Our English word “pastor” translates the New Testament’s original Greek word poimen, a word that literally means “shepherd.” “Pastor,” of course, is the leadership title that is most commonly used in our American churches. The fact is, however, that the New Testament only uses the title “pastor” one time. That one reference is Ephesians 4:11, where the Bible says:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. (N.K.J.V.)
The New Testament’s most frequently used title for the role we call “pastor” is “elder,” which translates the Greek words presbuteros (the adjective form) and presbuterion (the noun form). Obviously, this is the Greek word from which we also get the word “Presbyterian.” As for the use of “elder” in the New Testament, consider the following examples (all from the N.K.J.V.):
- So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23)
- From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. (Acts 20:17)
- Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17)
- For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you… (Titus 1:5)
- Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)
As long as we are passing through here, another New Testament title for the job of “pastor” is “bishop” or “overseer,” depending upon which translation of the Bible you prefer. While the K.J.V. and the N.K.J.V. translate the Greek word episkopos as “bishop” or “bishops” in Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-2, and Titus 1:7 (with the K.J.V. doing the same in 1 Peter 2:25), other translations consistently render episkopos as “overseer.” Either way, the office is the same as that of elder/pastor. This is clearly seen by consulting all the applicable passages, among them being Titus 1:5-7 where the titles “elders” and “bishop” are used interchangeably.
But now let me get to the issue at hand. Because Acts 14:23 says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders (plural) in every church (singular), some people contend that the one-pastor-per-church model is not scriptural. These people teach that every church should have multiple pastors/elders/overseers. Call it a pastoral team, call it a board of elders, call it whatever you like, but the idea is that the leadership and oversight of a local church should never be vested in just one man. So, does Acts 14:23 really prove that the one-pastor-per-church model is wrong? No, it doesn’t, and if you will permit me I’ll explain why it doesn’t.
First and foremost, it must be understood that a typical congregation in the early church was a house church. Admittedly, the world’s first church was a massive one that was founded in the city of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost that is described in Acts 2:1-47. That church literally began with approximately 3,000 believers (Acts 2:41) and proceeded to rapidly grow from there (Acts 2:47, 4:4; 5:14; 6:7). A church that large needed a pastoral team/board of elders, and the apostles played that role.
In point of fact, though, the Jerusalem church was an anomaly among the churches described in the New Testament. Far from being megachurches, the average congregations of those days were house churches. The references to such churches are numerous: Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon verses 1 and 2; James 2:1-3; and 2 John verse 10.
Assuming there were multiple house churches in each city — and that is certainly a reasonable assumption in view of the populations of large cities such as Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc. — all of the house churches in a given city made up the one “church” of that city. For example, when Paul wrote to “the church (singular) of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 2 Corinthians 1:1), he evidently had in mind that his letter would be passed around to each of the house congregations in Corinth. Likewise, when he wrote to “the church (singular) of the Thessalonians” (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1), he evidently had in mind that his letter would be passed around to each of the house congregations in Thessalonica.
This matter of the cities having multiple house churches might also explain why Paul didn’t usually use the word “church” in his introductions for his letters. As you read the following introductions (all from the N.K.J.V.), notice that he seemed to make a point of not using the singular word “church” in addressing his audiences:
- To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7)
- Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and pace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:1-2)
- Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:1-2)
- Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We might ask, “Was there ever an instance where Paul addressed a letter to certain “churches” (plural)?” The answer is yes. In his opening to his letter we call Galatians, he says that the letter is written “To the churches of Galatia.” However, the explanation for this unique wording is easy to understand. Galatia was a general region rather than a specific city. For that reason, it had “churches” (plural) rather than a “church” (singular).
What I’m trying to show you in all of this is that when Acts 14:23 says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church, that doesn’t have to mean that they appointed pastoral staffs for each congregation. Actually, in light of the fact that those congregations were house churches, having multiple pastors really wouldn’t have made much sense. Seriously, how big could a house church have been? What makes more sense is to interpret Acts 14:23 as referring to Paul and Barnabas appointing individual elders/pastors to lead the individual house churches of each city. If this is indeed a correct interpretation, it also explains why Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every city as opposed to every church (Titus 1:5). You see, by comparing scripture to scripture we find that Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 are more than likely describing the same type of appointing.
Furthermore, it might very well be significant that in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, which is Paul’s most detailed description regarding the offices of pastor and deacon, he uses the singular in reference to a pastor and the plural in reference to deacons. Did Paul, writing under the inspiration of God, word the passage this way to show that a local church should have one pastor and multiple deacons? It’s certainly a possibility.
Look, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with a congregation having multiple pastors/elders. To the contrary, I consider such staffing a mandatory requirement for any church that reaches a certain size and beyond. All I’m saying is that these people who frown upon a church that only has one pastor and claim that such a church isn’t operating in a scriptural manner need to hush. Any serious study of the New Testament will show that there is a lot more scriptural evidence for small congregations that met in homes than there is for large congregations that met in massive gathering places. By implication then, there is a lot more scriptural evidence for the one-pastor-per-church methodology than there is for the multiple-pastors-per-church methodology. And suffice is to say that if we are going to debate this topic, let’s debate it in the light of inspired scripture rather than in the light of current trends in the modern church.