Church Leadership as a Healthy PluralityBy Tony Caffey
April 18, 2020
Every pastor is a consensus-builder. Every elder for that matter is one too. Church leadership in the New Testament is always presented as a team effort (Acts 14:23, 20:17; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-9, 5:17; Tit 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-4). God knows that no single individual is able to shepherd the flock of God “exercising oversight” (1 Pet 5:2). There is only one “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet 5:4), and God appoints elders as his under-shepherds. That qualifying prefix “under” is extremely important. We are not competent or strong enough as individuals to lead without a plurality. Even the greatest, most effective leader in the Old Testament, who somehow miraculously maintained a spirit of humility (Num 12:3), still needed a team to accomplish the leadership task (Ex 18:1-27).
The Importance of Leadership
So if plurality in leadership is necessary, why not have the largest plurality possible? Why not have universal leadership? Why not make everyone a leader and do consensus-building for decision-making on a large scale? I’ll give two reasons why we shouldn’t do this. First of all, practically speaking it’s unwieldy. Even in a modern world where we have the advantages of Survey Monkey and other platforms for quick communication, a consensus among the masses is impossible to build. The enterprise being led, whether it be a church or a government or a bee-keeping convention, would be incapacitated from moving forward. Secondly for the church there is Scripture, and the Biblical description of what’s called the gift of leadership (cf. Rom 12:8).
The Gift of Leadership
Implicit in this giving of a gift is the expectation to use it. Implicit to the gift of leadership is the understanding that people need to be led. Implicit in the listing of gifts (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:8-10; Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 4:11) is the understanding that God gives different gifts to different people. God gave us these gifts and expects us to use them, so that the body of Christ might be built up (1 Cor 14:12). Jesus did us a favor in this regard by identifying twelve men gifted in leadership who could continue his mission as Apostles. Jesus didn’t choose a successor. The Chief Shepherd is the only one who could lay down his life for the salvation of the sheep; under-shepherds are simultaneously sheep and shepherds (so were Apostles by the way). And in their under-shepherd duties, they are commissioned as a collective entity, not as individuals.
Doesn’t every ship need a captain?
The absurdity of universal leadership is easily proven by the failures of supposed “leaderless” utopian movements in the 19th Century (e.g. Brook Farm, Fruitlands, The Shakers). Those movements were often disguised forms of totalitarianism and quickly dissolved with internal strife. Other historic attempts to stamp out leadership and advance an objective have proven the same thing: Nature abhors a vacuum. The French Revolution took down the king but left a vacuum eventually filled by Napoleon. All of these examples confirm the old adage: “every ship needs a captain!” That statement proves true, but leadership invested in only one individual can be just as dangerous as leadership invested in no individual. So let me see that adage and raise you another adage: “every captain needs a first mate.” To put it in modern parlance, every government leader needs a cabinet. Pity those who are led by a man or woman without a first mate or a cabinet. That is not leadership; that is a dictatorship.
Enough theory! What does plural leadership actually look like in a local church?
Full disclosure now. I am the senior pastor of my church, and I serve as a vocational elder alongside a plurality of other elders (1 Tim 5:17-19). We collectively lead our church. We, to use Peter’s language, shepherd the flock of God among us (1 Pet 5:2). I believe that this is the best way to structure churches for the spiritual health of Christians. Each elder should be qualified and gifted in leadership. In our church, elders are responsible for doctrine, discipline, and direction. We meet regularly as elders to deliberate on these matters (approximately twice a month). And we have made a commitment to seeking one-mindedness (unanimity not uniformity) in our leadership tasks and in our communication to the church. This gives health and stability to the church body. Nobody wants to be led by leaders who are factious, unclear, or wishy-washy. We try to avoid voting as much as possible, because voting can be unnecessarily polarizing and politicizing. Instead we deliberate, pray, and sometimes agonize until we reach a consensus.
And now, the Anecdote
Last night we had an emergency elders meeting to address an urgent matter in the life of our church. I was reminded anew how good God’s gift of plurality in leadership is. No individual should be tasked with the burden of carrying the weight of church leadership. The weight is too much. I praise God today that he has given me good, godly men to serve alongside, and that I don’t have to bear this burden alone. I remember a similar sensation ten years ago when our church-plant installed elders for the first time. I had been carrying the load of leadership with elders who were “off-site” and were helping me remotely shepherd the flock. It was an inevitably imperfect and (thankfully!) short-term arrangement.
When we installed elders, our church became officially autonomous. We cut the umbilical cord to our mother church. You would think that this would raise my anxiety level, not lower it. But my anxiety level did lower. My spirit rose as leaders came alongside me and officially began shouldering the leadership load in the church. This honors God, and is the healthiest way for pastors, leaders, and parishioners to structure God’s churches. “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: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Pet 5:1-2).