First Among Equals?
Primus inter pares. First among equals. In theory that’s what the Prime Minister is. But what about in Independent church leadership? What should the relationship be between leaders? Well, without a strong steer from a lead elder, nothing may get done.
Although Scripture is clear on its major truths not everything is as clear as we might want it to be. For example, at the obscure level, tantalisingly we don’t know what ‘baptism for the dead’ means (1 Cor 15:29). We are also not privy to the conversation that happened when Paul said that after he arrived he would give further instructions to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:34).
Church government isn't in that category of difficulty but debates have been aplenty. The New Testament is sufficient, but not exhaustive – all we need to know, but not all we may want to know. So we bring together quite a few texts to construct a guide, recognising that some conclusions may have to be tentative.
There are lots of things we can’t be absolutely clear on. The precise relationship between house congregations to one another in larger cities such as Rome, for example, is difficult to pin down. Are they all sub-groups of one large church in the city with many elders over all? Or did house churches function as separate units with an eldership over each one? It is hard to know.
For my part I think local churches (ecclesia is about people gathering together) are led by Christ-appointed, church-recognised men who are qualified as Scripture describes (Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 3:1-7). The terms to describe such men are inter-changeable. As one compares the various texts, words such as elder, presbyter, overseer, bishop, shepherd, pastor, teacher are all used to describe the same leaders.
Leaders also occur in the plural (Acts 14:23).
This means it would only be out of necessity due to problems or weaknesses that there will only be one elder/leader of a congregation. Many Independent churches in the last 50 years have returned to a pattern of leadership with elders, supported by some deacons (Greek for ‘servants’). Quite a few smaller churches however still have a ‘Pastor and deacons’ pattern, or even ‘deacons only’ because the church is too small to support a Pastor or even to find an elder.
But in churches which have a plural leadership there is still is a lot of discussion about the role of the different elders. It is clear that gifts amongst elders will vary, perhaps very substantially. Some preach more than others, hence the advice in 1 Timothy 5:17, that if money is ‘tight’ you have to make a choice of which elders to support financially. Paul says we should support ‘those whose work is preaching and teaching’, that is, the more gifted of the preachers.
That is not to denigrate any elder.
In our eldership I am so very grateful that some of our elders are really strong in teaching in one-to-one and small group settings rather than before a large group. They are an indispensable part of our leadership team.
Where some can be financially supported there is often a functional difference between staff elders and elders who are supported by their own employment. The former can give a lot of time to care for the flock. Being more active, it may feel to the congregation as if they are therefore more important. But they are not, and it's still a functional not a formal difference. All the elders are still subject to one another, all having received a call from the Lord and recognition by the church.
So if they are all technically equal, should there be a ‘first among equals’? Should there be a ‘lead pastor’ or ‘senior pastor’ even if that terminology isn't adopted as a formal category?
It’s a ‘tension’ issue. On the one hand there is the parity of elders as ‘office bearers’, but on the other there is the variable nature of their gifting and experience. There is also the need to ‘get things done’; and committees notoriously aren’t good at that without a strong lead.
At this point the Bible gives us ‘hints’, not formal structures or job titles.
So in Acts 15:13 James seems to take a summarising lead, a sort of ‘chairman's conclusion’. In Galatians 2:9 Paul mentions James first in his list of leaders (but we must not read too much into that - Gal 2:6!). In a different context, what started out as ‘Barnabas and Saul’ (Acts 12:25; 13:2, 7), eventually became ‘Paul and Barnabas’ (13:13, 42, 46). Paul's stronger communication gifts emerge (cf Acts 14:12 Paul was called Hermes, ‘because he was the chief speaker’).
This kind of leadership of other leaders seems tacit, informal, and dependent on mutual recognition rather than imposed or a formal structure. It points to the fact that wisdom and not authoritative hierarchy shapes how leadership's function. Many have found it wise to have a leader of leaders, without that being a superior office.
A worked example
In our church the way we work reflects three factors: needs, circumstances, and gifts.
As an eldership and church grows, and staff are appointed, one leader cannot support all the others. He will have to plan to support some, who in turn support others. I now have three staff elders whom I particularly care for, and who report to me about how their work is going. My job, in this aspect of it, is to make sure they succeed. They in turn support other staff, team leaders and volunteer members.
I also meet with other leaders who hold me accountable. We have found it also helped to outline an ‘organisational chart’ of ‘who supports whom’ so that there aren’t too many crossed-wires of accountability.
Someone needs to act as a chairman who finalises an agenda, leads meetings, helpfully summarises a discussion, and concludes with apportioned action points. It is a very important job to be done by a competent leader. Usually the leader of leaders will do it, and it will be he who really drives an agenda forward. He will also need to be skilled at encouraging all voices to be heard.
Key meetings are chairing elders’ meetings, chairing elders’ and deacons’ meetings, chairing staff meetings, and chairing members’ meetings. My experience is that rotating the chairing of these meetings to stress the parity amongst elders just doesn't lead to good decision-making or the implementation of change. There are better ways of underscoring the parity of elders than doing that.
However it doesn't mean that all meetings have to be chaired by the same person. So long as there is very clear and honest discussion then a chair might not be the lead elder of every meeting.
I have been at Grace Community Church for a long time. The staff elders are (a lot!) younger and it seems obvious, at the moment, for me to ‘lead the leaders’.
Some of the gifts of leadership (Rom 12:4-8) can be strengthened over time. There should be many opportunities to gain experience in these ‘soft skills’ of leadership. It took me ages to gain even some of them!
In conclusion, it’s my view that (generally speaking) unless someone takes a clear lead in driving a gospel-shaped agenda and summarising the debate with clear action steps, the church can be paralysed by a power vacuum. If there is not clarity on who is leading gospel change forward, the church can very easily settle for mediocrity and decisions are made along the paths of least resistance.
Hence, for many churches who practice a Biblical position on the parity of elders, one elder will often be acknowledged as ‘the functional leader of leaders’ so that the church can keep going forward.
Wisdom and mutual respect ‘call the tune’. I trust that you will find it to be an encouraging one.