Review of The Plurality Principle

The Plurality Principle book cover

Ecclesiology is perhaps the subject closest to my heart, so I was delighted to receive a copy of Dave Harvey’s new book The Plurality Principle as part of the Crossway Blog Review program. I became convinced that the plurality model of church leadership is mandated by Scripture during my Bible college years; I am thankful for Harvey’s wise treatment of the practical matters involved in a plurality-of-elders model of church leadership, or “the plurality principle.” This is an important topic, and I recommend Harvey’s treatment of it. However, there are several points where I think his argument overtakes the biblical warrant, and perhaps unhelpfully so. In this review, I will first summarise Harvey’s approach and then engage with two problematic claims.


Harvey’s central claim in The Plurality Principle is that “the quality of your elder plurality determines the health of your church” (15). Harvey is a leader experienced in the ups and downs of eldership within a plurality; he proves to be a helpful guide in many issues surrounding the plurality principle. The Plurality Principle is divided into two parts; Part 1 considers building a plurality, part 2 thriving as such. Each part has four chapters. After introducing and briefly defending a plurality of elders from Scripture in Chapter 1, Harvey then addresses three aspects of building a plurality. In Chapter 2, he argues for the principle of “First among equals,” that is, having one elder (perhaps the single paid member) who is the leader among the leaders. In Chapter 3, Harvey then considers the role of the “senior pastor,” or first elder, from the perspective of five “hats” he wears (“Custodian of the Plurality”; “Catalyst of Progress”; “Curator of Culture”; “Captain of Communication”; and “Liaison for Partnership”). Chapters 2 and 3 say many helpful things, but Harvey’s insistence on a role of “first among equals” is the first contention I want to engage with further.  Part 1 concludes in Chapter 4 by displaying several things that a healthy, biblical plurality is not, namely, 1) a group of people dependent on outside expertise (biblical scholars, counsellors, coaches, lawyers, etc.); experts are helpful but are intended to “supplement, not replace, local elder teams” (71). 2) A healthy plurality is not reluctant, passive and unwilling to engage in leading a church—perhaps willing to leave it all to the “senior pastor.” 3) A healthy plurality is not invisible; even the most gifted “senior pastor” does not make a plurality redundant. Each counterfeit identified by Harvey is an instance where the leadership of the plurality is diminished, either by giving all authority to the senior minister or by passing it off to external parties.

Part 2 of The Plurality Principle looks closer at the mechanics of a functioning plurality. Chapter 5 looks at the need for pastoral care and accountability between the members of a plurality. In Chapter 6, Harvey identifies the importance of recognising the sorts of power held by those in a leadership position and how this is best shared among the members of the plurality. Chapter 7 offers a fourfold diagnostic for evaluating the health of an existing plurality, walking through each with questions to guide the team in thoughtfully considering them. These diagnostics are agreement, trust, care, and fit (as in, “do we enjoy being with each other and know our place on the team?” 129). Chapter 8 concludes The Plurality Principle by reflecting on the great potential for joy that is found in a functioning biblical plurality.

There are also four appendices that address practical issues that may emerge for elders, for elders towards their senior pastor, the relationship between elders and their wives, salary, and term limits. In each of the areas Harvey discusses, he speaks from a wealth of experience and practical wisdom; his insights are invaluable. However, he makes two contentions, woven throughout The Plurality Principle, that I would like to interact with a bit. Harvey claims that a healthy plurality involves a single leader who is the first among equals and that an eldership team should involve unpaid members.


Should Pluralities Have a First among Equals?

In The Plurality Principle, Harvey argues that an essential component of an eldership team is a leader. Harvey describes the relationship in this way, “pluralities are an assembly of coequal parties, yet each one decides to subordinate himself to a leader. Pluralities do this … because they believe the equals are most effective when they have a first to tend the team and move it forward” (42). Despite the importance given to this role, as evidenced by the two chapters Harvey dedicates to it (Chs. 1-2), he cannot marshal any explicit evidence in its favour—as he admits (40). Instead, he offers several examples of a leader-among-leaders model found in Scripture, and points to the incarnation submission of the Son to the Father and the order of headship in the family. He argues, “there is a broad pattern of order—a beautiful tapestry of leadership—that appears from the opening pages of Scripture to the final words in Revelation” (40). The problem with his argument is that not one of his examples comes near to approximating the biblical model of a plurality of elders, as he comes close to admitting on page 41. I believe there is a reason for this—but we will get to that shortly. After identifying general problems of plurality without leadership and leadership without plurality, he then gives several pragmatic arguments in favour of the first-among-equals model. First, a leaderless plurality tends to be better at preservation than expansion (44); second, without leadership, a plurality often descends into partisanship (44); third, without a role for a first, elders with a unique leadership gift are denied an avenue to express this gifting (45); fourth, without leadership, there may be a vacuum of care for the elders (45-46). Even if the pragmatic arguments were compelling (though I did not find them to be so), the lack of biblical warrant should raise significant questions. If having a first among equals is as important as having a plurality of elders, why does the New Testament ecclesiology give attention to the need for plurality and never to the internal hierarchy of that plurality?

Now, to be clear, I do not think that pure egalitarian models of leadership are helpful, and I think there is a clear pattern in Scripture of hierarchical structures (e.g. 1 Cor 11:2-3; Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-20; 1 Pet 3:1-7; etc.). However, this raises a significant issue: if the pattern is consistently hierarchical, why is there this one exception? First, let’s establish that this is indeed the exception, then let’s consider why God might have a good purpose in it.

When we look closely at the examples Harvey gives, none are an example of a first among equals. He puts forth the example of the prophets, but there is no clear ecclesiological authority expressed by these prophets, nor is there a clear relationship delineated among them that would let us discern a pattern of “first among equals.” As for Moses, Moses is a single leader to whom many others are subordinated; Moses had an unparalleled role, with clear subordinates. This is far from a first-among-equals model. It is merely delegated authority. The examples of headship among the family and Christ’s submission to the Father are hardly examples of first-among-equals, for though husband and wife are clearly equal—as are the Father and Christ—the model of headship never applied to the relationship of some elders to others, as Harvey admits (41). Indeed, the model as it applies to churches is the submission of the flock to the plurality. The case of Peter and James is a difficult one; however, presuming that they did indeed express unique roles of preeminent leadership among their respective parts of the global church, it should be observed that this is not an adequate analogy of local church ministry. They exercised unique authority over church leaders that were, presumably, eldership pluralities. Their role is single leaders over other leaders, and even here, the Bible does not present their unique roles as enduring ones; they appear to be provisional for the establishment of the church. Though they come closest, James and Peter do not provide a sufficient analogy to justify the claim that eldership pluralities must have a single leader.

So, if the Bible consistently presents hierarchies, except in this case, is there perhaps a reason for this? The only reason I can think of (and I have thought much about this topic) is that the single leader of each local church is actually Christ, the head of the body, under whom the plurality of elders serve. Christ sets the vision of the church (Matt 28:18-20) and gives authoritative and sufficient guidance through the Bible so that the elders can work together to achieve that vision. In the New Testament, this unique leadership role was played by the Apostles, such as Peter, James, and Paul. With the closing of the canon, their writings function in this same role as the means by which Christ exerts his authority over the local congregation.

Are we then left with a bare egalitarianism, with which Harvey identifies many problems? I do not think so. Several issues arise not from structural problems but character problems; that is, the threat of partisanship is real, but it emerges when elders act in ways incompatible with their calling. Though no eldership body is perfect, so such problems will inevitably emerge, the potential for such problems reminds us of the importance of character in appointing church leaders. More importantly, rejecting a “first among equals” approach is not a rejection of all hierarchy and subordination—i.e., leadership—within a plurality, only an absolute form of it. That is, many of the hats Harvey identifies in Chapter 3 and aspects of senior pastor’s role unpacked across the book do not have to be the held by any one person. Indeed, they may be better performed when delegated. That is, among a team of four elders, it would not be unbiblical, and it would be wise, to have one leader primarily responsible for direction in preaching (though not perhaps preaching itself), one leader in charge of pastoral care, one leader in charge of eldership care, and another directing administration. To maintain true plurality, “primary” should not mean sole; they may take the lead, but a plurality is built on the collaboration of the whole team. Such a model of delegation within the plurality differs from a “first among equals” model because, I would argue, the Bible does not justify us in identifying any of these roles as first. Moreover, the Bible does not justify us assigning all of these “hats” to one man; indeed, that seems to defeat the purpose of a plurality of leaders. The preaching elder need not lead eldership meetings; this may be more appropriate for the administrative elder. And elder charged with leading in preaching should not be the only elder preaching; that all elders must be competent to teach (1 Tim 3:2) suggests that they are all to bear this responsibility. At this point, 1 Timothy 5:17 enters the picture, “The elders leading well are worthy of a two-fold honour, especially those who labour in word and teaching” (my translation). Several observations are pertinent: on the one hand, the “two-fold honour” depends on an elder leading well, which anticipates the coming instructions on discipline. Commentators are probably right when identifying “two-fold” as both respect or honour and remuneration, which the following verses focus on (5:18).  We will address the “especially” below, but some elders are expected to spend more time with preaching (“in word”) and teaching. Even here, it is multiple elders who are said to have this role. Therefore, though all elders are able to teach, and will do so at different times, some elders are specifically responsible for this role. Given that what follows focuses on wage, I suspect the “especially” is not meant to indicate that the preaching-teaching role is worthy of more respect than mere leadership; instead, given its great labour intensity, this role requires more compensation than the other roles.

I am not convinced that the Bible mandates a first-among-equal model, nor that it is particularly helpful. However, it is necessary to assign different roles to different elders according to their gifting, so it is natural to assume that each elder in a team will lead the others in one area. However, we have no biblical warrant to assign one of these areas of leadership the title “first,” and with the ever-present temptation to pride among leaders, it would probably be unwise to do so.

Should Pluralities Have both Paid and Unpaid Members?

This brings us to the second concern, namely, payment. It is evident in the Bible that the leaders of a local church are worthy of compensation (e.g. 1 Tim 5:17-18), and the benefits of paid leadership are evident, namely, the freedom it gives them to focus on the needs of the church. Paul is an example of a leader who does not take a wage that he is entitled to (1 Cor 9), so there are instances where being unpaid may be appropriate (though Paul is not the exact equivalent of a local church elder, given his apostolic role). 1 Timothy 5:17-18 suggests that those who labour in preaching and teaching are especially worthy of remuneration and respect. Verse 17 indicates that all elders are worthy of this “two-fold honour,” so all elders are “worthy” of a wage. In some sense, those who are primarily responsible for teaching and preaching are in greater need. 1 Timothy 5:17 would seem to indicate that in the ideal circumstance, all elders would be paid. However, this will be difficult for small churches or those without many resources. In such a case, I take the “especially” to indicate that if anyone is able to be paid, it ought to be those who are engaged in the labour-heavy task of preaching and teaching. However, this is far from saying that it is ideal for a combination of paid and unpaid elders. Each plurality will be limited by the resources available to their church, but it is certainly possible that in some churches, all elders will receive a full living wage from their labours; in other churches, all elders may receive some remuneration, but only the preaching and teaching elders may receive a full living wage; in other churches, perhaps only the preaching and teaching elders will receive a wage—and this may not even be a living wage. However, the goal of remuneration should always be freeing up the eldership to perform its duties. Thus it will be variable not only on the church’s resources but also on an elder’s abilities. Some elders may be able to balance family, church ministry, and a job; others may be unable to balance the requirements of work and ministry. That an elder is worthy of a wage means that those who cannot balance both are not disqualified from ministry, but it is not an excuse for laziness among those who are competent. Certainly, working outside of the church may open opportunities for evangelism and outreach that would not be available to someone working solely in ministry, and it may also provide an alternate perspective. Still, it is not clear to me that only a mixture of paid and unpaid elders may provide this. An elder may be fully employed by a church but heavily engaged in volunteer and community work that opens the same doors as an unpaid elder. Regardless of the status of the elders’ wages, it would probably be wise to be in regular consultation with the congregation to better understand their perspective on things, so having no elder in the workforce does not necessarily estrange the eldership from the perspective of the congregation. The point is simple: it seems that in some cases, a mixture of paid and unpaid elders is desirable; in other situations, it is inevitable; in still others, having an entirely paid eldership would seem ideal. I am not convinced of the wisdom of the claim that a balance of unpaid and paid elders is ideal; I certainly do not see biblical warrant for the claim.


Nevertheless, though I think there are areas in The Plurality Principle where Harvey’s argument fails, I am thankful for the wisdom that permeates the book. There is much to learn about healthy church leadership and the dynamics of eldership from Harvey’s work. I highly recommend The Plurality Principle to those who are currently elders, whether they are part of a plurality or not, and those who aspire to be leaders.

This review is part of the Teleioteti Training Initiative, read more here.

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