Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Elders and Pastors

I recently finished Mark Dever's excellent book entitled The Deliberate Church. This is a book well worth reading. But something caught my attention.

Dever rightly defines elders as pastors. He says "A pastor, then, is an elder, and an elder is a bishop/overseer—all three terms refer to the same office and the same work of pastoring" (p. 131, appealing to Acts 20:18-38 and Titus 1:5-7; cf. 1 Peter 5:1-2).

Curiously, he later says "Churches can get away without having elders. It happens all the time. But the biblical pattern is consistent, and the practical benefits are clear, both for the pastor and the congregation" (p. 135).

Now, if elders are pastors (as he rightly says), then how does a church get away without having elders? Surely he is not going to appeal to the plural form of elder vs. the singular form of pastor. He seems to be saying that a church with a pastor is getting away without having elders.

Which leads to my point: Our imprecise use of these terms has created much confusion, and led to a bifurcation of the office of pastor. It leads us to talk of "elders" and "pastors" as if they are two different offices. It seems that Dever falls prey to this several times throughout his book.

If we assert that elders are pastors, and pastors are elders, then let's quit referring to them differently.


Brian Jones said...

I haven't read the book, but I agree with your point.

Of course, churches that have a single elder (i.e. the "solo pastor,") DO have to function without any elders when THE pastor leaves, gets the boot, or dies. In that instance, the church in question must learn to get by without any elders, until a new solo elder/pastor can be "called" (another curious term). Usually deacons have to step in and function as elders, something they may or may not be qualified to do (e.g. Stephen who was a deacon in Acts, but also preached).

Churches that have what I understand to be the biblical model--multiple elders with equal authority--should never be in a situation where they have to function without elders, which gives a great advantage of stability.

Mister Larry said...

It's possible that Dever may be referring to 'elders' being men who are qualified for that office, but aren't full-time 'pastors'. In a sense, the commonly used term 'elder' may be a description for those who are qualified men who serve in their local church, but don't work (as a vocation) in full-time ministry, yet the commonly used definition of a pastor is a qualified man who works (as a vocation) in full-time ministry. That definition alone is also just as unwieldy and awkward, but perhaps this is Dever's thought about elder and pastor, and this might be the reasoning behind his defining the terms that way. This seems to be a contemporary definition, but is it the biblical one? That could be for another discussion!

Michelle said...

I always find these conversations quite interesting. I have not studied this issue, but am a student of Scripture. Last night two things came to mind. First, after God's relationship with man, the next relationship He established is between a husband and wife. God has made it very clear that there is only one head of a home--the husband. Ephesians 5 is very clear. If God wanted the family relationship to have only one head, then why would He change his mind and have the church have multi leaders all coequal.

In addition, in real life coequal leaders do not work. I have personally experienced the serious issues that come up in the business world when two leaders have the same powers and do not make the same decisions about the same problem. Talk about chaos.

I do not believe God is the author of chaos. I believe that equal pastors create chaos. Someone has to be the ultimate decision maker.

Larry said...


I didn't pick that kind of distinction up from his book. I didn't read it look for that distinction (though I think it is commonly used). My recollection is that Dever would not make that distinction.

I don't think it is biblical in any case. It seems to me that the NT makes no distinction between vocational elders and lay elders. In fact, I don't see any elder in Scripture who does not have a right to live of the gospel taht he preaches. So I am not sure that "lay elder" is even a proper designation for anyone that the NT talks about. A man may voluntarily refuse salary, but if he desires it it seems to me that the church must be able and willing to give it.

To me, (and I know my good friend Brian will not agree), I think this multiple eldership may (and I emphasize may) be a way of tacitly avoiding leadership and responsibility. I do not intend to question people's integrity so don't read too much into that. But one of Dever's main points about plurality is that the responsibility can be spread to a number of people equally. I am not sure that is the biblical picture of leadership in the church. I see the benefits of it, but I am not sure it is right. (Again, please focus on teh "not sure" part of my comments.)

Again, I am talking off the top of my head about thoughts that are still in process. Perhaps I should call is process ecclesiology or something.

In any case, even with a plurality of elders, I am convinced (as of now) that one of them has to be "the man."

Of course, as always, I welcome more interaction on this.

Mister Larry said...


I haven't discussed this extensively with my pastor, but I believe that we (you, me, and my pastor) are agreed on the biblical definition of an elder/pastor. He uses the term 'first among equals' in describing the elder who essentially is the moderator among the elders in the church, and this is his role as the 'presiding' elder (my term, not his). When we discussed my possible entry into becoming an elder in my church (Grace Community Bible Church of Venice, Florida), he used this term to describe his belief in the elder who presides and moderates, but not rules over, with the other elders in the local church. It does appear to me, though, that some responsibilities in the ministry is given to each elder who has a better proficiency in a particular area and/or task. That doesn't mean that the elder is the only one who works in a certain field of ministry (visitation, teaching, preaching, etc...), but it's his responsibility to assist the other elders. All men are qualified to teach, preach, and handle the spiritual aspects of the ministry in the local church. I agree with you that it's not clear (biblically) that the responsibilities of each aspect of the ministry is to be spread among elders, which seems to be Dever's point, but since I haven't read his book (yet), and the fact that I haven't read much about elder/pastor leadership, I can't be sure that my own beliefs are precisely the biblical one.

Thank you for responding to my question. As a side note, I have decided to finish my Master's degree through correspondence courses at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary. I should be finished with my MA in Theological Studies by December. I was originally on track to complete an M.Div., but I'd have to move back up to Pennsylvania to complete some courses to finish that degree. I have a lot of credits toward the M.Div. (and did all of the Greek/Hebrew language courses required), but I only have to take three courses via correspondence (on DVD) to complete the MATS program. Thankfully God has opened the door for me to do this.