregations might get together on rare occasion for a fellowship breakfast, but you can be sure that the business of city-wide congregational oversight will not be on the agenda. We hold our autonomy dearly.

What if we acknowledged that there is one church of Christ in our city? Could we have one eldership in the city? Could we jointly oversee a collection of smaller congregations within the city?

James wrote to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations — believing Jews in many remote places. In chapter 5 he instructed them:

Jas 5:14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.

What would one of these Jews do if he needed to call elders, but there were none in his remotely situated house church? Wouldn’t he call for the nearest elders he could find? Would those elders refuse to come because the sick one was a member of a small autonomous congregation lacking its own elders? Or was James only providing instructions for those lucky enough to be in a congregation that had its own elders?

In Acts 15, we have another instructive incident:

Act 15:1-2 Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

The church in Antioch sent to Jerusalem for an answer to their dispute, even though they already had an apostle present. They specifically went to hear, not only from the apostles, but also from the elders in Jerusalem. As we know, the apostles and elders met to discuss the matter, and that same group wrote a response to the church in Antioch. No dominant elder nor apostle made the decision alone–despite the presence of numerous men possessing the gift of prophecy. The decision reached was a group decision.

Furthermore, the decision was delivered to many other congregations in the region besides Antioch:

Act 16:4 As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.

The elders in Jerusalem participated in a group decision which the congregations in the region were expected to obey. This incident sets a precedent for elders in one church to provide support for congregations in their region who did not have their own elders.

What should we make of all this?

First, it appears that our concept of a church is quite different from the biblical concept. There really is only one church, and parts of it meet in many places. In each city, a group of elders should oversee the church (singular) in that city. Their role can even extend beyond the city to support nearby congregations that lack elders.

For the purpose of shepherding, the work can and must be divided up into manageable portions. A shepherd must know his sheep. But for oversight, there needs to be a plurality. The group of elders should work together to come to decisions. No single elder is the emperor of his own little kingdom. Instead, the elders hold one another accountable to the high standards of the eldership, and make decisions as a group. That is the biblical example.

We who serve as elders need to take down the barriers between our congregations. We have been appointed by God to oversee the welfare of His church. We are only doing a limited part of that job.


  1. AlanGreat article, Are you suggesting the elderships of all churches of Christ (including ICOC, mainline, and independent Christian churches) in Atlanta should meet together to oversee all the churches?If this is what you are suggesting, are you willing to call a meeting? If you have this insight and if you believe it is of God, I think you now have the responsibility to make it happen. If not, you are just heaping loads of extra concern and pressures on others backs but you are not willing to help them. It’s one thing to write about what should be done – and it’s entirely a different thing to put what you believe into practice. I suggest you first make a list of all churches of Christ in Atlanta and personally contact them to share your concern. Be strong and courageous.

  2. Hi anonymous,I would love to see us reach that point. Maybe the scope for us would be Gwinnett County rather than the entire Atlanta metro area. In any case, there is obviously a lot of work to be done before this can become reality. As I said in the last paragraph of the article, we need to take some barriers down first. This will take time. But there is some “low hanging fruit” that we can do now, and we are currently moving on one of those situations.

  3. Alan,Great post on Elders brother!Keep up the great blogging and making us think!I hopoe you and your have a wonderful Easter Weekend.In Him,Kinney Mabry

  4. Great post. This neatly bridges the extremes of autonomy and oversight as well as illustrates how separate churches might act more like one.As a member of a church without elders, I would love to have the support of other Columbus congregations with an eldership.

  5. Alan,This is really an extreme view coming from a coC elder, but I believe a more correct one than the conventional wisdom allows for.I am not ready to completely agree, but you are on to something. Most all of the cities mentioned in your post were great population centers of the ancient world. Without transportation it is foolish to assume that all of the Christians in those great cities met in one place on the Lord’s day. You are correct that our conventional understanding of the local church is flawed. Unlike anonymous, I believe the “church of Christ” or “body of Christ, catholic (universal)” is broader than those who identify with the Restoration Movement. It is simply a silly position to believe there were no Christians on earth until the Campbells and Stone which is the obvious position of folks like anonymous.I always enjoy your posts, even when I don’t comment. I like a thinking man.His peace,Royce Ogle

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful insights, Alan. Our little church of Christ in California currently has no elders, but we are preparing for selecting elders with the help of elders from a Christian church in the area and (I’m particularly excited about this) elders from an independent church that is not affiliated with the restoration movement at all.We’ll be holding a joint “Overview of Eldership” session in about a week. And so, in a sense, we have elders from other parts of the body of Christ who are coming together to help lead and guide this particular part of the body.Unity, at least at some level, is still possible — even in California!Under the mercy,Lewis

  7. Hi Lewis,Thanks for stopping by and sharing that very encouraging news! It’s great to hear of that kind of help being offered from one congregation to another. That’s what I’m talking about!

  8. Alan,Excellent post! I agree with your premise of city/area wide elders. I wrote a paper on this subject a few years ago. It is posted online if you would like to read it. http://www.biblemaster.com/studies/study.asp?study_id=692 Keep up the good work!Mitchell SkeltonFamily Life MinisterWaynesboro(TN) church of Christ

  9. Hi Mitchell,Thanks for coming by. I’ve bookmarked the link to your article and will read it later this weekend. I’ll be spending the day today at ElderLink in Atlanta.

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