By Dr. Christopher Cone
Tyndale Theological Seminary
In an earlier Q & A I considered whether or not there is any Biblical distinction between a pastor and an elder. I conclude that there is not. That discussion raised another important question regarding whether or not there is such a thing as a lay elder. To understand the premise of the question, we need to define what a layperson is.
I find it quite intriguing that most dictionaries offer two definitions of the term layperson: (1) a person who not of the clergy, or ordained, and (2) one who does not have a professional level of knowledge regarding a particular subject. How very interesting. Initially used in the early 15th century, the term referenced one who was outside of a particular field.
Laypeople in the Body of Christ?
Now, armed with that definition, should we understand the Biblical role of elder and pastor as functional in a lay capacity? Absolutely not. Every narrative in the New Testament in which church leaders are discussed (elders and pastors) presents leadership always in plural terms. While not all elders and pastors are required to be active in teaching (1 Tim 5:17), they all must be capable to do so (1 Tim 3:2). But those that were especially active in teaching roles were worthy of special consideration (1 Tim 5:17-18).
In a contemporary setting, these principles might be applied like this: Perhaps there is a small local church with only enough financial provision to pay a salary to one pastor, but that church recognizes the Biblical model of plurality of elders/pastors. Perhaps there are three or four elders appointed, but only one is officially on the payroll. In practical terms, the paid pastor might do the bulk of the teaching, simply because the other pastors (elders) have other vocational responsibilities. But does the paycheck make the one any more a pastor than the others? According to the Bible, absolutely not.
Biblically, all elders and pastors have the same qualifications and authorities, though they may exercise their roles in different ways—and there is a tremendous amount of freedom in Christ for individual local assemblies to structure those roles according to the needs and resources available. Still, in no sense does a pastor have lesser or greater responsibility based on the amount of money he receives. A paid pastor is not (or should not be considered) superior to an unpaid one. The “senior pastor” concept is an unbiblical one that creates “junior elders.” An elder is a pastor is an elder is an overseer (Acts 20:28). It is just that simple. While the Bible doesn’t forbid other forms of church government, it does provide a very straightforward model. I will go with that, thank you very much.
In short, there is no Biblical clergy/laity distinction. Sadly, the 2nd century mistake (I believe) of dividing the church in such a way has had awful and lasting effect on the church as a whole. For example, we often justify our lack of knowledge of the Bible by reminding ourselves that we aren’t pastors—we are just laypeople, so we don’t need to know all the stuff a pastor should be expected to know. That is a tragic fallacy.
Eternal life is knowing God (Jn 17:3). God’s word is what we all need to be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). It is our daily food (Deut 8:3, Mt 4:4). We are all to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:1-2). His word provides all we need pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). Ultimately, we are all to be equipped in order to serve and grow to maturity (Eph 4:11-13). That is not just for pastors—pastors are simply a part of God’s plan to help that equipping to take place. So not only is the idea of a lay elder unbiblical (lay elder is actually an oxymoron), there is no Biblical support for the concept of a layperson (at least in the sense of the second definition) in the body of Christ.
- The Church: Church Leadership • SpiritandTruth.org (Steve Lewis)
- The Local Church • Ariel Ministries (Arnold Fruchtenbaum)
- Q & A: Is there a difference between a pastor and an elder? • DrCone.com (Christopher Cone)
- What does the Bible say about the form of church government (polity)? • GotQuestions.org
- The New Testament Church—Its Leadership • Bible.org (Bob Deffinbaugh)