Shared Leadership

In the multitude of counsellors there is safety” (Pro 11:14 KJV). You may perceive yourself to be more spiritually mature than your brothers. You may think your experience with God is deeper. You may have the impression that you know the Scriptures better. You might even be correct in all those thoughts … or quite possibly, you’re wrong. Either way, you are not at liberty to govern the local church as your own little fiefdom. The reasons are, firstly, because it belongs to God and, secondly, because God has ordained that leadership in the church be a shared function.

The Change from Israel to the Church

It is notable that individuals emerge as preeminent leaders of God’s people in the Old Testament. Examples include Moses, Joshua, Samuel and David. Though these leaders benefited from the ministry of others (e.g., elders and counsellors), they nonetheless stand out for being alone in their responsibility. Leaders among God’s people today still rightfully gain valuable insights from these Old Covenant men, but they don’t have the same individual authority in this age. What caused the change? Jesus Christ did. In effect, there is still just one man as the ultimate leader in the New Covenant, but that one man is not on earth. It is the glorified man in heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.

History can be looked at as having three programs, and at the head of each one is a man. Adam was the head of creation, Abraham was the head of the nation of Israel, and Christ is the head of the Church (recall, though, that Christ is the last Adam and the offspring of Abraham, and ultimately everything will be brought under Christ, Eph 1:10). Notice how the Church is distinct from Israel. Israel is an ethnic entity, and had its headquarters in one earthly, geographic location. The Church is multi-ethnic and global. Her true headquarters are in heaven, where the risen Lord is, but each local church functions autonomously with direct authority from heaven (cf. Mat 18:18-20). Christ is the chief Shepherd, singular, of God’s flock; men share the work of being undershepherds in the plural. “It is a highly significant and often overlooked fact that our Lord did not appoint one man to lead His Church. He personally appointed and trained twelve men. Jesus Christ gave the church plurality of leadership.”[1] That plural apostolate prefigured how the Lord wanted the churches to be led.

The Precedent and Clarity of Scripture

New Testament Scripture is crystal clear that leadership in a local church is to be a shared ministry among men of equal authority. The first time we read about church leadership beyond the apostles in the Acts, it is the elders (plural) to whom funds are sent for the believers in Acts 11:30. Then when Paul & Barnabas return to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, where they had earlier planted churches, they “appointed elders for them in every church” (Act 14:23).[2] To the singular church of the Thessalonians, Paul asks that recognition and respect be given to the plurality of brothers who lead them (1Th 5:12-13). Peter exhorts the elders (plural) who were among his readers (1Pe 5:1). Obviously, a young church may not immediately have elders, and one individual (e.g., a missionary who plants a church) may occupy that role on his own at times. But God’s intention, according to Scripture, is for multiple brothers to ultimately take on that work as a shared responsibility.

In any given Christian assembly, one overseer may possess more godly wisdom than his brothers. He may have more experience and greater biblical understanding. Not only should this be respected, but others would be foolish to ignore it. But no brother is at liberty to habitually throw his weight around in the decision-making process. God’s model for a New Testament church doesn’t include the position of a Senior Pastor who automatically has more authority because of his title. But please note: some brothers who reject that title are nonetheless guilty of the same egregious error. Not by title but perhaps by force of personality, they think they can always get their way on important decisions, and that their way is always better. “Such wisdom does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (Jas 3:15).

The Practical Wisdom of Plurality

The wisdom that is from above is meek, has ears to hear the perspective of others, and recognizes that, even if you are always right (which you’re not), running roughshod over your brothers will be to the long-term detriment of the church (cf. Gal 5:15). Leadership that is truly shared, in practice and not only in name, is a blessing to the church in multitudinous ways and a further example of God’s loving wisdom to us.[3] Stemming from a plurality of leadership, the church receives a better variety of teaching, which is necessary in view of the diverse needs of the body. The work of leading the flock is simply too big for one person anyhow. Sharing that burden better serves the flock – different leaders’ personalities and experience mesh better with those of different believers – and helps mitigate burnout among the leadership (cf. Gal 6:2).

Another preserving blessing in plurality, to both the church and the leadership itself, is that the elders are accountable to one another. They shepherd, challenge and balance one another, preserving the church from adopting an unnecessarily extreme position. And where there is freedom for frank discussion within the group, without grudges and judgmental attitudes, the church is bound to reap the benefits of a more informed decision-making ability (Pro 11:14). When a problem with a difficult believer arises, confronting it as a group can help to diffuse a “me vs. him” situation; there may be more liberty to reason with the believer from varying angles. When one man – even a good man – is allowed to run the church his way, there is a greater risk of the church becoming a cult of personality drawn to that leader instead of to Christ (cf. 1Co 3:4,21-23).

To brothers who are good leaders – maybe better leaders than those with you – continue being a good leader by ensuring you share the work with others.

[1] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Colorado Springs: Lewis & Roth, 1995), 36.

[2] Bible quotations in this article are from the CSB unless otherwise noted.

[3] Some of the points that follow are helpfully articulated by Dave Harvey in The Plurality Principle (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021). Although it still reflects, in my opinion, common traps of evangelical ecclesiology, the book is helpful on its main theme.