Thursday, October 11, 2007

An army without leaders is like a foot without a big toe.

This past month we had a great meeting of the Lone Star Founders Fraternal, the topic of conversation was church leadership by a plurality of elders. We had a great presentation by Jerry Halbrook of Parkway Baptist and great discussion.

Although mocked at times, a plurality of elders is a growing trend in Southern Baptist churches, where the pastor is one among equals. Elders are overseers who are freed up by deacons to focus on the more spiritual aspects of church while the deacons take care of the more physical aspects.

Sam Hughley has a good series of posts asking,
Elders in a Baptist Church?
(Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3)

In those posts, Sam shows that many reject the idea of a plurality of elders because it's associated with Calvinism, but he shows there is historic support for the practice among Baptists, and he shows that for opponents it's often a matter of not understanding the issues.

In my own past experience I've shown fellow (lifelong) Baptists the truths that:
1. a plurality of elders is biblically prescribed (not just described)
2. a plurality of elders has support of historic Baptists (i.e., it's not some new or Presbyterian only thing) by doctrinal statements (1644, 1689, 1858, and 1925) and church history.
3. a plurality of elders would be less confusing and better serve the interests of pastoral accountability.

They've acknowledged such, but then still said either:
1. Well, it's just not Baptist (because I'm a Baptist and have never done it that way before).
2. In spite of all that, I just don't like it.

I think much of it is ignorance, but also a fear of loss of power. Thinking they would not be elders frightens many deacons as they think they will lose power and somehow the pastor will gain it. Therefore, the "balance of powers" they seek will suffer.

Here I will lay out a brief case for a plurality of elders as the governing body in a Baptist church. That's the situation at Providence Church and I wouldn't have it any other way.

“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:17)

This verse raises the question, who are the leaders in the church? To whose authority are people called to submit? Who are these men who watch over the church who must give an account? In short, who are the leaders in the church that are to be obeyed?

Examination of Biblical Data
NT churches were governed by a plurality of elders who were assisted by deacons who were appointed to serve the church in various ways. The pastor was an elder, but not all elders were pastors, in the vocational sense of being the primary person(s) responsible for preaching. For example, 1 Tim 5:17 notes that “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” The word “pastor” (Greek is "shepherd") as a noun is only seen in (Eph 4:11), where we learn that God gives such pastors to the church as His gifts to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Yet, it's a rather recent phenomenon whereby we seen a single pastor as the lone elder in a church.

Presbyters (also translated “elders”) and bishops (also translated “overseers”) were apparently the same individuals; the 2 terms were synonymous. For example, we note Titus 1:5 (“appoint elders”) which is followed by v. 7 (since an overseer “must be blameless”). The fact that the sentence in v. 7 begins with a “since” shows a connection: bishops are elders. Otherwise, why would Paul mention the qualifications of a group that were not whom Titus should appoint? In Acts 20:17 Paul calls the “elders of the church” of Ephesus together for a final meeting. Then, in v. 28 he addresses them as “overseers” (or bishops). Thus, any passage that deals with bishop is equally applicable to elders.

Oddly enough, Baptists would think nothing of having a plurality of deacons, even though the biblical treatment of deacons pales in comparison with texts dealing with elders. In fact, one would have a much more difficult time proving a plurality of deacons using only Scripture.

The consistent pattern in the NT is that each church (singular) had elders (plural). Note the following texts (where either elder or bishop is used):
  • Acts 11:30--elders at the church of Antioch
  • Acts 14:23--Paul and Barnabas appoint "elders in every church"
  • Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4--elders at the church in Jerusalem
  • Acts 20:17, 28--elders/bishops at the church of Ephesus (v. 17--"elders of the church")
  • Acts 21:18--elders at the church in Jerusalem
  • Phil 1:1--the church at Philippi has bishops and deacons
  • 1 Tim 3:1-7--Paul tells Timothy, the Pastor, the qualifications for elders
  • 1 Tim 5:17--elders at the church of Ephesus
  • Titus 1:5--Titus is to “appoint elders” in every town (The early church had but one church in each city or
  • town. Hence, Paul's instruction to Titus is to appoint multiple elders in every church.)
  • James 5:14--"the elders of the church"
  • 1 Pet 5:1-2--"the elders among you"

In every one of these texts the plain implication is that each church had more than one elder. The evidence is overwhelming and most SBC church governments miss the NT mark. The pastor would have been counted among them, but was not automatically over them (i.e., a pastor is an elder, but elders are not necessarily vocational pastors).

Examination of Historical Data
Although, like my church, I affirm Sola Scriptura, it is worthwhile to examine the issue of church government from a historical perspective.

First, the first London Baptist Confession of Faith (1644/46) dictates that each local church is to choose qualified “elders and deacons” for the “feeding, governing, serving, and building up” of the church. The second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) notes that the officers of the church are “bishops or elders, and deacons.” We next look at the first SBC creed, the Abstract of Principles (1858), which is still the doctrinal statement of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) and Southeaster Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC). In it the officers of the church are elders and deacons. The first edition of the SBC Baptist Faith and Message (1925) noted that the officers of the church were elders and deacons. It’s not until the 1963 edition that we note a change to “pastors and deacons” as the officers of the church.

Historically, we can see that, at least as far as Baptists go, the absence of elders is a relatively recent phenomenon. It should also be noted that this change is observed not at the height of the denomination’s fidelity to biblical doctrine, but rather at a time when the conservatives were very much not in control. It was not until the late 70s and early 80s that a conservative resurgence of faithfulness to biblical inerrancy began to impact SBC life positively.

Examination of the Present State of Affairs in the SBC
The fact of the matter is that SBC ecclesiology is as varied as each individual church. However, a cursory examination of SBC churches in general reveals that the majority of SBC churches do not have an office labeled as elder, although many of them would label their pastor as their lone elder if pressed.

One problem with that concept is that a plurality of eldership is lost and you may have a (hopefully) benevolent dictatorship, since the pastor is the only elder and it is the elders who govern the church. Or the church may be led by a body other than the elders (e.g., deacons, the congregation, or an ambiguous combination of various rulers), contrary to Scripture.

As more and more churches shift back to a more biblical Christianity we are also seeing a rise in popularity of the plurality of elders in SBC churches. They two may or may not be related, but my contention is that the promotion of biblical inerrancy and a prioritization of Scripture over tradition are fueling this trend.

Suggestions for SBC Church Polity
In most SBC churches there is great ambiguity with regard to how decisions are made. For example, it is often unclear which decisions are to be made by the pastor, which decisions were to be made by the deacons, and which were to be made by the congregation at a business meeting. Is the church a strict democracy or is it run by “God’s man” who dictates what the church ought to do? Is the church governed by a deacon board who sees its primary responsibility as keeping the pastor in line?

My suggestion is for churches to examine their polity in light of Scripture and to see in our Baptist tradition the legitimacy of governance by a plurality of elders.

Scripture should be enough, in theory, but the reality is that arguments against this model are typically that it is “not Baptist,” which is patently false. It’s the minority report now, but the novel or trendy move has been one to a single elder model. Making the transition would not necessarily be smooth or easy, but nobody said following Christ was easy.

A church can only go where the leaders take it. Thus, it is crucial to have a church led by spiritually qualified men who meet the biblical qualifications of elder and seek to serve and follow the “owner” of the organization, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have other resources I could recommend, but as Baptists continue the Reformation that began with the importance of the inerrancy of the Bible, I am confident that we will continue to abide by Sola Scriptura and Semper Reformanda to bring our churches more in conformity with Scripture.

This is the trend, but it is certainly not without opposition.


At 11 October, 2007 08:32, Anonymous Benji magness said...

Do I detect a reference to STRIPES in the title of your post?

"...I'm gonna volunteer my leadership to this platoon. An army without leaders is like a foot without a big toe. And Sergeant Hulka is always gonna be here to be that big toe for us. I think that we owe a big round of applause to our newest, bestest buddy, and big toe... Sergeant Hulka."

At 11 October, 2007 08:38, Blogger GUNNY said...

All right, hot shot. We'll see what kind of soldier you're gonna make.


By the way, stewardess, is there a movie on this flight?

At 11 October, 2007 10:01, Blogger samurai said...


I wanted to let you know that I chose you over at my blog as one who whom God uses in my life to disciple me. It's called the "Mathets award".

Thank you for being a conduit in which God has blessed me through. It has been good to read from a fellow member of the SBC.


At 11 October, 2007 16:12, Blogger Timothy said...

You keep studying and eventually you will end up Presbyterian. :) Really, elders was one of the reasons I did become Presbyterian and I'm glad your church, and others, are beginning to move back that way again.

At 11 October, 2007 16:46, Blogger GUNNY said...


I appreciate your kind words, though I have to think you either (a) made a mistake or (b) were REALLY scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with a 5th!


I'm overwhelmed by your encouraging words and they are very much appreciated.

Thanks and keep up the good work on your blog and in your dedication to fight for His honor.

Soli Deo gloria,

At 11 October, 2007 18:34, Blogger Lance said...

Our SBC church believes in both offices and the plurality of each, but we have had to wrestle of late with the distinctions between each office, as we made the earlier mistake of virtually equating the two.

In such studies, I have noticed that on more than one occasion in the NT, there convenes a "council of elders," but there are never any such groups labeled "council(s) of deacons."

As noted in your blog, though, most SBC churches have "councils of deacons," who make major decisions for the church, yet have not any "councils of elders," relegating that role to one man--the senior pastor (which is not an office, but a gift).

At 11 October, 2007 19:12, Blogger GUNNY said...

Good points, Lance.

AND when there is the single elder, he is not really allowed to perform the role of elder.

Instead he is viewed as an employee under the scrutiny and dominion of a council of those attempting to pull off the dual roles of elder & deacon.

However, they're typically not qualified for such and they really wind up minimizing the service in favor of the "ruling."

At 12 October, 2007 08:04, Anonymous Jerome said...

William Rider, the first minister of Spurgeon's church, writing in the 1650s, understood deacons to be elders according to scripture.

At 12 October, 2007 12:40, Blogger GUNNY said...


I'm not familiar with this lad, but after reading his book he seems to equate elder with "officer" and breaks elders into two categories, bishops and deacons.

He would depart from my slooge (and that of others) in that he would not make bishop & elder synonomous, but bishop a subset of elder, same with deacon.

He equates bishops & pastors and from what I can tell he's speaking to a plurality of bishops in the church. Is that how you read it?

So, for him we'd be talking about bishops and deacons, which is what you have in many historic creeds as well.

For example, the SBC Abstract of Principles (1858) reads: "The regular officers of a Church are Bishops, or Elders, and Deacons."

Here there is equation of bishops & elders, not elders & deacons.

So, I don't see any real divergence, except in labeling, his preference being for bishops in the office I'd advocating a plurality instead of calling them "elders."

At 12 October, 2007 12:49, Blogger GUNNY said...

My bad ...

I meant to link to the Abstract of Principles.

We also see that same language in the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689): "A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons."

But ... the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1644), which predates Rider's book lists only 2 offices, elder & deacon, failing to even mention bishop: "BEING thus joined, every church hath power given them from Christ, for their wellbeing, to choose among themselves meet persons for elders and deacons, being qualified according to the word, as those which Christ hath appointed in His testament, for the feeding, governing, serving, and building up of His Church; and that none have any power to impose either these or any other."

I said all that to say this ...
Although I don't think Rider's distinctions are that big of a deal, he would seem to be the minority report.

At 12 October, 2007 14:16, Anonymous benji magness said...


Did you know that STRIPES was originally written for and to be called:

"Cheech and Chong Join the Army"?????????

At 13 October, 2007 19:18, Anonymous Jerome said...

Gunny, Rider's reading of scripture sees deacons as spiritual leaders in the church, elders along with bishops.

"the Deacons were to be men full of the Holy Spirit and faith; & so indeed fit for the work of the Lord among his people, as well as Bishops, and so were Elders in the Church" p. 17

As to whether the "bishops or elders, and deacons" confession verbiage was understood to mandate a plurality, see prominent early Baptist Benjamin Keach's Articles of the Faith (1697), Article 25 "Of Church-Officers": "that an Elder, or Elders, a Deacon, or Deacons, ought to be elected in every Congregation, according to those holy Qualifications laid down by the Word of God;".

Although it did not make it into the 1646 and 1689 Confessions, "Pastor" was widely used by early Baptists. The 1644 Confession actually reads "Pastors, Teachers, Elders, Deacons".
John Bunyan writes in Chrisian Behaviour, "For a Pastor to be exercising the office of a Deacon instead of the office of a Pastor, it is misplacing of works, Acts 6. 2."
In Some Gospel Truths Opened, he writes, "And so the Apostle calleth it, saying to the Pastours of the Churches, Feed the Church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood, Acts 20.28"

Also, isn't it odd that most of the signatories of the 1689 Confession are identified as "pastor"?


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