The Multiple Pastor Model

by Steve Jones

Everywhere, the belief persists that the local church is to be presided over by one leader who has been "called to the ministry." He is to be the principle teacher and preacher. The care of the church is primarily his concern. He counsels, presides over board meetings, visits the sick, marries the young, buries the dead.

His name is often in the bulletin and on the sign in front of the church building, as if it is somehow his church. When the spiritual vitality of a church wanes, he is often blamed and summarily fired.

Unlike the deacons or elders, the pastor is almost always imported from outside the church. Churches, in fact, "shop" for a pastor when they are without one. These clergymen are usually formally educated in theology. Often they are "licensed" or "ordained" by a denomination.

Many modern authors on church growth tout the need for a strong one-man pastorate. Such sentiments as those expressed by C. Peter Wagner are fairly common within churches today:

The local church is like a company with one company commander, the pastor, who gets his orders from the Commander-in-Chief [Jesus]. The company commander has lieutenants and sergeants under him for consultation and implementation, but the final responsibility of his decisions is that of the company commander, and he must answer to the Commander-in-Chief....the pastor has the power in a growing church.Reference1

But where is any of this reflected in the New Testament? If "the pastor has the power in a growing church," why don't Paul or John or Peter ever say so? Does this common perception of the pastor exist on the pages of Scripture?


Leaders in the Church

Amazing as it may sound, the New Testament does not authorize a single leader to be responsible for oversight of the church. On the contrary, the notion is flatly contradicted several times by the New Testament authors.

From earliest times, the church was governed by a body of men, not a single leader. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the Philippians: "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1:1, NIV).

Note that there was a plurality of bishops in the Philippian church, not one man. In his writing to that congregation, Paul never once addresses "the pastor," nor does he in any of his epistles.


Elders, Bishops, Pastors

The bishops are entrusted with the spiritual oversight of the flock. The Greek word episkopos literally means "overseer," and is translated that way in some versions of Scripture.

These leaders, whose qualifications are spelled out in the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus), are to be mature. For this reason, they are also called "elders." The words "bishop" and "elder" are interchangeable in the New Testament. This is obvious in Paul's letter to Titus: "This is why I left you in Crete, that you might...appoint elders in every town as I directed you, if any man is blameless...for a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless (Tit. 1:5-7, KVJ).

An elder, then, is a bishop and a bishop is an elder. There is no distinction between the two. The words give only different emphases. "Elder" (presbuteros) denotes maturity and "bishop," oversight. However, they refer to the same leaders, which are plural in number (see Acts 14:23; 20:17; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14).

What about the pastor? Where is he in all of this? After all, didn't God give "some pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11, KVJ)? Yes, He did. But this refers to the same body of leaders elsewhere called "bishops" and "elders," not a single leader.

The word "pastor" (singular) is absent from most translations of the New Testament. The plural form "pastors" occurs only once, in Ephesians 4:11. It is a translation of the Greek word poimen. Poimen is translated "shepherd" or "shepherds" 16 times in the King James Version. The verb form poimaino also occurs in the New Testament. It means to "shepherd" or "pastor" a flock.

But poimen (pastor), presbuteros (elder) and episkopos (bishop/overseer) all refer to the same function. It is unbiblical to speak of the pastor, on one hand, and the elders, on the other, as if they were somehow different. The Scripture makes no distinction whatsoever between the two.

This is fairly easy to demonstrate in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 5, for example, all three words - in either noun or verb form - are applied to the same group of leaders. The apostle writes to the church leadership: "The elders (presbuterous) which are among you I exhort...feed (poimanate, "shepherd," "pastor") the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (episkopountes)" (1 Pet. 5:1,2).

Peter expected the body of elders to pastor the flock and oversee it. Can there be any doubt, then, that the modern idea of distinguishing between elders, bishops, and pastors is wrong? Paul conveyed the same idea while giving his farewell address to the elders (plural) of the Ephesian church in Acts 20: Paul "sent to Ephesus and called to the elders (presbuterous) of the church. And when they were come to him, he said...take heed...unto yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (episkopous), to feed (poimainein, "shepherd," "pastor") the church of God" (Acts 20:17,28).

Again, Paul makes no distinction between elders, bishops, and pastors. These are different terms for the same function. And so, the idea of each church having one man who is "the pastor" who is separate from the body of elders is a tradition without Scriptural support.

Having said this, there is actually one example of a single leader ruling the church as "company commander." His name was Diotrephes. John wrote of this man in 3 John 9,10. Here is a leader with far too much power in the church. He personally put people out of the congregation and refused to welcome the brethren. He did so without God's authority.

So the lone example of a "one-man pastor" in the Scripture is held up as a bad example. He is exposed as one "who likes to put himself first" (v. 9). That is not to say that all pastors are like Diotrephes. Far from it. Many are humble, virtuous men. T he point is that the New Testament never mentions one man as the church's overseer, except for one negative instance. Despite this, it has become the dominant pattern of leadership in churches - even those which ostensibly profess themsleves "Bible-believing."


The Lone Leader

There is a great deal of harm in the doctrine of the "one-man pastor." To begin with, it gives too much power to one person. Authority in the church was meant to be shared among several leaders. This provides a kind of check and balance against a powerful leader "lording over God's heritage" (1 Pet. 5:3, KJV). Most Christians have heard horror stories about one minister ruling a church with an iron rod. Even if the members oppose what he's doing, they are impotent because of their subordinate "layman" status.

When authority in the church is shared, there is less of a chance of a dictatorial rule. The other elders can step in and prevent one leader from overstepping his authority.

On the other hand, the "one-man pastorate" gives a single leader too much responsibility. God has granted a diversity of spiritual gifts to the church, but no individual has all of them. It is unreasonable to expect one man to excel in preaching, teaching, counseling, exhortation, helps, mercy, administration, wisdom, and knowledge. That is what the "one-man pastorate" calls for - an unrealistic, superhuman Christian.< /P>

True, many pastors have done good work in the churches. But the mutual ministry of "one another" mentioned often in the New Testament fails to flourish when traditional pastoral leadership is at the helm. Ministry is suddenly "his responsibility." That's why he's paid. It's his vocation. The "layman," accordingly, is not given much responsibility for ministry in most churches. Few "laymen" preach from the pulpit or officiate at funerals or visit the members - that is the particular province of the professional clergyman in many churches.

I believe that many churches, if they took seriously the ministry of the elders and the "one another" responsibility of the saints, could function very well without a paid minister. Many smaller churches might be relieved of an oppressive financial burden if they followed a New Testament pattern of leadership. People would also discover and use their gifts of ministry.

The tendency of the one-man pastor, however, is to stifle such activity, even when the pastor himself encourages it. It is nearly impossible to get the saints to assume responsibility for the church when one man is "the minister" and everyone else, "lay persons." The system creates a hard-and-fast distinction, sometimes unspoken, between "the minister" and "the ministered unto." Most church members, I believe, would place themselves in the latter group - truly a spiritual tragedy.

The Bible presents church leaders as those who equip the saints for ministry (Eph. 4:12), not as those who do it all themselves. An author from the previous century notes:

The apostle plainly tells us, that "if they were all one member there would be no body," and who is there that does not see in these words a condemnation of the clerical system, which presents the body in the form of one member only - the minister, the ordained, official, and salaried minister, who, whether he be appointed to his office by a prelate or a popular election, supersedes all spiritual gifts in the church? In such a system as that, the saints are reduced to silence, the body is dead, all the members are inanimate, the "honorable" or "feeble" are alike useless, and one individual is eye, mouth, ear, hand and foot.Reference2

The tendency of one pastor undertaking the bulk of church ministry cannot help but contribute to, or even cause, the "burnout" so common among the clergy. God never intended one person to shoulder so large a burden. When a pastor attempts it, the result is often exhaustion, depression, emotional distress, divorce - sometimes even a lapse into immorality.

The idea of importing pastors from outside the church is also without biblical precedent. The qualifications of an elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9) suggests that candidates have been observed for some time by a local church. How can a church know if a potential bishop is above reproach or has obedient children (Tit. 1:6) unless he has been in the church for awhile? This seems to suggest that overseers were "home-grown" leaders.

May the church of Jesus Christ put leadership back where it belongs, in the hands of those mature Christians (plural) who are "temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2, NIV). It is time for us to move forward, with our elders out in front.



1C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow (Ventura, CA: Royal), 1984, p. 65.

2Campaginator, Priesthood and Clergy Unknown to Christianity; or, the Church a Community of Co-Equal Brethren (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), 1857, p. 47.

For additional information, check out the Biblical Eldership Home Page.

Presented by:
True Grace Ministries

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