Led by Elders: True Baptist Tradition

Introduction

I write from the Southeast, more specifically I write from Alabama. Here it is not uncommon, in fact, it is the norm, to have a church led by one pastor, generally called the senior pastor. There seems amongst most Southern Baptist congregations a general skepticism of any more than one pastor. Is this normal? Perhaps, a better question is, is this biblical?  Furthermore, is this normal in the Baptist tradition? My answers to these questions in sequential order are: depends on what you mean by ‘normal’, no, and no. If by normal you mean a lot of churches currently do it, then yes it is normal. If, however, by normal you mean normal within Baptist tradition, over history, it is not. It is my conviction that not only is it not according to Baptist tradition, but neither is it a biblical pattern observed in scripture. Instead, as I will seek to show in this blog, the Baptist tradition is one that represents mostly a plurality of elders, which, as I will argue, follows after the model of church leadership that is presented in the Bible. I will follow this with the practical benefits of a plurality of elders.

Brief Overview of Elders in Church History

My primary focus in this blog as indicated by the title is Baptist history (mostly, Southern Baptist history). However, to set the context, it is important to note a couple of things in church history in general. First, the early church as established by the apostles set the principle of a local plurality of leaders, called elders. Local elders and deacons was a pattern established by scripture that continued late into the first or early into the second century. Mark Dever in a book he co-authors, called, Baptist Foundations, Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age points out that this pattern began to shift early in the second century. He says, “Yet as early as the second century, Ignatius of Antioch, a pastor, refers to a council of elders to give counsel to a chief pastor, or bishop.”[1] At this point, a transition has been made from a governing body of elders, over a local church, to a governing council of elders over many churches. A council of external elders and bishops is a practice that progressed into a “full-blown episcopacy of the Roman Catholic Church” as Dever says, which “occurred over several centuries.”[2] The Roman Catholic Church pattern was consistent all the way until the Reformation. At this point, Dever notes, “In the Reformation Period, then, a return to ancient patterns followed on the heels of an affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture… At the same time, Reformed groups and some Anabaptists recovered the idea of plural eldership.”[3] Following this, the Baptists also recovered the idea of elder led. Now, we will look at Baptist history.

Plurality of Elders in Baptist History

A plurality of elders in a local governing body has been the conviction of Baptists throughout a significant portion of history. It was the conviction of the leaders of Southern Baptist history from the beginning. For example, W.B. Johnson who was the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, when speaking of the New Testament churches wrote that “each church had a plurality of Elders”[4] This was written around 1846. Also, William Williams one of the founding faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in 1874, “In most if not all the apostolic churches, there was a plurality of elders.”[5] Of course, being autonomous in government one wouldn’t be surprised to find Southern Baptist churches not following the convictions of the convention’s leaders. However, one would expect major influence from such convictions, an influence that reached local churches. It is important to note that a plurality of elders was not a conviction of Southern Baptists only but one that was held in England as well by multiple Baptist ministers. One example is Charles Spurgeon, a Baptist minister that organized a plurality of elders in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. It is important to quote him at length to confirm this conviction:

“To our minds, the Scripture seems very explicit as to how this Church should be ordered. We believe that every Church member should have equal rights and privileges; that there is no power in Church officers to execute anything unless they have the full authorization of the members of the Church. We believe, however, that the Church should choose its pastor, and having chosen him, that they should love him and respect him for his work’s sake; that with him should be associated the deacons of the Church to take the oversight of pecuniary matters; and the elders of the Church to assist in all the works of the pastorate in the fear of God, being overseers of the flock. Such a church we believe to be scripturally ordered; and if it abide in the faith, rooted and grounded, and settled, such a Church may expect the benediction of heaven, and so it shall become the pillar and ground of the truth”[6] (emphasis added).

Given this is a blog and I don’t want to exhaust the reader, I will only quote one more Baptist pastor to further substantiate my point. Pastor J. L. Reynolds, a pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, wrote in 1849 that “the apostolic churches seem, in general, to have had a plurality of elders as well as deacons.”[7] From this brief sketch of history it is clear that a plurality of elders was the conviction of Baptists. It wasn’t until the twentieth century progressed that this conviction and practice grew scarce.[8] Now, it is not my intention in this blog to show why this conviction grew scarce. Instead, I want to ask does a plurality of elders have biblical support? Should this practice have become scarce? Or should we re-embrace it? It is my conviction that the biblical data supports that of a plurality of elders and that we, as Baptists, should return to this model.

Biblical Evidence for a Plurality of Elders

 When Paul embarks on his first missionary journey with Barnabas to the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe they “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23, emphasis added). Also, in Ephesus, Paul “called to him the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17, emphasis added). In Acts 14:23, of this verse Benjamin Merkle says, “[We] are specifically told that a plurality of elders were appointed in every church.”[9] Paul instructs Titus, while in Crete, that he “would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,” (Titus 1:5, emphasis added). Some scholars object or at least suggest that any given city could have multiple churches. Therefore, they say that multiple elders could be spread one by one at each church. This possibility is suggested by the fact that when referring to many churches in one city, the Scripture merely reads, “the church in Antioch”, “the church in Jerusalem”, or “the church in Ephesus”, etc. D.A. Carson is one such scholar that posits this, saying it is “possible, though not certain”.[10] To this Merkle responds, “Although the situation that Carson describes was certainly possible, the New Testament never indicates that a single congregation was ruled by one elder, so it seems unwise to base our practices on such speculation.”[11] I am in agreement with Merkle, Church government practices should not be built on speculations when there is evidence to the contrary; namely, the evidence of a plurality of eldership. Further evidence is seen in 1 Timothy 5:17, which reads, ““The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” And 1 Timothy 4:14 ““Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery (elders).” In both of these verses, a plurality of elders is presented. One might object to this and appeal to 1 Timothy 5:19 which reads, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” However, the purpose here is not to articulate that this church (in Ephesus) had only one elder, but instead that there is an individual elder with accusations being raised against him.

Further Biblical Evidence of a Plurality of Elders

 In the epistle of James, he says to believers, “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;” (James 5:14, emphasis added). The plainest reading of the text indicates there is more than one elder (hence ‘elders’) that belongs to one church (singular). When Paul writes to the Philippian believers, he writes, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers (elders) and deacons” (Philippians 1:1b, emphasis added). Also, Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:1-2, he says, “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you… shepherd the flock of God among you” (emphasis added). Finally, more generally Hebrews 13:24 reads, “Greet all of your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you” (emphasis added). The author references a plurality of leaders.

One Objection to Plurality of Elders

 There is perhaps, at least one more objection someone may have to a plurality of elders. Merkle points out that someone may object, saying, “even if it can be shown that New Testament churches had a plurality of elders, it does not necessarily mean that churches today must follow that paradigm. Something described in the Bible is different than something prescribed. The first explains what happened in history; the second exhorts us to do something.”[12] I have two objections to this. One, I don’t think one should say it is not prescribed too adamantly. When we read in Titus 1:5 Paul’s instruction, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,” Paul, in fact, does give a prescription, an exhortation if you will. And the prescription is to appoint elders in every city (i.e., in every church). Unless one presumes the position mentioned above, that when the scripture says “church”, it could mean “churches”. Or when it says “city” here, it could mean there are multiple churches in these cities. As mentioned above this would be speculation and does not seem to be the plain reading of the text to me. Even if there were multiple churches in each city, it seems better to presume that the pattern laid out in the previously mentioned verses would be followed, namely elders (plural) in each church (singular). If we presume the biblical model is consistent (which it is), then it would seem hard to say Paul’s instructions are not prescriptive. One may object that they were spoken to Titus, not to us. However, what is spoken in this context to Titus, by implication, applies the same to us. Why? It seems hard to separate Paul’s instruction to “appoint elders” from the qualifications of an elder he lays out in the same breath, in the proceeding verses. It seems to me that if the qualifications of an elder are for us today, so then is the prescription to “appoint elders”, assuming we are in a position of authority to do such. If we are not in a place to appoint, then it is our responsibility to advocate towards this goal to those who are.

Someone may disagree with my above interpretation of Titus. And still, object that a plurality of elders is described and not prescribed in the Scripture, and therefore, argue that it is a negotiable practice for today. To this, I have a second objection. Wayne Grudem, in his well-known Systematic Theology, affirms the biblical pattern of a plurality of elders. He says, “[that] no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder.”[13] According to this knowledge, one must wrestle with the question of why practice contrary to what is described in the Scripture? Even if a plurality of elders is only described not prescribed, it seems both preferable and wise to practice the pattern of leadership taught (or described) in the Bible. Or else, as Merkle says, “Once we leave the biblical model of biblical eldership, we leave the sure footing of apostolic precedent and begin wandering in the wilderness of pragmatism.”[14] At this point one may be tempted to conclude since they have more than one pastor, they, therefore, have a plurality of elders. I don’t recommend this conclusion, however. Because whether pastor and elder is the same thing is highly debated. Also, the Bible only uses the word “pastor” once (Ephesians 4:11), but uses the word “elders” several times. Therefore, the word elder seems preferable. But that could be another blog.

Benefits of a Plurality of Elders

 The benefits that come with multiple elders are probably beyond measure, but it is important to name a few.

Biblical Accountability for the Elders – As leaders of a single pastor led, or even a dual pastor led congregation, I know it must be hard for some pastors to confess sin. No doubt the pastor will feel the pressure of “will this person still let me shepherd them if I confess my sin to them”? Whether, this is right or wrong is not my point. It will inevitably happen. Having multiple, mature elders gives them mutual accountability. This helps the leaders of the church “pay close attention to [themselves] and [their] teaching,” and in doing so, it will “ensure salvation both for [themselves] and for those who hear [them]” (1 Timothy 4:16). Notice this has salvific benefit for “those who hear”, that is, church members as well. God is pleased to use Holy individuals, especially ministers as a means to other’s perseverance to the final salvation that Christ has already bought. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). God produces holiness through the holy minister. God secures holiness through the accountability of elders, “confess your sins to one another that you may be healed”

Balance for Elders – The church as a body of needy people, creates multiple demands. Having more “hands on deck” so to speak, enables leaders to have more balance in their lives. In creating more stability, they can be protected from burnout. This of course, naturally means many more benefits.

Better sermons – Yes, I said it. When the elder/pastor has a team of people teaching this creates a rotation, a rotation means you are not preaching every week (duh, right?). When the leader of a church is not teaching every week, he has more time to prepare his sermon and therefore can prepare with more prayer and accuracy. And again keep “a close watch on his teaching”.

Protects the purity of the church – a. When multiple elders are leading the church, this means that more leaders are active in the lives of their members. Which frees them up to be more regularly encouraging them and instructing “[them] to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). A pastor may feel he is very regular in his member’s lives, but he must think soberly about this. Especially, if he is the pastor of a large church, he must remember, he is to “keep watch over [members] souls as one who will give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). A pastor must ask what kind of an account he will give for the member he hasn’t had the time to speak with in two months, six months, or maybe even a year. A plurality of elders provides the solution to this and better care to the congregation. As a tangential matter, in the age of pastors who run multiple campuses from a screen and don’t know their members, nothing much can be said but that they are being grossly negligent and will “give an account” to God.

b. Furthermore, should the necessity of church discipline come about, it is better to have multiple leaders giving counsel to one another. If the member’s sin should lead to excommunication, a mutual decision sure protects the leaders from appearing to have a personal vendetta. Also, it may help members to feel as though everything was handled fairly and faithfully. And of course, as alluded to above, it may prevent members from falling into such sin. Andrew Davis affirms, “As the elders shepherd the flock, they will undoubtedly uncover sinful actions and attitudes in the people. Instruction, encouragement, exhortation, correction, admonishment, warning, and rebuke will, by God’s grace, often result in repentance so that excommunication is only rarely necessary.”[15] Again, a pastor (elder) should not presume that he could shepherd three hundred members alone this way. While by the grace of God he may be competent for such a task, he will never be adequate.

Development for future leaders – Every elder has the mandate to find the one who “aspires to the office of overseer” and cultivate him into that role. That is the essence of Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 2:2, which says, “The things which you have heard from me among many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (emphasis added). The elder has a God-given responsibility to cultivate the next generation of leaders. This is much easier and more effectively accomplished when they have time freed up to do it. This time is freed up by having multiple leaders handling multiple tasks.

Diversity of spiritual gifts – When one pastor leads the church, it is easier for the church to develop the same blind spots the pastor has (every mortal being has them). He teaches through his limited perspective, and it is inevitable that the church learns a limited view of scripture, as a result. Multiple elders serving in their gifted areas helps to prevent this. All elders should be able to teach and show hospitality, that is a given (See 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). How great it would be to have an elder visiting those “sick and imprisoned”, another handling administration duties (shared with the secretary of course), another having the time to prepare three weeks before a sermon, another able to counsel all week, etc.

The benefits could go on forever, but I will leave it to the reader to contemplate some other possible benefits. If you are a pastor, please prayerfully consider the implications of the following wisdom from Solomon within the context of a plurality of elders:

“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Summary and Final Exhortations

 Though some Baptists have shifted in the twentieth century away from a plurality of elders, we have seen it was the original Baptist tradition. More importantly, we have seen that it is the model presented in Scripture. It is my desire that pastors will courageously (it will take courage), lovingly, and graciously lead their congregations back to a faithful church polity (form of government). Also, it is my desire that church congregations (members) would receive this act of faithfulness with joy! Oh, the joyous benefits that wait ahead for the elders and members that seek obedience to God in this way. Think of the rigorous sanctification and encouragement that awaits for members who follow this model, the future leaders of the world that could be equipped, the rest that you (pastor) would finally have with your family when the weight of three hundred members is dispersed through a gifted plurality of elders. Go forth and experience the many joys of following God’s design in your church!

For more information on Baptist history please visit this wonderful organization: Center For Baptist Renewal

Bibliography

 Carson, D.A., “Church, Authority in the,” EDT, ed. Elwell E. Walter. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984

Dever Mark, Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2015

Grudem Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000

Merkle L. Benjamin, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008

Spurgeon, C.H. “The Church Conservative and Aggressive,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 7. Pasedena: Pilgrim Press, 1969

Footnotes

[1] Dever Mark, Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2015, 231-232

[2] Dever Mark, Baptist Foundations, 231

[3] Dever Mark, Baptist Foundations, 235

[4] W.B. Johnson, The Gospel Developed. Quoted by Dever Mark, Baptist Foundations, 236

[5] Quoted by Dever Mark, Baptist Foundations, 237

[6] Spurgeon, C.H. “The Church Conservative and Aggressive,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 7. Pasedena: Pilgrim Press, 1969, 658-59

[7] Reynolds, J. L., Church Polity or the Kingdom Of Christ, in Dever, Baptist Foundation, 237.

[8] As noted by Dever Mark in, Baptist Foundations, 238

[9] Merkle L. Benjamin, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008, 161

[10] Carson, D.A., “Church, Authority in the,” EDT, ed. Elwell E. Walter. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984, 229

[11] Merkle L. Benjamin, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 162

[12] Merkle L. Benjamin, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons., 165

[13] Grudem Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 913

[14] Merkle L. Benjamin, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons., 165

[15] Davis Andrew, Baptist Foundations, 306

[1] Davis Andrew, Baptist Foundations, 306

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