Plurality of Elders v. Single Bishop

Were Early Churches Ruled by Elders or a Single Bishop? Michael J. Kruger Christians have disagreed about what leadership structure the church ought to use. From the bishop-led Anglicans to the informal Brethren churches, there is great diversity.

And one of the fundamental flash points in this debate is the practice of the early church. What form of government did the earliest Christians have? Of course, early Christian polity is a vast and complex subject with many different issues in play. But, I want to focus in upon a narrow one: Were the earliest churches ruled by a plurality of elders or a single bishop?

Now it needs to be noted from the outset that by the end of the second century, most churches were ruled by a single bishop. For whatever set of reasons, monepiscopacy had won the day. Many scholars attribute this development to Ignatius (pictured above).

But, what about earlier? Was there a single-bishop structure in the first and early second century?

The New Testament evidence itself seems to favor a plurality of elders as the standard model. The book of Acts tells us that as the apostles planted churches, they appointed “elders” (from the Greek term ???????????) to oversee them (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2; 20:17). Likewise, Titus is told to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5).

A very similar word, ???,??o??? (“bishop” or “overseer”), is used in other contexts to describe what appears to be the same ruling office (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-7). The overlap between these two terms is evident in Acts 20:28 when Paul, while addressing the Ephesian “elders” (????????????), declares that “The Holy Spirit has made you overseers (??????????).” Thus, the New Testament writings indicate that the office of elder/bishop is functionally one and the same.

But, what about the church after the New Testament? Did they maintain the model of multiple elders? Three quick examples suggest they maintained this structure at least for a little while:

1. At one point, the Didache addresses the issue of church government directly, “And so, elect for yourselves bishops (??????????) and deacons who are worthy of the Lord, gentle men who are not fond of money, who are true and approved” (15.1). It is noteworthy that the author mentions plural bishops—not a single ruling bishop—and that he places these bishops alongside the office of deacon, as Paul himself does (e.g., Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-13). Thus, as noted above, it appears that the bishops described here are essentially equivalent to the office of “elder.”

2. A letter known as 1 Clement (c.96) also has much to say about early church governance. This letter is attributed to a “Clement”—whose identity remains uncertain—who represents the church in Rome and writes to the church at Corinth to deal with the fallout of a recent turnover in leadership. The author is writing to convince (not command) the Corinthians to reinstate its bishops (elders) who were wrongly deposed. The letter affirms the testimony of the book of Acts when it tells us that the apostles initially appointed “bishops (??????????) and deacons” in the various churches they visited (42.4). After the time of the apostles, bishops were appointed “by other reputable men with the entire church giving its approval” (44.3). This is an echo of the Didache which indicated that bishops were elected by the church.

3. The Shepherd of Hermas (c.150) provides another confirmation of this governance structure in the second century. After Hermas writes down the angelic vision in a book, he is told, “you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church” (Vis. 8.3).Here we are told that the church leadership structure is a plurality of “presbyters” (???????????) or elders. The author also uses the term “bishop,” but always in the plural and often alongside the office of deacon (Vis. 13.1; Sim. 104.2).

In sum, the NT texts and texts from the early second century indicate that a plurality of elders was the standard structure in the earliest stages. But, as noted above, the idea of a singular bishop began to dominate by the end of the second century.

What led to this transition? Most scholars argue that it was the heretical battles fought by the church in the second century that led them to turn to key leaders to defend and represent the church.

This transition is described remarkably well by Jerome himself:

The presbyter is the same as the bishop, and before parties had been raised up in religion by the provocations of Satan, the churches were governed by the Senate of the presbyters. But as each one sought to appropriate to himself those whom he had baptized, instead of leading them to Christ, it was appointed that one of the presbyters, elected by his colleagues, should be set over all the others, and have chief supervision over the general well-being of the community. . . Without doubt it is the duty of the presbyters to bear in mind that by the discipline of the Church they are subordinated to him who has been given them as their head, but it is fitting that the bishops, on their side, do not forget that if they are set over the presbyters, it is the result of tradition, and not by the fact of a particular institution by the Lord (Comm. Tit. 1.7).

Jerome’s comments provide a great summary of this debate. While the single-bishop model might have developed for practical reasons, the plurality of elders model seems to go back to the very beginning.

Voting in the Church?

at base, three forms of government. The first is rule by one. The second is rule by a few, the third rule by all. In civil government this would essentially be monarchy, republic and democracy, broadly speaking. In church government it would be episcopacy, presbyterianism, and congregationalism, broadly speaking. Rightly understood then the church, whatever denomination, if it is indeed a part of the church, is an episcopacy. Just as Jesus reigns over the nations, so He reigns over the church. His vicar, however, is not the bishop of Rome, but the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit has given us the Word of God. That Word, true in all that it teaches, does not come equipped with a Book of Church Order. Good men, good Reformed men, over the course of church history have argued that under Christ’s reign the church should function as an episcopacy. Other good Reformed men argue for presbyterianism, and finally good Reformed men have spoken in defense of congregationalism.

The Rule of Elders
This Reformed man, while acknowledging that this isn’t the clearest thing in the Bible, sides with the presbyterians. The church should be ruled by a plurality of elders. Even if I am right, however, this doesn’t settle fully the question of whether or not we should vote in church. It does, however, set some boundaries.

First, if the church is to be ruled by elders it cannot simultaneously be ruled by the congregation. Congregational votes at the very least cannot overrule the will of the session, at least without devolving down to congregationalism. This still, however, doesn’t outlaw all votes by the congregation. One might, for instance, take a poll of the congregation. Insofar as such a poll would be non-binding, it is no denial of Presbyterian church government. Suppose the elders are curious to know how many of its member families would be interested in a mid-week Bible study, or even if Tuesday or Wednesday would be a better evening for such a study. By all means take a poll. The elders, however, would have to decide.

Congregational Voting on Elders
Second, there is value in having the congregation “vote” on who should be their elders. Here again I would argue we have to be careful not to let the congregation wrest rule for the session. That is, I don’t believe the congregation can impose an elder on the session. I argue that the approval of elders should be two-fold. Certainly the session needs to approve potential session members. But when the congregation votes on potential elders they are doing something other than ruling in the church. They are acknowledging the rule over them. That is, they are agreeing to have the elders be in authority over them.

Typically these issues do not become difficult in themselves. That is, it is rare for a church to find itself in trouble, or in battle mode, over competing classes of members. That said, there are often subtle dangers in not thinking through these issues well. To say, for instance, that the elders rule in the church is not to suggest that the members are just spectators, that they are not full members of the body. Much less should it communicate differing levels of spiritual standing. Elders are sinners saved by grace. Laymen are sinners saved by grace. We are all called to do the work of the ministry. On the other side of the coin, when congregations do vote, or even meet together in discussion, it is important to not import the wrong categories into the meeting. The church is not a business, and the members are not stockholders. And it most certainly is not a democracy.

Sin & Church Rule
There is no church government that will eliminate sin. Things go wrong in all kinds of churches. It is tempting in the midst of dealing with sin to think the grass must be greener on the other side. It is especially tempting to believe, “Things would be so much better if only I had more power to bring it to pass.” But we all bring sin with us wherever we go. One man ruling is dangerous. All men ruling is dangerous. A few men ruling is dangerous, but, I would argue, less dangerous than the first two. Which is why God gives us elders and gives elders the authority to rule in the church.

This post was first published on:

Qualified Male Eldership

Ligon-DuncanDr. Ligon Duncan and being a male is only one of them. So, it’s not just a male versus female thing. It’s qualified males to hold this particular office.

So let me say that one more time. God teaches in the Bible that He gives spiritual leadership in the church to qualified male elders and thus restricts the teaching office in the church to men who meet the range of qualifications He has established in the Word. Consequently, the ministry of preaching and teaching in the church is undelegatably vested in the men who serve as the elders of the church. And that’s my thesis.

Now, with that thesis, I have two goals. My first goal is to prove from Scripture what I’ve just stated. I want to go to five New Testament passages that do not beat around the bush; they just say these things bluntly. So I want to suggest that it is not difficult to prove from Scripture what I’ve just stated since there is copious, clear, and explicit New Testament evidence for all male ruling elder, teaching eldership in the church. And I’ve given you the examples on the outline of the passages we’re going to go through. I even underlined the salient words in the verses for you to look at.

There are at least five NT passages that explicitly establish an all-male teaching office in the Church.

Let’ start with 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Look especially at verses 11 and 12.

“A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”

Then in verses 13-15, Paul gives his rationale for that. Now, in the context of 1 Timothy 2, Paul is talking about the way he wants the church to behave, especially in its corporate gathering. Paul is saying that he wants an all male teaching office in the church. He wants the women to receive that teaching; he wants them to be disciples-that was revolutionary in and of itself in his own day and time – but, he wants the eldership to be the ones who are responsible for doing that teaching. That becomes clear not only from what he says earlier in chapter two, but what he’s going to go on to say in 1 Timothy 3. I’m going to come back to that passage and look at it in a little more detail, but that’s just in general a very direct assertion. “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” That’s very clear. Continue reading

The Husband of One Wife (Part 2)

Pastor Jim McClarty is a wonderful brother and Bible teacher. He pastors Grace Christian Assembly in Smyrna, TN. He has become something of a friend through our e-mail communication, even though we have yet to meet in person. He was extremely helpful to me in proof reading the manuscript of my new book “Twelve What Abouts,” providing many helpful suggestions which very much improved the clarity and flow of language. His website can be found at

Here is an issue which sometimes comes up in the life of the Church. I appreciate Pastor McClarty’s careful handling of the question and would agree entirely. (For those interested, here is Dr. R. C. Sproul’s answer to a similar question).

Question – What is your opinion of someone being a pastor who is divorced? I want to hear your input on this whole “man of one wife” thing because one church we’ve been visiting will allow an elder to be divorced, but not the pastor. Yet when I read Titus, it clearly says bishop and elder … man of one wife. So I want to know how and why they make a distinction.

Jim McClarty – This is another one of those places where many churches lead with their traditions. I have also heard for most of my life that the phrase “husband of one wife” means that a pastor must be married, not single. He must not be divorced. If he is divorced he certainly must not remarry. But it is okay for him to remarry if he is a widower. But, that was not Paul’s point. Tradition does have a way of taking basic Biblical ideas and stretching them beyond their original intention. A bit of simple exegesis will clear this up.

Let’s start with the supposed distinction between bishops, elders and pastors. The phrase “husband of one wife” first occurs in 1 Timothy 3:2 concerning bishops. The Greek word for bishops is “episkopos.” The same word is also translated “overseer.” In the New Testament there was a bishop in every church, tasked with the work of watching over the church, guiding it and seeing to its general health and well-being.

Now, these same men, serving in this same office of bishop/overseer, were also called “elders” – or “presbuteros” – in Acts 20:17. This is made obvious when you compare Acts 20:28 where these elders are called overseers.

“And from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” (Acts 20:17-18)

“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)

In other words, bishop, elder and overseer are one and the same office.

Then we find pastors. They really only show up in Ephesians 4:11. In the Greek they are called “poimen,” or “shepherds.” According to Vine’s Expository Greek dictionary, “pastors guide as well as feed the flock… this involves tender care and vigilant superintendence.” But importantly, Acts 20:28 refers to “overseers” as those who tend to and feed the flock.

So, in Paul’s perspective, bishops/overseers are the same thing as pastors. And, bishops/overseers are the same thing as elders. The words are interchangeable. They each indicate some aspect of the job. They do not designate individual offices held by separate men within a local church. Consequently, the requirements for elders, bishops, overseers and pastors are all exactly the same because pastors are elders. In our modern church structure it is more common to find a plurality of elders who act as officers of the church and one man who acts as pastor. But in reality, any man who is ordained an elder ought to have the ability, willingness and gifts to pastor. Men who operate within a church as officers, caring for the day-to-day business and making decisions concerning the physical structure and organization are acting as deacons, not elders.

That being said, the second place where “the husband of one wife” occurs is in 1 Timothy 3:12, when referring to deacons. The third place where it occurs is in Titus 1:6, concerning bishops.

The phrase “husband of one wife” was a common Greek phrase, used in many documents outside of Scripture, so Greek grammarians have a good handle on what it meant in everyday usage. In fact, I have checked with David Morris, a Greek scholar (and one of the men who ordained me as an elder) about this very topic.

The phrase “husband of one wife” has to do with the character of the man being considered for the office of overseer/bishop/elder/pastor or deacon. It is best translated “a one-woman type of man.” This is as opposed to a polygamist. The New American Standard Version tries to emphasize this idea by rendering the phrase, “husbands of only one wife.” They add the word “only” to the text in order to bring out the idea that Paul was speaking against polygamy. The NIV adds the word “but,” rendering the phrase, “husband of but one wife.” Both of those translations are attempting to bring out Paul’s real meaning.

Remember that multiple wives were a common part of Old Testament life, right up until the time of Christ. It was common for Middle Eastern men to have multiple wives and to divorce them and add new wives at will. That is a character issue. Such men should not lead in the Church. But, what type should? If he is a man committed to one woman at any given time, then he is “a one-woman type of man.” His commitment to one woman bespeaks his character.

Now – and this is important – Paul was familiar with the word “chorizo,” which is translated “depart” in the KJV version of 1 Corinthians 7:10:

“And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10-11)

Other translations render the word “chorizo” as “divorce.” And, that’s exactly what “divorce” means; to depart, or put distance between two people – “chorizo.” Paul knew how to use that word and wrote about the different situations that might arise when believers were married to unbelievers. He understood that people might leave and divorces might happen.

“But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? Or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.” (1 Cor. 7:12-17)

So, here’s my point. Paul knew the language of divorce and wrote about it. Yet, when Paul listed the qualifications for elders/bishops/overseers/pastors and deacons, he did not make any reference to divorce. He was concerned primarily with character issues – the type of man he was – and whether he had been evidently gifted by God to fill that office (“not a novice … apt to teach”). If Paul had meant to convey the message that pastors, elders or the like could not be divorced, it seems to me that he would have mentioned it in the list of qualifications. Again, He does use that language in other letters. Paul is familiar with the word “divorce.” It certainly seems that he would have included it in his list if that is what he meant to say.

But, he didn’t. Instead, he referred to a man who was not a bigamist, not marrying multiple women concurrently or all at once. In short, not a womanizer; the same way he was not to be a brawler, a drinker, a striker, greedy or covetous. These were matters of character and giftedness.

My friend, I don’t think people believe me when I say that preaching/pastoring is a really hard job. But, it is made especially hard by the fact that everyone in the world, and especially in the church, considers themself your judge. The Bible does not condemn men who labor in the Word, but whose marriage failed. Only people’s traditions do that.

Now let me be clear. A pastor who is married and divorced repeatedly has a character issue that must be dealt with. After all, if the Word he is preaching cannot affect his own behavior, then how can he expect it to affect others? Marriage is indeed a type of Christ and His church. Marriage between Christians is a sacred union that we should fight hard to uphold. But sometimes marriages fail. That is the reality of the human condition. And thank God there is ample grace and forgiveness in Christ for every sinner – even the ones in the pulpit.

I hope that helps.

Q – Wow! Thanks for your efforts to answer that. I know that took some time. Feel free to use this Q & A on the website.

You’re welcome. Perhaps this discussion will help others heal.
Yours in Him,
Jim McClarty

A Preaching/Teaching Pastor

Question: Is it really a Scriptural practice for churches to have just one guy up front preaching to the congregation week after week?

Thanks for your question. So much needs to be said in order to give an adequate answer. In fact, I would say that an entire book would be needed to do the subject justice. That is because before addressing your specific question, much foundational background material needs to be covered. We would first need to talk about Biblical eldership, its role and function in the Body of Christ, as well as elder qualifications. However, let me at least make a brief attempt to answer your question. Two points quickly:

(1) I believe the New Testament teaches male eldership. This is in no way meant to discount the ministry of women. Women have a huge and vital role to play in the ministry of the Church. That needs to be emphasized and underscored many times over.

Women are uniquely gifted and are totally equal to men in worth, value and dignity. When I speak of any kind of restriction, I speak only of eldership itself and its governmental role in the Church. God has every right to organize the Church as He sees fit and from my studies of Scripture, it seems clear that He has given the task of ruling in the Church to men (1 Timothy 2:12,13). (For more on this topic, I highly recommend Dr. Wayne Grudem’s book “Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth” which goes into this subject in great detail and provides answers to more than 100 disputed questions).

(2) I believe eldership is plural. As I read the New Testament, I dont see any local Church with merely one man fulfilling the task of eldership. There is always a plurality of elders.

That said, I am well aware of the fact that when a new Church is starting, there may not yet be more than one person who is qualified to lead as an elder. God is very gracious of course, and I believe He understands our need to be patient in this case. More than that, He actually commands us, through His Apostle, to be patient in such circumstances. Paul wrote, “lay hands suddenly on no man” (1 Timothy 5:22) “lest you share in his sins,” which is written in the context of warning against ordaining a young convert to leadership in the church. There are obvious temptations of pride for anyone in a leadership position and this is certainly the case when a new Christian is given a position of authority. Paul warns us against putting a novice or “new plant” (literally) into such an office.

A few years back (in 2005) I had the privilege of ministering in Mongolia where the Christian church is still very young. 20 years ago there were only a handful of known Christians in the entire country. Such is not the case today. Though young and immature, the Christian Church is thriving in Mongolia. However, at the Church where I was ministering, the Pastor had only been a Christian for six months. We need to realize, there just aren’t many people there who have been Christians for 5 or 10 years. Christian leadership is young in Mongolia because Christianity is young there.

Obviously, this young pastor recognized his need to learn all he could so that he might help those he was leading. He possessed a very teachable spirit and was making copious notes of all that our team was ministering while we were there. Yet even in this unusual situation, he was looking to bring other men onto the eldership team there with him, and with the help of others from outside, was training men for this purpose.

In an unusual circumstance such as this one, as well as in the case of a new Church starting, while having only one elder may be the current situation, it should be the vision and goal of each local church to see a plurality of elders in place. In other words, a local church having only one man in authority as an elder should only ever be a strictly temporary measure.

One of the requirements for eldership is to be “apt to teach” or “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). An elder must have the ability to teach other people. This does not mean that each elder must be a highly gifted public speaker, but it does mean that he should be able to sit down with anyone and explain sound doctrine. He should know what he believes and why he believes it and possess the ability to communicate these things to others. He should be able to recognize and refute false doctrine and thereby protect the flock from the wolves who seek to devour the sheep. I believe this is what is meant by the phrase “able to teach.”
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The Husband of One Wife

Question: How do you interpret Paul’s qualification of “the husband of one wife” for a local church elder? (1 Timothy 3:2)

Answer: “Well, there’s a lot of controversy about that. A lot of churches won’t allow men who have been divorced to hold the office of elder, saying that they have violated that qualification if they have been divorced and have then re-married. That would also apply to someone who is a widower and remarried, because they have had two wives.

I think it is clear as can be, that what the issue there that Paul is addressing is polygamy. And in the Early Church in its formation, it took a while for the principle of monogamy to be firmly established within the Christian community because there were guys who had two or three or four wives (concubines) and that was opposed to biblical marriage, and if you have two wives, that’s one too many (at the same time, obviously).

– Dr. R. C. Sproul, transcript from a Question and Answer Session at the Ligonier Ministries National Conference, Bought with a Price, Orlando, 2006