Many Christians within home church circles and even in some institutional church circles incorrectly believe that the key to solving problems caused by an errant one-man pastor is to spread that power and authority out over a small group of elders so that no one individual has “too much” power. This is typically called “elder rule”.
This might sound like a profound improvement over a runaway pastor, but this doesn’t work because this establishes a runaway elder system and elders are not supposed to rule either. Elders are supposed to watch, warn and encourage those who they care for to understand and obey the Bible. That is all the authority that they have. They have no power or authority whatsoever to control God’s people.
(Actually all Christians have the exact same authority to watch, warn and encourage others to understand and obey the Bible. The main difference is this is a general overall watch, while elders have a more specific watch that God has given them where they are responsible to care for a small specific group of Christians but of course not in a controlling way. This doesn’t make elders better or more important than other Christians. They just have a different role.)
Another popular argument and justification for “elder rule” that we hear is that elders will police and cross check each other to make it more difficult for any one of them to gain too much power or prominence. This brings to mind a picture of wolves in a hen house keeping an eye on each other to make sure none of them eats too many hens, to make sure there is enough food to go around.
It is also believed that in a church governed by a plurality of controlling elders it is allegedly more difficult and less likely for one of them to rise up and take the church off of a doctrinal cliff. But these kind of so-called elders have already taken the church off a doctrinal cliff so this doesn’t matter. It’s just a shell game. Even worse, what happens if all or most of the ruling elders are in gross theological error or worse what if all or most of them are corrupt? The church is off for another even bumpier ride, this time likely much more serious.
These arguments for elder rule might sound like at least a step in the right direction, but this is simply not the case. In either scenario, one-man or multi-man rule, far too much weight rests on celebrity-level personalities and if the personality goes wrong so does the church. This is a sure sign of an unbiblical hijacked church, which can be very much likened to a cult
The bottom line is all authority has been given to Jesus Christ and He has not left His church in the hands of man, not one man or a small group of men. Jesus is still the Head of His church and He has left the doctrinal policing of His church in the hands of all faithful obedient Christians working together as a body to encourage obedience to the Scriptures.
Without realizing it, those who believe that controlling elders are an improvement over a one-man controlling pastor tend to go from wolf to wolf pack, from the strength of one to strength in numbers, from a more isolated power base to dangerous synergy of power that often makes things much worse. The truth is a lone wolf is easier to catch and conquer than an entire wolf pack.
“Biblical Eldership” - Elder Rule in Disguise?
(This section is a recently revised and updated version of a posting that I did awhile back on another website)
While I have already outlined what genuine biblical eldership really is, the term “biblical eldership” is a buzzword today that has often been redefined to incorrectly represent elder rule in disguise. Many articles and even some books have been written about such so-called biblical eldership. Take for example Alexander Strauch’s book “Biblical Eldership”.
While this book teaches a number of things that are consistent with what the Bible teaches, Mr. Strauch misses the bigger picture: The source of true authority, the reality of the Headship of Christ and the fact that we have One Master Christ and we are all brothers and equals.
Mr. Strauch is quite right in saying things along the lines that, “It was never our Lord's will for one individual to control the local church.” But what he doesn’t seem to realize is that it was never the Lords intention for a group of men to control the church either! (See Mark 10:42-45, Matt 23:8-10, 1 Pet 5:1-4, etc.)
Mr. Strauch is apparently a church elder within an obvious framework of man-centered power and control so he probably cannot see these problems. This is likely because he has probably not submitted some of his key doctrines on these issues to Scriptural examination. In general, Christians tend to fail to examine unbiblical practices that they unwittingly take part in. Mr. Strauch’s book, like similar works from other authors, is an attempt to shift the control of a church from a one-man to a multi-man team. This is really no help. It can actually cause more problems as it has an “appearance” of wisdom and will therefore tempt many to drop their guards even further. The average Christian today needs a predisposition towards more discernment not less.
Even worse than a one-man novice or one-man wolf is a group of three or four novices or wolves in synergy with each other drawing off each other’s diversities in abilities. This can create a very dangerous and beguiling multi-minded “super-leader” with a diversity of earthly talents. A church so governed has not the headship of Christ. Therefore, as bad as a one-man controlling pastor is, a plurality of elders operating in “elder rule” is potentially much worse.
And, what if these men are doctrinal nutcases, which is not at all uncommon but actually rampant today? Now with their newfound power in numbers they can, even more easily, convince the whole congregation to believe that they are right! By showing agreement and unity among themselves even on false doctrines they can deceive many into following them. Less people are likely to question an errant synergistic eldership compared to an errant one-man pastorate.
“Elder rule” establishes multiple authoritarians in place and in power, a multiple headed monster that can devour far more. It has more mouths and more teeth! Now they can devour the church as a pack of wolves with much more skill, power and efficiency compared to a single wolf.
In fact, today we regularly see far more dangerous wolf packs emerging where a lone wolf once ruled and devoured. This is not the solution. Wolf packs can give the impression of even more false humility than a lone ranger. (If unavoidable it would likely be much less dangerous to contend with a single lone wolf rather than an entire wolf pack.)
While a proper plurality of true elders is a good thing, books like “Biblical Eldership” advocate a type of controlling plurality of eldership that is nothing more than a multi-man dictatorial leadership system that is often a wolf pack in disguise. Again, true elders are faithful servant-guard protectors who watch, warn, advise, admonish, plead with and try to convince members to obey the Bible, but they do not control them. There are specific Christians that they watch over and care for. They have an advisory role but nothing in the realm of power and control. This is a key thing to remember.
First Among Equals?
Another thing we see among elder rule advocates is the nonsensical idea of “first among equals”. This is the insane notion that one of the “equal” ruling elders is the “head” elder. But the whole idea of “first among equals” is an obvious contradiction in terms that immediately collapses in upon itself. This is because as soon as one of the “equals” is considered to be the “first” or “greatest” among them, he is no longer an equal. He is a superior. Simple logic and simple math. Something cannot be both equal to and greater than a given thing all at the same time. It has to be one or the other, equal to or greater than, but not both. These are mathematical concepts that are mutually exclusive. They are not one and the same. So the “first (or greatest) among equals” doctrine is pure garbage and is nowhere to be found in the Bible. It is based on gross self-serving assumption, in fact a very convenient assumption.
Advocates of this position dance quite a doctrinal tight rope in an attempt to incorrectly establish validity for one of the elders to ultimately be in charge over all the other elders. The elders as a group are allegedly in charge of the whole assembly but the truth of the matter is the head elder, the “first among equals”, is really the one who is in charge and is pulling the strings from behind the scenes. This is pretty much back to where they started, one man ultimately in charge, just in a more cleverly disguised and insulated form that beguiles the congregation into thinking that control-based man-centered authoritarianism is not present in their church.
It is astonishing how the few Christians who are finally fed up with one-man pastor political machines think that a multi-man elder rule machine would solve the problem and be much better. The reality of the situation is some problems can appear to be solved but can actually get much worse. It doesn’t matter whether a church has a one, two, three or a six man regime. Regimes like this in and of themselves are unbiblical and are therefore a huge problem.
The solution to the rampant one-man authoritarian pastor problem is NOT to establish and authoritarian eldership. Otherwise, all this does is change the problem into a different form. The problem is still there because the root problem itself of control-based leadership has not been dealt with. The problem is that control is still vested in men. Until control is vested in Christ, things will not change for the better. Things may be cleverly masked and may appear to be an improvement but that is just a short-term illusion at best.
Regardless of whether a church is controlled by one man or a small group of men, it is still controlled by men and authoritarianism remains present. A church must be controlled by God through Christ. This means controlled solely by the written Word. Christ must remain the sole Head otherwise we have multiple masters in our midst and in Matt 6:24 and Luke 16:13 Jesus made it very clear that it is impossible to obey two masters (let alone three, four, five or more). He said that you will love the one and hate the other. The sad fact of the matter is Jesus is getting a lot of hatred today from a multitude of professing Christians, while authoritarians in the church are getting a lot of love.
Note: I have quoted the Scriptures mentioned in this article many times in a number of my articles and so I have only referenced them here by number.