The Plurality of Elders Protects a Pastor (and a Church) from Disaster

I’ve been listening to Christianity Today’s podcast titled The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It’s insightful, compelling, and really well done. It’s also concerning, painful, and tragic. Coupled with introspection, the podcast is humbling me and teaching me some good lessons.

Mark Driscoll was someone I really looked up to. I listened to his sermons. I read some of his writing. I listened to the worship bands from his church. I didn’t agree with everything Mark taught, but much resonated with me. Mark was direct, confrontational, and in many ways helpful to me. Mark’s way of saying things was different than other pastors, and that drew me in.

Mark Driscoll pastored Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA. It was attended every weekend by thousands of people in multiple services across multiple campuses. The marketing quality of everything Mars Hill Church did was excellent, not hokey like most church marketing. Mars Hill Church had so much going for them. Then one day, the church collapsed. It collapsed hard. It collapsed fast. It collapsed with great pain.

If you want to know the details of the saga, tune into Christianity Today’s podcast; I won’t retell the story. But the saga confirms an important Biblical truth: the plurality of spirit-filled and qualified male elders is absolutely necessary for a local church. I am so thankful that Jerusalem Church has a plurality of elders.

One of the things that got Mark Driscoll in trouble is that over time he increasingly isolated himself from the elders in his church. At least that’s how the story is told. Mark fostered a hostile environment of distrust among the elders which killed mutual accountability. Again, from a distance, Mark didn’t seem to invite rebuke, admonition, and accountability from his elders, nor did he receive it well. It was as if he saw his fellow elders as a threat to him instead of a gracious protection and aid to foster sanctification. How can a church survive without a plurality of elders submitting to Christ and each other? How can a pastor?  

As the lead pastor of Jerusalem Church in the small town of Manheim, I can honestly say, and with a great level of conviction, that I am thankful for the plurality of elders. If I had unchecked power, it would be a temptation too great for me to handle and a pressure too great for me to bear.

In Acts 20:17, Paul called the elders of the church in Ephesus to assemble. In Acts 20:28, he instructed these elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Paul was not speaking to one all-powerful elder or pastor. Paul was speaking to a team of elders. It was their shared calling, duty, and privilege to oversee the local church.

Titus 1:5 is a great text. Paul told Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” He then proceeds to give qualifications for those elders. But it is crystal clear that God intends several elders to lead a local church. Not one. More than one.

One of my favorite passages on the plurality of elders is 1 Peter 5:1–3. The Apostle Peter said:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

In a biblical form of local church governance, a body of qualified elders shepherd the flock of God together. Each of them bears a responsibility to shepherd. The same is true of their oversight. They lead together. It is unbiblical, unhealthy, and unsafe to have one supreme leader calling the shots unless his name is Jesus. All the elders must govern, lead, and shepherd willingly with joy. They are not to be motivated by money or possessions. They are not to be domineering over those they lead. This got Mark and some of the leaders of Mars Hill Church in big trouble. Domineering leadership was Mark’s trademark. His recorded comments confirm it. Instead, this body of Spirit-filled, godly, qualified, humble, penitent, and united men are to be examples of godliness for their people. This means they are ever aware of their sin and need of Christ, ever aware of the abundant grace of God in Christ, and ever aware of God’s call upon their lives to live and lead in gratitude.

Herman Bavinck, the famed Dutch theologian, wrote of elders:

But this gift and this authority are given them [by Christ] in order that they employ them for the benefit of the church and work with them to the end of the perfecting of the saints (Eph. 4:12). The office was instituted in order that thus the church should persevere in the teaching of apostles and in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers (Acts 2:42). [1]

In 1 Peter 5, Peter made it clear that domineering leadership is ungodly. Bavinck captures the essence of the aim of local church elders: to employ their calling and gifts for the benefit of the church. The plurality of elders is a gift of Jesus Christ to his people to benefit them, to lead them into godliness, to protect and persevere them through ordinary means of grace ministry.

One man cannot bear the weight of leading a local church. It is too much for him. It is too heavy for him. It is dangerous for him. It is precarious for the congregation. God is all-wise and has instituted the plurality of elders, not only for the good of the entire church, but for the protection and preservation of the pastor.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Glenside: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 519.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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