An Old Testament Reminder of the Need for a Plurality of Elders in Churches

I hear more these days about the topic of elders in the local church than I ever did in days past. As I was growing up, our Baptist churches tended to have a single pastor who served as the main leader of the congregation. There also were deacons, who served as helpers to the pastor at times and as a sort of board of directors who oversaw the pastor at other times. Of course, there was also the regular congregational business meeting, which could be lovely or destructive depending on the people.

But now, churches are being reminded of the biblical need to have a plurality of elders. There are, of course, many New Testament texts that speak quite clearly to the fact that local congregations were led, not by one single man with all the power, but by a group of elders who spiritually led and fed the congregation even as the congregation had an important voice in the process. But what struck me in my daily reading through Numbers 11 was this picture that gives anecdotal evidence to remind us that groups of believers need a plurality of leaders. And it could also serve you as a reminder to pray for your elders.

The context here is Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness. The people, as was their custom, were complaining about the food. And their grumbling became more than Moses could bear.

Numbers 11:10-15 – 10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the Lord blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased. 11 Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.”

Look at the place that Moses got himself to trying to lead a massive group as the sole authority. Moses said, “I am not able to carry all this people alone.” He even asked the Lord to kill him rather than let him continue with such an unbearable burden. Moses knew that he was unable to lead this group alone, and he begged for relief.

What the Lord did in the rest of the passage was to bring to Moses a group of seventy elders upon whom the Lord would also place his Spirit. This gave Moses a support network and spread out both the authority and responsibility of leadership.

In our congregations, we already have men who have the Spirit of God upon them. We all share in the same word of God. Why in the world would we not spread out the burden of responsibility and the weight of authority among a group of elders, a plurality? This is biblical and it is wise.

If your church does not have a plurality of elders, it should. And either way, if you are not an elder in your congregation, pray for your elders. Whether that be a solo pastor or a biblical plurality, pray that the Lord help these men by carrying the burden of leadership for them.

A Proverb and Plurality of Elders

While the biblical understanding of elder plurality seems to be becoming more popular and more understood, there are still many churches whose leadership has simply never thought through the issue. Sadly, many of us simply do things the way we have always seen them done, and we may well miss a design of God for the structure and leadership of the body.

I thought of that issue in my daily reading which recently took me through Proverbs 24.

Proverbs 24:5-6

5 A wise man is full of strength,

and a man of knowledge enhances his might,

6 for by wise guidance you can wage your war,

and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Wise people win battles. How? Wise people win battles with the aid of an abundance of counselors. It takes many wise heads to be sure that one myopic vision does not lead to disaster.

Such wisdom in the Old Testament reminds us of the wisdom of God in the New Testament. As the Lord has given us some important truths about the leadership of the church. What we see, on every occasion, is that churches are led by elders. In each case, the wording is plural, more than one elder is involved in leading each congregation.

Titus 1:5- 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—

If the term elder is unusual to you, understand that the word for elder is often interchanged with the word for pastor or overseer. Those words all refer to the same office in the church, describing it with different terms. So, an elder is a pastor is an overseer. If you have one pastor, you have one elder. If you have 2 pastors, you have 2 elders or overseers.

Elder is a word that hints at age, experience or wisdom. Pastor is a word that means a shepherd of the flock. Overseer, also sometimes bishop, indicates watching over, keeping, or perhaps even exercising authority over the body.

1 Peter 5:1-2 – 1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

Note in those verses that Peter talks to the elders. He urges them to shepherd the flock of God. Shepherd as a verb there is the same as the word that, as a noun, we use for pastor. Peter tells them to exercise oversight, which is the third term which we often make overseer or bishop. In 2 verses, Peter uses all 3 words to speak to the leaders of the church, the elders. You can find the same interchange in Acts 20:17 and 28 where we see elders and overseers watching the flock, a shepherd term.

In case you are curious, the other office in the church is that of deacon. The word for deacon does not indicate authoritative leadership, but is a word for servant. Deacons are servants in the church who take care of important needs in order to free up the elders of the church for their role of prayer, Bible teaching, and spiritual oversight.

Our church is also congregational in its structure. That means that, though we are led by a plurality, a group, of elders, the leadership of those elders is subject to the affirmation of the church. Our elders do not have the authority to force any major decision on the body. The congregation, as a unit, outranks the elders. But, as the elders lead biblically, the congregation will affirm that leadership and follow faithfully.

The beauty of this structure is seen in multiple ways. First, it is biblical. This matches the things we see in the New Testament about the local congregation. Second, this structure allows for deacons to really serve as deacons rather than serving as a committee watching over a solo pastor. And, this structure requires a plurality of elders, more than one counselor to take on the tasks of leadership.

In Proverbs 24, we see that many counselors help. But if a church is structured with only a solo pastor wielding the authority, there is a problem. And if the church has a set of pastors, but one man forces his agenda on the rest, again, there is a problem. The way to have many real counselors is to have a genuine plurality of elders. This plurality must be a true mix of godly men, none of whom has authority over the others, who can work together, counsel each other, keep each other in check, and lead the congregation faithfully. Even then, the congregation under the word of God must affirm the leadership of the elders and not be simply run over by bullies who build their own kingdom for their own glory. Only when we put this all together are we shaping our churches most wisely, most effectively, and most biblically.