The Bible never identifies a specific number of elders that should lead each local congregation. In the previous question, we argued that a plurality—at least two elders—was the pattern of the earliest congregations. Apart from having a plurality, we are left to use godly wisdom and common sense. Before we present various methods of determining the number of elders for a congregation, a few introductory comments are in order.
First, it is important that every elder has a strong desire to serve in that capacity. Paul informs us that it is a noble task if someone aspires to the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:1). Likewise, Peter informs us that elders should shepherd God’s flock, not from compulsion, but willingly (1 Peter 5:2). One should not agree to serve as an elder out of guilt, because he was nominated, or because he received the most votes. To be effective, an elder must love and enjoy the hard work of being a shepherd. Second, we must remember that eldership is a calling. Paul tells the elders of the Ephesian church, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you over- seers” (Acts 20:28, emphasis added). Paul may have appointed and installed these men to their office, but ultimately it was God who raised them up to serve in His church. Likewise, we read in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church that the ascended Christ “gave some to be . . . pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11 nkjv). Pastors, or elders, are a gift from Christ to His church. Therefore, from one perspective, a church should appoint as many elders as God gives to a local congregation. Third, being an elder does not have to be a full-time or even a paid position. An elder can have a “secular” job and still be effective in shepherding people in the congregation. What is required is diligence, faithfulness, and a calling from God. Fourth, every candidate must meet the qualifications before he is eligible to serve as elder. How many elders is not as important as who the elders are. There are three main approaches to deter- mining the number of elders a church should have.
In a fixed-number system, a specific number of elders is determined. For example, a church that has five hundred members may decide that they will be led by ten (and only ten) elders. The advantage to this system is that the church can set an ideal number of elders so that the board can function efficiently. This system often is used by large churches. As a church grows, if the number of elders grows with it, the elder board can become large and bogged down by its size. Therefore, in an effort to be more efficient, churches will adopt a set number of elders that is more manageable and unified.
There are definite disadvantages to this system. One disadvantage is that it often closes the door for godly, qualified men to serve. If the number of elders is fixed, and if the elders serve long terms, it may be years before anyone else in the church can become an elder. Another disadvantage is that this system does not account for a lack of qualified men to serve. If there is an opening on the elder board, the church will feel compelled to fill that opening. If the constitution requires ten elders, then those positions must be filled whether anyone is qualified to fill them or not. Finally, if the number of elders is set and then the church experiences growth, the workload for the elders can become overwhelming. Eventually, the elders will become administrators who simply make the important decisions of the church. They will be so busy that they do not have the time to fulfill their primary task—shepherding the souls of the congregation. Instead, they become disassociated from the congregation, being viewed merely as the decision makers. As a result, if this model is chosen, there should be some built-in flexibility so that the number can increase (or decrease) if needed.
With this system, the church determines an approximate ratio of elders to members. For example, a church may decide that one elder is needed for every fifty members. Unlike the fixed-number system, the number of elders required will increase or decrease if the number of members rises or falls. A disadvantage to this system is that as a church grows, the number of elders can become quite large. Some churches that use this system have elder boards with fifty or more elders. The advantage, of course, is that the elders are not as likely to become overworked since there are enough shepherds to tend to the sheep. Phil Newton provides some helpful advice: “Whatever number or ratio is established, quality must be emphasized over quantity. It is better to begin with a smaller group of well-qualified elders than to fill a quota with unqualified men.”
Some churches opt for a more open approach and do not specify the number of elders they should have or a certain ratio. If there is a perceived need for more elders, the church will pray that God will provide them with gifted and qualified men. An advantage to this approach is that it focuses more on letting God provide the right people rather than seeking to fill an empty position. Many churches are uncomfortable with this system because it is not exact enough. It does not provide a fixed number of elders or a certain ratio of elders to church members.
The Bible does not specify the number of elders for each local congregation. Apart from teaching a plurality, the Bible is silent regarding this issue. It is therefore important that each local church seek wisdom from God concerning which approach is best for them. Each system has clear advantages and also possible pitfalls. The key is that each person appointed to be an elder is properly qualified.
 Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 134.
This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons written by Benjamin L. Merkle. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
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