In many evangelical circles, there is no schism over the use of a plurality of deacons within the life of the church. Perhaps the only schism related to a plurality of deacons is in relation to their function. Are they servants of God who serve the local church or are they administrators who exercise power to oversee the local church?
As we read through the New Testament, we find that God established his church with a specific function and order. From the early pages of the New Testament, we find the apostles (with an “s” at the end) serving as a plurality of pastors to oversee the early church. As the missionary expansion took the gospel beyond the borders of Jerusalem (primarily with the ministry of the Apostle Paul), there was a need to put into order and establish the structure of the local church.
One clear letter that is devoted almost entirely to this task is the letter Paul wrote to Titus. Paul and Titus had a close relationship and it was Paul’s desire to charge this young man with a very important task. The island of Crete which was positioned in the Mediterranean Sea between northern Africa and southern Greece. The land mass was approximately 160 miles in length and 35 miles wide (at its widest point). It was an island that had been influenced by pagan cultures from the north, and according to Paul—it was filled with human depravity.
Titus’ job was enormous. He was given the responsibility to put the local churches in various cities throughout Crete into order. At this time, there was approximately 100 cities in Crete and Titus was charged with establishing order in the disorganized and immature churches. How would he do such a thing? Paul explains in what is perhaps the clearest purpose statement in Titus in the opening chapter:
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 (Titus 1:5).
From the very beginning, we find the need to have a plurality of elders (pastors) serving in leadership roles in individual congregations. We see this all throughout the New Testament. For instance, we find Paul addressing the elders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20:17. We find James giving instructions to those who are sick to call for the elders of the church in James 5:14. Even here in Titus 1:5, there seems to be an emphasis upon the appointment of elders in every town—or every church in every individual town.
Why would God establish a plan for his local churches to be led by a group of pastors as opposed to one single elder?
The Need to Share in Shepherding Burdens
The work of pastoral ministry is a difficult task. When you talk to families that have a husband or wife who works in law enforcement, you will often hear them talk of the darkness that follows them on a day-to-day basis. They are tasked with enforcing law which means they consistently deal with lawless behavior and witness some of the most horrific scenes of human depravity. Such a constant contact with such depravity results in a burden that has an impact upon the family as a whole.
In a similar way, the work of a pastor is taxing on the man who serves as pastor and the family as a whole. He is often asked to give of his time after normal daily work hours for counseling. He has to walk with families through both joyful seasons and depressing sins. Beyond the shepherding, there is a need to spend long hours alone—isolated from people in an office where he can read, pray, study, and prepare to preach the Bible.
Since we remember that pastoral ministry is more than a preaching ministry—the task is so large that it requires teamwork. God has designed it to be that way from the beginning and we can see this pattern throughout the New Testament. The church that believes their single pastor can do it all has underestimated the task of pastoral ministry or overestimated the ability of their pastor.
The Purity of Church Leadership
Pastors are not perfect men. They are men who are pursuing holiness and seeking to walk with the Lord, but they are not perfect men. They make mistakes in parenting, in life in general, and even in pastoral service. With a plurality of elders laboring together, it provides a built-in system whereby the leaders can confront and bring about necessary correction when a pastor shows signs of sinful neglect or indicators of rebellion.
Church discipline is something that is necessary and mandated by Christ for his church (see Matthew 18 and Titus 3). Within the church membership is both general members as well as two offices—deacon and elder. Everyone must be subject to Christian accountability whereby the bride of Jesus remains pure and the church avoids the stamp of hypocrisy within the community. This is God’s design. It’s likewise his design for pastors to be subject to correction as well.
The Order and Stability of the Local Church
One of the characteristics of our God is orderliness. The church on the island of Crete was disorganized and filled with disorder. It was the plan of the Apostle Paul to charge Titus with the responsibility of bringing about order and stability. His plan began with the appointment of faithful men who would oversee individual local churches in order to bring the church to unity in the faith and order.
The church had been plagued by loose living and heretical teaching. Therefore, the elders would need to teach the churches how to pursue holiness in everyday living and how to recognize false teaching that created division. If necessary, the elders would lead the churches to excommunicate people who persisted in sin after being corrected (see Titus 3:9-11).
God’s design for his church is unity and order which enables the congregation to accomplish the work of discipleship, missions, and faithful weekly worship of our God. A team of pastors laboring together will be able to counsel, confront, preach, engage in missions, and plan and establish orderly worship services that bring glory to God.
This is God’s plan for leadership in the local church. This is why every local church should desire to have a team of pastors who work together for the glory of Christ in the context of their local church.