The New Testament Model: Multiple Pastors and Multiple Deacons for Each Local Church

In last week’s article, I made the provocative claim that “The model of one pastor serving one congregation is an unbiblical and unfaithful development of the second century.” That should shock many readers in the United States because many of our churches have one pastor, not multiple pastors. I know that many who read this desire to be as Biblical as possible. In this week’s article, I would like to substantiate my claim that we may consider how to be more faithful to God’s Word.

Image result for Pictures of the Acts of the Apostles

Before I do so, I would like to define my terms. First, the terms elder (also translated presbyter), overseer (also translated bishop), and pastor (also translated shepherd)[1] are used interchangeably in the New Testament for one office. I most often use the term pastor to refer to this office because it is the term used by most Baptist traditions, although elder is becoming more popular. While I usually use the term pastor, while referring to the New Testament model, I may use all three (or six) terms interchangeably.

Second, a two-tiered model is a model of church government which has multiple pastors and multiple deacons in each local church. This is the model which comes from the New Testament. Therefore, this is the model to which I am advocating each local church transition. I will provide evidence of multiple pastors for each local church in the New Testament but I will not do so for deacons since that is more agreed upon at present. By the term two-tiered model I do not mean one pastor and multiple deacons in each local congregation. While that also may be called a two-tiered model, it is not the New Testament’s two-tiered model but a model that came as a later reduction of the three-tiered model of the fourth-century AD.

Third, a three-tiered model is a messier term because the model is dynamic, making transitions and transformations throughout church history and therefore will have differing forms. All of these forms are unbiblical as they reject the New Testament model of multiple pastors and multiple deacons in each congregation. In the second century, we see the first three-tiered model take shape as one of the pastors (usually called elders at the time) was chosen to serve as that local church’s overseer or bishop or what I will call the monarchical bishop. Later in church history, that bishop would be chosen to serve over several local churches who each had elders and deacons. By the time of Chrysostom in the late fourth century, elders were replaced with a priest for each local congregation who was given sacerdotal duties and seen as a type of mediator between Jesus and the church. The three-tiered model in many regions had transformed to a bishop over each region, a priest over each congregation, and a deacon serving as the priest’s assistant. The present model in many congregational churches has rejected the idea of a single bishop outside the church ruling over them but seem to have kept the idea of a single minister (I use this term here because the term priest was used regularly from the fourth to the fifteenth century but now a variety of terms are used with differing nuances behind them) leading over them from within, rather than returning fully to the New Testament model of multiple pastors from within their own congregations leading them.

Below you will find excerpts from an essay I wrote for a doctoral seminar at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with some changes to make it more readable to a wider audience. The first section will show the New Testament’s model of a plurality of pastors (aka elders). The second section will show the New Testament’s two-tiered model practiced during the late first and early second century after the close of the New Testament. The third section will show how and why the most primitive three-tiered model developed in the mid to late second century AD. The conclusion will provide three considerations for churches desiring to transition to the New Testament model.

Plurality of Overseers/Elders/Pastors

According to the New Testament, each local congregation had a plurality of elders. No overseer had to bear the responsibilities alone. John Hammett contends, “When one looks at the verses containing the words elder, overseer, and pastor, a consistent pattern of plurality emerges.”[2] The model of a monarchical bishop in each congregation is a development of the second century as this essay will demonstrate later.

When Paul left Titus in Crete, he instructed Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Paul does not tell Titus to appoint an elder in every city. The term πρεσβυτέρους (elders) is in the plural while πόλιν (city) is in the singular. Paul’s goal was to have multiple elders in every congregation. While one may argue that each city could have had multiple churches, allowing for one overseer for each congregation, Luke reveals a practice that contradicts one overseer per each congregation by Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. They “had appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). Here again, πρεσβυτέρους (elders) is plural but ἐκκλησίαν (church) is in the singular form. Paul and Barnabas’ practice was to appoint multiple elders in each congregation.

In Acts 20:17, Paul “called to him the elders of the church.” Consistently, πρεσβυτέρους (elders) is plural while ἐκκλησίας (church) is singular. Benjamin Merkle argues, “The church in Ephesus is referred to in the singular (it is not the churches of Ephesus), indicating there was only one body of believers in Ephesus that was governed by a plurality of leaders…”[3] Corresponding to the above instances, Shawn Wright reveals further Biblical evidence of the New Testament pattern of plurality and concludes, “The pattern is clear: more than one elder per a local congregation.”[4]

Two-tiered Ecclesiology in the Patristic Era

Some of the earliest documents in the Patristic era reveal the two-tiered structure of multiple overseers/elders/pastors and deacons as revealed above in the New Testament. As Steven McKinion explains about the Patristic era, “The most prominent offices were those of elder (presbyter) and deacon. Other titles for the first of these offices both in the New Testament and patristic literature were pastor and overseer (bishop).”[5] This essay will now provide a few brief examples of the two-tiered structure of the church in the earliest Patristic documents that carried over from the New Testament. The two-tiered structure is not an invention of those holding to a congregationalist polity. Those who were temporally closest to the apostles also understood the New Testament in this way.

First Clement is one of the earliest church writings extant after the New Testament. As mentioned previously, Clement was an elder in the Roman church who wrote to the Corinthian church at the end of the first century because they wrongly deposed their overseers. Clement used structural and agricultural language to explain that God appointed the apostles who appointed the overseers and deacons. He also used the Septuagint’s account of Isaiah 60:17 to make his argument as the translators used both ἐπισκόπους (overseers) and δικαιοσύνῃ (deacons) in that passage. Clement stated,

And thus preaching through countries and cities, [the apostles] appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture in a certain place, ‘I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.’[6]

Clement argued to the Corinthians that God intended for them to have bishops and deacons within their local congregation.

Directly before this passage, Clement tied the two-tiered model to the doctrine of salvation; to the gospel. He said that the apostles went about preaching the gospel by the Holy Spirit and as they did, they first set up bishops and deacons. Clement’s account is consistent with Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey (Acts 14:23) in which they appointed elders. It also fits well with Paul’s letter to Timothy as Paul provided qualifications for these two offices that the Ephesian church might implement them.

As Clement addressed their deposition of the overseers, he made an argument that the apostles intended for appointed men, by the consent of the church, to serve as elders, taking on the ministry of the apostles. Clement described the office of elder with the term episcopate (office of overseer) and with the shepherding motif of serving the flock. He explains,

We are of the opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure…”[7]

Clement’s close association with the office of elder with the acts of overseeing and shepherding reflects the interchangeable use of the terms ἐπισκόποις (overseers), πρεσβυτέρους (elders), and ποιμένας (shepherds) in the New Testament (cf. Acts 20:17,28; 1 Peter 5:1-5).

The Didache, an anonymous writing of the early second century, served as an instruction manual for the early churches. During the time of its composition, itinerant teachers and prophets traveled from church to church. However, these prophets and teachers were not the leaders of the local congregations. The writer of the Didache instructs,

“Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Despise them not therefore, for they are your honoured ones, together with the prophets and teachers.”[8]

The writer revealed that local churches should have two offices and multiple officers of each within their members: bishops and deacons. The common practice was to have a two-tiered structure.

Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John and an elder of the church of Smyrna, wrote to the Philippian church to provide them practical instruction and commend to them the letters of Ignatius. Polycarp likely wrote this letter in the first half of the second century. He gave instructions to the deacons and elders. Of the deacons and to the young men, Polycarp teaches,

Knowing, then, that ‘God is not mocked,’ we ought to walk worthy of His commandment and glory. In like manner should the deacons be blameless before the face of His righteousness, as being the servants of God and Christ, and not of men. They must not be slanderers, double-tongued, or lovers of money, but temperate in all things, compassionate, industrious, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who was the servant of all…In like manner, let the young men also be blameless in all things…being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ.[9]

Polycarp’s instruction is reminiscent of Paul’s qualifications for the diaconate in First Timothy 3:8-13. He also instructed the young men to follow the example of the deacons and the direction of two types of officers: presbyters and deacons.

Polycarp continued by guiding the presbyters in their responsibilities to their local assembly. He directed,

“And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those who wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always ‘providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man;’ abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from all covetousness, not quickly crediting [an evil report] against any one, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin.”[10]

Here, Polycarp revealed that the church should have presbyters and deacons. In describing the work of the presbyters, he relied upon the shepherding motif as he directed them in “bringing back those who wander.” He may also have had the idea of overseers in mind when he commanded them to “not be severe in judgment.” For Polycarp, then, the presbyters served as pastors and overseers.

One last issue must be considered regarding Polycarp. Many in church history have considered Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna. Some proponents of a three-tiered structure may argue that the introductory clause of Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians supports this as it states, “Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi.”[11] A. Cleveland Coxe offered an equally valid translation. He renders it, “Polycarp, and those who with him are presbyters.”[12] If this translation is correct, Polycarp was a fellow-elder with other elders in Smyrna, not a bishop who presided over the elders. This phrase cannot reliably support a three-tiered structure. These few examples of the late first and early second centuries reveal a two-tiered structure of the church consisting of the overseers/elders/pastors and the deacons.

Divergence from the New Testament Model in the Patristic Era

 The first century provides no evidence of a three-tiered structure in the church. One cannot say the same of the second century.  Hans Küng traced the development of church offices providing a possible scenario. He argued that the early church first had a loose structure with teachers and prophets. He then said that elders and deacons provided more structure in the church and took the place of teachers and prophets. In the second century, one of the elders began to serve as a monarch over the congregation and in time became a monarch over multiple congregations in one region.[13] Küng’s argument for a loose ecclesial structure with prophets and teachers is doubtful as he questioned the authenticity of the pastoral epistles, believing them to have been written in the second century. However, the writings of the early church fathers provide support for the rest of Küng’s analysis.

Ignatius of Antioch offered the first evidences of the office of overseer splitting into an bishops and elders. Ignatius served as bishop of Antioch. Tradition holds him to be a disciple of the apostle John alongside Polycarp. Ignatius wrote a letter to the Trallian church to encourage them to continue following Christ, give them practical instruction for godly living, and to warn them against following false teachers. He presented several clear statements of a three-tiered structure that includes a monarchical bishop in the Trallian church.

Encouraging his readers to be subject to their monarchical bishop, Ignatius wrote,

For, since ye are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, ye appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, ye may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as ye indeed do, so without the bishop ye should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ…It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [ministers]of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God.”[14]

Ignatius separated one of the elders and marked him as the bishop. Then he elevated the bishop in such a way that usurps both congregational and elder authority.[15] Ignatius presented a hierarchical structure of bishop, elders, and deacons.

Ignatius continued to display this structure in greater detail as he explained the hierarchy with a metaphor: “In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles.”[16] Since he likens the bishop to Christ and the deacons to the appointment of Christ, it would follow that the ordination of deacons is no longer from the authority of the church, as it was in Acts chapter six, but rather of the bishop.

Striving to protect the church from false teachers, Ignatius continued, “he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience.”[17] At the end of the letter, Ignatius once again set a bishop up over the elders when he states, “it becomes every one of you, and especially the presbyters, to refresh the bishop…”[18] There can be no doubt that Ignatius presented a three-tiered structure.

One other letter from Ignatius reveals his reason for having a monarchical bishop. Ignatius wrote to the Philadelphian church out of a concern for false teaching and division. A sign of a true follower of Christ is that he is in fellowship with the bishop a church. Ignatius writes, “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop.”[19] The monarchical bishop may have developed, at least for Ignatius, as a clear and practical way to identify false teachers and false believers from true ones.

While likely dealing with divisions in the church that developed into segments of the church celebrating Lord’s Supper apart from the whole, Ignatius hinted at his theological reasoning for the structure of a monarchical bishop in the three-tiered hierarchy. He argued, “Take ye heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one alter; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants…”[20] Ignatius shadowed the apostle Paul’s language as Paul provided theological grounds for church unity (Ephesians 4:4-6). For Ignatius, a monarchical bishop not only staved off heresy, he also provided the foundation for unity.

Beckwith, speaking of the separation of bishop from elders, adds, “Probably the reasons were not in every case the same, though church discipline and the preservation of unity seem likely to have been the most common reason.”[21] Whatever the reasons, Steven McKinion mentions Jerome’s account of the development of the monarchical bishop came about through the elders of a congregation selecting one of their own as primus inter pares (“first among equals”).[22] These examples reveal that the church during the patristic era changed coarse from the two-tiered structure of the New Testament mostly for practical reasons rather than Biblical reasons.

Conclusion

New Testament evidence supports a two-tiered structure of multiple overseers and deacons in each local church. The church in the early patristic era went off the Biblical path in regard to these offices. The church who desires a God-honoring structure and a healthy church will implement the two-tiered model of multiple pastors and multiple deacons in each local church as God has graciously and sovereignly directed in His Word.

I have three suggestions for local churches considering a transition to the Biblical model of having multiple pastors and multiple deacons for their church. First, consider the ramifications of a single-pastor model. How has placing the responsibilities meant for multiple people on the shoulders of one person hurt your church? Hurt your pastor? Hurt the mission of the church? How could your church change for the better if you honored God’s model?

Second, while every pastor should be financially compensated, not all pastors must be compensated fully (1 Tim 5:17-18). The pastor who takes the brunt of the teaching responsibilities should be supported most fully. Smaller churches should consider offering part-time remuneration or stipends to pastors who do not take the brunt of the teaching responsibilities (although every pastor must teach, cf. First Timothy 3:2). I know of one smaller church who brings on young men who have a call to ministry as assistant pastors. The church pays them a $300-$500 per year stipend. This gives support to the lead pastor, experience and mentorship to the young pastors, and a Biblically faithful pastoral ministry to the local church.

Third, smaller congregations who struggle to find qualified candidates to have multiple pastors and deacons should prioritize the Biblical model over their present existence. What I mean is that smaller churches who cannot find or support multiple pastors (not even with a small stipend for those who do not teach/preach most) and who have exhausted all efforts to establish multiple pastors should consider merging with another church of like faith and order that they may follow God’s plan for multiple pastors and deacons in each congregation. A church in this circumstance must choose whether they will honor God and His plan or whether they will honor their own identity and desire.

[1]  See Acts 20:17-35, 1 Peter 5:1-5, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 with 5:17-22 and Titus 1:5-9.

[2] John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2005), 178.

[3] Benjamin Merkle, Why Elders?: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2009), 29.

[4] Shawn D. Wright, “Baptists and a Plurality of Elders” in Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond, Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner, eds. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2014), 251-252.

[5] Steven A. McKinion, ed., Life and Practice in the Early Church: A Documentary Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 151.

 [6]  Clement of Rome, The Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians, 42 (ANF 1:16).

[7] Clement of Rome, The Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians, 44 (ANF 1:17), emphasis added.

[8] Didache, 15 (ANF 7:381).

[9] Polycarp of Smyrna, The Epistle of Polycarp, 5 (ANF 1:34).

[10] Ibid., 6 (ANF 1:34).

[11] Ibid. (ANF 1:33).

[12]  A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Vol. 1. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 33.

[13] Hans Küng, The Church (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1976), 522-527.

 [14] Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, 2 (ANF 1:66-67).

[15] See also Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnæns where he likewise says, “See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” Ignatius, Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnæns, 8 (ANF 1:89).

[16] Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, 3 (ANF 1:67).

[17] Ibid., 7 (ANF 1:68).

[18] Ibid., 12 (1:72).

[19] Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, 3 (ANF 1:80).

[20] Ibid., 4 (ANF 1:81).

[21] Roger Beckwith, Elders in Every City: the Origin and Role of Ordained Ministry (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 2003), 13.

[22] Steven McKinion, Life and Practice in the Early Church: A Documentary Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 151.

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