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Single-Leader Churches Are a Bad Idea
by Max Aplin
2/04/2019 / Leadership
As every Christian will be very well aware, the structure of leadership in local churches today usually involves one believer having a unique degree of authority.
Of course, most churches have more than one person performing leadership roles. For example, it is usual for a church to have several elders. But nevertheless, churches today typically have a single Christian who is in a unique place of authority.
This person might be known as the “minister” or the “pastor” or the “senior pastor.” And the congregation gives this leader more authority than the other leaders in that church.
Something else that is very common today is for this main leader to do a large majority of the teaching at Sunday gatherings.
It is true that there will be times when this person is on vacation or off sick etc., and at those times other people will teach instead. But most churches have a single leader doing most of the teaching.
A POINT OF TERMINOLOGY
In what follows, I will refer to churches that follow this pattern of having one leader in a unique position of authority who does most of the teaching as “single-leader” churches.
I am aware that this definition is not technically correct, since most churches of this kind will have other, lower-level, leaders and teachers too. Nevertheless, for the sake of brevity I will use this term to refer to churches of this sort.
And I will use the term “multiple-leader” churches to refer to churches that don’t have a main leader or teacher.
MULTIPLE-LEADER CHURCHES IN THE FIRST CENTURY
When we look at church history, there is no doubt that single-leader churches have a very long tradition in the Christian faith. This has been the usual pattern of church leadership since the second century AD.
Nevertheless, as Christians who are seeking to conform our lives and practice to biblical teaching, it is Scripture rather than church traditions that we need to look to as our chief guide.
Importantly, the New Testament seems to quite strongly suggest that first-century Christian congregations were typically multiple-leader churches:
Firstly, there are no texts which tell us, explicitly or implicitly, that any first-century church followed the single-leader model.
Secondly, there are numerous texts which refer explicitly or implicitly to churches having multiple leaders (Acts 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17-18, 28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; Heb. 13:17).
And thirdly, there is no real evidence in any of these texts that any of the churches that are referred to had one leader who had more authority than the others. Nor is there any suggestion that one leader did most of the teaching. In the absence of evidence for these things, it seems much more natural to suppose that there were multiple leaders with the same level of authority and that teaching duties were shared.
God has designed the Bible to instruct us not just by giving us direct commands to obey, but also by giving us the example of the early church to follow. If we find that the early Christians consistently did something in a certain way, we should aim to do the same today unless there are compelling reasons not to. And there seems to be no good reason why we shouldn’t follow their structure of church leadership.
SINGLE-LEADER CHURCHES ARE PROBLEMATIC ANYWAY
Quite apart from what the Bible implies about this topic, single-leader churches seem a bad idea anyway.
It should be obvious that no Christian comes even close to having perfect wisdom or insight. We all have gaps in our understanding. Each of us misses things that other believers see. And we all have unconscious biases that are not in line with the will of the Lord.
However, we would expect believers who are serious about following Jesus to be right about things a lot more often than they are wrong. So among a group of devout Christian leaders, it makes sense to think that the majority viewpoint on things will probably be mistaken less frequently than the viewpoint of any one leader.
Therefore, in multiple-leader churches it is likely that the number of biases and mistakes that get “through the net” and are allowed to affect the life of the church will be fewer than in single-leader churches. If there are several devout men who have equal authority and an equal decision-making capacity, the ability of a church to sift out mistakes will probably be better than if it had a single-leader system.
Similarly, where there are several people doing a lot of teaching, it is much less likely that there will be a big imbalance in what is taught.
I actually have distressing personal experience of unbalanced teaching myself. In my own church the man who was the main leader until a few months ago (who I don’t need to name here) insisted on teaching on a very narrow set of themes.
He rightly taught frequently on the gravity of sin and the prospect of eternal judgment. But wrongly, he rarely taught about the love of God or encouraged us in our faith. It was extremely unbalanced teaching. And because he did the vast majority of the teaching, there was no one else who could compensate for what he didn’t teach, and our church suffered as a result. It would have been far better if we had had multiple teachers at that time.
SINGLE-LEADER CHURCHES ARE STRANGE IN WESTERN CULTURE
I think too that the fact that so many churches in Western countries are of the single-leader variety is actually quite strange. Western culture is, of course, strong on its support for democracy as a political system. Yet when it comes to the Christian faith, huge numbers of Western Christians, who we might expect to be influenced by democratic ideas, seem quite content to give one person a unique degree of authority over a local church.
I am not implying that local churches should be fully democratic. The Bible most naturally suggests that the leaders alone should make some decisions, and also that congregations are expected to make some decisions democratically by involving all the believers. I don’t want to get into a big discussion of that topic here.
But what Scripture doesn’t teach is that there should be one believer with a unique degree of authority over a congregation, or that one believer should do most of the teaching. That is going too far. And this is quite a strange thing for Western Christians to accept anyway.
Those who object to the multiple-leader pattern of church leadership use various arguments to try to support their view.
Supposed quicker decisions and less controversy
It is often said that having one leader in a unique position of authority means that decisions can be made more quickly and with less controversy.
It is true that the single-leader model will sometimes allow for quicker decisions. Yet this is hardly a good enough reason to use this model. It is much better to get the decisions right, even if it takes a bit longer to reach them. And allowing multiple leaders a say and a vote on things will probably mean that in the long run more decisions are in line with the will of God, as I have noted above.
As far as avoiding controversy is concerned, it is doubtful that the single-leader model helps to accomplish this. In fact, I think it may well be the multiple-leader model that avoids more controversy:
It is, of course, very common in church life for a member of a congregation to make a suggestion about something that their church should do. And often such suggestions are rejected by the leadership. I think that usually those whose ideas are rejected find this easier to bear if the rejection stems from a vote of the leaders than simply from the decision of one leader.
Again, I have personal experience of this myself, regarding the man who was the main leader in my church until recently. I know that many of us, including myself, made suggestions to him about how our church could be improved, but time and again he brushed these ideas aside. I, for one, would have felt better if the rejection I received had been the result of a vote of the elders rather than the choice of one person.
There will always be controversy and disagreements in a local church, but it seems to me that the multiple-leader model is probably better suited to minimizing these than the single-leader model.
Those who support the single-leader model of church leadership also often argue that leaders without theological training shouldn’t have the same level of authority as those with this training. Because most churches usually have only one leader who has this kind of training, it is argued, this person should therefore be allowed a unique place of leadership and should do most of the teaching.
This is a weak argument. Theological training is certainly valuable, but it is hardly the be-all and end-all of what is needed in church leaders. There are many devout Christians who lack this kind of training yet who make very good leaders and teachers. As long as leaders humbly recognize their limitations and don’t teach on topics they know little about, their teaching should be useful and good.
I do agree that it is very desirable for every congregation to have one or more leaders who have theological training, and these leaders can use their theological knowledge in what they teach. But other leaders without this knowledge can teach effectively in various ways too. It is quite possible for theologically trained and non-theologically trained leaders to complement each other well.
1 Timothy 5:17
1 Timothy 5:17 is a verse that is sometimes said to support the single-leader pattern of church leadership.
Here Paul instructs Timothy:
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (English Standard Version)
This verse shows, it is argued, that not all elders should be expected to teach, and that this fits well with the single-leader model.
This is another weak argument.
Firstly, we need to take account of what Paul has already said in this letter, at 1 Tim. 3:2, where he tells Timothy that an overseer (another term for an elder) should be “able to teach.”
I do agree that 1 Tim. 5:17 implies that some church leaders can be expected to do a lot more teaching than others. It makes sense to think that some would be much better teachers than others. But 1 Tim. 3:2 shows that ability to teach is a basic part of leadership qualifications, and we would normally expect all leaders do some teaching.
Secondly and more importantly, 1 Tim. 5:17 in no way implies that churches in Paul’s and Timothy’s day ever had a single person in a unique leadership role.
I suspect that another reason why so many churches are happy to accept the single-leader model of leadership is because they want to get their money’s worth for the salary they pay out. I admit that I have never actually heard anyone use this as an argument for the single-leader model, but I think it is highly likely that many Christians are influenced by this sort of reasoning.
It is, of course, a fact that most churches employ only one leader, and that they give that person a full-time salary. It seems that Christians often feel that this person should earn their pay by doing most of the teaching and by being given a unique responsibility to make decisions.
The thinking here is all wrong. Considerations of finance shouldn’t be allowed to control the structure of church leadership or who does the teaching. It is unhealthy for one person to do most of the teaching or to have unique authority, and this point should outweigh a desire to get value for money.
Incidentally, I would suggest that a better pattern for churches using their finance is to employ multiple leaders on a part-time salary. These leaders would also normally have part-time employment outside the church.
I am not sure how often this pattern would work in practice. But where it is workable, I think it would usually be far better than employing one leader on a full-time salary.
There are good reasons, then, why the multiple-leader model of church leadership is superior to the single-leader model:
First, the evidence suggests that churches in the first century were multiple-leader churches, and we should aim to follow the consistent example of the early Christians unless there are compelling reasons not to.
Second, it seems obvious that the multiple-leader model will make it less likely that the shortcomings and biases of individual leaders will cause problems for a church.
Third, there are no convincing objections to the multiple-leader model.
It is true that in a multiple-leader context, we will normally find that some leaders have a lot more influence than others. Some will gain a reputation for wisdom, so they will be listened to much more than other leaders. And, as I have said, some leaders will be especially gifted at teaching, and will probably end up doing a lot more teaching than others. I am not for a moment suggesting that churches should try to create some sort of idealized and artificial system, where all the leaders do exactly the same amount of teaching.
But local churches should have several men who regularly teach their flock. And these men should have equal authority to make decisions.
I would therefore encourage every Christian who reads this article to reject the unbiblical tradition of single-leader churches.
I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com
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