I’ve been doing a lot of reading around eldership and independency lately for a book I am writing. One of the things I have been struck by is just how many people will insist on parity amongst elders and even argue against the use of terms like ‘senior pastor’ and then, in the same breath, insist that first amongst equals is okay.
I have long been of the view that the biblical case for first amongst equals is pretty shaky at any rate. Many of the arguments are basically Protestant re-writes of the old Roman Catholic case for insisting Peter was the first Bishop of Rome. That case is usually rejected by Protestants, but many of the first amongst equals arguments follow a remarkably Catholic mode of reasoning, even if they stop short of the same conclusions. Even if we concede that the Lord did practice such an approach with Peter (and I’m not), I am nevertheless unconvinced that we should take the approach with the Apostles and apply it to elders. We don’t, after all, insist every church must have 12 elders to be biblical nor do we suggest elders have the same authority as Apostles. It seems odd to use the Apostle Peter as the basis for how eldership ought to function.
It seems to me that we either believe in parity amongst our elders or we don’t. It seems a strange sleight of hand to me that someone can insist calling one elder ‘pastor’ and the rest ‘elders’ is to create an unbiblical division whilst simultaneously arguing it is legitimate to consider one elder the first amongst equals. Those two positions simply do not seem to compute.
I am more sympathetic to calling one elder ‘pastor’ and the others ‘elders’ – whilst still maintaining parity – on the grounds that the term pastor has, in modern usage, largely come to mean full-time elder. Indeed, when I was appointed at my current church, I had a go at instilling the term full-time elder instead of pastor. Sadly, it didn’t stick but I did my best! Nevertheless, I was happy enough with the term pastor if it was understood as full-time elder. That is the understanding we managed to land on.
But it seems strange to me that we would object to the term pastor, but be okay with first amongst equals. It very much emphasises first. There is a reason it is applied to the Prime Minister of the UK. Though we acknowledge he has one vote like every other MP, nobody questions the emphasis on first in that case. That we would do the same to our elderships necessarily undercuts the principle of parity.
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging a difference between elders in terms of the amount of time they might have to dedicate to the teaching of the Word. I am convinced this is the distinction behind 1 Timothy 5:17. Not that some elders teach and others don’t, but that all elders are apt to teach and some are given more time to devote to it than others. It’s a case of all elders teach but some take on a greater degree of teaching. If pastor simply means an elder who has been set aside to take on a greater degree of teaching responsibility, without any sense that it carries more authority, status or responsibility then I am fine with it. But first amongst equals cannot reasonably be heard any other way than emphasising a sense of firstness, no matter how equal we may claim them to be.
Of course, one may reject the whole principle of parity within the eldership. Our presbyterian friends – and a section of Reformed Baptists – are keen to argue for teaching and ruling elders, ministers and elders, with a definite distinction in order between them. I don’t agree with that understanding of eldership, but I can understand if you reject the idea of parity, there is nothing inconsistent about holding to first amongst equals. But for those who insist on parity amongst their elders, first amongst equals necessarily undercuts it.
It seems to me, if we really do believe in eldership parity, then we must be clear about it. Not only in how our elderships function, but in the terms we use too. There is no problem with different elders taking more or less on in particular functions to take account of giftedness. But if we are going to insist on parity, we need to ditch first amongst equals. Just as the term senior pastor can end up implying a level of authority that isn’t warranted, so first amongst equals does the same. Interestingly, the only time first is used of an elders is when John writes about Diotrephes ‘who loves to be first’. We need less first, and more equals.