First Among Equals: Why the Pastors Need a LeaderBy Dave Harvey
September 28, 2021
First among equals. In the panoply of church polity, this phrase — derived from the Latin primus inter pares and used to describe a local church’s lead or senior pastor — pokes a tender spot. After all, if someone is first, then we’re certainly not equal. Or are we? It just feels so out of step with our current climate, like lead pastors are going to wake up one morning on the wrong side of history.
But what if I told you that this role reflects a principle that can mark the difference between duty and delight for a church leadership team? For church leadership to flourish, the elder plurality must be led.
Elders Need a Leader
Throughout the Bible, when God chooses to execute his will upon the earth — when he reveals his redemptive purposes, forecasts the future, or frees his people from bondage — he begins with a leader. The Old Testament offers a gallery of names that remind us of God’s regular pattern of using one to influence many — Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, just to name a few.
In New Testament times, we’re told Christ chose the twelve (Luke 6:12–16), but Peter functioned as the leader among them. The early church enjoyed a similar plurality of leadership, yet it appears James exerted a unique role and influence as the key leader of the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 15:13; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19; 2:12). The same is true in the church today. An eldership, as a body, needs a leader.
Now, I can almost hear you saying, “Where is there any reference to a lead or senior pastor in the Bible?” You’re right. There is no single, airtight Bible verse that decisively proves that pluralities should assign a lead pastor. But there is a broad pattern of order — a beautiful tapestry of leadership — that appears from the opening pages of Scripture to the final words in Revelation.
The necessity of a first among coequals in human economies is resonant with (though not equivalent to) the way the Son submits to his Father in the incarnation (Philippians 2:5–11), as well as in the order God ordains in the home (Ephesians 5:21–33). Leadership is not a consequence of the fall, but represents God’s good design for human flourishing in a well-ordered world.
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Southern Baptist professor William Williams (1804–1885) offered a short historical survey on how the “first among equals” role developed (with quotes from historian Edward Gibbon):
“The want of united action among the different presbyters [elders] of the same church when they were all of equal authority,” and the order of public deliberations requiring that there should be someone “invested at least with the authority of collecting the sentiments and executing the resolutions” . . . of the church, led to the appointment of one of their number a permanent president or moderator. The title bishop, which was applied to all the elders, came after a while to be applied exclusively to the president — elder, as Justin in the middle of the second century still calls him, merely to distinguish him from his equal co-elders. He was not superior to them, but only “first among equals.” (Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, 532; emphasis mine)
Williams gives us several gems in this little paragraph. He tells us both what a primus inter pares (“first among equals”) is not, and what it is.
He is not a command-and-control guy.
These days, Christian leaders often draw their model of leadership from sources outside of the Bible. Don’t get me wrong — it’s good to read broadly. You must read to lead. But church leadership literature and practice often draws heavily from the business world, which in turn borrows freely from the military.
In the military, particularly during warfare, command and control are a necessity. It’s never good to stop and question your commander when you’re taking fire. My son had six deployments in the Army, several of them in hot zones. When he was there, I wouldn’t have wanted his superior officer to stop and convene the group for some mid-assault collaboration. When you’re taking a hill, having a top-down, centralized authority structure is necessary. In wartime, you need a commander who compels compliance and disciplines anything less than complete obedience. Pity the poor platoon with a leader just “collecting the sentiments and executing the resolutions” of the group.
But we can’t import a command-and-control leadership model into a local church eldership, where the culture (as well as the means of doing ministry) should be defined by Scripture and the fruit of the Spirit. Whatever “first among equals” means, it does not mean absolute ruler over the team. As Williams says, “he was not superior to them.”
In fact, it’s hazardous when pastors organize their vision of leadership around the word first in “first among equals” — when the lead pastor’s opinion is first, his preferences first, his sensitivities first, his entitlements first. A primus-driven team culture often incubates celebrity entitlements and leadership ecosystems grounded in power and authority. For the plurality, the church staff, or the congregation, this plays like a karaoke machine at a funeral — seriously misguided and hopelessly out of place.
Primus-driven leaders can be tempted to relegate godly character and humble service to the margins, sentencing fellow team members to a fear-based and unsafe culture. When that happens, guys know they serve at the pleasure of the senior leader, whose agenda defines direction and whose perspective dictates reality. No wonder staff turnover is common; team members leave because the senior leadership is no longer tolerable. Or worse, no longer respected.
He is not merely a moderator.
In our cynical culture, plurality is much easier to support than the guy who feels called to lead one. People love the democracy, co-equality, interchangeableness, and accountability implied in plurality. This pares-driven model feels extremely enlightened, remarkably fair. Suspicions are stirred by the misguided man who feels a distinct call to exercise the gift of leadership (Romans 12:8). It feels like a power-grabbing conspiracy against the laity. To center preaching and leadership in one is to diminish the strength of all.
I’ve known churches where the elderships were unadorned with senior leaders. Where you see this model working well, it’s typically due to some remarkably humble elders seeking to uphold a principled vision. But I believe it works against an order outlined in Scripture and applied throughout church history and human civilization. Where the leaderless-equals model seems to be working, chances are that someone is, in fact, the consistent initiator and buckstopper, the collector of sentiments, and the executor of the group’s resolutions. It’s just undercover — influence without a title.
For most elder teams, however, it actually prevents confusion and helps avoid misuses of authority to identify the real sources of leadership and power. And honestly, in many cases, the absence of this order brings the presence of chaos as conflicting visions, the want of elder care, and alignment complexities consistently tempt the unity of elder teams. In fact, Williams tells us that the “first among equals” role arose because of “want of united action.” At the end of the day, disunited action often has a dividing effect.
He is a leader from among.
These two errors — the error of overbearing primus-driven ministry and the error of egalitarian pares-driven ministry — highlight the truth that to be healthy, both the eldership and the senior leader must operate within a humility-empowered tension.
On the one side, the lead pastor advocates for the opinions and involvement of the team as a whole. As Williams observes, he must “collect the sentiments” of the elders, which requires listening well as he solicits their counsel, understands their thinking, and leans on their gifts.
On the other side, the plurality of elders creates space for the senior role to actually use his gifts to lead. Once again Williams is clear. He tells us that the “first among equals” is invested with authority to “execute the resolutions of the church.” This means the elders grant the senior leader latitude and followership to order and direct their efforts.