If decisions never go against you, is your eldership truly plural?

It is my view that the biblical model for church leadership is a plurality of elders. I understand there may be cases in which there aren’t suitably qualified people that mean, for a time, you might have to wait to achieve plurality. Indeed, some of the New Testament churches were recognised as churches before Paul dispatched people to help them appoint elders. They were still functioning as independent churches even before they had a plurality of elders. But that certainly isn’t ideal or where we should remain. We should always be seeking a plurality, even if plurality isn’t always possible. It is minimally the aim if we are to be a healthy church.

Not only should elderships be plural i.e. there should be more than one elder, but those elders should all have parity of esteem. No one elder should be above the others. No single elder should be able to overrule all the others. There should be co-equality amongst the elders. Yes, one might do the bulk of the teaching because he is set aside to do so. Yes, one might take the lead in certain areas, having been recognised by the others as best able to do so. But that is the point, they only do these things as the others collectively delegate such responsibility to them. But the plural leadership in the church should be a co-equal leadership, where each has the same authority as the others, irrespective of what specific tasks they may head up.

But if your eldership is truly plural and co-equal, that must mean the pastor will sometimes have decisions go against him. In my church, my elders can collectively overrule me. We have never actually voted on anything formally, but when we have a discussion, if two of them were not in agreement with me, the thing did not go my way. I could not just unilaterally overrule them with a hand-waving reference to first amongst equals. If I did that, they would not be co-equal and our eldership would not really be plural. They would be relegated to little more than a sounding board whose advice I could take or leave as I felt like it.

I remember somebody commenting to me that you necessarily need an odd number of elders to break a deadlock if you run like this. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. You could, for example, allow the pastor to have the casting vote if and when something is deadlocked. Though, in truth – and the bigger your eldership the more significant this is – if something is that tightly and strongly contested, depending what it is, there is a case to be made for not pressing ahead because the eldership is clearly divided.

In our little eldership of three, I can remember a few times where one elder felt strongly about something and – though in a minority – we decided the strength of their feelings should be heeded over the majority, but less strongly felt, position. Other times, there has been disquiet and we felt that it was a matter on which the eldership needed to be utterly united so, although a majority might be in favour, without total unity we might not do the thing. That one cuts both ways and, yes, sometimes the one in the minority must give way and seek to be united with the majority despite their position too. Our eldership has since become two and we will have to navigate what to do when we disagree and there is no one to break a deadlock (such as we hit one). But if we’re all being godly about it, there is usually a reasonable way through any given issue.

The fact is, elders disagree sometimes. That’s no major problem. You can disagree well and I am blessed to have elders who do exactly that if and when they do. The question is more to do with how you disagree. For the most part, we seek unanimity through persuasion and, where we don’t get it, the majority will hold sway. Nevertheless, depending on the issue, we may give way to a minority or, now we are a two, we may have to pay more heed to strength of feeling on any given matter (if something seems like nothing more than a good idea to one, but is a point of principle for the other, the good idea may have to be shelved). It may be that we say, where we are totally deadlocked and both claiming points of principle, the pastor has the deciding vote. It may be that we find some other way through. Time will tell. But the point is, it cannot be right if decisions never go against the pastor.

If the pastor’s way is always what inevitably gets done, it suggests there isn’t genuine co-equality among your elders. You are, effectively, running a bishopric with men under you. You are not functioning with a plural, co-equal eldership. Sometimes, the pastor will not get his way. And that is both entirely right and properly healthy. If he never gets his way, that is an altogether different kind of lopsided problem suggesting a lack of co-equality too. But for an eldership to be truly co-equal, the pastor will inevitably lose some decisions.

Of course, what we all want is a united eldership where we can all agree. And total unity on every issue that ever faces us would, indeed, be a glorious thing. It just isn’t reality. People will disagree. Even those who are agreed on the gospel, key doctrine and matters of church polity. There will always be areas where we don’t see eye to eye. Such will it always be until Christ returns.

In the meantime, we need to make sure we act with integrity. If we claim to have a church polity in which a plurality of elders share authority in the church co-equally, that must be true in practice. That necessarily means no one elder, including the pastor, will always get his way. If that never happens, it suggests our church leadership is not truly co-equal or plural at all.