The Grounding of Monocratic Leadership

Just as the people of Israel could not stand to be without Moses for even forty days, so the church has allowed itself to become dependent on icons and to fall prey to the cult of personality. It seems that Israel, failing to fully grasp the depth of the relationship with God that was available to them, instead required outward symbols to confirm their faith in the great unseen Yahweh. Even witnessing the parting of the sea or the great meteorological disturbances at Mount Sinai was not enough to give them confidence in His presence. Rather they grew dependant on Moses’ presence – perhaps as the tangible proof that God was indeed with them (much like some would later view the Ark of the Covenant, see 1 Samuel 4:3). They grew more attached to the messenger than to the message. They were not able to take God at His word. While Moses was on the mount, the people grew uneasy appealing to Aaron for physical evidence that their path was divinely directed. As the text tells us, the people did not reject God for some other deity, rather they worshipped God in a way that would assuage their own weak faith – they worshipped Him in their own way, rather than in the way that was prescribed (Ex. 32:4). The result was God’s judgment meted out and the deaths of at least three thousand.

The church is made up of people who have the same weakness of faith and often the same desire for “tangible” evidences of God’s presence. We often fall into the same trap of dependence on the messenger rather than on the message. This would seem to represent an odd mix of accommodating the weaknesses of the flesh and erroneous theology. During Israel’s theocracy and monarchy God worked for the most part with a single human leader at any given time (of course there were various elements of plurality, but singularity was the norm as there was generally one clearly identified human leader). He seemed uninterested in directly communicating with the masses or in the establishment of an intricate and comprehensive system of government in Israel that might have allowed for the people not to consider him at all. Thus singularity in leadership fit what God was doing in Israel. But this is not at all pertinent to God’s working with the church. Oswald Sanders, in the opening words to his Spiritual Leadership, observes that


God and man are constantly searching for leaders in the various branches of Christian enterprise. In the Scriptures God is frequently represented as searching for a man of a certain type. Not men, but a man. Not a group, but an individual.”[1]


It is notable that the references Sanders’ cites in the context are each directly related to God’s express working with Israel and wholly unrelated to “Christian enterprise.” This underscores a dangerous temptation to pull monarchic and theocratic aspects of leadership from a non-church context and superimpose them on church governance. This is only one of the many great errors of replacement theology, and shows how subtly such errors can creep into the church. One does not have to look far to find a local church with the words “temple,” “Zion,” or “tabernacle” on the sign. If that is the present condition of the church – theologically careless and encumbered by sensory dependence, what remedy can be found? First, the church must stop submitting to the flesh and recognize God has made clear provision in His word for leadership and direction in the church. Second, the church must extricate itself from the common error of replacement theology, and recognize that God has instituted distinct and different administrations for Israel and for the church.

pluralityIn the understanding of human nature and the machinations of the flesh, few have been so skillful in communicating their use and manipulations as Niccolo Machiavelli. If he were writing a manual on how to do church, he would most assuredly favor singularity in governance. He finds more than one way to derive power, but both methods have at their core the concept of singularity and absolute authority. He says, for example,


All princedoms of which we have record have been ruled in one or other of two ways, either by a sole Prince, all others being his permitted by his grace and favour to assist in governing the kingdom as his ministers; or else, by a Prince with his Barons who hold their rank, not by favour of a superior Lord, but by antiquity of blood…States governed by a sole Prince and by his servants vest in him a more complete authority.[2]


This kind of authority is very practical, and can be utilized wherever needed:


Again, a Prince must always live with the same people, but need not always live with the same nobles, being able to make and unmake these from day to day, and give and take away their authority at his pleasure.[3]


In order to maintain this absolute authority, the one who would rule must create a dependence of those he would rule upon himself and upon the order by which he administers:


Wherefore, a wise Prince should devise means whereby his subjects may at all times, whether favourable or adverse, feel the need of the State and of him, and then they will always be faithful to him.[4]


This is consistent with a major and common failing on the part of those in church leadership. Rather than inviting church members to maturity in Christ and the independence that comes naturally with that increasing maturity (much like the increasing independence of a child who is taught well by parents and is growing to maturity), church leaders often invite members to become addicted to the sugar high of entertainment, programs and the charisma of a dynamic communicator. Not only does this often-applied approach appeal to the leader’s ego, but for Machiavelli it is a way to assure that followers will continue to be faithful to that leader. In other words, singularity of authority demands methodology that will maintain the continuance of that authority.

Additionally, the degree to which one stands alone is directly related to his own strength and the strength of his government:


In examining the character of these Princedoms, another circumstance has to be considered, namely, whether the Prince is strong enough, if occasion demands, to stand alone, or whether he needs continual help from others.[5]


If one wishes to continue in his position of authority, he must not need or accept continual help from others. Note here that Machiavelli’s theory of government demands singularity. Any hint of plurality will ultimately result in the destruction of the government. Therefore, the leader must be very cautious how he administers that authority, not allowing anyone to have too much power – and certainly allowing no equal: “…he whom you place in command cannot at once acquire such authority as to be injurious to you.”[6] In Machiavelli’s estimation even accepting wise counsel can be damning:


A Prince, therefore, ought to always take counsel, but at such times and seasons only as he himself pleases, and not when it pleases others…a Prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised by others, unless by a chance he surrenders himself to be wholly governed by some one advisor who happens to be supremely prudent; in which case he may, indeed, be well advised; but not for long, since such an advisor will soon deprive him of his Government.[7]


It should be evident by now that Machiavelli is correct when he observes “…a Prince who would maintain his authority is often compelled to be other than good.”[8] One cannot concern himself with doing “good” and maintaining absolute authority. The two principles are incompatible. Herein lies an important and intrinsic problem for leaders in the church: if the system of government cannot be maintained without even some degree of moral compromise, then it cannot be of any use in the church of God. If, then singularity in leadership is not modeled or mandated in Scripture, why invoke it?

Justice George Sutherland stated in the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in a case dealing with the supremacy of the federal government, “…a political society cannot endure without a supreme will somewhere. Sovereignty is never held in suspense.”[9] Who or what is sovereign in American society? Supposedly law, administered by government. Who or what is sovereign in the church? Of course, God is, and He administers by His word, which makes clear distinction between Israel and the church and between how the two entities are to be governed, and makes no allowances for the flesh.


Early Models: Monocratic or Pluralistic?

It is significant that the church at its earliest stages inarguably most commonly (if not exclusively) practiced plurality in eldership, as evidenced by the consistent references to plurality when particular churches are discussed (cf. Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15; 16:4; 20:17, 28; Php. 1:1; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5; Jam. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). Notably, the only potential references to singular leadership are found in Paul’s catalogue of qualifications (1 Tim. 3 and Tit. 1) and in the letters to the seven churches (Rev. 2-3) if angellos is to be understood as a title for a pastor (I do not hold that it does). Paul’s use of the singular when listing the qualifications is understandable, and syntactically expected. He uses the singular also in Romans 12:6-8 in discussing the use of certain spiritual gifts. Are we then to conclude that each local church is to have only one person who is granted any particular spiritual gift? Of course not, that would be an absurd conclusion, yet it would be of the same kind of logic required to infer from the list of qualifications that there need be only one in the local church to fill the elder role. Thus with the host of witnesses to plurality as the common practice and understanding of the New Testament church, an interpretation of the angellos of Revelation 2-3 as singular pastors would represent a very strange theological inconsistency and even more importantly a shift in hermeneutic method. In short, there is not a single passage one can rely on in order to assert the Biblical model to be monocratic, instead there is weighty evidence for plurality. It seems monocratic leadership was not introduced in Scripture but was rather developed later. Eusebius mentions a singular oversight beyond the apostles as early as 62-63 (the eighth year of Nero), with Annianus of Alexandria.[10] Nonetheless, A.H Strong, for example, suggests plurality of eldership is not a requirement:


There is no evidence…that the plurality which frequently existed was due to any other cause than the size of the churches for which these elders cared. The N.T. example, while it permits the multiplication of assistant pastors according to need, does not require a plural eldership in every case…It would, moreover, seem antecedently improbable that every church of Christ, however small, should be required to have a plural eldership, particularly since churches exist that have only a single male member. A plural eldership is natural and advantageous, only where the church is very numerous and the pastor needs assistants in his work: and only in such cases can we say that the New Testament example favors it.[11]


Further, Strong cites passages such as 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7 as referencing elders in the singular, implying plurality as unnecessary. While I disagree with his diagnosis on those passages, he does raise the important issue of how the New Testament Church developed and matured. Chafer and Walvoord observe that as the church matured, its governance structure adjusted significantly – moving from an apostolic rule to local rule:


As churches matured and no longer needed apostolic supervision, the government of the churches seems to have passed to each local church itself…It is questionable whether Scripture authorizes the extensive and complicated government sometimes appearing in the modern church, and a return to biblical simplicity would seem in order.[12]


While we might not discover a comprehensive plurality mandate (as it does seem there can be reasonable exceptions, such as those A.H. Strong points out),[13] an honest evaluation of the Biblical evidence will surely lead us to conclude that plurality is the common expectation of the New Testament writers. Such an evaluation might also further inspire one to query upon what basis one might wish to depart from that leadership structure. Secular political and corporate models, enticing though they may be in their appeal to human nature and their compatibility with replacement theology polity, and despite general effectiveness in their own contexts, do not represent God’s design for His church. Yes, a return to Biblical simplicity would seem in order.


The Biblical Simplicity of Plurality

The Biblical record introduces us to three positions of spiritual executive servant leadership: elders (presbuterous, Acts 14:23; 15:6, etc.), overseers (episkopous, Acts 20:28, etc.), and pastors and teachers (poimenas kai didaskalous, Eph. 4:11, etc.). Elders are specifically identified as those who are active in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17) and pray for the sick (Jam. 5:14). They are told in plurality to shepherd the flock (1 Pet. 5:1-2) and to exercise proper oversight (1 Pet. 5:2-4), and are references as pastors. Thus an elder is a pastor. Overseers are called elders (Acts 20:17, 28-30) and are to maintain being and doing qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7). Thus an elder is a pastor, and an overseer is an elder. Pastors and teachers are called elders (Acts 20:28-31; 1 Pet. 5:1-4) and are to be active in preaching and teaching for the equipping of saints (Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 3:16, 4:1-4), are to be on guard to protect the church from false doctrine (Acts 20:28-31; 1 Pet. 5:1-4), are to rule and oversee the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:1-7), and at least in Timothy’s case, are to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5). Thus an elder is a pastor, and an overseer is an elder, and a pastor is an elder. Notice first that each role is referenced and equated as the other, and that the titles, while emphasizing different aspects of leadership, all refer to the same persons. Notice second that each role is discussed in plurality.

The Biblical model is simple indeed. It would appear that mandating a singular or monocratic leadership, or creating a complete distinction between a pastor and an elder or between an overseer and a pastor, represents a shift away from the natural interpretation of Scripture and the simplicity that results, and a shift toward anthropocentric and artificial forms of leadership. To those local churches and pastors who have intentionally or unintentionally made such a shift, a return to Biblical simplicity is in order.

[1] Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), 24.

[2] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa, trans. (Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1984), 16.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 48.

[7] Ibid., 81.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] United States vs. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation, 299 U.S. 304 (1936).

[10] Eusebius, The History of the Church. trans. G. A. Williamson (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995), 103.

[11] A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Judson Press, 1947), 916.

[12] L.S. Chafer and John Walvoord, Major Bible Themes (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974), 267.

[13] Strong, 916.


Reprinted with permission from Practical Aspects of Pastoral Theology (TSP, 2009)