Spiritual Leaders in the Local Church - Chapter 4

The Number of Spiritual Rulers In The Local Church
How many rulers should be in each church? Is one enough?


by Fred G. Zaspel
Published by Word of Life Baptist Church, Pottsville, PA
copyright 1987; revised, 1998. All rights reserved
Copying or other reproductions permitted for non-commercial use only.

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Chapter 4

The Number of Spiritual Rulers In The Local Church
How many rulers should be in each church? Is one enough?


Having established the fact and identity of spiritual rulers in the local church, we must now turn our attention to the question of number. How many spiritual rulers are there to be in the local church? The New Testament teaches that a plurality of elders is to be the norm in each local church.

Surveying The Evidence

Only a quick look at the passages involved demonstrates that the apostles and other New Testament writers understood that each church had a plurality of godly men ruling. The reference is consistently in the plural ("elders" not "elder").

*Acts 11:30 speaks of the elders of the Jerusalem church. Evidently James was not the only one.

*Acts 14:23 informs us that it was the customary practice of Paul and Barnabas in their missionary work to appoint elders (plural) in each church (singular).

*Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, and 23 all refer to the elders of the Jerusalem church.

*Acts 16:4 again speaks of the elders of the Jerusalem church.

*In Acts 20:17 Paul sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus.

*In Acts 21:18 Luke speaks of "all the elders" of the Jerusalem church.

*In Philippians 1:1 Paul addresses the "bishops" of the church in Philippi.

*In I Thessalonians 5:12-13 Paul instructs the believers of the Thessalonian church in regard to their responsibilities to "those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord." The repeated reference is to "them" rather than "he."

*I Timothy 4:14 speaks of a body of elders laying their hands on Timothy.

*In I Timothy 5:17 Paul again speaks of elders in the plural.

*In Titus 1:5 Paul commands Titus to appoint elders in every city. Evidently this was a part of "setting in order the things that lack"; the implication of this verse, then, is that if a church had only one elder, it would be "lacking" and not in keeping with the norm.

*Hebrews 13:7, 17, and 24 all refer to a plurality of rulers in the church ("them" and "they").

*In James 5:14 James prescribes for the one sick to summon to himself the elders of his church.

*Finally, in I Peter 5:1 Peter addresses a plurality of elders as well.

In short, the New Testament writers never refer to the office as held by a single man. The terms "elder" and "bishop" as they refer to the church office of elder, appear in the singular only in passages which give instruction concerning the treatment of individual elders (I Timothy 5:1, 19), or which list the qualifications which must be met by each individual elder (I Timothy 3:1-2), or where individual elders write in reference to themselves individually (I Peter 5:1; II John 1; III John 1). When referring to the office as such in relation to the church, it is always in the plural. This is the norm.


Drawing from these passages, a number of facts become evident.

1) It is significant that while the Thessalonian church was only months (perhaps weeks) old when Paul wrote to them, it still was a church with a plurality of elders.

2) Some have argued that the only reason Paul referred to a plurality of elders in each church was that he had in mind the entire "city church" (the collective number of Christians in a given city) and not the individual local congregations which made up that larger "church." Whether or not this was so in some instances may be impossible to determine, but in either case the fact remains that there was a plurality of men to whom the believers in question were responsible.

3) It is noteworthy that Paul's inspired solution to the problem of only one elder (Titus 1:5) is not to establish a new form of church government (i.e., democracy) but to appoint more elders.

4) Only a church with a plurality of pastors is able to fulfill the instruction of James 5:14, which prescribes that the one in severe sickness is to summon "the elders [plural] of the church [singular]."

5) Church elders-bishops-pastors are consistently referred to in the plural. This is clearly the norm for the New Testament church (Acts 14:23). If any church in the New Testament period had only one elder, it is not mentioned (unless Titus 1:5 be the exception, in which case such a condition is said to be "lacking"). Plurality of elders is at least as evident as the plurality of deacons.


Some have argued, to the contrary, that the "angels" in Revelation 2-3 represent individual pastors of the seven churches. The message to each church is addressed to an "angel" (singular). "Angel" (aggelos) may be translated "messenger," a fitting designation for the pastor (it is argued), and thus an indication of a singlularity of eldership.

However, the reference here should most likely be understood in reference to literal angels and not human "messengers." The term aggelos is used often throughout Revelation and always in this sense. In fact, never in the entire New Testament is the term used of Pastors/elders. For the sake of argument, moreover, even if these angels were pastors, there is still precisely nothing which demands that the supposed "pastor" in question is ruling alone. He may simply have been the chief spokesman of the elders of that church. This is exactly the situation with James in Jerusalem James is clearly in leadership while other elders are with him. Likewise, the same is evidently the case in I Corinthians 3:6 and 10 which seem to imply the prominence of Paul and, later, Apollos in the Corinthian church. By reasons of giftedness a given elder may well stand above others in terms of prominence and influence, but this is not to say he serves alone in that capacity.


That a plurality of men is necessary for maximum effectiveness in the local church is evident for a number of reasons, perhaps the most obvious of which is that the nature of the work requires more than can be done well by any one man alone. This is why such a condition is described as "lacking" (Titus 1:5). To spread a man too thin is to force him to produce inferior work in all areas of his service. The Puritans of early America recognized this and so had in each church at least two elders: a ruling elder and a teaching elder. The ruling elder had the responsibility of the "pastoral" duties personal teaching, visiting, exhorting, etc. The teaching elder was expected to preach (and to preach very well!). Such an arrangement allows men to exercise their gifts to the best of their abilities.

The collective wisdom afforded by a plurality of men working together brings more effective service to the church also.

Finally, a plurality of peers working together in the ministry of a local church serves as a deterrent to dictatorship or tyrannical rule. The most effective deterrent to a Diotrephes (III John 9) or those who would run rough-shod over the church is not a church vote of disapproval but rather fellow elders of equal authority who can more effectively deal with the problem and that before it becomes out of hand.


Several examples of plurality rule and decision making are evident in the New Testament. Let us briefly look at a few of them.

*It is fascinating that many appeal to Acts 6:1-7 in support of the contention that the people of the church have rule over the elders (i.e., democracy), for the passage shows the exact opposite. In this passage it is the elders (the apostles functioning as elders; cf. I Peter 5:1) who are ruling. To settle the dispute in the church (verse 1) the elders gave instructions which were followed by the church (verses 2-6). At the elders' bidding, the church selected seven men to administrate over the affair, who were then appointed by the elders (not the church at large) to that task. "Whom we will appoint" (verse 3), indicates that the elders, evidently, had a power of veto over the decisions made by the church which, in this case, was not needed. Clearly, the elders were in authority, giving instructions and making the appointments as they approved of the church's carrying out of their commands.

Some imagine a church vote in this passage, but this is impossible to demonstrate. That they followed today's practice of drawing up a list of nominees and voting up the best seven is even more foreign to the text. All that is said is that at the elders' bidding they selected seven men whom the elders would then approve and appoint to the task. Furthermore, even if some sort of vote were taken, it was only at the command of their leaders in this one situation, and so it could in no way, by itself, be taken as a blanket statement of democratic church polity. It certainly gives no license for the church to vote for a pastor/elder; the selection here was of servants.

It should be noted that while it is customary, today, to assume that the majority is right and so the majority should rule, the New Testament writers never once even hint that the church's decisions should be made in such a way. No vote is ever summoned or prescribed. None. Not ever.

Rather, the churches are consistently commanded to work together and in unity and in agreement. Not majority but unanimity is the norm! "Be of one mind" (II Corinthians 13:11); ". . .that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind" (Philippians 1:27); "Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" (Philippians 2:2; see also Ephesians 4:1-6, I Peter 3:8). How is unanimity achieved? Certainly not by a vote. A vote is a request for division. Unanimity is very easily attainable only when godly men lead responsibly and godly people submit willingly (Hebrews 13:7, 17). This is precisely the New Testament procedure as displayed in Acts 6.

*In Acts 11:30 the church at Antioch sent relief money to the Jerusalem church, placing the funds into the hands of the elders. The disbursement of the funds was the decision of the elders themselves. No church business meeting or vote of the membership was needed. (Did you ever hear of or perhaps attend one of those church "business meetings" in which multiplied hours passed with the congregation trying to decide how to spend $4.20? Not so in Acts 11!) It was a decision of the elders.

*Similarly, in Acts 13:1-3 it is the elders of the church at Antioch who act in accordance to the expressed will of God in sending out Paul and Barnabas to mission work. They needed no authority outside themselves to take the necessary action.

*In Acts 15 it was the decision of the elders which was binding upon the church.

*Many also imagine that the New Testament commands concerning church discipline (Matthew 18:15ff and I Corinthians 5) are an indication of democratic church rule. But again, these make no hint whatever of democratic rule but rather of democratic involvement only. To be sure, the people of the church could by their ignoring of the pronouncement of discipline and refusal to disassociate from the one so disciplined (I Corinthians 5:11) render any such judgment meaningless. But that is not democracy it is anarchy! Neither Jesus nor Paul ever hint that in such a circumstance the church is to call for a vote so that in the event of a majority opinion the discipline may be carried out. The command is simply given concerning the steps to be taken with a sinning member (I Corinthians 5:11). It is simplest and most obvious to assume that these difficult decisions are to be made under the direction of the church leaders (elders-bishops-pastors), in which case the people under their care would be obliged to obey.


The consistent pattern of the New Testament in regard to local church government is a plurality of elders ruling the church as Christ's under-shepherds. No fixed number is given, but more than one was clearly the norm to be followed (Acts 14:23). This arrangement God wisely made in order to maximize the effectiveness of the elders and so the church.

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