From the leaders at GraceLife

What’s an “Elder-Led” Church?

I’ve never been a fan of the one-rock-star-and-1000-minions model of local church leadership. I’ve seen too many churches and leaders suffer from it. But more than anything, I just don’t see the model in Scripture. What I do see is that Jesus left the world a council of elders, not one senior pastor and eleven department heads. And I see Paul the Apostle establishing councils of elders in the churches he planted (Acts 14:23).

Further, there is no distinction in the New Testament between “elder” and “pastor” as there is in the modern church (Acts 20:17,28). We consider these synonymous terms in GraceLife. Yet so often in the modern church, these two offices have been compartmentalized one from the other. In Alexander Strauch’s book Biblical Eldership, he tells the story of how his eyes were opened to what modern elderships have become:

“While attending a music concert, I received an insightful lesson in ecclesiology. As I walked into the main foyer of the church where the concert was held, I immediately noticed the pictures and names of the senior pastor and his staff. The pictures were arranged in a pyramid with the senior pastor at the top, his three associate pastors below, and the rest of the church staff completing the base of the pyramid. As I walked further into the building and down a side hall, I saw another glass encasement with pictures and names of the church elders. I immediately thought, What a superb illustration of how the church elders have been pushed aside to a scarcely visible position in the church! This is quite different from the New Testament model of eldership.”

This isn’t simply about right vs. wrong, but more so about healthy vs. unhealthy. Here’s some reasons why elder-led churches work:

1. Being elder-led doesn’t burn out the leader.
When discussing our new church plant with the pastor that led me to Christ, I told him, “You’re my hero, but I’m not planting a church the way you did! You were a ‘parachute drop’ church plant. They just dropped you in and let you duke it out by yourself for the next two decades. That’s inspiring, but you won’t catch me doing that!” From the start, I determined that if I had to plant a church alone, I wouldn’t do it. The only solution was to be an elder-led church—to plant and lead in the context of a team.

2. Being elder-led gives the church more than one man’s gift.
Often you’ll find churches reflecting the strengths of their senior pastor. This is great, but without other gifts, the church can become deformed. So you’ll have a church that is strong is evangelism and weak in discipleship, or a church that is strong in family but weak in doctrine, etc. With the elder-led model, where one elder is weak in gifting, another is strong. This provides health to the whole Body.

3. Being elder-led provides accountability.
The rock-star-and-his-minions model creates a greater potential for big egos, dictatorships, bad doctrine, and moral failure. How many stories have we heard of the unapproachable senior pastor who abused his sheep or led the church into error or fell into sexual immorality because there was no real accountability in his life or leadership team to stop him? Because the early apostles understood grace, they also understood the nature of sin and the temptations that come with power, notoriety, and personal ambition. That’s why they wouldn’t give anyone absolute power, and shared in the work of the ministry. I agree with John Acton, who wrote, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Think about it. What would Peter, bold and brash, have done without John the Beloved? What would Paul have done without Barnabus?

In saying this, I do believe in the concept of “first among equals.” This basically means that though elders have equal authority and all should function in ministry, there may be one who has more influence than others. As the teaching pastor and visionary of GraceLife, I’m aware that I may have more influence than the other men, though this does not mean the other elders are my subordinates. When I asked Mark Scorsone to come along and join me in the church plant, I said, “Please understand, I’m not asking you to serve under me, but to serve with me.”

I know these things may sound like theories because there are so few examples of elder-led churches in the modern age. The Acts 29 Network is full of elder-led churches and I’m thankful for their determination to establish gospel-centered New Testament churches (we’re in process with Acts 29). Even so, we’re in the first year of our plant, and it has already been a great blessing to me and other GraceLife people to be in an elder-led church. We believe the days to come will only show us more of that.


  • Denis on Jun 13, 2015 Reply

    it seems the contemporary church misread the NT in terms of what it is to be a ‘leader’ and what it is to ‘lead’ and decision making. if the contemporary understanding is not that of the NT for being a ‘guide’/’leader’ – and if it not the same as the NT for decision making? then i would argue, is how we see the amiss structures we do today.

    if Jesus said concerning how the world rulers rule, ‘it shall not be so among you, the greatest shall become as the younger and slave of all’ then how can that be if decision making is mixed into that?

    if to be a guide is more like to be an ‘example’ – to come ‘under’ the body rather than ‘over’. to oversee in the sense of being a hired gardener to tend a garden, (the Garden planning that of the owner) – then, if the decision making is really about the whole church – i am thinking THAT is how it can all ‘fit’.

    just my own thoughts and prayerful thinking

  • Steven Dew on Feb 15, 2015 Reply

    Question: At the end of the day do you as the teaching pastor pretty much have the final say? Or do you let the elders vote on everything and let that vote stand, no matter what it may be?

  • MJPfluger on Dec 17, 2014 Reply

    Good points, particularly the part about utilizing all of the gifts of the people in the church. While I’ve heard staff-led models being described as ones where there is more coaching and staff level leadership, I don’t think there is anything inherent in the structure that makes that the case. God pours out his gifts on the entire congregation, so the idea of only having one person in ultimate leadership/teaching capacity doesn’t seem to mesh…

  • Rodney free on Jan 08, 2013 Reply

    I found your web site while helping my daughter with her paper on early and modern churches. Your church is very similar to the one I attend. Summit Church in Fort Myers Florida. I really prefer this type of church over the senior led church. Great explanation of how the elder led church opera taters. Thank you, Rodney Frew

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