A non-staff elder friend from another church recently emailed me this question:
I need an education on the topic of "first among equals" as it relates to elders. I am struggling at times to find my way. I know that God has me here for a reason, and I know that it will take work to go from years of one man leading, to two men, to three, and so on. I know the challenges of working to change culture. I really want to make sure my understanding and heart are in the right place as I talk with the others...Any tips?
In my experience, this is a question a lot of elder boards wrestle with in one form or another. Maybe it's the relationship between the lead guy and the rest of the board. Maybe it's the relationship between staff and non-staff elders. No matter the situation, I don't think it's accidental that most elder boards do have to work through the subject of their shared authority and how it's distributed among them, as my answer below indicates. Here's the substance of what I said to the brother:
1) The Bible does not make a formal distinction between the lead pastor and the rest of the elders, but instead seems to establish a formal parity (see Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 4:14; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1). In my mind, this means he really just has one vote among the elders. He is an equal.
2) However, the Bible also seems to give a special honor to those whose work is preaching and teaching: "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). In my mind, this means that if a guy (or guys) gives himself over to being the main teacher, he should be accorded an extra measure of leadership and deference. He or they will be "the first" among equals.
3) Putting points 1 and 2 together, the precise relationship between the lead guy and the rest of the elders seems to be intentionally vague. Notice I keep saying “in my mind” and “seems to.” Could it be, in other words, that the Holy Spirit intentionally did not overprescribe what the exact relationship should look like because it may need to differ from context to context? That’s my read. In some situations, the lead guy might have an extra measure of authority and honor. The emphasis will fall upon the first in “first among equals.” In other situations, the lead guy might have less authority, and he will need to rely more upon the parity of elders. The emphasis will fall upon among equals. And the difference between one context and another, I assume, will be dictated by a host of factors: 1) the competencies and spiritual maturity of the lead guy; 2) the competencies and maturity of the other elders; 3) how long he or they’ve been serving; 4) the season of the church's life, and what kind of leadership it needs; and 5) a host of other providential arrangements.
4) To summarize, the answer to your question depends on combining both the revealed wisdom that God gives to all of us in his Word (points 1 and 2), as well as the situation-specific wisdom that he must give to you (in light of point 3), and that you must ask him for. Recall that, in the Bible, particularly in the wisdom literature, wisdom is a kind of skill—the skill of knowing how to live in God’s creation, in the fear of him, amidst the infinite variety of challenges life throws at you. As such, you need to ask him for the skill of knowing how to strike the balance between points 1 and 2 in your particular situation with your particular guys, and that balance might change from season to season. How much easier it would be to have a rule book or a book of case-law that tells you exactly what the lines of formal and informal authority should look like among and between the elders. Instead, the Lord has given us the broad boundaries of the playing field (points 1 and 2 above), and then requires you and me to rely on him entirely in playing the game from day to day. What kind of heart do you need? A trusting, asking, begging, seeking heart.
I'm grateful for your evident desire for wisdom, and I pray that he would give more of it to both you and me.