A friend writes in to ask whether a church should have a pastor or multiple leaders. I respond:
As I read it, the NT teaches that the apostolic churches were led by a group of elder/overseers. From the very first we always here of churches have elders (presbuteros) or overseers (episkopos), but not one single pastor. Those who are called “elders” of Acts 20:17 are called “overseers” in 20:28 and are said to “shepherd” or “pastor” (a verb, not a noun) in the same verse. Again, “elders” (1 Pet 5:1) are said to “pastor” (again, the verb, 5:2) and “oversee” (verb, 5:2). So, I take pastor, elder and overseer as the same person or office.
Nowhere do we read of a church with a single pastor, but rather with a plurality of leaders. Plural leadership is found in Acts 20, again in 1 Thess 5:12, Phil 1:1.
Since many of the house churches were very small (a dozen persons perhaps), then they might have had a single elder. However, this single elder was not the unique holder of the office for theological reasons, but for pragmatic ones: a church that tiny might not need a whole committee of elders.
The church seems to have rapidly evolved from having a board of elders to a board with a “first among equals” (Clement of Rome, for example) to a so-called “monarchical bishop” (Ignatius in his epistles, around AD 117). This trend apparently swept from Antioch westward, hitting Rome and the West in the mid-second century.
The church today tends to have a professional “pastor” and then a board of others – deacons or elders. This isn’t a model with clear New Testament backing, although there seems to have some measure of flexibility. Nevertheless, when I served as a “pastor,” my role was as the full-time elder who served with equal authority and responsibility with three other lay elders (for theological reasons I dislike the term “lay” or “laity”, but that’s a topic for another day).
We leave unexplored for now whether church leaders must be male.
What is objectionable is the idea that “God has a man,” that there is one single human authority in God’s church. Part of that doctrine is that rank and file believers should never question God’s man, since the Bible says “touch not mine anointed” (Ps 105:15). This notion, popular in some denominations, is based on the Old Covenant rather than on the New Covenant. It finds its basis in such Old Testament heroes as Moses, David and Isaiah and has as its theological basis that only a very few are endowed with God’s Spirit. It is not the model one finds in the New Covenant, in which all believers are gifted with the promised Spirit.
In recent years the “God has an anointed man” has become a weapon in the hands of toxic church leaders, to mean that those whom the anointed has touched – sexually or verbally or financially – must never report what the pastor did.
“Does God have ‘his man’ to pastor a church?” by Gary Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica