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.