First Among Equals

City Skyline - C. Solomon

Alexander Strauch in hs book, Biblical Eldership, speaks of a plurality of elders being the biblical model for church leadership. Upon his discussion of this he mentions a concept of ‘first among equals’ (FEQ). While this concept has been largely embraced by those who have a plurality of elders, I believe the model most faithful to Scripture does not practice this concept. Typically FEQ in practice means there is a senior pastor who preaches regularly from the pulpit and gives direction for the congregaation. Whie his vote does not carry more veto power than any of the other elders during their meetings, I believe it does implicitly. I seek to show that the FEQ model is flawed in its presuppositions and that doing away with it is better for the health of a church.

1. The first elder does carry more weight than the other elders. While it is true that his vote is one vote, the same as the others, this objective number is not absemt from higher persuasion than the man sitting next to him. This requires more humility on the part of the first man than the others – as he will need to be convinced and willing to be persuaded by his equals. However, we need to be honest that this clout is present with the first man.

2. There is no model of first among equals in the NT. Yes we have apostolic examples of Paul and Peter who seemed to carry more weight than those around them. Additionally, Timothy was asked to stay and select men who would be able to lead the congregation. He was to set them an example in life and godliness. Timothy, was setting up a leadership of men, and it must not be assumed that it was supposed to remain this way. Rather, as the church spread its imfluence and outposts were set up, it was necessary to gather faithful men to teach and lead. It is a failure to take into account the movement of salvation history with respect to apostolic leadership when we claim that because Paul and Peter seemed to be the go to guys, their position in history is distinct and should not be modeled without discernment. Essentially, they were setting up the churches. Once the churches are established they need to be led by 1 Tim 3-like men.

3. Giftings are utilized when FEQ is set aside. God has given us many men with different personalities and perspectives on life and ministry. Sure there may be one who seems to be a leader. One who is a little more vocal and seems to have his systems put together a little more tightly than other men. However, when FEQ is adhered to the idiosyncrasies (and sin) found in the first man seem to rub off on those that are hearing him preach week in and week out. How many times when you have discipled someone have you seen some of your characteristics magnified in them? If a true plurality of elders is embraced, the other pastor’s personality would a) file some of the roguh edges of other pastors and b) encourage people of different personalities exercise their gifts and quirkiness.

4. Embracing a true plurality of elders allows people to appreciate the different preaching styles of various men. I have seen many folks who sit unde FEQ preaching who think that preaching with illustrations, PowerPoint, without storiesm, etc is not preaching. What has happened? These folks have wrongly equated the first man’s style with what it means to be biblical in preaching. Having men who are more inclined to art and others who are more inclined to systems and logic will help people see the diversity and beauty and incarnational aspect of preaching. Not only this, different kinds of preaching will minister to a wider range of people.

I have tried to boil my argument to its essence. I realize that there are many who disagree with me on this issue and I welcome their rebuke, critique, and questions. I do believe that getting rid of the FEQ idea will strengthen the church and augment an atmosphere of diversity.


Filed under Church, Pastoral

13 responses to “First Among Equals

  1. Fantastic arguments Matt. I agree with you completely — this is the model of biblical eldership that I have embraced to be true and believe to be 1. possible, 2. most beneficial to the church, and 3. particularly glorifying to God.

    It seems that the loudest argument against this type of plurality within the camp of those who support FEQ is that there will be issues that need to be decided when there is disagreement. To me, this sounds very much like what you have outlined — when one man is the “the buck stops here” guy, he is the senior pastor of the church and everyone else falls in line, agreeing or not. Obviously, there will be disagreements, but that is the beauty of the vote thus leading men who are called and functioning as elders to sometimes be willing to give way to other ideas for the sake of unity and diversity of ideas.

    With a few fellow pastors I have talked about the benefits of sharing preaching responsibilities amongst elders. (1) It does not elevate one man to a higher status in the eyes of the faith community because he is the one seen in the pulpit on a regular basis. (2) Corporate exegesis. The elders can all work together through books of the Bible in preaching and have a unified effort to faithfully exegete Scripture in regular, planned times throughout the week when specific passages are studied and discussed prior to one’s sermon preparation work. (3) More time to prepare. If we are going to practice what we preach (no pun intended) as reformed brethren, we need to emphasize the importance of a high view of Scripture through faithful exposition. This takes time. If a man is not called upon to preach every week (perhaps even several times per week), he will have much more time (a few weeks) to get one passage nailed down really well. (4) Elders need to be fed too. It’s hard for preachers to listen to others sometimes, but rotating would help defeat that pride, give varied perspective, and meet a wider range of diverse tastes (as Matt pointed out).

    Overall, I think the notion that a plurality of elders requires a FEQ is too much of an alignment with a corporate business model — this seems normal to Americans because it’s the world most live in. It may seem normal and the best way to do things, but it doesn’t make it biblical. I’d love to get more opinion on it.

  2. I thought this post was relevant:

    The links in the post expand on some of the ideas…especially this one:

    Matt, you will like the influence of John Frame found in some of their tripersepectivalism.

    As to whether there is “any” biblical support for a FEQ is a bit strong as 1 Tim 5 does seem to at least set off certain elders who labor at teaching. And certainly the FEQ model Goodmanson elaborates on above is not the Corp business model. Far from it. A plurality with a FEQ can be extremely antithetical to the CEO model. A FEQ ought see himself as a slave, not a Lord of the manor, a pastor, not a potentate.

  3. Jason Finley

    Thanks for your well-thought out points. on this. This was timely for me as I’m in the midst of trying to adjudicate between the various structures in a congregational framework. See you Labor Day? Peace, Jason

  4. Thanks for the feedback, Reid. I generaly agree with Goodmanson’s article, but I think we may talking past each other if we had coffee. To jump from 1Tim 5 into an implication that there are those who are higher in the foodchain doesn’t seem like a valid one. I agree that there are elders who are more gifted at preaching than others. What I am arguing for, is that there not be one FEQ who is the vision setter and main preaching pastor. Thus the reasons I give for having a few men preaching frmo the same pulpit. I have been told I ‘overargue’ my position, but I think this idea of having a ‘preaching pastor’ causes undue stagnation. Therefore, it is not overarguing, but pleading for a revision of how we think of eldership.

  5. Matt,

    At Kaleo we have talked about a ‘Firsts among equals’ especially as we look down the road and plan for dozens of elders and a number of elders who are preaching in multiple locations each week. The challenge I’ve seen is church plants typically are started by one (which I don’t recommend) or a couple elders, of which one tends to be the primary first. As the congregation grows, elders should be developed who can be part of the FEQ.

  6. Matt, yes – we have team teaching where I am now, and I am planning on doing that in the future.

    Now, my concern is with an eldership where no one is responsible. Developing men, training and giving input the staff, etc. There ought to be someone who feels the burden for the team, who is their slave/servant/pastor not CEO of the board. At the very least I think there out to be some clearly defined roles (if only seasonal). Leadership and Servanthood are not contradictory. In a marriage there is a leader, not a king. Headship and authority are not popular in the home or in the church, but Scripture teaches that these are not only necessary, but good. In the church there should be leaders – to model, to preach, to lead from among the people in the missio dei.

    Also, team teaching should be the reality of every congregation. There ought be fathers teaching, people teaching in small group settings, in homes etc. The pulpit is not the only place where the elder, able to teach, is exercising his calling. We need to help people serve in ways in which they are called by God, enabled by the Spirit. On a practical note, when team teaching extends too much beyond 2 men the pulpit can become scattered.

    Our concerns should be derived theological from Scripture – but practical functioning should remain a concern.

    As to 1 Tim 5 – I don’t think this verse merits “ruling elders” and “teaching elders” – but at the very least, there are some men who seem to have a special function and calling among the plurality of men.

    One last issue. There are times where there just IS a FEQ. Here I am not talking title or positioning. I think we have all met men whom God has his hand upon. It is a reality which emerges in relationships and gifting. Lets just posit a hypothetical. If me, Matthew and John Piper were on an elder team together…there would simply BE a first of among equals. And I would not be threatened by this. Matthew would simply BE a FEQ on the team. He has that much Spirutal quan on his life. Just kidding – but I think you see what I mean. Piper would have one vote, could be removed for sin, should be accountable etc. But he would just BE someone I would follow.

    Thanks men – I have written too much…

  7. Thanks for the post. I am about to post a blog and I was going to use the concept of first among equals, but after contemplating your points, I have decided to adjust my own.


  8. Reggie Kemp

    Hi Matthew,
    I appreciate your First Among Equals comments. I note that the most recent comment from a reader was in 2009. Is your blog, account, or whatever this “Off the Wire” thing is still active?

    Have you any updates to your original comments, or have you changed you thinking in regards to FEQ (I would have thought it would have been FAE.

    I am currently involved with a church in transition (finding a new pastor) and am attempting to convince the elder leadership that there is zero biblical support for the office of pastor. The only use of the title “pastor” is related to giftedness, not leadership beyond that of the other elders.

    • Hey Reggie,
      Yes, this blog (which is called “Off the Wire”–a play off my last name) is still active, though not I’m not posting as much a I’d like.

      I have not changed my view regarding FEQ (you can use the acronym FAE if you would like, I prefer FEQ).

      I am not sure what you mean by “zero biblical support for the office of pastor.” The word “pastor” is the equivalent of “shepherd” is the equivalent of “elder” is the equivalent of “overseer” is the equivalent of “bishop.” They are merely different English words for the Greek.

      It is clear that God gives to his church elders who will shepherd/pastor his people. There most definitely is biblical support for elders who pastor the church. I do not see a biblical argument for a First Among Equals, however. I think there could be practical wisdom in having a point person (i.e., a senior pastor). But I wonder if a better route would be to forego a senior pastor/elder and have men share the teaching and preaching load, so that there is not such an hierarchy in staff positions.

      Look at 1Pet 5. Eph 4.11-14. Acts 20.28.

  9. Reggie

    Hi Matt,

    I am uncomfortable with your thought that “shepherd” can be equated with elder, overseer and bishop. Never is this thought presented in Scripture. As I understand these words the term bishop relates to the position that an elder holds, the term elder refers to a qualification of the bishop and the term overseer relates to the ministry and responsibility of the bishop.

    In the replies above I note a theme that also makes me uncomfortable. That idea is the use of the term pulpit and the idea of weekly preaching services. Until the end of the first century when ecclesiastical models encroached on the church there were no pulpits, no ornate edifices to the glory of their builders, no worship teams, etc. All of these trappings gained popularity over the centuries and established the institutional church in the form we see today.

    Our churchianity has blinded our eyes to what God intended for the church and left us with a distorted mutation where we go to church instead of being the church.

    This is not an academic exercise for me. The mutant church of today is so wrapped up in its forms, liturgy and programs that it has become totally ineffective in taking the gospel to the communities in which it resides. While we discuss the plurality of elders and the FEQ our neighbors are going into a Christ-less eternity. We are more concerned with a well constructed three-part sermon, an uplifting song service enhanced by a great “worship” team than in taking the gospel to the world.

    Until we face the reality of the mutant church and its inadequacies, God’s purpose for the church will unfulfilled.

    Reggie Kemp

  10. astrapto

    ^whoa, that escalated quickly, Reggie! Deconstructing the institutional church is a little outside the scope of this blog post, dontcha think?

    My main beef with “first among equals”/”primus inter pares” is how it’s implemented. People say that F.A.E happens “naturally” or “organically,” but they always seem to mention it like it’s a necessary arrangement. My guess is that it’s to pacify nominally-plural elderships into being okay that their responsibilities & authority are still mostly centralized into the main preaching pastor.

    The biblical way to think about F.A.E.: “hey, this occurrence might happen, so ecclesiologists have a name for it.”
    The church-cultural way: “hey, this is the only way we really know how to do church, and it’d be a whole lot of bother to change how we do things, so we’re gonna wink at it and tweak a couple things about our polity, but mostly follow the pastor-led model.”

    Really, the occurrence of F.A.E. is an incidental observation. The fact that it’s constantly mentioned just show how eager elder-led churches are to justify their primary pastor setup, which is to say, their lack of effectual plurality.

    • Thanks for your thoughts! I agree that a majority of folks start from the way things are and read it into Scripture too often. I would say there is room for disagreement, as this is a third level issue of church governance. Yet,the fascinating thing about this third-level issue is that if you hold to it, you probably would not be able to stay at a church that does not agree with your view–provided you affirm a true parity of eldership, rather than the FEQ view. I think that the FEQ schema is much more streamlined by way f processes, but I like the common stance provided in a true parity schema better.

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