In my book, Elders Lead a Healthy Family, I contend for the plurality of Elders as the biblical ideal in all congregations. One of the texts used to push back on this conclusion is found in the apocalyptic literature of Revelation. Specifically in Revelation 2:1, some theologians contend, the word “angel” refers to a single pastor who is head over the church. The passage which addresses 1 of 7 churches reads:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
In response to this passage, Augustus H. Strong makes the case in his systematic theology that “angel” means “pastor”:
In certain of the N. T. churches there appears to have been a plurality of elders (Acts 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5). There is, however, no evidence that the number of elders was uniform, or 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 pastor according to need, does not require a plural eldership in every case; nor does it render this eldership, where it exists, of coördinate authority with the church. There are indications, moreover, that, at least in certain churches, the pastor was one, while the deacons were more than one, in number.
Acts 20:17—“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called to him the elders of the church”; Phil. 1:1—“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons”; Tit. 1:5—“For this cause I left thee is Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every city, as I gave thee charge.” See, however, Acts 12:17—“Tell these things unto James, and to the brethren”; 15:13—“And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Brethren, hearken unto me”; 21:18—“And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present”; Gal. 1:19—“But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother”; 2:12—“certain came from James.” These passages seem to indicate that James was the pastor or president of the church at Jerusalem, an intimation which tradition corroborates.
1 Tim. 3:2—“The bishop therefore must be without reproach”; Tit. 1:7—“For the bishop must be blameless, as God’s steward”; cf. 1 Tim. 3:8, 10, 12—“Deacons in like manner must be grave.… And let these also first be proved; then let them serve as deacons, if they be blameless.… Let deacons be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well”—in all these passages the bishop is spoken of in the singular number, the deacons in the plural. So, too, in Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18 and 3:1, 7, 14, “the angel of the church” is best interpreted as meaning the pastor of the church; and, it this be correct, it is clear that each church had, not many pastors, but one.
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.
Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 915–916.
Strong, to his credit, does make room in his ecclesiology for the plurality of elders and acknowledges this is modeled in various New Testament churches. The problem; however, comes when he tries to impose the modern CEO concept of “Senior” and “Associate” pastor on the text. His reading of the text is limited by his perception of what he considers “improbable” or impractical for smaller congregations. The challenge one faces in accepting his interpretation of Revelation 2:1 is that outside his ecclesiastical assumptions, his view is not substantiated in the biblical text. Ultimately, Strong offers an unsustainable eisegesis lacking exegetical authority. Reymond offers a succinct rebuttal:
With regard to Strong’s first argument, the reader is urged simply to read Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, and 1 Peter 5:1, where a plurality of elders appears to be present in every congregation. As for his second, it is enough to call the reader’s attention to Acts 15:2, where a plurality of elders is clearly indicated as being present in the Jerusalem church. Regarding his third, it must be noted that 1 Timothy was written to Timothy, who was laboring at Ephesus (1:3), which church, according to Acts 20:17, clearly had a plurality of elders, and even in 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul speaks of “elders.” As for the singular “elder” in Titus 1:7, one need only note verse 5, where Paul commands Titus to “appoint elders [plural] in every city.” Regarding Strong’s fourth point, it is enough by way of refutation to say again that the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:1–7, according to Acts 20:17, had several elders. So whoever or whatever the “angel” of the church at Ephesus was (the teaching elder?), his or its presence did not preclude a plurality of elders from serving there.
Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 907.
Reymond offers some solid exegesis in a series of arguments against Strong’s argument for the Senior Pastor model of church leadership, but focusing specifically on the problem of interpreting “angel” as “pastor” in Revelation 2:1, John Divito offers a another strong critique against Strong’s argument as it is advanced by Patterson and Akin:
Patterson also sees support for having a senior pastor in the seven congregational letters of Revelation. These letters are addressed to “the angel” of the various churches, which he believes to be the churches’ senior pastors. “If this reading of these ‘messengers’ as pastors is correct, then the evidence that each of these churches had a single elder with highest authority and leadership responsibilities becomes clear” (WRC, 152). But should an individual really base their ecclesiology on a symbolic reading of an apocalyptic text? Certainly, more evidence must be given from the Bible than this analysis to support the idea of senior pastors.
John Divito, A Review of “Who Runs the Church?: Four Views on Church Government,” The Reformed Baptist Theological Review 2, no. 1 (2005): 174.
Looking at the points presented by Reymond and Divito, the problem facing those who accept the interpretation of Revelation 2:1 as teaching the Senior Pastor model of church is twofold:
- First, the conclusion that “angel” really means “senior pastor” reflects an historical presentism which assumes the current model of senior pastor is the framework for understanding the symbolism of Revelation.
- Second, the symbolic hermeneutic requisite to concluding “angel” means “senior pastor” runs counter to what is taught clearly in Acts 20:17 the church in Ephesus had multiple elders.
Finally, let me say this, building a model of church leadership on an isolated biblical text that relies on a symbolic reinterpretation of apocalyptic literature and presupposes the validity of the Pastor as CEO model is unsustainable. The simplest reading of the NT passages that speak on eldership always reinforce a plurality of shared leadership. Were their possible outliers of solo-elders in the NT? Sure, there is some possibly. But the possibly does not invalidate the ideal we should all strive for: Elders Lead a Healthy Family.