Servant Leadership: The Scriptures frequently uses the word servant in reference to church leaders. This emphasizes the need for courageous, humble, servant leadership. Today, many would love to attend a “leadership conference.” However, how many would be interested in attending a “servant conference”? Jesus always taught, loved, and lived by example that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Hebrews 13:17 indicates the church is to submit to its leaders. However, Jesus’ comments on leadership must be both the starting point and final reference for understanding an elder’s authority. Contrasting the authority of secular leaders with that of church leaders, Jesus declared, “But not so with you.”[1] Instead, the church leader’s authority seems to be that of a child and a waiter — precisely those in society who have no authority in the normal sense of the word. Certainly a church leader does not have the same wisdom and understanding as a child. Indeed, he should be among the wisest in the church. Doubtless there is a high degree of hyperbole in Jesus’ words, yet the application to be gleaned is that rather than lording over the church, church leaders are to lead by example. This type of “authority” will not work in secular governments nor business, but only in a redeemed community.

Jesus has authority over the church and all creation. Yet when Jesus humbled Himself and became a man, He came to earth as a servant (Php 2:5-8). Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28). Jesus taught, “whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:27). Leaders are to be great in service.

How does elder rule factor into congregational consensus? Elders guide, model, persuade, teach, feed, council, protect, warn, advise, rebuke and correct. After a process of persuading, the church is to yield to its elders in the Lord. However, it is helpful to properly assess the relationship that existed in the New Testament era between local elders and their churches. For instance, there is a surprising lack of emphasis on local church leaders in New Testament writings. With the exception of Philippians 1:1, church leaders are not even mentioned in the greetings. Romans 13 concerns submission to authority, yet never mentions the church submitting to its elders. In Ephesians 5-6, Paul instructed women to submit to their husbands, children to obey their parents and slaves to obey their masters. If ever there was an appropriate place to instruct the church to submit to and obey its elders, it would have been here. Yet it is missing. Such a command is also absent from Colossians 3-4, the parallel passage to Ephesians. In Peter’s general exhortation to submit to authority, he mentioned the believer’s submission to the governor and wives to husbands, but nothing about submission to church leaders (1Pe 2-3).[2] In the entire New Testament, it is not until 1 Peter 5 that elders are written to directly.[3]

Instead of writing directly to the leaders, the apostles wrote to entire churches. Notice their leadership style. They did not simply issue directives. They urged, persuaded, argued, and convinced whole congregations. The “brothers” were treated as equals and were appealed to as such (notice the frequency of the word “brothers” throughout the letter to the Galatian churches). This is how elders are also to relate to their congregations. Elders must be imminently good at persuading with the truth. This apostolic emphasis on entire churches, rather than on just the leadership of the churches, arises from the fact that responsibility for decision-making rests with the ekklésia (church) as a whole along with its elders (who have the last word).

Plural Leadership: New Testament references to local church leaders are generally in the plural. For instance:  “they had appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23) and “call for the elders of the church” (Ja 5:14). From this, many have inferred that each local church should, ideally, have a plurality of elders. Generally, speaking each church should have as many men serve as elders as are qualified. Ideally it should be a plurality. [4] Some of the benefits of plural leadership:

  1. There is less chance of a dictatorship developing. Remember the words of Lord Actin: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”However, even if there is only one elder, an understanding that elder rule is to include building consensus among all the brothers will help avoid the problem of a modern Diotrephes: “I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (3Jn 1:9-10).
  2. There is better advantage in dealing with an attack of wolves: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). As Ecclesiastes says, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (4:12).
  3. There is greater wisdom: “By wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Pr 24:6).
  4. As reflected in Jethro’s advice to Moses (Ex 18:13-27), a plurality of elders distributes the work load for hospital visitation, teaching, counseling, dealing with problems, etc.
  5. It taps into a broader range of spiritual gifts. Not all elders are equally gifted or motivated: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1Ti 5:17).
  6. It has been said that it is lonely at the top. Being a sole elder could be lonely and discouraging. A plurality of elders makes for mutual encouragement.

Congregational Voting? There is a vast difference between consensus and simply majority rule (which involves voting and a 51% “win”). In the small congregation consensus process, there may never be a time that an actual vote is taken on anything. The leadership should know each brother’s position. In this process, due consideration should be given to the council of godly, mature, longstanding members rather than those who just begin to attend. When the time is right, after overall consensus is reached, after any remaining few dissenters have been asked to yield to the elders, the achievement of consensus can be announced and the proposal implemented.

Should there be a general meeting of the church where an issue is discussed to find out if there is a consensus? There is nothing wrong with thus, but the church should be small enough that the leadership knows where each person in the church stands on any given issue without necessarily having to call a general meeting. However, it would be appropriate to have special meetings (apart from worship services) for teaching and discussion on important issues.

How does male leadership in the home and church impact this process? Men who are weak leaders in the home will be weak leaders in the church. Involving all the brothers in the consensus process will help strengthen the men of the church and encourage them to be better leaders at home.

In the consensus process, exactly who is it that makes the decisions, men and women both or only the men? See 1 Corinthians 11:1ff, 14:33-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Everyone’s thoughts are important. Within the Trinity, though God the Father and God the Son are equal Persons, the Son voluntarily submits to the Father’s will. Even though men and women are absolutely equal in God’s sight, wives are called upon to submit to their husbands. God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the church, and the husband is the head of his family. One way this order is expressed within the church is that only men are to serve as elders and Bible teachers. This order is further expressed in that the men, as the heads of their homes, are ultimately to represent their wives’ opinions in the consensus process. Certainly the wives have valid opinions and insights. These concerns may be expressed directly by the women to various men in private conversations and or to and through their husbands. A loving husband will duly consider their wife’s views, but it is the brothers who have the last say. It is the brothers who must make decisions that are binding on the church.

In matters of mere preference, being considerate of the women and yielding to their desires is the proper course to take.  However, in matters of theology or the application of theological or sin issues, the men must make the final decisions. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, R.C.H. Lenski quotes from an Opinion of the Theological Faculty of Capital University: “How the granting of voice and vote to women in all congregational meetings can do anything but place women completely on a level with men in all such meetings and gravely interfere with their divinely ordered subjection and obedience, we are unable to see.”[5]

When do issues rise to the level that church consensus is needed? It is impractical to involve the church in every little decision that is made. The key is to focus on consensus in major issues: the budget, elder and deacon selection, remodeling the facilities, big changes to the way church meetings are conducted, planting new churches, sending missionaries locally or globally, starting outreach ministries, Gospel campaigns, etc.

When does size of congregation become a problem? No magic number is ever given in Scripture. If a church is too big for the elders to know and have a relationship with every man, it is too big.

What if there are people involved with the church who are uncommitted or who are new converts? Do their voices count in the consensus process? There will almost always be people like this in a church. Their opinions should carry as much weight as their involvement with the church. This is also precisely where Hebrews 13:17 comes into play. Such persons are to listen to and yield to the wisdom of the elders.

How should universal church consensus apply to interpreting the Bible? Certainly we should study the Bible as individuals, but we should not study the Bible individualistically. We need to weigh our interpretations against the consensus of the whole church — not just our local church, but the church universal.  Historical humility is called for. To reject the time tested conclusions of millions of our fellow believers over thousands of years is to effectively make one’s self into a little Pope.[6]

The Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit dwells in every believer. As we survey the beliefs of the church around the world today, and also back throughout the past two millennia of church history, various fundamental agreements can be readily observed concerning the correct interpretation of Scripture. This has to be more than coincidence. It is the work of the Spirit. Some of these general agreements are about such matters as the virgin birth, the Trinity (One God in Three Persons), the deity of Christ, the propitiatory nature of Christ’s death on the cross, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the future bodily return of Christ, the future bodily resurrection of the dead, and the inspiration of Scripture. When the entire church universal has arrived at consensus regarding a doctrine, it becomes authoritative. Does one lone congregation have the right to defy the consensus of the whole church in the world and throughout history? These basic agreed upon doctrines constitute the regula fide, the rule of faith. We need a good dose of historical humility.

[1] Luke 22:26.

[2] In 1 Peter 5:3, that God’s flock is “under” the care of elders or “entrusted” to them, does not necessarily mean the elders have dictatorial powers over the church.

[3] Timothy and Titus were not local pastors — they were apostolic workers, sent by Paul to various places to organize the churches and then to move on to other locations. The letters to Timothy and Titus are called “pastoral epistles” because of their emphasis on elders, their qualifications and duties.

[4]As to the difference between an elder, overseer (“bishop” in the KJV), and pastor (shepherd), an examination of Acts 20:17, 28-30, Titus 1:5-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-3 will show the synonymous usage of these words.  All three refer to the same person or ministry.

[5] RCH Lenski, The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), p. 617.

[6] Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001).