The Why of Transitioning to an Elder-Led Model

On December 6, 2009 I was called to be the Senior Pastor at Oak Park Baptist Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana. God has been kind to my family and me and our church-family over these last several years to do a good work in and through our church. I’m thankful and humbled by His goodness. One of the good works that has been done is our church’s transition from a senior pastor model to an elder-led model. This post will be a short explanation where we (Chase Sears and Nate Millican) will seek to answer the question “why transition a church to an elder-led model.”

Why make the transition?

First, we want to be directed and governed by what the Word says. To the degree that the Bible speaks to a particular truth or practice believers should work hard to understand it and live accordingly. Here are several passages that speak to the biblical warrant of an elder-led model:

  • Acts 14:23 “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Elders is in the plural, while the church is in the singular.
  • Later in Acts 15, specifically verse 2, 4, 6 and 22 we see the office of elder mentioned alongside the office of apostle. Specifically, in 15:2 an issue is presented to the apostles and elders for a resolution concerning Gentiles and the apparent need to get circumcised. Thus, we see that leadership lies with the apostles and elders.
  • In Acts 20:17-38 Paul gives a farewell address to the Ephesian elders where he describes to them that their role is to oversee, teach, protect and care for the flock of God.   Later as the apostles die we see elders taking the forefront of leading the church (1 Tim 3:1-7; 5:17-20; Titus 1:6-9; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5)
  • 1 Peter 5:1-5 describes elders as shepherds of the flock of God, who serve under the Chief Shepherd Jesus.

Second, there are many practical benefits to an elder-led model. Here are several:

  • An elder-led model provides a democratic style of leadership as opposed to an autocratic style. Further, we see from the Proverbs that there is safety in a multitude of counselors (11:14) and that plans will succeed with a multitude of counselors (15:22).
  • An elder-led model provides shared ownership in decision-making, as well as successes and failures. As a result, the direction and vision of the church does not rest on one man’s shoulders, but is carried by a multitude of qualified, Holy Spirit set-apart men.
  • An elder-led model affords the church to benefit from multifaceted giftedness of a multitude of pastors.

In the next post I’ll seek to answer the question of “how to make the transition to an elder-led model.” We’ll do so by sharing some several insights, as well as some principles and practices that are indispensable in making such a transition.

By Chase Sears and Nate Millican

10 thoughts on “The Why of Transitioning to an Elder-Led Model

  1. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this subject lately. We’ve had to leave a church we loved and served in for over 30 years because of an autocratic new senior pastor who would not be advised by any of the older godly men on the deacon board. Perhaps an elder system would have helped contain him–and the damage he did. I don’t know the answers for sure. Appreciate your thoughts here.

    • You’re comments are spot-on – thanks for responding. Unfortunately, your comment about an autocratic senior pastor who was unwilling to hear/receive any counsel/feedback from anyone else was exactly my experience SO I can completely empathize. An elder-led model doesn’t ensure that something like that won’t happen but the authority is spread out among several men rather than just one. Thanks again and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on my post that comes out on Monday about the “how” of transitioning.

      Take care!

  2. There’s no doubt a plural elder-led model is what we see in the NT documents. I’m glad to hear Oak Park has been able to make the transition. Since July of last year, we’ve been at a church with an elder-led model and I can’t tell you how many practical advantages I’ve seen and what a relief it’s been.

    • Brent, so true my friend! It has been a tremendous blessing have an elder-led model at Oak Park. Most people don’t realize the impact it has had on my life as I was shouldering most of the responsibilities and weight of the ministry. I’m grateful to God for His grace in allowing us to make this transition.

      Hope you’re well my friend!

  3. I read this in a Mark Dever sermon on 1 Samuel yesterday:
    “Concerning this plea for a king, it is interesting to notice how our church polity reflects our doctrine of man. If you have a higher or stronger view of the fallenness of man, you will want to see authority diffused. You will not trust a polity that concentrates authority in the hands of a sinner, regardless of how rich or educated he is or who his parents are. On the other hand, if you have a lower or weaker view of depravity, and you believe that the Fall did not affect humankind so badly or is even a myth, and that people are basically good, then you will tend to feel more comfortable with a polity that concentrates power in fewer hands. This applies in politics, and this applies in churches. I will leave you to work that out over lunch. What makes Samuel such a good leader is the fact that he does not trust the goodness of man; he trusts the goodness of God.”

    • WOW. Tapp, that’s a great quote. Not sure where you land on the issue of church polity BUT his words are one massive reason why we transitioned to elders…I know the depravity of my heart AND want to have godly, competent men around me that will help lead the church.

      Thankful for you my friend.

      • I recently read The Ancient Church: Its History, Doctrine, Worship, and Constitution by W.D. Killen (published in 1859, it’s free online). Killen was a Scottish Presbyterian and historian writing about the church up to 300 A.D.. He argues pretty decisively from all available historical evidence that the earliest church polity was that of elders who deferred to one another in service. Usually one was deemed “president” so they could have someone “preside” over meetings or represent the church at regional councils, but the president didn’t see himself as any greater than the other elders. Best evidence suggests the “president” was just the oldest among the elders until about the late 2nd century when they started to be elected by the other elders, then the wider church body. The Church’s response to the earliest heresies and other crises (like how to deal with those who had recanted during persecution) was more power being centralized in the president figure (becoming more like a Bishop), which slowly evolved into the prelate led from Rome. The history is pretty fascinating. I’d be more interested to read in how American Baptists lost sight of this model if Presbyterians had it right 150 years ago.

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