Why We Need the ‘Plurality Principle’ – Sam Storms

With Dave Harvey’s publication of The Plurality Principle: How to Build and Maintain a Thriving Church Leadership Team, we can ask, “Aren’t there more pressing and urgent issues that call for our attention?” After all, among the many “-ologies,” shouldn’t we emphasize Christology (the study of Jesus Christ), soteriology (the study of salvation), eschatology (the study of the end times), and hamartiology (the study of sin)? Is ecclesiology (the study of the church) terribly important? Does it practically matter all that much?

My answer, and the answer Dave Harvey offers in this excellent book, is a resounding yes.

Bad Ecclesiology Hurts People

I once heard J. I. Packer say that “bad theology hurts people.” So too does bad ecclesiology. That statement may catch you by surprise. Perhaps you struggle to believe the way a church is organized, led, and governed could cause much damage.

And yet unbiblical leadership structures can wreak havoc on the people of God and bring reproach on the name of Jesus Christ. A failure to honor the clear teaching of Scripture on how a church should be governed is a recipe for disaster. Simply put, as Harvey repeatedly asserts, the quality of elder plurality determines the spiritual health of a church.

A failure to honor the clear teaching of Scripture on how a church should be governed is a recipe for disaster.

One need only survey the landscape of recent train wrecks in several churches to see how true this is. In virtually every instance where a gifted leader or pastor succumbed to temptation—be it sex, pride, isolation, bullying, or monetary mismanagement—the problem can be traced to a singular, authoritarian pastor who largely avoided meaningful accountability and built the ministry around his giftedness and personality.

I have in mind the sort of senior leader who never loses a vote; regularly intimidates his staff, elder board, or deacon board; and is rarely willing to admit that others might have greater insight and wisdom on a particular issue than he.

There are numerous reasons I highly recommend Harvey’s book. He is a veteran of ecclesiological train wrecks. He has experienced firsthand what happens when churches fail to heed the clear teaching of Scripture. His wisdom and humility combine to chart for us a clear path as he describes the countless reasons why plurality of male leadership in the church is the most beneficial and spiritually healthy model to embrace.

This should not be taken as an indictment of every church in which “the man of God” mentality or “Moses model” of leadership is endorsed. Some of you may attend a church of which the senior pastor is the sole elder. I’ve known a handful of such men who functioned reasonably well in this capacity. In most instances, however, the deacons (or elders) exist only to rubber-stamp his decisions, and his unavoidably limited perspective is the sole factor shaping the church’s vision. There are always a handful of exceptions in which, by God’s mercy, an unbiblical model of church life succeeds. But that is no justification for ignoring inspired Scripture.

One of the challenges in a plurality of leadership is the relationship between the lead or senior pastor and members of an elder board. Many envision the senior pastor as the boss, while in other churches he’s held hostage and rarely permitted to provide the sort of leadership and influence essential to a healthy spiritual family.

Insights for Plurality

One of the many strengths of this book is that Harvey argues for a plurality of leadership while simultaneously making a case for the principle of a “first among equals.” In the latter model, a senior or lead pastor’s gifts, calling, education, and spiritual maturity qualify him to exercise a greater degree of influence and cast vision for the body as a whole.

Harvey’s practical counsel on how a senior pastor works in tandem with a plurality of elders is nothing short of profound. Harvey does far more than simply defend the biblical reasons for plurality. He speaks directly and with great wisdom about the many concrete issues that arise daily in virtually every church.

He points out that the lead pastor does not possess unilateral veto power over the consensus of the other elders. Harvey is alert to the dangers of a top-heavy, authoritarian, celebrity-pastor mentality. He is also wise in the way he warns against a failure to let leaders lead. Harvey also reminds us that plurality is not an egalitarian enterprise that denies individual gifts, removes roles, or demands equality in function or results. Even among equals, there must be leadership. And this calls for the all-too-rare combination of humility and courage.

Even among equals, there must be leadership. And this calls for the all-too-rare combination of humility and courage.

Harvey addresses other critically important issues and questions with a balanced convergence of biblical instruction and common sense. He stresses the need for lay elders, provides practical insight on how much a pastor or elder should share with his wife, and speaks wisely on the sticky issue of how the lead pastor should negotiate his salary and benefits. One trend spreading among numerous megachurches today is an external board of advisers that in many ways supplants the authority of local elders. Harvey’s critique of this decidedly unbiblical model alone makes the book worthwhile.

Go-To Book

I’ve been reading books on the structures and dynamics of local-church leadership for many years. I wondered if Harvey would have anything to say that I hadn’t heard countless times before. You may be asking the same question as you decide whether investing time in reading this volume will prove profitable. I assure you it will, beyond what you can imagine.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the go-to book on the nature, role, and responsibility of local-church elders. I will happily and energetically recommend it to others in the days ahead.

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